Winning 18 games now has roughly the same degree of difficulty as slamming 40 home runs, except with more value attached. Thirteen players hit at least 40 dingers last year, two more than won at least 18 games. Only six of those power hitters did so for a playoff team; all but one of the 18-game winners—Clemens, the American League Cy Young Award winner with the Blue Jays—pitched for a team that made the postseason.
Baseball legend credits Asa Brainard with being the George Washington of No. 1's. Brainard won 56 of the Cincinnati Red Stockings' 57 games in 1869, thereby reducing not just the pressure on, but the relevance of, the rest of the staff. According to baseball folklore, people later began calling great starting pitchers "ace" in honor of Asa, though The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary dates the first reference of the term to 1902, and the importance of the ace in many card games would seem a logical part of the etymology.
Ace. Stud. No. 1. The Big Guy. The Big Kahuna. The Big Unit. Whatever you call him, his importance is approaching an alltime high. "That's because expansion has diluted pitching in general, so these guys really stand out and become more valuable," says Los Angeles general manager Kevin Malone, who in the off-season put his money where his mouth was, making the winning seven-year, $105 million bid for free-agent Brown.
As recently as 1996 no starting pitcher ranked among the eight highest-paid players in the game. Maddux, who was ninth, was the only one among the top 11. Now four of them rank in the top eight: Brown (first, at $15 million a year), Johnson (third, $13.1 million), Martinez (sixth, $12.5 million) and Maddux (eighth, 11.5 million).
You won't find such frenzied shopping anywhere else this side of eBay.com. Four members of our Starting Nine have switched teams in the past 18 months. Martinez, who was traded from the Montreal Expos to Boston after the '97 season, and Brown, who spent last season with San Diego after helping the Florida Marlins win the 1997 World Series, immediately turned awful teams into playoff clubs with no other significant changes to their casts. This winter second-year franchise Arizona signed Johnson, a free-agent lefthander who split last season with the Mariners and the Houston Astros, in hopes of playing into October. The Yankees added Clemens in a trade to a 125-50 team.
No wonder Phillies general manager Ed Wade, whose team is the only noncontender in possession of a stud starter, is at the top of many general managers' speed-dial lists. In particular, the drooling over Schilling in the front offices of the Cardinals, the Anaheim Angels, the Cleveland Indians and the Texas Rangers is almost embarrassing to watch. "Oh, they will trade him," says one National League general manager.
"They'd be crazy not to trade him," says another. "They're not going to win with him, so they might as well not win without him and get some good players back to build with."
"He is the guy we want to build around," says Wade, who has told teams not to bother calling—although, he admits, that could change come July. Wade has even asked Schilling, who is in the second season of a three-year, $15.45 million contract with a no-trade clause, for approved destinations and to spell out in which cases he would request that his contract be renegotiated. Schilling's list tentatively includes Atlanta, Cleveland, Houston and St. Louis.
"If we get to July and we're not in position to add a $4 million player to our payroll, then I expect to be traded," Schilling says. "If we don't make a run, I'd rather go to a contender."
The Phillies say they need Schilling because they don't even have a bona fide No. 2 starter. (The designee, by default, is righthander Chad Ogea, who was not even a No. 5 in Cleveland last year.) Schilling's impact on the Phillies is so great that their chances of winning improve by 30% whenever he figures in a decision: He is 32-25 (.561) over the past two seasons, and Philadelphia is 111-156 (.432) in all other games in that span. Moreover, he is a throwback to the days when pitchers didn't punch out of games after six innings and boast, "I did my job"—you know, way back when, in the old days of 1988. Schilling threw the most pitches in baseball last year (4,213), went into the eighth inning more than anyone else (30 times in 35 starts), threw the most innings (268⅔) and completed the most games (15).