Who's the best pitcher in baseball? The answer is easy. Which pitcher would you choose to build a franchise around? That one's a bit tougher, but the answer is probably still Clayton Kershaw, who just turned 28 in March.
After Kershaw's all-time brilliant stuff -- he's already on track to be one of the best to ever toe the rubber -- there's a slew of hurlers vying for a throne all to themselves. And with so many of them clocking in at 25 years of age or younger, it's a competition that should make things fun for a very long time.
You're familiar with the names: Gerrit Cole (25), Steven Matz (25), Jose Fernandez (23), Noah Syndergaard (23), Aaron Nola (22). All five are either among the best the league has to offer or figure to be by the end of the 2016 season. Head down a tier, and you have Carlos Martinez (24), Vince Velasquez (23), Carlos Rodon (23).
The pack is crowded, but the question is simple: Who's the best of the bunch?
Perhaps the least known commodity is Philadelphia's Aaron Nola -- he of just 24 career MLB starts. Coming up to the bigs in July 2015, Nola managed to scoop up six wins on an abysmal Phillies team, setting himself up for a promising sophomore campaign -- and through two months, he's come through huge.
A major cog in a surprising Phillies club that's been above .500 most of the season, the 22-year-old is posting a WHIP under 1 with an ERA of 2.88. Over 72 innings, Nola has struck out 76 while walking only 13 -- the fourth-best ratio in the Major Leagues.
He'll need to string together more of this type of success to prove he's for real, but when and if Philadelphia turns its fortune in the coming years, Nola (and fellow soon-to-be ace Vince Velasquez) will be a reason why.
Despite much of his experience coming in front of a league-wide audience, Mets rookie Steven Matz is even less established than Nola, a division rival. Three of Matz's 18 MLB appearances came during last year's playoffs -- and while he totaled just 14.2 innings in those three starts, he struck out 13 batters and posted a ERA of 3.68 in what were his seventh, eighth and ninth career MLB games.
The issue with Matz is simply staying on the mound. The lefty missed nearly two months after making his debut in June last season, and already has been forced to skip a start with arm soreness. Matz's seven straight victories and 1.51 ERA following his season-opening stinker show that he could be one of baseball's best in due time, but nobody quite knows if the Long Island native has the durability to reach those heights.
Keeping it in the National League East, Miami righty Jose Fernandez has as good a shot as anybody to become the league's next big star -- but a torn UCL in his sophomore campaign stunted momentum that was taking the league by storm in 2013.
After posting a 2.19 ERA as a 20-year-old with the Marlins that year, Fernandez pitched in just 19 games between 2014 and 2015 after recovering from Tommy John surgery. He's yet to post an ERA over 2.92 in any single season, and the Cuban is currently on top of the NL in strikeouts per nine innings with a whopping 12.8.
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Of course, instability is a curse that inherently comes with putting on the Marlins jersey. Fernandez was reportedly shopped around last winter, and those rumors will almost assuredly resume next offseason. Even through the turmoil, Fernandez has solidified himself as one of the game's most exciting arms. And in a more stable situation -- whether in Miami or elsewhere -- he could soon be recognized as the ace he seemed to be after his dominating rookie campaign.
Pittsburgh's Cole is the closest to a veteran among the group. Now in his fourth MLB season, the 25-year-old finished fourth in Cy Young voting in 2015. After posting a 2.60 ERA a year ago, the righty currently sits 15th among NL starters with a 2.72 ERA.
Cole has appeared in the postseason three times -- twice in the 2013 NLDS and in last year's Wild Card game against the Chicago Cubs. In those starts, he's averaged under six innings per with an ERA of 3.94 -- he gave up four runs in five innings to Chicago in last year's elimination game.
Cole is an established ace already, and this time last year, he seemed to be the class of the younger generation of hurlers. But in a three-month stretch spanning the 2015 postseason and the first two months of 2016, Noah Syndergaard has taken over the pole position.
Having a fastball that touches 101 in your arsenal doesn't necessarily translate to dominance -- but when it's coupled with uncanny sink, to go along with impeccable control, batters just have the odds stacked against them.
Syndergaard is currently second only to Kershaw with a K-to-BB ratio of nine (81 punchouts to nine walks). The league just hasn't seem a specimen quite like him -- an NFL tight end's presence on the mound with a 95-mile-per hour slider and a "changeup" that rarely falls below 90.
The 23-year-old already has proven effective when the lights shine the brightest -- striking out 24 batters over three postseason starts, including two more during a relief appearance in New York's Game 5 clincher at Dodger Stadium.
Competition is steep, but as things stand now, the man they call Thor is one of the best baseball has to offer -- let alone the best of the league's young arms.
Verdict: Noah Syndergaard
- By John Dorn