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April 3, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Thursday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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

Matchup: Diamondbacks (1-1) at Reds (1-1), 12:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Doug Davis (4.67 RA, 28.6 VORP in 2007) vs. Johnny Cueto (3.51, 16.9 in minors)
PECOTA Projection: Arizona, 87-75 (tied for 1st, NL West); Cincinnati, 80-82 (3rd, NL Central)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #11; Cubs, #16
Prospectus: Cueto makes his major league debut this afternoon at Great American Ballpark. The 22-year-old Cueto has been compared to a young Pedro Martinez. Like the Future Hall of Famer, the young Reds starter is a Dominican-born right-hander, and he can push his fastball into the mid to upper 90s, Martinez's hallmark back in his prime. Also like his countryman, Cueto is on the small side at 5'10", which has naturally led to questions about his durability. The list of sub-6'0" right-handed starters who have succeeded at the highest level is pretty short, and thus the odds are seen to be against pitchers such as Cueto and San Francisco's Tim Lincecum.

Sadly, PECOTA isn't buying the comparison, as Martinez is nowhere to be found amongst Cueto's top 20 historical comparables. Cueto could change that by continuing to pitch as he did last season. Starting 2007 in the High-A Florida State League, Cueto breezed through it on his way up to Double-A Chattanooga, and ended the year throwing four dominant starts for Triple-A Louisville, finishing his season with a 170/34 K/BB ratio and 11 homers allowed in 161 1/3 innings. With Cueto and the 24-year-old Edinson Volquez in the rotation behind workhorses Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo, and the 22-year-old Homer Bailey waiting in the wings down in Louisville, the Reds could potentially have one of the best quintets in the NL this season. If things come together for the team's young starters, Cincinnati would prove to be an intriguing dark horse in the NL Central.

Matchup: Royals (2-0) at Tigers (0-2), 1:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Zack Greinke (3.84 RA, 30.1 VORP in 2007) vs. Jeremy Bonderman (5.42, 10.1)
PECOTA Projection: Kansas City, 73-89 (5th, AL Central); Detroit, 91-71 (tied for 1st)
Hit List Rankings: Kansas City, #26; Detroit, #5
Prospectus: With the addition of Miguel Cabrera and Edgar Renteria to a lineup that ranked second in the American League with 887 runs scored last season, many expect Detroit to have one of the best offenses in recent memory this season. The Tigers, however, have yet to uncover their claws, as the squad has scored just four runs over 20 innings against the Royals in its first two games of the season. Yesterday, Detroit was shut out 4-0 by Brian Bannister and two relievers. The Tigers were not shut out until June 8 last season, and were blanked just three times on the year (once by KC).

To break into the win column, Detroit looks to Bonderman, the 24-year-old right-hander who is coming off a disappointing 2007 campaign, his worst since his rookie season of 2003. Brought up too soon to take his lumps as a 20-year-old on an 113-loss team, Bonderman increased his innings total and shaved down his ERA in each of the next three seasons, culminating in a 214 IP, 4.08 ERA, 202/64 K/BB season in 2006. The logical next step was for Bonderman to progress further into a Cy Young contender, but things went sour for him in the second half last year as a result of elbow inflammation--Bonderman had a 3.53 ERA after his start on July 19, but as his elbow began to hurt, he was pounded down the stretch to the tune of 52 runs in 54 2/3 innings. PECOTA forecasts a return to his 2006 level for Bonderman this season, as the system assigned him a 73 percent chance at improvement and a 44 percent chance at a breakout (defined as his EqERA improving by at least 20 percent over the previous three seasons' average).

Matchup: Rockies (1-1) at Cardinals (1-1), 12:15 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Ubaldo Jimenez (5.05 RA, 9.9 VORP in 2007) vs. Brad Thompson (5.29, 9.0)
PECOTA Projection: Colorado, 82-80 (3rd, NL West); St. Louis, 75-87 (4th, NL Central)
Hit List Rankings: Colorado, #15; St. Louis, #22
Prospectus: Cardinals outfielder Skip Schumaker was 0-for-4 with a walk last night, and is now 0-for-7 on the season, while teammate Ryan Ludwick picked up three hits, including a double and a triple, in yesterday's win over Colorado. Tony La Russa named Schumaker his starting right fielder prior to the season, but it would be a good thing for St. Louis' offense if Ludwick forced his skipper to put him into the lineup on a daily basis. Schumaker has very little power--28 home runs in 2873 at-bats between the minors and the majors--while Ludwick is an all-or-nothing slugger who strikes out a ton but also hits plenty of bombs (168 homers in 3417 career pro at-bats). PECOTA sees Schumaker as being just barely above replacement level this season in 340 plate appearances, while Ludwick is forecasted to knock 17 homers in 375 PA, with around the same OBP (.331 to Schumaker's .324) and a slugging percentage 100 points higher (.493 to .391). The defensive difference between the two players is a wash according to BP's FRAA metric, and it's not as if the 28-year-old Schumaker has more potential to break out than the 29-year-old Ludwick.

What might be swaying La Russa's hand is the potential platoon advantage to be gained from the fact that Schumaker hits left-handed and Ludwick right-handed. However, Ludwick has displayed a reverse split, meaning he has been better against righties in his major league career (805 OPS in 381 at-bats) than lefties (704 in 256). While the sample size is small, it doesn't look like Schumaker offers a tactical offensive advantage over Ludwick in any situation. St. Louis is projected to score 712 runs this season, the fewest in the NL Central, but that would be with Schumaker garnering 50 percent of the playing time in right field. Cutting down that mark might help the Cards squeeze the most out of their lineup.

Matchup: Brewers (2-0) at Cubs (0-2), 1:20 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Dave Bush (5.31 RA, 13.0 VORP in 2007) vs. Ryan Dempster (4.86, 8.2)
PECOTA Projection: Milwaukee, 88-74 (2nd, NL Central); Chicago, 91-71 (1st)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #8; Chicago, #4
Prospectus: The Brewers look for a sweep of the Cubs in the season's opening series this afternoon, which would certainly send a message to the team favored to beat Milwaukee to win the NL Central title. Standing between the Brewers and a three-game head start in the division race is Dempster, who will be beginning his attempt to convert back to the rotation from the bullpen, where he has been pitching since May of 2005. Dempster began his career as a starter, but had just one year of success in that role--2000, when he threw 226 1/3 innings for the Marlins, put up a 3.66 ERA, and struck out 209 batters. Dempster never was able to overcome his problems with control, however, and in 2001 his walk total surged to 112 in 211 1/3 innings, leading to a WHIP of 1.56 and a near-5.00 ERA. Control problems plagued Dempster for the next season and a half before he underwent Tommy John surgery, and, save for six starts to begin the 2005 season, he has been serving as the Cubs closer since returning from the injury.

Going from the bullpen to the rotation is problematic because the shift in roles necessarily occasions a worsening of performance. It;s much harder to pitch effectively over long stretches than it is in short bursts, a concept that makes intuitive sense. A study following the 2005 season by BP's Nate Silver and Keith Woolner revealed that when a pitcher moves from the rotation to the bullpen, his ERA decreases by 1.03 runs, his K/9 increases by 0.68, and his HR/9 decreases by 0.22 per nine. Dempster fit that pattern reasonably well--he had a 4.99 ERA, 7.4 K/9, and 1.1 HR/9 in 988 2/3 innings as a starter, figures which moved to to 4.11, 7.8, and 0.6 in 229 2/3 relief frames. Now, however, Dempster will reverse course to make the perilous swim back upstream.

Matchup: Pirates (1-1) at Braves (1-2), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Zach Duke (6.20 RA, -3.4 VORP in 2007) vs. Mike Hampton (Did Not Pitch)
PECOTA Projection: Atlanta, 86-76 (2nd, NL East); Pittsburgh, 72-90 (tied for 5th, NL Central)
Hit List Rankings: Atlanta, #10; Pittsburgh, #23
Prospectus: This rubber match in Atlanta is a battle of reclamation projects. Hampton is looking to resume his career after a debilitating run of injuries, while Duke hopes to reclaim the promise of an outstanding 2005 debut. Hampton will be climbing onto a mound in a major league game for the first time since August 19, 2005, and is coming back from Tommy John surgery after the 2005 season that cost him 2006, then a torn oblique muscle in March of 2007, and then, after experiencing more elbow pain, had to go under the knife again. Hampton considered retirement during the two years he's had to sit out, but ended up returning to the Braves to give his balky elbow one more go. The odds that Hampton will be able to pitch a full season are obviously extremely slim, as evidenced by his PECOTA forecast, which even in the best-case scenario of his 90th percentile projection has him throwing just 63 innings. That would work out to just over $238,000 per inning for Hampton, who is making $15 million this season in the last year of an eight-year, $121 million deal signed before the 2001 season. (The Braves paid him $28 million over the past two inactive seasons). Hampton's contract also included a $20 million club option for next season, which will cost $6 million to buy out.

Duke spent parts of last season on the DL as well, but his real Achilles Heel is an extremely low strikeout rate. Last season he struck out just 3.4 men per nine innings, a rate which at which it is nearly impossible to experience success.

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

Related Content:  The Who,  Prospectus,  Year Of The Injury

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