Baltimore scout Deacon Jones, who has seen major league baseball up close and personal for more than 50 years, recently raised the question, "Where have all the aces gone? How many guys now can you actually identify as No. 1 pitchers?"
The answer for me is Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, Chris Carpenter, and Roy Oswalt.
Then it starts to get a little tougher. Yankee righthander Chien-Ming Wang is rising after a 19-win season (though it's just one year). Brandon Webb, the National League Cy Young winner, is on that path. Dontrelle Willis was there but took a tumble last season. Jake Peavy had a poor season. Bartolo Colon is a horse when healthy. Carlos Zambrano is heading that way also. C.C. Sabathia has his moments. John Lackey is heading in that No. 1 direction.
The older pitchers who were No. 1s in their day can still dominate: Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, John Smoltz, Jason Schmidt, Tom Glavine, Pedro Martínez, Mike Mussina, Greg Maddux, etc. But they're either hurt or declining.
Barry Zito a No. 1? I don't think of him as that. The Giants thought so and paid him accordingly (seven years, $126 million).
"I'm not sure guys are staying healthy enough to fulfill that role as No. 1 starter," said Glavine. "The drafting philosophy now is take the biggest power-throwing kid you can find. Guys like myself and Maddux were second-round picks when we came up. We'd never go that high if a scout saw us pitch now."
Everyone's looking for the next Clemens.
"Never mind trying to find a No. 1 anymore; it's hard to find a 2 or a 3 or a 4 nowadays," said Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi. "That's why you're seeing these unbelievable contracts out there for mediocre pitching. There are guys getting No. 1 money who aren't No. 1s.
"The reason we liked Ted Lilly so much is that we knew he'd go out there and throw 180 innings. It's almost as if we're looking more for innings and games started than wins. There wasn't a 20-game winner in the majors last year."
Indeed, for the first time in a non-work-stoppage season, there were no 20-game winners in either league. Orioles pitching coach Leo Mazzone went so far as to say that 15 wins could be become the new standard for success. "It seems there are three components now," said Sox senior adviser Jeremy Kapstein. "If you can get six innings out of your starters, that's what you look for. It's made those middle relievers/set-up men very important, and you need an effective closer to win a championship. Your bullpen affects 90 percent of the games you play."
Diminishing win totals reflect the fact that starting pitchers are logging fewer innings and are depending more on poor bullpens. Five-man rotations -- and even six-man rotations -- also reduce win totals. The days of workhorses like Catfish Hunter, Fergie Jenkins, Jim Kaat, Nolan Ryan, and Tom Seaver are over. Pitch counts are starting in Little League now.
Indians general manager Mark Shapiro would like to conduct an in-depth study, but his initial reaction was counter to what most baseball people think.
"I am not sure the list is really diminished," he said. "First of all, I think one would need to put a criteria as to what delineates a No. 1 starting pitcher. My sense is that there is probably a natural cycle and that over time the number of legit No. 1s really does not decline. Maddux and Johnson decline, but Webb and [Justin] Verlander emerge."
Twins general manager Terry Ryan says he has a once-a-year meeting with his scouts to discuss this very topic. He applies criteria such as innings, starts, wins, domination, toughness, leadership, etc.
"Put it this way," said Ryan. "There are very few No. 1s out there, and if you have one like we do [Santana], you should consider yourself very fortunate.
"Are there less of them now than there used to be? I doubt that, but I've certainly heard people in the game think that. For me you have to do it over at least a three-year period to be considered a No. 1."
Former Oakland A's manager Ken Macha may have said it best.
"For me, the definition of an ace is on the day before that guy pitches, I knew I could use my entire bullpen knowing I had that guy pitching for me the next day," said Macha. "He's a guy you can hand the ball to and say 'give me nine innings' or something close to it every time he takes the mound."
Asked whether he had such a pitcher in his three years in Oakland as a manager and a bench coach, Macha said, "I think I felt that way when Mark Mulder or Tim Hudson took the mound. Both guys wound up leaving and had a downturn in their careers. But they definitely were those guys at one time."
A starring nine for Hall
Results of the Hall of Fame voting will be announced Tuesday at 2 p.m. This reporter's ballot:
1. Tony Gwynn: Fifteen-time All-Star, eight batting titles, five Gold Gloves, .338 lifetime average, 3,141 hits, never hit lower than .309 in a full season.
2. Cal Ripken: A record 2,632 consecutive games, 3,184 hits, and 431 home runs. As saloon owner Michael McGreevey used to utter, "Nuf ced."
3. Jim Rice: Only player in history with 35 homers and 200 hits in three straight seasons. Seven .300 seasons, 100 RBIs eight times.
4. Andre Dawson: Excellent five-tool player in his prime. Eight Gold Gloves, eight-time All-Star, NL MVP in 1987, 438 homers, 1,591 RBIs, and 314 stolen bases.
5. Alan Trammell: Started the modern trend of the good-hitting all-around shortstop. Seven times .300 or above, 1984 World Series MVP, four Gold Gloves, six-time All-Star. I loved the way he played the game, and I'm shocked at how little support he gets.
6. Dave Concepcion: He gets lost in the Big Red Machine of the '70s, but he was the glue. A sensational fielder (five Gold Gloves) and a clutch hitter. A nine-time All-Star and a winner in every sense of the word. Mention him to Sparky Anderson and teammates, and they speak glowingly of his place on that team. If there's one criticism I have of voters in general, it's that we short-change middle infielders.
7. Goose Gossage: New to my ballot. It takes me longer to come around on closers because I feel that so many of them have amassed inflated statistics. I never thought that about Gossage and I certainly enjoyed watching him. But enough people who played in that era or were teammates of the nine-time All-Star (124 wins, 310 saves) have convinced me that he's worthy. He was the dominating reliever of that era and one of the last of the multi-inning closers.
8. Bert Blyleven: First time I've voted for him. Again, in the past two years I've been persuaded by those who played with him and against him that Blyleven did amazing things playing for a lot of bad teams as well as two championship teams. He won 287 games with a 3.31 ERA, 242 complete games, 60 shutouts, and 3,701 strikeouts (fifth all-time).
9. Jack Morris: I've voted for him for a few years. Big-game pitcher (1-0 win in 10 innings for Twins in Game 7 of the 1991 Series) and a winner of 254 games, he is often penalized for his high ERA (3.90) and abrasive personality. But this guy was as tough as nails and won three championships.
Latest Clemens chapter is still a tale of three cities
There's no question the Yankees are trying their best to land Roger Clemens now that they've sent Randy Johnson to the Diamondbacks. We've also gotten indications that the Red Sox might not be as interested now that they have Daisuke Matsuzaka -- and a payroll heading north of the $148 million threshold.
But not so fast.
When principal owner John Henry was asked how interested the Red Sox are in Clemens, here's what he had to say: "We feel that Roger coming back to finish his career in Boston transcends a lot of obstacles. We feel he is the greatest pitcher in history. We want to see him come full circle. All of New England wants to see this."
Clemens's agent, Randy Hendricks, hadn't heard from the Sox as of a few weeks ago, but recently that's changed.
"We have talked, and Boston is one of three teams special to Roger," said Hendricks. "He has not decided whether he will play, and I don't think he will decide for some time. We have discussed a shortened season, similar to last year. If he decides to play, I am sure he will consider Boston. I also am sure it will be a tough decision, just like last year."
We've been down this road before. Last year, the Red Sox did handstands and somersaults to try to land him before he returned to Houston. Now Clemens's buddy. Andy Pettitte, is back in New York. His other buddy, Al Nipper, is no longer Boston's pitching coach. If the Yankees are in the driver's seat, it still doesn't appear that Clemens will accelerate his decision and pitch any earlier than June.
Nick Cafardo's e-mail address is email@example.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.