Power Ranking the Aces of the NL East
The National League East has a reputation for quality pitching that dates back to the Mets rotations of the '80s and the Braves of the '90s and early 2000s and continues all the way up to the Phillies and Nationals of the past few seasons.
Pitching can win titles, and teams in the NL East will be relying on their pitching staffs (and respective aces) to carry them deep into the postseason.
Last season, the Nationals had the top-ranked staff in the NL. The Braves were ranked fourth overall, and the Phillies, despite their struggles, weren’t far behind.
The pitching talent in this division is probably the deepest in Major League Baseball. The following piece will rank the top aces throughout the NL East.
On the Bubble: Matt Harvey
A lot is expected of Harvey after he posted a 2.73 ERA with 70 strikeouts in 59.1 innings as a 23-year-old, especially considering the departure of R.A. Dickey and the season-ending injury for Johan Santana.
Harvey made his 2013 debut on Wednesday and certainly delivered. The right-hander allowed just three baserunners in his seven innings, and he racked up 10 strikeouts throughout the Padres' order.
It was an exciting start to the season for Harvey and the Mets. He without a doubt has ace potential and could approach that level by the end of this season. His pitch repertoire is improving, and he throws absolute gas, consistently topping out between 96-100 MPH on the radar gun.
Improving his command and control should allow him to pitch deeper into games. Once that falls into shape for Harvey, the rest of the NL East will take even more notice.
2012 X-Factor Stat(s): 10.62 K/9, 2.73 ERA
On the Bubble: Jordan Zimmermann
Zimmermann may very well be a product of pitching on a top-notch ball club. His win totals are likely skewed as a result of the Nationals' success; however, there is no arguing against Zimmermann’s almost 200 innings logged and sub-3.00 ERA from last season.
Expect another solid year in 2013, as 16-17 wins and an ERA under 3.00 are very likely.
Zimmermann is locked in as the Nationals' No. 3 starter but could certainly push to be a top-of-the-staff pitcher on other teams. He looks to be in line for another above-average season on a contending Nats squad.
2012 X-Factor Stat(s): 2.94 ERA, 195.2 IP
6. Roy Halladay
After an injury-riddled 2012 and a less-than-stellar 2013 spring training, all eyes are on Roy Halladay as he heads into a pivotal stage in his career.
If Halladay's numbers continue to slide for a second consecutive season, there will undoubtedly be whispers of him no longer being a true ace. Considering how long of a career he's had, the assumption that Halladay is no longer at the top of his game isn't a stretch.
In his first start of the season Wednesday night against the Braves, Halladay was hit hard in his 3.1 innings. He struggled with his fastball and was forced to rely on off-speed pitches.
Halladay ended up throwing over 90 pitches without getting out of the fourth inning. Still, he was able to strike out nine batters during his brief stay on the mound.
It’s hard to tell if Halladay’s uneven performance was a fluke or just another sign that the right-hander’s days could be numbered. It's most likely too soon to throw in the towel on Halladay completely, but his days as a premier staff ace could certainly be behind him.
His success will weigh heavily on how the Philadelphia Phillies fare this year in the National League East.
2012 X-Factor Stat(s): 7.6 K/9
5. Cliff Lee
Cliff Lee's elite command and strikeout potential make him a certified ace. Despite approaching the latter stages of his career and not truly being the No. 1 starter on Philadelphia, Lee still deserves to be on this list.
Lee had a 3.16 ERA in 2012, pitching 211 innings and allowing just 207 hits, while striking out 207 batters. His control was as impeccable as it has been throughout his career, as he walked just 28 batters.
While Lee struggled in the win column last season due to lack of run support, there were times that it appeared to get to him, whether or not he admitted it.
He only posted six wins on the year, but Lee had 23 quality starts out of 30 games started, which is pretty impressive considering the struggles Philly faced as a team last season.
He will look to bounce back in 2013 and regain his winning ways. As mentioned with Roy Halladay, his ability to rebound from a below-average (by his career standards) season will contribute to how the Phillies season pans out.
2012 X-Factor Stat(s): 211.0 IP, 8.83 K/9, 1.19 BB/9
4. Kris Medlen
Kris Medlen, thanks in part to one of the best changeups on the planet, might emerge as the true staff ace in 2013. If he manages to stretch the numbers he posted in the second half of 2012 over a full season, he could even be considered a top-three ace in the division.
Despite coming back from Tommy John surgery, Medlen had an unbelievable 2012 campaign. Something to keep in mind with Medlen is that he has yet to play a full season in the major league. If his arm can hold up, his innings pitched this season should see a dramatic jump and with it his strikeouts will increase as well.
If Medlen can maintain arm strength throughout the season, a win total hovering around the 20-game mark to go along with 200 strikeouts is achievable.
Still, expectations must be tempered considering all we've really seen from him are two wildly successful half-seasons, with a devastating elbow injury in between.
His stuff grades out to a level that indicates he should maintain success over a full season. But the fact that we've yet to see it and that he had luck on his side last year clouds his forecast.
Ultimately, I'm a believer. His changeup and curveball combination is undeniably good. Medlen is also on one of the better teams in the majors, gets strikeouts at a high rate, keeps the ball on the ground and is entering his age-27 season.
2012 X-Factor Stat(s): 1.57 ERA, 0.39 HR/9
3. Gio Gonzalez
Rounding out potentially one of the best starting pitching duos in baseball is Gio Gonzalez, who, in his own right, outpitched Strasburg last season, finishing third in Cy Young voting.
Gonzalez led the Nationals in wins last season. Scratch that. Gonzalez led the entire National League in wins last year. While duplicating that feat will be difficult, he is nonetheless poised for another great year.
If the walk totals and corresponding pitch counts can be lowered, the innings pitched will increase, and that will heighten Gonzalez’s overall value to the Nationals.
Another season between 17 and 20 wins, around 200 strikeouts and an ERA that hovers around 2.80-3.20 is within reach, especially considering he's backed by one of the better offensive lineups and bullpens in baseball.
2012 X-Factor Stat(s): 5.0 WAR, 2.89 ERA, 21 Wins (led NL), 9.35 K/9
2. Cole Hamels
Cole Hamels was the Phillies' best pitcher last year. This season could be similar, despite an anticipated bounce-back year from Cliff Lee. Regardless, Hamels is very much in contention for best-of-staff recognition once again.
Hamels did post career-high wins last season, so bettering that number might be a challenge. But season-end totals of 17 wins and 220 strikeouts are very attainable once again.
Hamels represents a great asset to the Phillies rotation, especially considering that the aforementioned Halladay and Lee are both in the later stages of their careers.
The 29-year-old Hamels will look to continue his previous success and continue his dominant pitching in the NL East in 2013.
2012 X-Factor Stat(s): 215.1 IP, 9.03 K/9, 4.4 WAR
1. Stephen Strasburg
Strasburg leads what could be the majors’ best rotation and will look to anchor the Nats in his first full season.
The ace of the Washington Nationals staff has baseball fans excited as we all wait to see what kind of numbers a healthy and unshackled Strasburg can put up in a complete season.
Strasburg still had a pretty productive season in 2012 despite being limited to 28 starts. He went 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. He also struck out 11.1 batters per nine innings. Without the innings limit, Strasburg's win and strikeout totals will rise in 2013.
There is nothing holding the 24-year-old back from joining the ranks of baseball’s elite in 2013. Strasburg could potentially take the Triple Crown for pitching and walk away with the Cy Young by the end of the year.
A season of 20 wins, over 230 strikeouts and an ERA right around 2.35-2.50 is very attainable.
2012 X-Factor Stat(s): 11.13 K/9, 4.1 WAR