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Drawing aces

The only thing harder than beating a baseball team when an ace is on the mound, is finding one for your team.

Otto Greule Jr

Chances are, your favorite baseball team is looking to acquire an ace. This is because every team in baseball wants a #1 starter. Does your team already have a #1 starter? Then it probably wants another one. Starting pitching is basically a commodity you cannot get enough of, especially at the elite level.

Zack Greinke appears to be cruising toward a contract that will pay him somewhere close to $25 million per season, because he is considered an ace. I love watching Zack Greinke pitch, and think he's phenomenal, but he's also not the best pitcher in baseball. Aces get paid.

I did a brief bit of digging, and made a list of all the pitchers that I would consider "aces" for 2012. My criteria were pretty simple, but a little subjective. I started with the top-30 leaderboards by ERA- and FIP- for starting pitchers. I made sure any ace was on both of those leaderboards, with one or two exceptions. I gave additional weight to previous ace-level performance, but also made allowances for young pitchers with strong minor league pedigrees or especially-great performances. Lastly, I added one pitcher who is considered an ace still, even if he didn't quite pitch like one in 2012. His name is Roy Halladay.

Anyways, here's my list of baseball's current aces:

Matt Cain

Johnny Cueto

R.A. Dickey

Gio Gonzalez

Zack Greinke

Roy Halladay

Cole Hamels

Felix Hernandez

Clayton Kershaw

Cliff Lee

David Price

C.C. Sabathia

Chris Sale

Stephen Strasburg

Justin Verlander

Jered Weaver

That's 16, and it's not a bad number. There are a few that reasonable people might quibble over (Weaver, Sale, Cain come to mind), but I think that the majority of people might say that we're pretty close here. This list is an abnormally-small sample size, given the number of starting pitchers in the majors, but there is one interesting data point I'd like to bring up.

Point: You can't have an ace.

Okay, so maybe that headline's a bit misleading. But it's a little bit true. Of those sixteen names above, how many are "available"? Probably two: R.A. Dickey and Zack Greinke. [Note: Okay, maybe Cliff Lee also. But also maybe not.] Dickey is a trade possibility (though the Mets are reportedly asking for a lot), and Greinke is, like I mentioned before, likely to become one of the highest paid pitchers in baseball history.

That's it.

Everyone else, well, they're not particularly easy to pry away from their teams. The Tigers wouldn't trade Justin Verlander if he swapped personalities with Delmon Young. The Nationals wouldn't trade Stephen Strasburg if he assassinated a U.S. Senator. Sure, if the Rangers wanted to trade Jurickson Profar, maybe they could pry David Price away from the Rays, but odds are, it ain't happening.

I want to show you something.

3 / 3 / 10

The first number is the amount of aces above who were signed by their 2012 teams as free agents. Those three (C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and R.A. Dickey) are the only ones where a team actually was able to just win a player by spending the most money. Greinke will join that group in 2013, if he stays on the ace list.

The second number is the amount of aces who were traded for, representing Zack Greinke, Roy Halladay, and Gio Gonzalez. All three trades were enormous investments by the team acquiring the ace. One might argue that, at least in the short term, they have all worked out.

The third number is the amount of aces who were signed or drafted, then developed, by their current ballclub. I include all the pitchers who've signed extensions / free agent deals with their club on this list, because that's a benefit that comes from signing and drafting your own ace. At some point, several of these players may get traded or leave via free agency. At the same time, some of these number one starters may lose that ace magic. Look at Tim Lincecum or Roy Oswalt as an example.

By the way, I did some back-of-the-envelope math about how many starters were either bought, bartered for or bred by their teams in 2012. For the six most-used starters for each team, I get the following numbers: 72 were acquired through through the draft / international free-agent process (not counting Asia, since those players normally go straight to the bigs), 44 were signed as free agents or off of waivers, and 63 were acquired via trade. One, Scott Diamond, was acquired through the Rule 5 Draft, so he kind of falls in the "other" column.

It's pretty telling, I think. A sizable amount of big-league starters are acquired through the traditional channel of draft-and-develop. We hear a lot about free agency and non-tenders and trades this time of year, but it appears, at least in terms of mass, that development is bringing the most big league starters to teams. And it also provides teams with aces that they don't get rid of very quickly.

Sometimes it doesn't take "advanced" numbers to show us something about player value. It only takes simple ones. If you want an ace (and you should), you'd better raise him yourself. And if you get the opportunity to acquire one, think twice about letting them go. They don't come around too often.