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March 31, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Opening Day's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Today's Full Slate of Games, at MLB.com

Matchup: Blue Jays at Yankees, 1:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Roy Halladay (4.03 RA, 50.6 VORP in 2007) vs. Chien-Ming Wang (3.79, 48.5)
PECOTA Projections: Toronto, 78-84 (4th in the AL East); New York, 97-65 (1st)
Hit List Rankings: Toronto, #21; New York, #1
Prospectus: So begins the final season at Yankee Stadium, as the Bombers and the Blue Jays will kick off the 2008 season under the shadow of the New Yankee Stadium, being constructed right next door in the Bronx. The old Stadium is likely going to be demolished following the year, but it will get a pretty nice send-off as the site of this summer's All-Star Game, and more than likely a few playoff games, as well. The Yankees will see their quest to give the old stomping grounds a proper October sendoff get underway with two premier sinkerballers on the mound, their own Wang going up against Toronto's Halladay. Thanks to their groundball-inducing stuff and penchant to pitch to contact, both Wang and Halladay are among the best in the business at pitch efficiency--Halladay needed 14.8 offerings per inning last season, and Wang just 14.4. That means that this game could clock in at something considerably less than the 7 1/2 hours that a typical Yankees game clocks in at, and should provide plenty of work for the infield defenses of both teams.

That will be more to Halladay's advantage than to Wang's. Toronto had the best defensive efficiency in the major leagues last year, converting 71.4 percent of balls put in play into outs, while New York ranked 14th, at 69.6 percent. A look at Toronto's infield reveals why the team was so strong--last season the Jays were 44 runs above average between first, second, third, and shortstop. Most of the four-plus bump in wins over the average infield was due to the play of defensive maestro John McDonald, who put up a +14 at shortstop. McDonald's below-replacement-level stick has led to his being replaced by David Eckstein at short, worsening the defense.

In contrast, the Yankees did not support Wang quite as well as Toronto supported Halladay last year, as their infield compiled 19 fielding runs above average. The Bombers only reached that high because of the +24 of second baseman Robinson Cano, a case where the defensive metrics do not match the overall perception of a player's defense.

Matchup: Brewers at Cubs, 1:20 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Ben Sheets (3.95 RA, 31.4 VORP in 2007) vs. Carlos Zambrano (4.16, 43.5)
PECOTA Projection: Milwaukee, 88-74 (2nd in the NL Central); Chicago, 91-71 (1st)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #8; Chicago, #4
Prospectus: Ben Sheets has generally been healthy enough to make his start on Opening Day. He did so last year, pitching a complete-game two-hitter against the Dodgers in a 7-1 win. He also did so in 2005 (picking up a win over the Pirates), in 2004 when he didn't fare as well in a game the Brewers ended up winning, in 2003 when he went five innings for a no-decision in a Milwaukee loss, and in 2002's victory over the Astros.

It's the middle and end of the season, however, that has proven difficult for Sheets to get to. After three consecutive years in which he made 34 starts from 2002-2004, Sheets has averaged just 21 starts over the last three seasons due to a variety of physical troubles. The results have generally still been there when he has been healthy enough to clamber atop the hill, despite a drop in strikeout rate last season (from 9.4 per nine from 2004-06 to 6.8) and up-tick in walks (1.2 per nine from 2004-06 to 2.4). Hope still lingers that the Brew Crew's top gun can replicate his 2004 dominance. If he does so--or even if he just stays healthy enough to make more than 30 starts--Milwaukee will have an outstanding shot at outstripping its projection and overcoming the Cubs for the NL Central title.

This game, therefore, is the first of a season-long duel between the two teams that will help settle who wears the division crown at the end of the year. The Brewers have never won the NL Central since moving to the senior circuit in 1998, and the team's last playoff appearance came in 1982, when Harvey's Wallbangers won the AL East, then earned the Brewers' only pennant, only to lose in seven games to the Cardinals in the World Series. The Cubs, of course, have a world title drought that stretches back well beyond the Brewers' existence, with the franchise "celebrating" the 100th anniversary of its last Series title this season.

Matchup: Nationals at Phillies, 3:05 p.m. ET.
Probable Starters: Matt Chico (5.17 RA, 11.1 VORP in 2007) vs. Brett Myers (4.33, 12.2)
PECOTA Projections: Washington, 73-89 (4th in the NL East); Philadelphia, 86-76 (tied for 2nd)
Hit List Rankings: Washington, #24; Philadelphia, #13
Prospectus: The Nationals opened up their new ballpark on the Anacostia in just about the most auspicious way possible last night, with a walk-off home run by Ryan Zimmerman to beat the Braves, 3-2. Zimmerman is quickly becoming a walk-off machine; the homer off of Peter Moylan was his eighth such hit in his brief major league career, including the fourth game-ending home run.

Zimmerman and company now head to Philadelphia to meet the defending National League East champions in their home opener. All you really need to know about the Nationals' chances this season at a division crown can be divined by a glance at last night's and today's starting pitchers: Odalis Perez, who washed out of Kansas City last year, pitched last night (albeit very well), and Matt Chico has been tabbed as the #2 man in the rotation. That's the product of a spring in which former ace John Patterson failed to overcome his chronic injury woes, garnering his release, while Shawn Hill landed on the DL (again) with a sore right forearm.

Chico's opponent will be Brett Myers, making this his second straight Opening Day start for the Phillies. Myers' follow-up to last year's fine first outing (when he allowed three runs and struck out nine in 7 2/3 innings against the Braves) was far from typical for a #1 starter. After that solid outing, Myers was tagged for 13 runs in 7 2/3 innings over his next two starts, and was then moved to the bullpen, eventually winding up in the closer's role. While the Phillies bullpen certainly needed the help, it is of course far easier to find solid relievers than top-notch starting pitchers, and Philadelphia consequently made the decision to move Myers back into the rotation this season. Myers' journey from starter to closer and back again of course calls to mind Braves' ace John Smoltz, who closed from 2001 to 2004, in large part to lessen his workload after missing all of 2000 to injury. Smoltz was fantastic in his first year back in the rotation in 2005, as he made 33 starts and struck out 169 against 53 walks in 229.2 innings of 3.06 ERA baseball. It remains to be seen whether Myers will put together a solid season of his own, but PECOTA is optimistic, projecting a 3.79 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, and 125/46 strikeout/walk ratio in 136 1/3 innings.

Matchup: Mets at Marlins, 4:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Johan Santana (3.62 RA, 57.7 VORP in 2007) vs. Mark Hendrickson (5.50, 5.1)
PECOTA Projections: New York, 93-69 (1st in the NL East); Florida, 71-91 (5th)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #2; Florida, #29
Prospectus: Has there ever been a bigger mismatch between Opening Day starters? The disparity between these two hurlers serves to highlight the very different fortunes of these two squads. Santana is hailed as the franchise savior, the best pitcher in baseball who was traded to the Mets in the coup of the offseason, signed the biggest contract in baseball history for a hurler, and now hopes to lead the Amazin's to a championship in the team's last year playing in Shea Stadium.

In contrast, Hendrickson is a journeyman left-hander with a 5.01 career ERA, who is best known for his height (6'9") and the fact that he is one of just 11 men to play in both the NBA and MLB. Hendrickson can now add another distinction to his ledger--that of Opening Day starter, as the notional frontman of a rotation that has been ripped apart by trades and injuries.

Hendrickson has a tall order in trying to win the opener for the Fish, as the Marlins seem to be a serious mismatch for Santana's abilities. With three players who struck out more than 100 times last season--first baseman Mike Jacobs, second baseman Dan Uggla, and left fielder Josh Willingham--the Fish could be flailing for much of the afternoon against Santana's assortment of changeups, sliders, and fastballs. In fact, when you add in the pitcher at the bottom of the lineup, it wouldn't be a shock to see Santana challenge his career-high of 17 strikeouts (set last season against Texas) at some point this season against the Marlins.

For now, the Mets would surely just be content to get a win out of their $137.5-$151 million man in his Mets debut, what with all the injuries that the aging team has suffered during spring training. Santana and the Mets might just be the happiest squad to take the field today, as New York's players can then officially turn the page on last September's infamous collapse that cost them the NL East title.

Matchup: Rangers at Mariners, 3:40 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Kevin Millwood (5.79 RA, 5.7 VORP in 2007) vs. Erik Bedard (3.26, 54.9)
PECOTA Projection: Texas, 73-89 (4th in the AL West); Seattle, 75-87 (3rd)
Hit List Rankings: Texas, #19; Seattle, #17
Prospectus: How much stock do you put in spring training stats? You probably shouldn't put much stock in them at all, especially when it comes to veteran pitchers, many of whom use the time to fiddle with alternate offerings or deliveries, or work on refining a certain part of their arsenal. Having said that, Mariners fans can be excused for their concern over the Cactus League performance of Erik Bedard, because the franchise has so much invested in the fragile left-hander. The 29-year-old finished spring training with an 8.63 ERA in 24 innings, with 35 hits allowed and a 10/8 strikout/walk ratio. There is likely nothing to worry about, and Bedard is set up to have an outstanding season moving from Camden Yards (and the deadly lineups of the AL East) to a better pitchers' ballpark in Safeco Field, where he will be going up against less formidable offenses on a regular basis.

Even if Bedard performs up to the most optimistic of expectations of Seattle's anxious fans, however, will it be enough for the Mariners to win the division? There is a wealth of evidence that suggests that Seattle's strong record last season was a transient feat--including the fact that the Mariners allowed more runs than they scored--and that the team's true talent level is closer to their 79-83 Pythagorean record. PECOTA goes even further than that for this season, seeing an aging, punchless group of hitters that will not put up enough runs to compete in the division, a projection that validates Joe Sheehan's argument against trading so many good young players for Bedard. With a lineup that includes six players who will be 31 or older this year, and no one who slugged .500 or better last season, Bedard might have to win a bunch of games with minimal run support in order to keep the Mariners in the hunt for a post-season berth.

Matchup: Angels at Twins, 6:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Jered Weaver (4.30 RA, 29.1 VORP in 2007) vs. Livan Hernandez (5.11, 20.4)
PECOTA Projection: Los Angeles, 85-77 (1st in the AL West); Minnesota, 74-88 (4th in the AL Central)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #6; Minnesota, #25
Prospectus: Speaking of the AL West--are the Angels as much of a lock to win the division for the second straight season as the general consensus seems to state that they are? PECOTA favors the Angels to take the crown over Oakland, but their projected cushion has been cut down to five games after several injuries to crucial members of the starting rotation. Kelvim Escobar is down for the year after tearing his rotator cuff, and John Lackey is gone for at least the first month with a strained right triceps. What's more, relief stalwart Scot Shields will also begin the year on the DL with right forearm tightness. Shields led the Angels in appearances out of the bullpen last season, as he did the previous two years as well, and the Escobar/Lackey combination threw 419 2/3 innings of 3.20 ERA ball in 2007.

In the absence of Lackey, who started Opening Day for Anaheim last year, Jered Weaver gets the nod. He goes up against the ageless Livan Hernandez, who signed for a year and $5 million to provide the Twins with a token veteran in what should otherwise be a very young rotation. The rest of the team's starters are the 26-year-olds Boof Bonser, Scott Baker, and Nick Blackburn, and the 24-year-old Kevin Slowey. Hernandez is not the best of this bunch; he's a good bet to finish with a worse season than all of them save Blackburn, who is filling in until Francisco Liriano makes his much-anticipated return from Tommy John surgery.

However, Livan certainly does have plenty of Opening Day experience. Today will mark Hernandez's eighth Opening Day start, and Minnesota will be the fourth team he has started the opening game for (fifth if you count the Expos and Nationals as two different teams). Livan was the top dog in 1998 with the Marlins, began the season from 2000-2002 for the Giants, and then from 2004-2006 with the Expos/Nationals. As a result, Hernandez has not gotten the nod on Opening Day just three times since his first full season in 1998: in 1999, when oft-injured Alex Fernandez started for the Marlins; in 2003, when oft-injured Tony Armas took the honors for Montreal; and last season, when reigning Cy Young winner Brandon Webb took the ball for the Snakes.

Matchup: Astros at Padres, 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Roy Oswalt (3.40 RA, 59.8 VORP in 2007) vs. Jake Peavy (2.70, 77)
PECOTA Projections: Houston, 72-90 (tied for 4th in the NL Central); San Diego, 78-84 (4th in the NL West)
Hit List Rankings: Houston, #28; San Diego, #18
Prospectus: Speaking of the Cy Young Award, this Opening Night game features the reigning NL winner (Peavy) going up against a pitcher who has finished in the top five of the voting five times, but has yet to win the award (Oswalt).

Oswalt's window for winning a Cy Young has probably closed--now 30 years old, he's moving towards the twilight of his career, a progression reflected in his declining strikeout rates. Oswalt struck out 9.2/9 innings in 2001, his rookie season, which has turned out to be his career high ratio. The 6'0" righty's K/9 declined in 2002 and 2003, and then after a small up-tick in 2004 has dropped every year since, settling in at 6.5 K/9 last season. Oswalt, however, did have the highest groundball/fly ball ratio in his career last season (1.7), and not surprisingly allowed just 0.6 home runs per nine, the lowest rate of his career. So, Oswalt may still have Cy Young-caliber stuff, but his chances are further diminished by the Astros sub-par offense and bad bullpen, which will likely prevent him from garnering the wins total necessary to get his name back into the mix.

Peavy is three years younger than Oswalt, and is coming off the best season of his career, a campaign that one could use to make a case that the righty deserved MVP honors in addition to his Cy Young hardware. Peavy will likely have to turn in a repeat performance for the Padres to return to prominence in the NL West this season--San Diego, like Houston, has a bad offense (even discounting the supressive effects of Petco Field).

Particularly egregious is the offensive output the team can expect to get from its outfielders. Jim Edmonds starts the season on the shelf, which means that Paul McAnulty and Jody Gerut are expected to share time in left field, Scott Hairston will man center, while Brian Giles will be in his familiar spot in right. The best bet out of that bunch to produce is Hairston, who hit eight homers and slugged .644 in 87 at-bats for the Padres last season, but has shown no ability to stay healthy throughout his career. McAnulty and Gerut are both projected to slug under .400 by PECOTA, while Giles just barely scrapes past that mark with a projection for a .404 DL. Coming from your two outfield corners, those rates are deadly for a team's offense.

Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

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