Straight Aces: Ranking the Top 30 Aces in Baseball

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Straight Aces: Ranking the Top 30 Aces in Baseball
(Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

By Isaac Barrow

In baseball, pitching is everything. Every year, we see good offensive teams like the Texas Rangers fall because of zero pitching depth. The No. 1 pitcher is obviously the most glorified. Who are the top aces in baseball? I’ll tell you.

30. Kevin Millwood, Texas Rangers: Remember 2005? When Kevin Millwood was a free agent? And the Rangers signed him to a five year, $60M contract. Yeah, bad move. Since signing that lucrative deal, Millwood has gone 35-36 with a 4.89 ERA after having great success with the Atlanta Braves from 1997-2004. Millwood has had troubles staying healthy, and his workload has decreased every season. On an average team, he would be a good stopgap as a No. 4 starter. But being that he’s on the Texas Rangers, a team with zero pitching depth, he is the ace. He is on the decline and I wouldn’t be surprised if he does not play out his contract. Millwood is the worst ace in baseball and until the Rangers get some of those talented pitching prospects, they aren’t going anywhere.

29. Gil Meche, Kansas City Royals: Another vet who ranks low on my list of aces is Gil Meche of the Kansas City Royals. In 2008, Meche showed some signs of promise, going 14-11 with a 3.98 ERA and 183 strikeouts in 210 and one third innings. The 30-year old is also victim of ace on a struggling team. On any adequate pitching team, Meche would be a No. 4, No. 3 at best. However, with the pitching struggles of the Kansas City Royals, Meche finds himself as an ace and a likely Opening Day starter. Meche could be primed for a breakout season in 2009, as he returned to top form in 2009 and is entering his third season with his team, and in his third season with the Seattle Mariners, he won 15 ballgames and and struck out 130. His workload last year does call for concern, as he pitched over 200 innings for the first time in his career.

28. John Lannan, Washington Nationals: While, of course, No. 1 pitchers are elite, John Lannan is one of the more underrated players in baseball, in my mind. Because he was on a Washingotn Nationals team inadequate on offense, he was was just 9-15, but his 3.91 ERA proves his won-lost record is misleading. Lannan isn’t overpowering, but relies on finesse and his defense, which allowed him to be a pretty consistent pitcher for the Nats last year. While Lannan is a solid pitcher, I rank him at 28 because of the depth of all these great aces.

27. Hiroki Kuroda, Los Angeles Dodgers: Last year, 33-year old rookie Hiroki Kuroda was impressive. The Osaka, Japan native was 9-10 with a 3.73 ERA in his 183 and one third innings. Kuroda walked just 42 as a rookie and showed great poise on the mound. He was even 2-0 with a 1.46 ERA in the playoffs, including wins against the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies. Kuroda could be primed for a breakout this year now that Manny will enter the season a Los Angeles Dodger and will have Kuroda’s back the entire year, not just for a half.

26. Mark Buehrle, Chicago White Sox: One of the most consistent players in baseball is White Sox ace Mark Buehrle. Every year since 2001, he has won at least ten games, pitched at least 200 innings, and walked 61 or less. Last year, he rebounded from a tough 2007 in which he was just 10-9 to go 15-12 and lead the White Sox to a playoff spot. Buehrle is 3-2 in his playoff career and despite being 30, is still capable of anything on the mound. Buehrle leads a talented White Sox staff that also include youngsters Gavin Floyd and John Danks.

25. Jeremy Guthrie, Baltimore Orioles: The stat geeks will look back at Jeremy Guthrie’s 2007 season and frown. The 29-year old right hander went 10-12 with a 3.63 ERA. Oddly, the Orioles offense that included Melvin Mora (104 RBI), Brian Roberts (one of best leadoff batters in baseball), Aubrey Huff (108 RBI) and Nick Markakis (.306, 87 RBI) providing very little support for the consistent Guthrie, and from a fans standpoint, it seemed the team was taking him for granted. Guthrie may never repeat the performance. But we know what he’s capable of.

24. Roy Oswalt, Houston Astros: One of the Astros pitching stars on the decline is Roy Oswalt. Oswalt, 31, has seen his ERA rise and the Houston Astros win totals dip. Oswalt still had a great year in 2008, winning 17 and losing ten, posting a 3.54 ERA for a Houston Astro team that had problems staying healthy offensively and the performance for Oswalt was certainly encouraging after his very slow start. Oswalt ranks 24th on my list, but we as baseball fans all know what kind of pitcher he can be.

23. Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals: Remember 2006? When a young Adam Wainwright won the World Series for the St. Louis Cardinals? His rise has not stopped. Going into 2009, Wainwright is the Cardinals Opening Day starter after going 11-3 with a solid 3.20 ERA iin 2008. Wainwright only started 20 games, but when healthy, can be one of the more dominant pitchers in all of baseball. He has a great pitch repertoire and has proved time and time again he can rise to the occasion and come up big when the team needs it most.

22. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers: Last year, Justin Verlander was a HUGE disappointment, as he went 11-17 coming off an 18-6 season in 2007. Verlander has a dominant fastball and plus secondary pitches. Verlander showed at times that he could return to 2007 form, but his numbers didn’t show it. We all know what he’s capable off, and if Curtis Granderson can stay healthy in center field and assist Verlander on defense, he can boost the fireballer’s confidence, which would result in better production from Justin.

21. Justin Ducscherer, Oakland Athletics: Ducscherer, who has been a reliever almost all of his career, was converted to starter last year. Talk about thrown into the fire. In his first year starting, he was 10-8 with a solid 2.54 ERA and even made the American League All Star Game. Now, he will be the Opening Day starter, which, I’m not going to lie, concerns me a little. Duchscherer is 31-24 with a 3.14 ERA in his career. Duchscherer is better mechanically than most of the pitchers on this list, but isn’t as experienced - at least as a starter.

20. Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee Brewers: Call me crazy, but I consider Yovani Gallardo to be a top tier starter. In 2007, he was 9-5 with a 3.67 ERA in 17 starts. Last year, in four starts, he was 0-0 with a 1.88 ERA, dominating for a 22-year old. With CC Sabathia a New York Yankee and Ben Sheets a free agent, Yovani Gallardo will be the Brew Crew ace. Personally, I think he’ll succeed. He learned from CC and Sheets last year, and he’ll be prepared for the workload, as he pitched 155 innings and 2006 in three minor league levels and posted a 1.86 ERA, showing no signs of fatigue.

19. Paul Maholm, Pittsburgh Pirates: One of the most underrated pitchers in all of baseball is Paul Maholm of the Pirates. Last year, he was 9-9 with a 3.71 ERA, pitching 206 and a third innings. Maholm could have gotten 13-17 wins for a potent offensive team, but the Pirates lost Xavier Nady and Jason Bay, and outside of Ryan Doumit and Nate McLouth, the Pirates don’t have much to support the pitchers. It’s pretty sad where Maholm landed, and I don’t expect him to land any more than 12 wins this year, but he’s still a quality pitcher.

18. Scott Baker, Minnesota Twins: Last year, Scott Baker had to step up because of the departure of Johan Santana. That he did, as he finished 11-4 with a 3.18 ERA. The Oklahoma State alum pitched 172 and one third innings, striking out 141 and walking just 42. He finds himself this year as the Twins No. 1 pitcher, and honestly, I like it. If I were the Twins, I want Baker on the hill as much as possible. When he’s on the mound, good things happen. He may have 200 innings this year and with the clutch Twins batting, I expect 13-17 wins.

17. Carlos Zambrano, Chicago Cubs: Last year, Carlos Zambrano started out on fire as the ace of the Chicago Cubs. “Big Z” was iffy in the second half, and proved the first unit of the year was a fluke. Zambrano is still a consistent major league starter, but his 14-6 record is very misleading. Think about this: both Lannan and Zambrano had a 3.91 ERA. Lannan had a 9-15 record and Zambrano had a 14-6 record. Do you think that just might have something to do with run support? Just maybe?

16. Josh Beckett, Boston Red Sox: In 2007, Red Sox ace Josh Beckett was 20-7 with a 3.27 ERA for the World Series winners. In 2008, Beckett was bit by the injury bug all season long and was an adequate 12-10 with a 4.03 ERA. If Beckett can stay healthy, there’s no doubt he can win baseball games, as he has proved throughout his career. However, he could be entering a downward spiral, which is why I rated him so low.

15. Cliff Lee, Cleveland Indians: Some might call me crazy for listing Lee so low after this 22-3 season in 2007. However, if he had a career year last year, it can only get worse, no? Even when Lee was a pretty successful pitcher from 2004 to 2006, he never posted 20 wins or 220 innings like he did in 2008. Lee should be good this year, but I don’t expect any more than 15 wins from the southpaw. He may prove me wrong. He may be entering a period of domination. But, in all honesty, it is maniacal to expect a duplication of the 2008 performance.

14. Scott Kazmir, Tampa Bay Rays: Last year, multiple factors led the Rays to the World Series. Great pitching from Scott Kazmir and others helped. Kazmir was as usual, consistent. He was 12-8 with a 3.49 earned run average. He struck out 166 in a wink over 152 innings, leading a young and talented Rays staff. I expect Kazmir to again lead the Rays and win anywhere from 13-16 wins. Kazmir has been consistent throughout his career, and with the Rays having a year of experience under their belts, Kazmir could get more support.

13. Derek Lowe, Atlanta Braves: Derek Lowe was solid for the Los Angeles Dodgers last year, going 14-11 with a 3.24 ERA. His workhorse self pitched 211 innings and as usual, relied on the ground ball. He will come to Atlanta and has a solid infield defense that consists of Casey Kotchman, Kelly Johnson, Yunel Escobar and Chipper Jones. With the potent offense the Braves have, Lowe can easily win 12-16 games, and it just relies on the young bullpen they have. One could make a compelling case to put Lowe in the top ten.

12. Aaron Cook, Colorado Rockies: Aaron Cook got little support from his offense last year. Todd Helton and Troy Tulowitzki battled injuries and Matt Holliday got off to a slow start. Yet, he finished 16-9 and posted a 3.96 ERA, impressive for a guy who pitches at homer happy Coors Field. Cook was one of the more consistent pitchers in all of baseball last year, and it’s no surprise he made the All Star Game. With a healthy Tulowitzki and Helton, he can win anywhere from 15-18 games next season.

11. Ricky Nolasco, Florida Marlins: One of the best pitchers in all of baseball is Ricky Nolasco. He should benefit in the future from a potent young lineup that includes Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla and will eventually include star rookie Cameron Maybin. Nolasco was 15-8 last year and I think he’ll win 20 games multiple times in his career. Will it be in 2008? Maybe. But I think it will happen. He is a workhorse, as he carried the load  for Florida in 2008, pitching a wink over 212 innings. I expect him to be a mainstay on the Marlins staff for years to come.

10. John Lackey, Los Angeles Angels: John Derran Lackey has been incredibly consistent throughout his career, as he is 91-63 with a 3.81 ERA in his first seven years in his major league career. Lackey, a 1999 second round pick will definitely benefit from the Angels acquisition of former Yankee right fielder Bobby Abreu, who will likely play left field and designated hitter with Vladimir Guerrero in Abreu’s natural right field position. If Lackey stays healthy, I’d be shocked if he wins any less than 13 games.

9. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners: “King Felix” is a guy I’d be ecstatic to have on my team. He is a fireballer, a true delightful pitcher to watch. He got very little help from his putrid Seattle Mariners lineup last year, as he finished 9-11 in 2008 a year removed from a 14-7 season. I do think Felix is a tad overrated, as he is wild, walking 216 in 666 and one third innings. He also hit a career high eight batters last year. All-in-all, King Felix is an outstanding pitcher, though.

8. Jake Peavy, San Diego Padres: Baseball surely is a misleading sports. Peavy, one of the best pitchers in all of baseball, didn’t get much help from his horrible Padres offense last year, as the 27-year old Mobile, Alabama was 10-11 while posting an incredible 2.85 ERA. His lack of run support was evident, as the performance was a year removed from his Cy Young winning 2007 campaign.

7. Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies: If there was a pitcher who deserved more wins than Cole Hamels, I’d like to meet him. Last year, Hamels was 14-10 for the World Series Champion Phils, and deserved a win almost every time he stepped on the mound, and was clearly deserving of his World Series MVP Award. In a perfect world, Hamels will get the 20 wins he deserved, but this world clearly isn’t perfect.

6. Edinson Volquez, Cincinnati Reds: One of the coolest stories in sports was Edinson Volquez. He was a top prospect for the Rangers years ago, and didn’t pan out in either 2006 and 2007. In 2008 with the Cincinnati Reds, he was 17-6 with a solid 3.21 ERA. The Reds certainly have a bright future pitching wise, with Volquez, Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey, but Volquez is the brightest.

5. Brandon Webb, Arizona Diamondbacks: One of the best workhorses in the majors the last few seasons is Brandon Webb of the Arizona Diamondbacks. He had a solid No. 2 pitcher with Dan Haren last year, but was still the workhorse of the rotation, finishing 22-7 with a 3.30 earned run average in 226 and two thirds innings. He’ll definitely have a tough time facing Manny Ramirez as often as he will, but Webb is capable.

4. C.C. Sabathia, New York Yankees: The Yankees without a doubt made their rotation one of the best in the majors when they signed C.C. Sabathia to a lucrative seven year, $161M contract. C.C. was 17-10 with a 2.75 ERA between the Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Brewers in 2008. After getting off to a slow start in Cleveland, he rebounded to finish the Cleveland segment with a 3.75 ERA and was phenomenal with Milwaukee, going 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA and seven complete games.

3. Roy Halladay, Toronto Blue Jays: Roy “Doc” Halladay is, in my opinion, the greatest pitcher in the American League. Backed by a putrid Jays lineup that featured a consistently inconsistent Vernon Wells and an Alex Rios who had an off year, Halladay was 20-11 with a 2.78 ERA over 246 innings.

2. Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants: “Tiny Tim” had an amazing year in 2008, going 18-5 with a 2.62 ERA and 265 strikeouts in 227 innings. At 5′11″, he’s the polar opposite of Randy Johnson - in size. However, he’s just like Randy in that he’s overpowering. If the Giants can get better production out of the lineup, Tim can easily win 20 games. He won 18 last year with little help.

1. Johan Santana, New York Mets: One could make a very compelling argument to say Johan Santana is the best pitcher in baseball. Santana powered the Mets into the playoff race last season, going 16-7 with an incredible 2.53 ERA. As usual, he was a strikeout machine, with 206 punchouts. Now that JJ Putz and Francisco Rodriguez are in the Met bullpen, I believe Santana will be victorious in 20 games.

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