No matter how much baseball is changing at the moment, the value of the top tier of starting pitchers is immutable. So, let’s take a look at the top starters in baseball right now, with some of my opinion included but mostly that of eight scouts and front office executives I polled going into the new season.

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’ve done a number of these over the years, and while a couple of names have been on every version of this list, there’s a good bit of movement with every new edition.

This is a ranking for this season, rather than projecting into the future, so think of this as who you would want pitching for your team during a playoff run — but you have to make the list now. Any pitcher who is still recovering from surgery isn’t eligible, so Walker Buehler (No. 5 on my list at this point last season) is a perennial candidate who won’t be listed this time.

Here are baseball’s true aces of 2023, along with those who have the best chance to make the leap this season.

Age: 27

2022 ace rank: Just missed

Yes, his most recent start wasn’t pretty — but this list is about much more than one outing. Alcantara was among the final cuts from my 2022 list, and then he put together a sterling Cy Young-winning campaign: 228⅔ innings pitched with a 2.28 ERA thanks in large part to a dastardly sinker that averaged 98.0 mph. Given those bulk innings, his age and his study, athletic frame, he gets the nod at the top.

Age: 34 (Tommy John surgery in 2010)

2022 ace rank: 1

Durability is the big question, as deGrom has thrown 156⅓ innings over the past two seasons combined, which pales in comparison to the 228⅔ innings Alcantara threw just last season. He is also 34 years old. This ranking, however, shows how good the production was when deGrom was able to take the mound, evidenced by one of the best ERA estimators: deGrom’s 1.57 xFIP in 2021-22 vs. Alcantara’s 3.29 in 2022. A couple of sources argued deGrom should still be first on the list, but Alcantara was the consensus pick because we’re ranking for the entire season rather than one win-or-go-home game.

Age: 32

2022 ace rank: 3

Cole has been either second or third on each of the past two early-season editions of these rankings, along with last season’s playoff version. He’s been amazingly consistent in both quality and bulk of innings, even adding velocity on his fastball in the traditional decline years for a pitcher.

Age: 28

2022 ace rank: 2

Burnes just missed the 2021 list and then won the Cy Young that season, just like Alcantara did last year. Burnes is now clearly in the top tier of pitchers in the game, and he is setting himself up for what could be a massive free agency deal after the 2024 season.

Age: 28 (TJ in 2018)

2022 ace rank: Just missed

I left Ohtani off of last year’s list because playing two ways appeared to be limiting his durability as a pitcher enough that he wouldn’t post the bulk innings to belong. That excuse is gone now, as he threw 166 innings and posted the sixth-best pitcher WAR in baseball last season, only 0.1 WAR behind Alcantara.

Age: 27 (TJ in 2014)

2022 ace rank: Under consideration

Cease has had the raw stuff for this list for years, but 2022 was his breakthrough season where he put it all together. He’s ranked above some more proven arms here, as his high-octane stuff is what industry experts prefer to rely on in the playoffs.

Age: 29 (TJ in 2017)

2022 ace rank: Under consideration

8. Zack Wheeler, RHP, Philadelphia Phillies

Age: 32 (TJ in 2015)

2022 ace rank: 7

I’ll group these two teammates together since it’s basically a 50-50 split in the industry as to whom they’d prefer for a playoff run. I lean toward Nola due to the deeper repertoire, better command, five years of sterling durability and better strikeout rate. Others prefer Wheeler due to his better raw stuff and better actual ERA.

Age: 25 (TJ in 2016)

2022 ace rank: Under consideration

McClanahan is the hardest-throwing lefty starter in the game, with his velocity rising each season to his current average fastball of 98.0 mph from his two 2023 starts. He has thrown only 301⅔ innings in the big leagues, but he is a textbook example of how the Rays’ pitching development team excels at turning relief-risk pitching prospects with high-octane stuff (Tyler Glasnow, Blake Snell, Chris Archer are other recent examples) into front-line starters.

Age: 38

2022 ace rank: 4

There was a bit of a game of pick your poison here, and you could easily include both of the two pitchers in the next section and make the list 12-deep. Scherzer has finally started showing some age in his late 30s, but he is still one of the best dozen pitchers in baseball. He’s also insanely good on the mound, which helps him win the tiebreaker here for me because I don’t want to face him under any circumstances.

Just missed

Carlos Rodon, LHP, New York Yankees (TJ in 2019)

Justin Verlander, RHP, New York Mets (TJ in 2020)

Rodon got his megadeal in free agency this past winter after posting 11.1 WAR over the last two seasons. Execs and scouts are still worried about his durability even after he made 31 starts last season, so he lands in a group with the older Mets starters battling for the final spots on the list.

Verlander was on the initial list after he bounced back from Tommy John surgery to win a Cy Young in 2022 and placed first in last year’s postseason ace rankings. I was a bit surprised that the panel I spoke to going into this season almost universally told me to move him to the 10-12 range, as they see real signs of decline for the 40-year-old pitcher. I’ve always referred to aces as the top eight to 12 pitchers in baseball, so you can consider these 12 to be the aces, but industry insiders seem to think at least one of them will let you down in 2023.

Others who were mentioned

Julio Urias, LHP, Los Angeles Dodgers

Brandon Woodruff, RHP, Milwaukee Brewers

Max Fried, LHP, Atlanta Braves

Spencer Strider, RHP, Atlanta Braves

Alek Manoah, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays

Framber Valdez, LHP, Houston Astros

Dustin May, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers

Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Los Angeles Dodgers

Shane Bieber, RHP, Cleveland Guardians (2022 ace rank: 8)

Logan Webb, RHP, San Francisco Giants (2022 ace rank: 9)

Cristian Javier, RHP, Houston Astros

Kevin Gausman, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays

Luis Castillo, RHP, Seattle Mariners

Joe Musgrove, RHP, San Diego Padres

Zac Gallen, RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks

May is the industry’s stealth pick to click from this group due to his blazing-hot start. I don’t think I’d pick him to be this season’s Alcantara or Burnes — a pitcher who could be a surprising Cy Young winner. If I was told one of these 15 will vault into next year’s top five aces, I may lean more toward Strider or Manoah.

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