The Next MLB Starting Pitchers Who Will Ascend to 'Ace' Status

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterJanuary 24, 2015

The Next MLB Starting Pitchers Who Will Ascend to 'Ace' Status

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    An ace in the making as a rookie, Yankees righty Masahiro Tanaka's 2014 season was interrupted by elbow troubles.
    An ace in the making as a rookie, Yankees righty Masahiro Tanaka's 2014 season was interrupted by elbow troubles.Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Defining an "ace" pitcher in Major League Baseball is difficult because it's subjective. What's more, just about everyone has a different opinion on how many actual "aces" there are and whether specific pitchers qualify or come up just short.

    In some ways, however, it's simple: You know an ace when you see one.

    But in the interest of trying to make this exercise of identifying the sport's next aces-in-the-making a bit more objective, there needs to be some criteria.

    To qualify for this endeavor, a pitcher...

    1. Must have a legitimate chance to become a full-blown ace in 2015, as in this upcoming season
    2. Must never have placed in the top 10 in Cy Young Award voting to this point in his career
    3. Must not have more than five years of MLB service time

    Take careful note of these three standards, because the first requires a pitcher who is not only in relatively good health but also ready for the majors right now.

    That goes a long way toward answering why, say, Lucas Giolito or Noah Syndergaard, widely considered two of the best pitching prospects in the game right now, don't make the cut. While the Washington Nationals right-hander is too far away for 2015, the New York Mets righty might need a season or two before he really takes off, as most on-the-cusp prospects do (i.e. Carlos Rodon, Archie Bradley, Daniel Norris, etc.).

    The second criterion explains why you won't see, for instance, the San Francisco Giants' Madison Bumgarner or the Washington Nationals' Stephen Strasburg or even the Chicago Cubs' Jake Arrieta, one of 2014's breakout arms. Those three have finished in the top 10 in Cy Young voting, so they are considered aces already, to varying degrees.

    As for the service time requirement, well, let's just say that if it ain't happened after five seasons in the big leagues, chances are, it ain't happenin'. Although, there's a case to be made for an arm like Jeff Samardzija, who just misses the cut with five years and 28 days of service time.

    One last thing to keep in mind here: Pitching is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious deep these days, so there was no shortage of candidates, even with the above specifications. But because the aim here—it needs to be reinforced—is to find the next true front-of-the-rotation starting pitchers, don't be dismayed if [INSERT YOUR FAVORITE PITCHER HERE] didn't quite make the cut.

    All that considered, here are the top 10 candidates to ascend to "ace-dom" this year.

Honorable Mentions

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    If he can just stay healthy enough to make 30 starts, Andrew Cashner could be a breakout ace in 2015.
    If he can just stay healthy enough to make 30 starts, Andrew Cashner could be a breakout ace in 2015.Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    Zack Wheeler, RHP, New York Mets

    Andrew Cashner, RHP, San Diego Padres

    Tyson Ross, RHP, San Diego Padres

    Marcus Stroman, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays

    Carlos Carrasco, RHP, Cleveland Indians

    Michael Wacha, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals

    Taijuan Walker, RHP, Seattle Mariners

No. 10: Alex Cobb, RHP, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    As more of a command and control pitcher than one who overpowers opposing hitters, Alex Cobb is far from a conventional potential ace. But the 27-year-old's deep repertoire—including a plus changeup—as well as his ability to get grounders at an elite rate and keep the ball in the park have led to a 2.82 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 8.2 K/9 the past two years, the latter of which saw him throw a career-high 166.1 innings.

    A full season of health might be all Cobb needs to earn ace consideration.

No. 9: Chris Archer, RHP, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    While it doesn't happen often, it is possible for the same team to have more than one ace, which is what would happen for the Tampa Bay Rays if this list pans out, because Cobb could be joined by fellow righty Chris Archer.

    Archer, 26, has much louder stuff than Cobb, but he also had a bit of an adjustment period early on in the 2014 season, his first full one in the majors.

    Once he got going, however, his ERA dropped from 5.16 on May 11 all the way down to 3.33 by year's end. Over those final 24 starts, Archer posted a 2.77 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 137 strikeouts in 149.1 frames. If Archer can do that across 30-plus turns in 2015, that's an ace.

No. 8: Jacob deGrom, RHP, New York Mets

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    David Goldman/Associated Press

    Even New York Mets fans weren't all that familiar with Jacob deGrom when last season started, but by the time it ended, the righty had put together a Rookie of the Year-winning campaign and become an overnight sensation.

    While the 26-year-old's relatively advanced age—for a second-year player—as well as his injury history and minor league track record, might indicate he's a candidate for some regression from his 2.69 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 9.2 K/9, his athleticism and the movement on his pitches suggests he could pull an encore.

    As Anthony DiComo of MLB.com writes:

    Though deGrom seemingly came out of nowhere last year, his numbers were legit. None of his peripherals suggest he was particularly lucky or undeserving of his statistics. To the contrary, deGrom demonstrated improvement over the course of the summer, particularly in his ability to generate swings and misses.

    Pitchers with deGrom's velocity who whiff lots of batters, don't walk many and allow few home runs tend to succeed over the long run.

    deGrom will have to prove himself again in 2015, but with Matt Harvey likely to experience some inconsistency following Tommy John surgery and Zack Wheeler still working on tightening things up, it's not crazy to think deGrom could be the Mets' top pitcher this year.

No. 7: Sonny Gray, RHP, Oakland Athletics

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    An undersized righty at 5'11", Sonny Gray nonetheless has made it work in his first season-and-a-half in the majors.

    Through 43 career starts, the 25-year-old former first-rounder owns a sub-3.00 ERA (2.99) and has surrendered only 19 homers in 283 innings.

    Having proved he can handle a full season's worth of starts (33) and frames (219) last year, Gray needs only to clean up his control a smidge (3.0 BB/9) to put himself in the ace conversation.

No. 6: Yordano Ventura, RHP, Kansas City Royals

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Similar to Gray, Yordano Ventura is a short right-hander (6'0") who more than held up while spending the year in The Show for the first time.

    Ventura, 23, checks in a notch higher than Gray, though, mainly because he's a tad younger and has a more electric arm that regularly pumps fastballs in the upper 90s and even triple digits. That gives him a little more potential, whereas Gray's production to this point has been slightly better.

    That's not to say that Ventura wasn't impressive in 2014, having put up a 3.20 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and 7.8 K/9. Mixing in his occasionally unhittable curve more while improving his changeup and overall command—all possibilities next season, by the way—is Ventura's ticket to living up to his "Ace" nickname.

No. 5: Kevin Gausman, RHP, Baltimore Orioles

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    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    You might not consider Kevin Gausman's inclusion on this list such a surprise. His placement in the top five, however, could be just that.

    After all, the 24-year-old owns a career 4.19 ERA and has thrown only 161 innings in the majors—fewer than all others listed so far besides deGrom.

    But Gausman, the No. 4 overall selection in 2012, has the pedigree, frame and stuff—including a mid-90s heater and put-away change—to make a huge leap in 2015.

    "Gausman is good," Baltimore Orioles current executive vice president Dan Duquette said in December, via Eduardo Encina of The Baltimore Sun. "If you look at his peripherals, it looks like he's ready to have a breakout season as a starting pitcher. Low walks, high strikeouts. Keeps the ball in the ballpark."

    Admittedly, Gausman still needs to work on his ever-improving slider, but if everything clicks, he's going to be atop the O's rotation for years to come. Perhaps even starting this coming season.

No. 4: Julio Teheran, RHP, Atlanta Braves

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Julio Teheran might be the most underappreciated pitcher around. All the Colombia native has done in his first two full campaigns is compile a 3.03 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and nearly a 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in over 400 innings.

    Not bad for someone who turns 24 on Jan. 27, eh?

    That Teheran has yet to earn even a single Cy Young vote is unfortunate and goes to show how overlooked he's been. That's about the only reason he qualifies for this. Otherwise, Teheran frankly can be considered an ace as is.

No. 3: Garrett Richards, RHP, Los Angeles Angels

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Garrett Richards surely wouldn't be eligible here had he not tore up his knee while covering first base, ending his stellar breakout season in late August.

    Even in a fierce AL Cy Young field, the 26-year-old would have garnered some votes for his impressive statistics accumulated to that point: 2.61 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 8.8 K/9 and an MLB-best home run rate (0.3 HR/9) that showed just how darn near impossible it was to square him up.

    The risk in ranking Richards—and this highly—is that he misses a portion of 2015 due to recovery from his knee surgery or that it takes a while for his pitches to regain their ridiculous late life.

    But Richards has been cleared to begin running, per Jon Morosi of Fox Sports, and he's been throwing since December. Even if he's not quite ready by April, Richards should have enough time—and more than enough stuff—to remind everyone how great he can be.

No. 2: Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, New York Yankees

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    A lot of what you just read about Richards also applies to Masahiro Tanaka, except in the case of the New York Yankees right-hander, the injury that essentially ended his 2014—and kept him eligible for this—was a partially torn elbow ligament.

    That makes Tanaka, 26, something of a ticking time bomb in the sense that his UCL could go at any time. Remember, he and the Yankees chose to go for rest and rehab rather than surgery last July—he missed about 10 weeks before coming back for one good and one awful start to end the year—so there's no telling how his arm will hold up in year two.

    But if it does, and if Tanaka's repertoire is unaffected—particularly that wipeout splitter—then he'll be not only an ace but one of the better pitchers in baseball, just like he was for the first half of 2014 when he notched a 2.51 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 135-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 129.1 frames.

No. 1: Gerrit Cole, RHP, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Al Behrman/Associated Press

    Were Richards or Tanaka fully healthy, they would inhabit the top two spots, but that's not the case for either pitcher. So Gerrit Cole gets the nod as the No. 1 starter ready to ascend to ace status in 2015.

    Don't misinterpret that to mean Cole isn't worthy or deserving of this placement. This is a former No. 1 overall draft pick (2011) who has made 41 career starts already as he enters his age-24 season. His stats so far might not blow you away, but they're pretty darn good: 3.45 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 8.4 K/9.

    There's also this: Cole's 3.09 fielding independent pitching (FIP) across 2013-14 is 14th-best among all pitchers to throw at least 250 frames in that span—and 12 of the 13 ahead of him don't qualify for this ranking because they have either won a Cy Young Award or placed in the top 10 in voting.

    That speaks to Cole's production so far, despite battling through some injuries last year, as well as his potential going forward.

    Cole's repertoire is both deep and nasty, and he needs merely a full season to show that he's an ace in the making as much as, if not more than, any other arm in baseball.

    Statistics are accurate through the 2014 season and courtesy of MLB.com, Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

    To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11.

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