MLB Opening Day 2017: Martinez vs. Lester tops our ranking of every pitching matchup

The 2017 regular season is upon us. Once again there are three opening games scheduled for Sunday, not just one. The rest of the league then gets underway Monday.

Every year Opening Day brings a ton of quality pitching matchups. Each team starts who they feel is their best available pitcher in the first game of the season. You can’t beat it. It’s nothing but great matchups all day. Given that, it’s time to compile our annual Opening Day pitching matchup rankings.

The rankings, which were compiled by me after consulting the other CBS Sports MLB scribes, are based on three factors:

  1. Pitcher Quality. No one likes to watch a bad pitcher, right? Right.
  2. Intrigue. Is someone making their first start with a new team? Facing his former team? Coming back from injury? That sort of thing.
  3. Watchability. The most subjective factor. How fun is it to watch these guys pitch?

Now, with that out of the way, here are the 2017 Opening Day pitching matchup rankings. Two historic rivals get us started.

1. Carlos Martinez, Cardinals vs. Jon Lester, Cubs

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Carlos Martinez vs. Jon Lester headlines this year’s Opening Day pitching matchups. USATSI

For the first time in 108 years, the Chicago Cubs are the defending World Series champions. And they’ll get to rub it in the faces of their greatest rivals on the very first day of the season. This series will be in Busch Stadium, however, not Wrigley Field, so the schadenfreude figures to be kept to a minimum. All bets are off when these two clubs meet for the first time at Wrigley from June 2-4.

Anyway, Martinez vs. Lester is our top Opening Day pitching matchup. It’s a meeting between an up-and-coming ace and grizzled veteran workhorse. Martinez is making his first Opening Day start -- Adam Wainwright had started the last four season openers for St. Louis -- while Lester is getting his sixth Opening Day assignment, including his second with the Cubs. Lester threw a ton of innings last year (238 1/3) and had a short offseason, so it’s no surprise the Cubs have indicated they will take it easy on him early in the season.

This matchup has a little something for everyone. A righty and a lefty. A hard-thrower with nasty breaking stuff and veteran who can command five pitches to both sides of the plate. Do you prefer power, or paint? This game offers both. And these guys are really good too. Martinez and Lester combined for 2.74 ERA with 371 strikeouts in 398 innings in 2016. I wouldn’t say it was an easy call for the top spot, but these two are worthy of the crown.

2. Yu Darvish, Rangers vs. Corey Kluber, Indians

Out of the 15 Opening Day pitching matchups, I feel like this one is the best bet for an all-time great pitching duel. Dueling no-hitters into the seventh inning, 25 total strikeouts, something like that. Kluber, one of seven former Cy Young winners starting Opening Day, is coming off that huge workload last season (249 1/3 innings including postseason), which included three postseason starts on short rest, so I’m curious to see if there’s any hangover effect this year. Even the best pitchers can feel the effects of that workload one year later.

Darvish, on the other hand, has presumably shaken off the rust following Tommy John surgery. He returned at midseason last year and threw 100 1/3 innings with 132 strikeouts and a 3.41 ERA. Pretty great. This is a contract year for Darvish, so a full healthy season on par with his 2012-14 efforts will land him a very nice payday after the season. He’s making his first career Opening Day start for Texas, believe it or not. This will be the Klubot’s third straight Opening Day start for the Tribe.

3. Zack Greinke, Diamondbacks vs. Madison Bumgarner, Giants

Two years ago Greinke had a 1.66 ERA, the lowest by a qualified starter since Greg Maddux two decades earlier. I don’t think anyone realistically expected Greinke to do that again in 2016, but I also don’t think anyone expected him to have a 4.37 ERA during Year 1 with the D-Backs either. Home runs were an issue and he was more hittable in general, and this spring, Greinke’s velocity has been down:

That doesn’t sound great. Greinke averaged 91.3 mph with his fastball last year, and since he’s now 33, any velocity drop is a red flag. Now, that said, Greinke was never a blow-you-away type. He’s a command-and-control pitcher who keeps hitters off balance. His command is so good that I still think he’ll be effective even if 88-89 mph is the new normal. His track record wins out for now, which is why he and Bumgarner are my No. 3 matchup. This is somehow only Greinke’s third career Opening Day start. It’ll be Bumgarner’s fourth straight for the Giants.

4. Noah Syndergaard, Mets vs. Julio Teheran, Braves  

Is there a better combination of stuff, age (24), and long-term control (won’t be eligible for free agency until after 2021) in baseball today than Syndergaard? I don’t think so. When you create a pitcher in a video game, you end up with Syndergaard. Look at this guy. How is he real?

Teheran isn’t too bad either, you know. He had actually had a lower WHIP than Syndergaard last season (1.05 vs 1.15). This will be Syndergaard’s first Opening Day start and Teheran’s fourth. Syndergaard is 24 and Teheran is 26. These two have many more Opening Day starts ahead of them.

5. Jose Quintana, White Sox vs. Justin Verlander, Tigers

A year or two ago it looked like all those 100 mph fastballs and 200-plus inning seasons were starting to catch up to Verlander, but he turned back the clock last season and managed to lead the league in strikeouts (254). He finished second in the Cy Young voting despite receiving the most first-place votes. This will be Verlander’s ninth Opening Day start. Quintana, meanwhile, will be starting his first season opener. For a while there it seemed like he would be traded before the start of the season, but nope, he remains with the ChiSox. Quintana is seventh among all pitchers in WAR since 2013. He really doesn’t get enough credit for being one of the game’s elite starters.

6. Chris Archer, Rays vs. Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees

For years the Rays were a team that could pitch but not hit, then last year they hit without pitching. Archer went from a 3.26 ERA in 535 1/3 total innings from 2013-15 to a 4.02 ERA in 201 1/3 innings in 2016, and there was no obvious reason for it. His strikeout (10.4 K/9) and walk (3.0 BB/9) rates were right where they usually are, and while his home run rate (1.3 HR/9) was up, everyone’s home run rate was up in 2016. I think Archer will go back to being the dominant pitcher he was from 2013-15 in 2017. Tanaka was quietly excellent last season and can opt out of his contract following this season, so this is a big year for him. Both Tanaka and Archer are starting their third straight Opening Days.

7. Rick Porcello, Red Sox vs. Gerrit Cole, Pirates

The Red Sox employ the great Chris Sale as well as David Price, owner of the richest pitching contract in history, yet it’s Porcello who gets the Opening Day nod. That’s what happens when you win the Cy Young award. (And Price goes down with an elbow injury and Sale is new in town.) Porcello took his game to another level last season by pitching upstairs with his fastball. He spent too many years pounding the bottom of the zone and settling for ground balls. Once he started elevating, the swings and misses came. Cole, meanwhile, is looking to bounce back after elbow woes limited him to 116 innings and a 3.88 ERA in 2016. This is the first career Opening Day start for both Porcello and Cole.

8. Felix Hernandez, Mariners vs. Dallas Keuchel, Astros

A year or two ago this probably would have been our top Opening Day pitching matchup. Felix has entered his decline phase though, and Keuchel was well short of Cy Young caliber last season before going down with a shoulder issue in August. I will be very happy to admit I am wrong if (when?) both come out and resume pitching like two of the best starters in baseball this season. For now, I’m going to hedge my bet. Big time name power here. I’m just not certain how dominant either pitcher will be going forward.

Also, I should note this is the only Opening Day pitching matchup this year that features two Cy Young winners. Keuchel won it in 2015 and Felix won it back in 2010.

9. Junior Guerra, Brewers vs. Jon Gray, Rockies

This is the baseball geek pitching matchup. Guerra and Gray were two of the best rookie pitchers in the National League last season, though their backgrounds are very different. Gray was drafted third overall in 2013 and he shot to the majors quickly as a top prospect. Guerra on the other hand was a 31-year-old rookie who finally reached the big leagues for good after spending a decade toiling in the minors and independent leagues. Pretty neat. It’s cool Guerra has been rewarded for last year’s success -- he had a 2.81 ERA with 100 strikeouts in 20 starts and 121 2/3 innings -- with an Opening Day start. Both he and Gray are starting their first career season openers. 

10. Ervin Santana, Twins vs. Danny Duffy, Royals

The Twins were absolutely terrible last season -- they went 59-103 and no other team lost more than 94 games -- even though Santana managed to throw 181 1/3 innings with a 3.38 ERA. And yet somehow Minnesota had a worse winning percentage in games started by Big Erv (.267) than in games started by anyone else (.386). Go figure. Duffy started last season in the bullpen but really broke out once he transitioned back into the rotation. Improvements in his command and pitch efficiency suggest the breakout is real too. This is a sneaky good pitching matchup. Santana is started his second straight Opening Day. This is No. 1 for Duffy.

11. Kevin Gausman, Orioles vs. Marco Estrada, Blue Jays

The Blue Jays could have legitimately selected any one of their five starters for Opening Day and no one would have thought it was weird. It’s Estrada who gets the nod over Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, and Francisco Liriano. He’s really found a home in Toronto as a changeup/pop-up specialist. The Orioles haven’t had much luck developing pitching prospects since the days of Mike Mussina, but Gausman is finally starting to break through and establish himself as one of the game’s top young starters. This is the first career Opening Day start for both these guys.

12. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals vs. Edinson Volquez, Marlins

Here’s a fun (weird?) fact: This will be Volquez’s fifth Opening Day start. Who knew? Only eight active pitchers have more. Wild. Strasburg is getting the Opening Day nod because Max Scherzer’s finger is still giving him trouble, and the Nationals don’t want to push it. Understandable. Strasburg is making his fourth career Opening Day start. You’ll be hard-pressed to find another pitcher with career numbers as good as his (3.07 ERA; 1.09 WHIP; 1,084 strikeouts; 924 1/3 innings; 17.3 WAR) who many folks consider overrated. 

13. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers vs. Jhoulys Chacin, Padres

I could have very easily -- and nearly did -- rank this pitching matchup higher simply because Kershaw is that damn good. The guy had a bad back last year and still managed a 1.69 ERA with 172 strikeouts and 11 walks (!!!) in 149 innings. Kershaw will be in the inner circle of the inner circle of the Hall of Fame when it’s all said done. Chacin ... will not. The journeyman sinkerball is getting the Opening Day nod for San Diego after throwing 144 innings with a 4.81 ERA as a swingman for the Braves and Angels last year. Yeah. Kershaw is still much worth the price of admission though.

14. Kendall Graveman, Athletics vs. Ricky NolascoAngels

Hey, look, one of the guys the A’s got in the Josh Donaldson trade turned into an ace who is starting Opening Day! That’s one way to look at it, I suppose. Graveman is a perfectly cromulent starter who threw 186 innings with a 4.11 ERA last season. An ace he is not though. By the way, this is the second straight year Sonny Gray is missing Opening Day due to an injury. Not a great trend, that is. The fact the Angels were literally the last team in baseball to announce their Opening Day starter tells you all you need to know about the state of their rotation.

15. Scott Feldman, Reds vs. Jeremy Hellickson, Phillies

There are hundreds, literally thousands of pitchers out there who would do anything to have Feldman’s or Hellickson’s career. Both have had success in the big leagues and long careers. That said, it’s easy to understand why this our bottom ranked Opening Day pitching matchup, right? Right. Something tells me not too many folks other than Reds and Phillies fans will be running to the television to watch these two go at it.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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