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So how does the industry define an ace? Is in on a performance level? A scouting level? Some combination or both, or something more esoteric? “I think every team has an ace,” said one American League Scouting Director. “There is someone on the staff who is a leader both on and off the field, but I don't think ace necessarily equates to No. 1 starter.”

Defining true aces who are both staff leaders and No. 1 starters proves to be more difficult. “They have to be able to lead a championship level staff,” explained another AL scouting executive. “They have to contribute to winning games every fifth day, to shutting down lineups every fifth day.” To do that takes special talent, and you can't be special without tools. “To be an ace, and sustain that title, it's about the stuff to dominate and overmatch opponents,” he continued. “I'm talking about 7s and 8s on the scouting report [referring to the 2-to-8 or 20-to-80 scouting scale].”

In researching aces, I noted that there is nearly no such thing as a “surprise” ace. When you think about the elite starting pitchers in baseball, you are talking about players who were seen as potential aces as prospects. The only exception at this time is Cliff Lee, who was seen more as a third starter when coming up through the Cleveland system. The other recent surprise ace is Johan Santana, who it should be noted is also left-handed.

So who are the future aces? Here are seven names to keep in mind; remember that aces are without question the most special commodities in the game, and even if just one of these players turns into that year-after-year Cy Young candidate, that might be exceeding expectations.

The Best Bet
Julio Teheran, RHP, Atlanta Braves
Teheran may have not looked like an ace during his two big-league starts, but keep in mind that he was deemed ready for some spot starts as a 20-year-old. When Tim Lincecum was the same age, he had just finished a freshman year at the University of Washington that included 82 walks in 112 1/3 innings. Josh Beckett was dominating as a 20-year-old… in the Low-A Midwest League. For scouts looking for the big numbers on a scouting report, Teheran has been at his best since returning to Triple-A; in five June starts, he has a 1.00 ERA over 36 innings, allowing 20 hits, and walking just two. His mid-90s fastball and plus-plus command are both ace-worthy, while his changeup is an above-average pitch and his breaking ball is showing signs of becoming one. He could be six to eight years away from his peak, yet ready for a full-time role in a big-league rotation next year.

Could Get There with Some Adjustments
Gerrit Cole, RHP, Pittsburgh Pirates
Let's assume Cole is going to sign; the Pirates did not use the first pick on a player they are not going to get a deal done with. The second his deal is done, Cole arguably has the best stuff of any prospect in the game. If you see him on the right day, his mid- to upper-90s fastball is an 80 pitch. Scouts spent many hours this spring arguing over which of his plus-plus secondary pitches was better—the slider or the changeup. That said, he was consistently out-pitched this year by teammate Trevor Bauer, who went to Arizona two picks after Cole. The problem has been command, but with just a few refinements in his location and pitch sequencing, Cole could be a franchise-changing overpowering starter.

Shelby Miller, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
After finishing the 2010 season with a flurry at Low-A Quad Cities, the Cardinals considered sending their 2009 first-round pick to Double-A at the beginning of the year. Instead, Miller earned the promotion by striking out 81 batters over 53 innings in nine Florida State League starts before moving up. The Texas League has yet to slow him down; he has a 1.69 ERA in his first five Double-A starts. Miller is a classic power arm from Texas with 94-95 mph heat, a very good curve, and an improving changeup, but for now, his 7-6-5 arsenal (plus-plus fastball, plus curve, average changeup) is more reminiscent of San Francisco's Matt Cain than that of a pure ace.

Matt Moore, LHP, Tampa Rays
If being an ace means overpowering opponents, Moore has you covered. He's led the minor leagues in strikeouts over each of the last two years, and is among the leaders again this season with 107 punchouts over 82 2/3 innings for Double-A Montgomery, including 11 in a no-hitter he fired two weeks ago. His 92-95 mph fastball is well above average for a left-hander, and his power curveball is among the best in the minor leagues. While control has been a problem for him in the past, his ratio of 2.5 walks per nine innings in 2011 is a decrease of more than 30 percent from the previous year, which was 25 percent lower than the year before, so the progress in that department has been both clear and consistent. His dominating performances of late have accelerated his timetable, and he could be the recipient of some intense scrutiny for a starting job next spring.

Longshots to Dream on
The lower levels of the minors are loaded with strong arms, as kids light up radar guns while still in the transitional phase from thrower to pitcher. Here are three exceedingly inexperienced arms with some of the highest ceilings one can find, but the caveat remains: aces are rare—incredibly rare—and chances are good none of these players ends up as one.

Carlos Martinez, RHP, Cardinals: Martinez created a stir last summer when he touched 100 mph in the Dominican Summer League while putting up a 0.76 ERA. He's been nearly as impressive in his stateside debut with a 2.33 ERA in eight starts for Low-A Quad Cities to go with 50 strikeouts in 38 2/3 innings. In possession of one of the minor league's fastest arms, there's no debate as to the quality of his fastball, but his curveball and changeup are still works in progress, and his small (6-0, 165) frame leaves many to wonder if he's the type of pitcher that can handle a 220-inning workload.

Jameson Taillon, RHP, Pirates: Taillon, the second overall pick in last year's draft, passes any scouting sniff test with a combination of mid-90s heat and fantastic control. He's walked just four batters in his first 42 2/3 innings for Low-A West Virginia, but he's also been more hittable than expected as he learns how to set up hitters and integrate the rest of his arsenal into his game.

Taijuan Walker, RHP, Mariners: Still just 18 years old, the Mariners’ 2010 supplemental first-round pick exploded onto the Low-A Midwest League in May and has recorded 64 strikeouts in just 50 innings. Arguably the most athletic pitching prospect around, Walker is already throwing in the 95-98 mph range and showing flashes of an excellent breaking ball, but his changeup is still in the nascent stage, and his control is erratic at best.  

 

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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markpadden
7/01
I like the premise of this article, and hope to see more lists like it (mid-season views on who has the highest upside in the minors).
eliyahu
7/01
Interesting that the aces the scounts didn't foresee achieved greatness primarily via deception -- and not overpowering heat. I guess it's a lot easier to project classic, hard throwers than it is to project the Lee/Santana mold (i.e. guys that keep hitters off balance by changing speeds, and buckling knees with off-spreed stuff in the zone.)
markpadden
7/03
I don't think it's an accident that the year Lee became great, his velocity jumped up by 1.5 mph. Similarly, Santana was one of the harder thowers (93 mph) in his great years. I.e., studs rarely emerge without better than average velocity -- regardless of what their main out pitch is.
hessshaun
7/01
I like.
lemppi
7/01
Kevin, Where would Jacob Turner rate compared to the Shelby Miller/Matt Moore Category? Just missed? A full peg below? Just curious...thank you and enjoy the Independence Day Weekend!!
touchstone033
7/02
I was going to ask the same question!
hessshaun
7/01
Just based on this, does this justify the Pirates taking Cole at one? I know it was not the "wrong pick" per se, but is the ceiling the reason he went one, more than likely?
Peter7899
7/01
Of course the ceiling is the reason the Pirates felt he was the best prospect in the draft. That and the likelihood he reaches that ceiling.
Yarky1
7/01
Was Halladay regarded as a potential ace? I remember him as a highly regarded prospect, but not THAT high, but I could be wrong.
harderj
7/01
"The best pitching prospect in the organization. Halladay is a young right-hander with a good fastball and knuckle-curve. He’s had success at each level so far, and with the organizational bent towards rushing pitchers, he’s got a good chance to be in the rotation by June. Good long-term prospect, age and pressure may make him an injury risk in the short term." From BP player notes, 1998. "A near-perfect game on the last day of the season is a good way to make everyone remember you. Named the International League's top pitching prospect. Halladay flashes one of the best sinking fastballs in the minors. He gets it up to 97, throws the cutter to get movement, has a great slider and mixes in a knuckle-curve. He's still figuring out how to change speeds." From 1999.
gpurcell
7/02
Halladay wasn't even considered in the same universe as Wood or Ankiel.
rawagman
7/02
He still isn't.
aquavator44
7/01
Sorry that this isn't related (great article, though), but I was wondering - and anybody can answer this - if there is anybody I should be watching extra closely at tonight's Salem-Wilmington game?
beta461
7/01
You mention Matt Cain but what about him leaves him short of ace status? He led a championship staff to a championship last year. Is there an exec in baseball who wouldn't want to hand him the ball in a big game? If someone is going to throw a xFIP argument at me I don't want to hear it..
bvanbeek85
7/01
Can we yet dream on Zach Lee?
pobothecat
7/01
Was Greg Maddux a known-ace when he came up?
yondaime13
7/02
While it is hard to find scouting reports that far back, when he debuted in '86 he was just 20 years old and the youngest player in the majors at the time. He spent just two years in the minors and he was pretty damn good there. So I would think he was considered highly advanced at the very least. How many 20 year old pitchers have debuted in the majors in the past 20 years? Teheran? Sabathia? Jim Abbott? Steve Avery?
pobothecat
7/03
Thanks, yondaime. Helpful answer.
tcfatone
7/01
RE: Teheran I can keep him in the 22nd round in a keeper league for 2012, but wonder if he'll produce enough early on to make keeping him worthwhile. Any thoughts on his immediate impact?
gtgator
7/01
You might want to wait until this season ends and the Braves start making some off-season moves before trying to figure out what the Braves' plans for Teheran might be, especially as this will affect his impact. The current starting rotation (and Mike Minor) are under team control in 2012. Medlen will be back. Until moves are made, it would be a crapshoot trying to guess Teheran's role now. But it could range from on the Opening Day roster to called-up in June. And this ignores how much and how fast he can acclimate to the majors. His spot starts showed he wasn't ready then. 9+ months from now? Who knows.
pobothecat
7/03
And I wouldn't bet a ton of money that he doesn't have impact before season's end. Unlikely, I know. Beachy and Minor are a solid 5 and 6 in the rotation. But all it takes is an injury, a couple of bad outings, a spot start or two and suddenly they can't send him down. The only reason I bring this up is that are few teams as unafraid to take a talented kid into the playoffs as the Braves.
chabels
7/01
Well he's not the best pitcher on his team, so I don't think you can credibly say he "led a championship staff." Hard to argue the third best pitcher on his team is an ace. His strikeout numbers are what keep him from being a true ace. As to your desire to ignore compelling arguments, well that seems more a personal problem. Lincecum has significantly lower FIP and xFIP scores and Sanchez strikes out roughly one more batter/9.
chabels
7/01
Obviously this was intended as a reply to the Cain comment. He may be one of the 30 best pitchers in baseball, but as Kevin has said repeatedly, there aren't 30 aces in baseball.
beta461
7/01
Matt Cain has bested his xFIP in every year he's pitched. It's 3/4's of a run better over the course of his career. His 1200 IP+ sample size should prove that. Using xFIP at this point is just plain ignorance in the case of Matt Cain. We've come along way since Voros Mccracken. Now onto the more nebulous and admittedly subjective part: Locally he's seen as the leader of that staff. The national media doesn't portray him that way but that shouldn't matter. We all know Lincecum is better but an "Ace" isn't limited to one per team. If you're penalizing him for not being the best pitcher on his team that doesn't make much either as he happens to be on a staff with a HOF type talent.
donwinningham
7/01
The point of the article is not that Cain isn't very good. He is very good. But he's just not an "Ace." You act like Cain's being insulted when people say he's not an "Ace." He's one of the top 30 or so pitchers on the planet, but there's no question that if you were to make a list of the ten best, he would not be on it. Sorry.
beta461
7/01
I would be insulted if he was considered the 30th best pitcher in baseball. If you made a list of top 15 pitchers i would assume he's on there. Classic pitchers build, throws tons of innings with a low ERA. What more could you want in an Ace?
benharris
7/02
He tells you in the article why Cain is not an ace. Add 1 + 1 and use the transitive law: “'To be an ace, and sustain that title, it's about the stuff to dominate and overmatch opponents,” he continued. “I'm talking about 7s and 8s on the scouting report [referring to the 2-to-8 or 20-to-80 scouting scale].'” "...his 7-6-5 arsenal (plus-plus fastball, plus curve, average changeup) is more reminiscent of San Francisco's Matt Cain than that of a pure ace." He's not saying Cain sucks or anything. He's just saying there's only a few aces. Lincecum is one. Cain is not. A line has to be drawn somewhere.
beta461
7/02
Jim Callis rated 2 of Cain's pitches as 70's. Not sure what this has to do with it. Does this grading by one man make him a ace?
beta461
7/02
Btw i do think he''s a boarderline ace. I'm just sick of the traditional baseball community rating him on wins and some lazy elements of the saber community judging soley on xFIP. Scouts are the only ones who ive ever read who refer to Cain as an ace.
touchstone033
7/02
Cain has never really dominated, he's only broken the sub-3 ERA plateau once (using more conventional metrics) and has never struck out 200 in a season. His career ERA+ according to b-r.com is 125, which is very good, but Lincecum's at 138 with a season of 169 and one at 173. Halladay hasn't had an ERA+ under 150 (a plateau Cain has never reached) since 2007. According to b-r.com's WAR, Cain is currently 20th in mlb, behind guys like Kyle Lhose, Ian Kennedy, and Ricky Romero, and Cain is hardly having an off year. "Ace," of course, is a subjective term, but I just can't see any metric that says Matt Cain dominates. He's very good but, in my opinion, not an ace.
touchstone033
7/02
Which leads me to wonder about Josh Beckett, who often is considered an "ace"...but, at least by the numbers, has had poorer results than Cain...
mrenick
7/02
I don't think anybody considers Beckett an ace. Boston doesn't even consider him an ace
markpadden
7/03
You understand that most Giants pitchers have a better xFIP than ERA historically, right? Look up the formula for xFIP and tell me why this occurs.
beta461
7/03
I do. It's mostly a function of their ability to control home runs allowed. This effect isnt diminished on the road so it's not a function of AT&T. My best guess would be Raggs pitching philosophy but I really have no idea. I just don't like discounting the results because we don't understand them.
markpadden
7/05
Wrong answer. It's not the pitcher's special abiility to control HR allowed that causes this descrepancy; it's the park. This is why there is a large diff. between xFIPs of Giants pitchers and ERAs of Giants pitchers historically. xFIP assumes a normal HR/FB rate but the SF park has a very low HR/FB rate. So much of Cain's "beating" his xFIP is very much expected and contained within the limitiations of the xFIP formula.
beta461
7/05
Wow you just completely skipped over the part where I wrote "this effect isn't deminished on the road so it's not a function of AT&T" because it was at odds with whatever argument you were trying to perpetrate didn't you? I welcome you to go do the research yourself. If you choose to ignore facts you might prefer some Joe Morgan fan sites available on the interwebs.
tombores99
7/01
I think it's a real stretch to call Cain the "third best pitcher on his team"... I like K rate as much as the next guy (and probably more), but I'll trade Cain's vastly superior ability to keep runners off the bags and runs off the board to Sanchez's penchant for the punchout. Watching them pitch is an object lesson in the contrast between "pitching" and "throwing," and striking out more batters need not be the only criteria to measure a pitcher's effectiveness... even your fantasy team prefers Cain's WHIP/ERA combo to Sanchez's K rate. Throw in their ages, performance record over time, and consistency from pitch-to-pitch and start-to-start, and I don't think it's particularly close at all. But hey, difference of opinion is the essence of fandom, so thanks for spurring a debate!
JamesP469
7/01
San Francisco absolutely has two Aces. If you compare Lincecum's numbers to Cain's from the 2010 season, its impossible to include Lincecum but not Cain in the discussion as Cain bested Timmy in all stats but strikeouts. Strikeouts are sexy, but they're not the end-all (just like W/L records dont tell the entire story).
ultimatedub
7/01
Perhaps I'm out of line for saying this, but you had a link to this yesterday on Twitter for the ESPN Insider. A day later its here. Its obviously not a big deal to wait a day, but what are we paying for; to take a backseat to ESPN subscribers?
donwinningham
7/01
At least us BP subscribers get some access to ESPN's premium content! Oh wait, we don't. This bothers me every time I see espn-linked content from the BP guys. ESPN subscribers enjoy the articles that we pay for with our BP subscriptions, but our subscriptions don't entitle us to a Keith Law article once in a while?
JamesP469
7/01
BP doesn't even have a picture of him!
sungods7n
7/02
From what I understand KG wouldn't even be writing these articles if it wasn't for ESPN. I believe he is writing additional content specifically for ESPN and we get that here too which is nice. Plus Insider is cheap. If you like KLaw drop the $15 for ESPN Mag and get Insider free with it. Unfortunately ESPN Mag is printed on glossy paper and not two-ply Charmin.
donwinningham
7/02
What's that based on?
dpease
7/07
We were happy to include in negotiations with our partners at ESPN the rights to display the content we were creating for them to our own subscribers. The way we look at it, they're paying us (and the individual authors) to write more for you.
JamesP469
7/03
"Unfortunately ESPN Mag is printed on glossy paper and not two-ply Charmin." Sometimes, when all you have camping is the brand-new issue of ESPN The Mag...
pobothecat
7/03
(Carlos Martinez was promoted to Hi-A last week)
doctawojo
7/03
I still do not understand the concept of a pitch being graded an 80 if the pitcher cannot command it consistently.
mattymatty2000
7/04
Believe command is it's own entry in the scouting handbook.
jparks77
7/05
Depends on the scout in question. I grade a FB on velo/command/movement, but the weight assigned to each component isn't equal. In my opinion, if a pitcher can throw 100 mph (which is elite velocity), but can't control the pitch, or its straight (Matt Anderson), I don't think it should be classified as an 80 pitch. 80 on velo only, yes, but 80 as a singular pitch? Not in my book.
doctawojo
7/07
Thanks for the answer, Jason. Is this an organizational thing, too? It's possible you've addressed this in other pieces that I've missed, but: would (just picking a team) all Orioles scouts be instructed/trained to weight the velocity, movement, command in one particular way and all Blue Jays scouts another and all A's scouts another? Or are teams just reading their reports with knowledge of who's filing them and remembering "Oh, Bob is a velocity hound so he gave the fastball a 70, but based on the actual description of the pitch, it's really more like a 60 given our organizational priorities?" (I should write dialogue for the movies.)
Ogremace
7/07
As a Yankee fan, I never want to hear anything more about Gerrit Cole.
rawagman
7/07
I think you're SOL. You'll continue hearing alot about him for a long time. You might need to just get over it.