For all the talk that the value of the starting pitcher has decreased as bullpen specialization (not to mention “openers”) has increased, if there’s one thing every team wants, it’s an ace. If you’ve got an ace, you don’t just have a tone-setter for the whole rotation and the whole team; you have the sort of guy who can pull you back from the brink -- to end a losing streak, to settle a restless team, to win that must-win playoff game. If you have an ace, your whole team feels better about everything.
1) Shane Bieber, RHP, Indians. He might not have the same track record as some of the names below him on this list, but he was nearly unhittable last year. Can he find still yet another gear?
2) Jacob deGrom, RHP, Mets. He’ll have more support from the Mets' lineup than in any other year in his career, plus now he has Francisco Lindor playing behind him.
3) Gerrit Cole, RHP, Yankees. This is the first full season of the Cole experience in the Bronx -- and the Yankees may need his durability and, of course, his dominance more than ever before. At the very least, they can’t wait to see what he can do over 162 games.
4) Yu Darvish, RHP, Padres. The Blake Snell trade may have gotten more headlines, but here is the best starter on the Padres. He’s the primary reason the Cubs won the National League Central last year -- and he might just win himself a Cy Young this season.
5) Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers. Injuries have deprived him of making Opening Day starts the past two seasons. But after a healthy, bounceback season, now he gets to stand atop the mound as something he has never been before: A champion.
6) Hyun Jin Ryu, Blue Jays. He has finished in the top three in Cy Young voting for two consecutive years now. The question, as always, is whether he can keep it up over a full season. If he gives the Blue Jays the 182 2/3 innings he gave the Dodgers in 2019, they will be thrilled.
7) Lucas Giolito, RHP, White Sox. Still just 26 years old, Giolito has evolved into a truly devastating pitcher over the last two seasons. Now, he heads up an improved White Sox rotation, looking to lead a team with some serious ambitions in 2021. Along with Max Fried and Jack Flaherty, he is one of the three pitchers from Harvard-Westlake High School in Los Angeles to be starting on Opening Day. The “Did you know those three pitchers went to the same high school?” angle is perhaps a bit played out, but that doesn’t make this factoid any less remarkable.
8) Max Scherzer, RHP, Nationals. Is his reputation keeping him slightly elevated above others on this list than he should be? Maybe. But he’s still Max Scherzer, the last guy anyone wants staring down on them from the mound. This could end up being his last year with the Nationals.
9) Kenta Maeda, RHP, Twins. Maeda took a step forward in 2020, finishing second in the American League Cy Young race and giving the Twins the 1-2 punch (along with José Berríos) atop the rotation they’ve been searching for. The AL Central will be even tighter this year, so he just has to go do it again.
10) Max Fried, LHP, Braves. Fried will be the first left-hander to start on Opening Day for the Braves since Hall of Famer Tom Glavine in 2002, which is kind of amazing. He should have more help in the rotation this year, but he’s the unquestioned ace.
11) Aaron Nola, RHP, Phillies. Nola might be the most vital cog this pitching staff has. But, unfortunately, he cannot pitch nine innings every game.
12) Brandon Woodruff, RHP, Brewers. Baseball pundits spent so many years blasting the Brewers for not going out and getting an ace that they missed one developing right in front of their eyes.
13) Zack Greinke, RHP, Astros. Greinke had what was for him a down year in 2020, which is to say he was merely “good” rather than “fantastic,” as he has been every other year of his career.
14) Chris Bassitt, RHP, A’s. Bassitt was terrific last season, finishing eighth in the AL Cy Young voting and emerging as Oakland's unlikely ace. He more than earned the Opening Day nod based on that effort.
15) Luis Castillo, RHP, Reds. Some observers think Castillo has the stuff to give the Reds a repeat Cy Young winner. We haven’t seen that performance level over a whole season yet, but the possibility is definitely there.
16) Kyle Hendricks, RHP, Cubs. He’s no Yu Darvish, but he has become such an excellent pitcher for the Cubs that they’ve essentially filled their rotation with pitchers who, like him, do not throw hard.
17) Jack Flaherty, RHP, Cardinals. He has the stuff to top this list -- and we saw it down the stretch in 2019. But it wasn’t much in evidence in '20. If the old Flaherty returns, the Cards have their most dominant starter since ... well, teammate Adam Wainwright, actually.
18) Sandy Alcantara, RHP, Marlins. Is he the pitcher with the highest upside in the Marlins rotation? Maybe not, but he’s steady, consistent, reliable and is coming off the best season of his career. If the Marlins surprise again this year, he’ll be a primary reason why.
19) Tyler Glasnow, RHP, Rays. He’s the obvious choice with Blake Snell and Charlie Morton gone. But at his best, he has better stuff than both of them. The question is whether he can finally get the results to match what the metrics say they should be.
20) Marco Gonzales, LHP, Mariners. You wouldn’t think to put Marco among the top starters in Mariners history, but if he also starts 2022’s Opening Day, it would be his fourth OD start, tying Jamie Moyer (only Randy Johnson and Félix Hernández have more). Gonzales is perpetually underappreciated, probably even on this list.
21) Brad Keller, RHP, Royals. He was better last year than you think he was -- posting a 2.47 ERA and a 1.02 WHIP. While the underlying metrics don’t necessarily support a repeat, he’s more than earned his second Opening Day nod.
22) Kevin Gausman, RHP, Giants. One of two pitchers on this list to figure it out after leaving Baltimore, Gausman is exactly the sort of player who is currently thriving in San Francisco.
23) Germán Márquez, RHP, Rockies. Márquez’s step forward was just about the only thing that went well for the Rockies in 2020. If he’s good again, he might be the only thing again in 2021.
24) Dylan Bundy, RHP, Angels. The Angels are constantly trying to find Dylan Bundys, veteran pitchers who didn’t click somewhere else but figure it out in Anaheim. They now have one Dylan Bundy. They need four more.
25) Madison Bumgarner, LHP, D-backs. It was surely going to be Zac Gallen before his hairline fracture. Now, it’s Bumgarner -- who can’t possibly be as bad as he was last year again, right?
26) Nathan Eovaldi, RHP, Red Sox. This was supposed to be Eduardo Rodriguez, which would have been awesome -- given all he went through last year with COVID-19. But Rodriguez is dealing with a “dead arm,” so it’s Eovaldi -- who can look like an ace on any given day -- instead.
27) John Means, LHP, Orioles. At this point, Means truly is the greybeard -- not just of this staff, but just about the entire roster. He has been two different pitchers over the last two years. Can he merge them into one?
28) Kyle Gibson, RHP, Rangers. Having Gibson start the opener is a rather perfect indicator of where the Rangers are right now: Older, transitioning, not sure of the next move.
29) Chad Kuhl, RHP, Pirates. Kuhl was a surprise pick for the Pirates, though honestly the Pirates didn’t have many great options. He’s an organizational stalwart, and he’s earned this; he even pitched well in his final start of 2020 against ... his Opening Day opponent, the Cubs.
30) Matthew Boyd, LHP, Tigers. This is the second consecutive Opening Day start for Boyd. But if things go in the direction this franchise expects them to the coming years, all hope is that this will be his last.