There may still be nearly a month to go before the 2014 Major League Baseball All-Star Game on July 15, but perhaps the only thing that can prevent Masahiro Tanaka and Johnny Cueto from being the two to toe the rubber in the opening inning in Minnesota is if either one happens to take his turn too close to the Midsummer Classic.
The rules state that no pitcher who threw the Sunday prior to the All-Star Game on Tuesday is allowed to take the mound, a scenario that unfortunately could preclude the must-see matchup between the New York Yankees rookie and the Cincinnati Reds fellow right-hander.
And going by the first two-and-a-half months of the season, that battle—Tanaka versus Cueto—is the one that should play out.
While it's fun to try to argue for oldie-but-goodie Tim Hudson of the San Francisco Giants or the resurrected Scott Kazmir of the Oakland Athletics to get the nod for the National League and American League, respectively, let's be realistic.
Don't misunderstand: Hudson and Kazmir have been fantastic, as have a host of other arms in either circuit. The likes of Felix Hernandez, Yu Darvish, Adam Wainwright, Stephen Strasburg and, heck, even Mark Buehrle come to mind. The decision on which two pitchers should start isn't necessarily a no-brainer.
But here's why Tanaka and Cueto are the picks to get things started.
The Case for Masahiro Tanaka
As much as there are other options—turning down King Felix, in particular, is going to bring about some outrage—Tanaka's case is plain and simple.
The Japanese phenom has been better than everyone possibly could have imagined so far. And lots of people were imagining lots of outrageous exploits given all of his success overseas and all of the attention that he commanded this past offseason.
Sure, there's been talk about Tanaka's win-loss record because he went 24-0 in his final season in Japan and then became the majors' first 11-game winner by beating the Toronto Blue Jays Tuesday night (see video above).
But the 25-year-old rookie—yes, he's still a rookie, even though it no longer feels that way given his veteran presence and the fact that it seems like he's been owning big league batters for years already—is so much more than double-yoos.
Here's a rundown of Tanaka's statistics—some traditional, others more saber-friendly—and where he ranks in the AL:
FanGraphs and Baseball Reference
Now, contrary to what might've been expected, Tanaka doesn't actually sit atop the Junior Circuit in every category. Rather, he leads "only" in those that are highlighted above. Of course, Tanaka is in the top five in just about all of the other ones too. You know, for good measure.
The other factor in this decision that needs to be taken into account is the level of intrigue and appeal, which is already crazy-high and would be through the roof if Tanaka is chosen.
For one thing, Tanaka has that shiny-new-toy quality in his corner as a first-year player who had oh-so-much hype and buzz surrounding him over the winter, both before and after he signed his $155 million contract with the Yankees.
For another, Tanaka would become just the second Japanese pitcher to start an MLB All-Star Game, nearly 20 years after Hideo Nomo pulled off that feat in his rookie season with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995. Tanaka would be the first to do so in the AL, and considering all the success of his fellow countrymen, like Darvish and Hisashi Iwakuma, that's a big deal.
The Case for Johnny Cueto
As much as Tanaka is the pick in the AL, Cueto might be even more of a lock to be the NL starting pitcher at the moment, at least while Wainwright is battling through elbow soreness.
The 28-year-old has had a bounce-back campaign for the ages, as he's been at or near the very top of the leaderboards right from the start of 2014.
As Barry Svrluga of The Washington Post pointed out in May:
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last time a major league pitcher began a season [as Cueto did] with nine straight starts in which he went at least seven innings and gave up no more than two earned runs was—drumroll—1909, when the renowned Harry Krause did it 10 straight times for the Philadelphia Athletics.
What might be most amazing about Cueto's season, though, is that he missed nearly all of the last one. In fact, the seven-year veteran made just 11 starts because of three separate trips to the disabled list for the same right lat muscle strain.
To put Cueto's performance into perspective, here comes the same table used for Tanaka, featuring the pitcher's numbers and where they rank in the NL:
FanGraphs and Baseball Reference
Although Strasburg has since snuck past Cueto for the NL lead in strikeouts (113 to 111), the rest of what John Fay of The Cincinnati Enquirer pointed out a week ago still holds true:
RT @CurtisBlow304: Cueto's chances or starting All Star Game?//Right now, he'd be best choice to start. Leads in ERA, WHIP, IP, strikeouts.— John Fay (@johnfayman) June 12, 2014
Cueto might not have quite the cache Tanaka does, but that doesn't make him any less of a candidate to represent his league by pitching the bottom of the first inning in Minnesota. Besides, Cueto has a pretty good case as having been the best pitcher in baseball so far—yes, even better than Tanaka has been.
Ultimately, if Tanaka and Cueto do, in fact, face off in the All-Star Game next month, it will be quite a treat. Neither one was a factor at all just last year, and here they are, the two best pitchers going right now.
To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11