Ranking MLB’s 2022 aces – and the pitchers who could make the leap

Ranking MLB’s 2022 aces – and the pitchers who could make the leap post thumbnail image

As a new MLB season begins, the use of starting pitchers is in the headlines again — highlighted by one of the generation’s best starters, Clayton Kershaw, coming out 80 pitches into a perfect game bid — but we’re here to look at the best pitchers the game has to offer in 2022.

The concept of an ace comes up a lot in baseball conversations, often without a specific definition. In scouting, it has a bit more of a specific meaning, but that can vary from person to person. The basic idea, in a scouting sense, is that an ace is part of the top tier of starting pitchers across the sport and that this tier is more than five or six pitchers but fewer than 15 — with most scouts and executives putting it at eight to 12.

Rather than one ace per team, think of it more as roughly one per playoff team, with the newly expanded 12-team playoffs representing the high end of the range. I did this almost exactly a year ago, so you can see how much movement there is on the list over one season.

This is a ranking for this season, rather than projecting into the future, so think of this as whom you want starting for your team in a key September game — but you’ve got to make the list now. Any pitcher who is still recovering from surgery isn’t eligible, but any injury that does not yet require surgery and from which they should return by midseason means the pitcher is eligible. (Yes, that means Jacob deGrom.)

Here are baseball’s true aces of 2022 — along with those who have the best chance to make the leap this season.

Age: 33 (Tommy John surgery in 2010)

2021 ace rank: 1

He’s still far and away the top pick here, even though it’s unclear exactly when he’ll be returning from a stress reaction in his right scapula. The wildest part of deGrom’s rise is how his velocity has gone up every year since 2016. He’ll turn 34 this summer and is very likely to opt out of his deal. If you think his age will limit his earning power, the Mets just gave 37-year-old Max Scherzer $130 million for three years.

While deGrom’s injury makes him harder to account for, it’s as simple as this: If Jacob deGrom is pitching in September, he is the pitcher on this list anyone in baseball would want heading to the mound for their team.

Age: 27

2021 ace rank: Others to watch

Burnes was a pick to click from last year’s list and, in reality, he probably qualified for the list before the All-Star break despite making only 13 career starts before 2021. He throws a mid-90s cutter over 50% of the time, doesn’t walk anyone and doesn’t give up homers, which makes for a pretty solid foundation.

Age: 31

2021 ace rank: 2

Burnes jumps on the list and forces Cole down a spot. Cole has been remarkably consistent since getting to Houston and making the leap in 2018; he leads the league in innings since then and is third in WAR (20.0), just behind deGrom (23.5) and Scherzer (21.3)

4. Max Scherzer, New York Mets

Age: 37

2021 ace rank: 9

Speak of the devil; the ageless one has moved up from No. 9 on last April’s list. He’s already an easy Hall of Famer and just got another $130 million guaranteed, with the next challenge for Scherzer being trying to take the Mets to the promised land.

Age: 27 (TJ in 2016)

2021 ace rank: 4

Buehler is 27 and has already made 15 postseason starts with almost identical numbers to his regular-season performance. He has also shown the continued evolution in arsenal and approach that aces have to show, as his velocity has tailed off a bit from his early career peaks.

Age: 29

2021 ace rank: Others to watch

Like Burnes, Woodruff was one of the late cuts from last year’s list and easily made it this season after a career year in 2021. He stands out a bit in this group for throwing his fastball over 60% of the time his entire big league career (though that includes both a four-seamer with cutting action and a sinker), with most of the other aces leaning on the heater roughly 45-50% of the time. If the Giants are the best organization for developing big league pitchers, the Brewers aren’t far behind.

Age: 31 (TJ in 2015)

2021 ace rank: Others to watch

Wheeler is third in innings pitched since 2018, bouncing back quickly and effectively after having elbow surgery nearly 300 innings into his big league career. Wheeler is both an example of how to manage that hurdle and the potential benefits of betting on a projection prep right-hander near the top of the draft. He went sixth overall out of a Georgia high school in 2009; the track record of prep pitching at the top of the draft is very spotty, but Wheeler’s emergence (and that of Kershaw and Bumgarner) shows what the upside can look like.

Age: 26

2021 ace rank: 3

Bieber’s velocity is down two ticks in the early going this year, and a couple of sources specifically said to drop him a few spots from where I had him based on this. It’s not a long-term worry, and velo has never been a big part of Bieber’s game, but we’re talking about small margins in this rarified air of “best pitcher on the planet.”

Age: 25 (TJ in 2016)

2021 ace rank: Not ranked

The out-of-nowhere addition to this list had made 19 pretty mediocre big league starts when last year’s list went up. Since then, Webb has made 28 scorching-hot regular-season starts and two more in the playoffs for good measure. He’s just 25 and has been helped greatly by the best big league pitching development organization in baseball. His pitch mix now features a lively sinker/slider/changeup combo that darts all over the place.

These are the nine names I feel best about and who got unanimous approval from the evaluators I spoke with, even if they differed on the order after the top four.

Up to three spots are still open but no one was a consensus addition, so I’ll include those who got support in the process by the group to allow you to handicap which players might jump into consensus territory by the next time I update this list.

The exception

Shohei Ohtani

Age: 27 (TJ in 2018)

2021 ace rank: Not ranked

If Ohtani were just a pitcher, I think he would be on this list, but he’s currently also hitting (maybe you’ve heard about it). I wanted to put him on here since I think he fits, but we’re living in a world where he does both and that limits his innings, so I’m forced to stop short of adding him. Saving a DH roster spot is another element he offers, though.

Need to do it a little longer

Carlos Rodon (TJ in 2019)

Alek Manoah

Sandy Alcantara

I had Rodon on the list in earliest incarnations, but this would be based on 26 starts over the past two seasons and that’s just not enough bulk given his prior history — even if he’s been clearly among the top 10 pitchers in the game during that time. His velo has also spiked again this year and the Giants are good at this exact thing, so Rodon might earn his spot by midseason.

Manoah has the raw stuff, attitude and rapid ascent through the minors (35 career minor league innings) to project at the front of a rotation, but he’s just 21 starts into his big league career. He might also grab a spot by midseason at this rate.

Alcantara also got support and has a nice mix of remarkable raw stuff and ground balls, but a sterling 2021 is the outlier right now after pretty mixed results to start his big league career.

On the more speculative end of things, Alcantara’s teammate — and former best pitching prospect in baseball — Jesus Luzardo (TJ in 2016) might be turning the corner, while there are a half-dozen players from my Top 100 who have the potential to jump on this list in the coming years: Grayson Rodriguez, Shane Baz, Jack Leiter, Daniel Espino, Hunter Greene (TJ in 2019) and Kyle Harrison.

Steady vets

Justin Verlander (TJ in 2020)

Nathan Eovaldi (TJ in 2007 and 2016)

Chris Sale (TJ in 2020)

Yu Darvish (TJ in 2015)

Lucas Giolito (TJ in 2012)

You’re probably familiar with these guys. I thought the only thing they all had in common was a strong track record of frontline-level performance, but it turns out they’ve all had Tommy John surgery, too.

Injury risks

Tyler Glasnow (TJ in 2021)

Glasnow is ineligible for the list until he gets back on the mound from his August surgery, but his combination of size, extension and his unreal fastball/breaker combo has more than a few teams thinking he might be a true ace when he returns.

Also under consideration

Aaron Nola

Charlie Morton

Frankie Montas

Kevin Gausman

Dylan Cease

Luis Castillo

Jose Berrios

Lance Lynn

Joe Musgrove

Max Fried

Clayton Kershaw

Eduardo Rodriguez

Julio Urias

Robbie Ray

Shane McClanahan

Framber Valdez

Trevor Rogers

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