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April 5, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Saturday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Red Sox (3-1) at Blue Jays (1-2), 1:07 ET
Probable Starters: Clay Buchholz (2.38 RA, 0.7 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. Jesse Litsch (4.54, 3.0)
PECOTA Projection: Boston, 91-71 (2nd AL East); Toronto, 78-84 (4th)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #7; Toronto, #21
Prospectus: Yesterday the Blue Jays finalized a six-year, $64 million contract extension for outfielder Alex Rios, which will begin in 2009 and run through 2014. The contract is buying out Rios' last two years of arbitration eligibility and first four years of free agency. Did the Blue Jays get themselves a good deal? PECOTA can be used to evaluate how much a player is worth to a team going forward through the MORP calculation. Based upon his projected statistics and Rios' consequent probable worth on the free agent market, Rios has a MORP of $58.5 million from 2009-2014, which is just a bit below what the Jays will be paying him. When you consider that Rios is making $4.8 million this season, a year in which his projected production should be worth over $12 million on the open market, the Jays will be paying around $67 million from 2008-2014 for a projected $70.75 million worth of production.

The Blue Jays also signed their second baseman Aaron Hill to a four-year, $12 million extension, with three club options that could extend the deal to seven years and $38 million. Toronto is buying out all three of Hill's arbitration-eligible seasons, from 2009-2011, for under $12 million, and also giving itself the chance to buy out his first three years of free agency as well, for $26 million. By MORP, the production of Hill, who is an outstanding second baseman, is valued at $43 million over the next four years alone. Of course, Hill would not have earned nearly that much in his three arbitration years, but he might well have surpassed the $12 million mark, and that fact combined with Hill's potential value in the first two of the three option years ($16.475 million MORP from 2012-13 as compared to $8 million options for each season) make this deal a strong one.

The newly-inked Blue Jays will go up against Boston rookie right-hander Clay Buchholz, who threw a no-hitter in his second major league start last September.

Matchup: White Sox (2-2) at Tigers (0-4), 3:55 ET, FOX
Probable Starters: Gavin Floyd (5.79 RA, 0.9 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. Dontrelle Willis (5.74, 2.0)
PECOTA Projection: Chicago, 77-85 (3rd AL Central); Detroit, 91-71 (tied for 1st)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #20; Detroit, #5
Prospectus: The Tigers have been projected by many to win the Central this year, but have suffered four losses to start the season, and their vaunted offense has scored just 10 total runs. Is it time to panic yet for the Tigers? The obvious answer is 'no'; there have been plenty of teams that started off as bad or worse than Detroit has that went on to make the playoffs--just think back to last year, when the eventual NL East champion Phillies began 1-6 and then 4-11. The Cubs last season won just seven of their first 20 games, and had a losing record as late as June 30, before going on to win the NL Central. Colorado was below .500 on Independence Day, as were the Yankees.

Having said that, however, the Tigers would certainly like to get that first win out of the way, and are hoping that Dontrelle Willis can pick it up in his first start for Detroit. Willis is two years removed from a 2005 season in which he finished second in the Cy Young voting, when he threw 236 1/3 innings with a 2.63 ERA and racking up 22 wins. Last year, the D-Train ran off the rails, delivering a 5.17 ERA and 1.60 WHIP in 205 1/3 innings for the Fish. Still just 26 years old, Willis should see a significant improvement this season just through playing behind a much better defense. As outlined in Baseball Prospectus 2008, the brutal glovework of Hanley Ramirez at shortstop, Miguel Cabrera at third, and Josh Willingham in left field last year was a large part of the reason he gave up a career high 10.6 H/9. The Tigers have much better defenders in place than the Marlins, except at third base, where of course Cabrera will be behind Willis once more after the pair were packaged together in the offseason. Willis probably wouldn't mind seeing the Tigers take up Nate Silver on his modest proposal for Detroit, published in this year's Sports Illustrated baseball preview issue--that the Tigers move Cabrera to left field to replace Jacque Jones, and insert Inge, one of the best glove men in the game, at third base. The Tigers would gain a large amount on defense, assuming Cabrera could play a passable left field, while not losing any offense--Inge and Jones are essentially a wash at the plate--and also serve to keep Inge, miffed about losing his starting gig, from seeking a trade.

Matchup: Mets (2-1) at Braves (1-2), 3:55 ET, FOX
Probable Starters: John Maine (4.24 RA, 5.4 VORP in 2007) vs. Tim Hudson (3.49, 7.9)
PECOTA Projection: New York, 93-69 (1st, NL East); Atlanta, 86-76 (2nd)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #2; Atlanta, #10
Prospectus: In its early history, Turner Field was a house of horrors for the Mets. From 1998, a year after Atlanta's new park opened, to 2000, the Braves won 17 of 18 games against the Mets at home. The most hurtful of those losses for the Mets came at the end of 1998, when New York entered the final series of the season at Turner Field tied for the wild-card lead with the Cubs, and were then promptly swept away from a playoff berth by an Atlanta team that finished with 106 wins. Gone is the Braves dynasty that won 101 games or more five times between 1997 and 2003, however, and recently the Turner Field aura has been punctured by the Mets' bats. In 2006, New York gained its first-ever sweep of the Braves in Turner field, taking a midsummer three-game series that was highlighted by an 11-3 drubbing in which Carlos Beltran thumped two home runs and drove in five. The Mets won six of nine games in Atlanta in 2006, the first year they had a winning record at Turner Field, and then turned the trick again last season by taking five of nine. New York swept Atlanta in Turner for a second time late last summer, a three-game series which began on August 31 with John Maine beating Tim Hudson 8-1.

Maine and Hudson are the respective returning 2007 SNLVAR leaders of the Mets and Braves, and thus it is fitting that they usher in this now-classic NL East rivalry this season. While Hudson is certainly a prime candidate to lead Atlanta again in 2008, if Maine tops this year's Mets' list for a second straight season it will likely be bad news for New York, as it would probably signal that something had gone wrong with Johan Santana. Maine is still the second-most valuable commodity on the Mets staff behind Santana, however, which is quite remarkable considering that he was discarded as a trade throw-in by the pitching-thin Orioles two years ago. Any time Mets fans get too down watching Brian Bannister befuddle AL Central batters or Scott Kazmir blow away the AL East, they should remember the January 22, 2006 trade that sent Kris Benson to Baltimore for Maine and Jorge Julio. Maine gave up 34 runs in 43 2/3 innings with the O's before the deal, but has turned into an outstanding, young, inexpensive starter for New York.

Matchup: Dodgers (3-1) at Padres (3-2), 12:55 PT, FOX
Probable Starters: Brad Penny (3.25 RA, 7.3 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. Jake Peavy (2.70 RA, 8.3)
PECOTA Projection: Los Angeles, 87-75 (tied for 1st, NL West); San Diego, 78-84 (4th)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #9; San Diego, #18
Prospectus: This game promises to be an excellent Southern California pitchers' duel between Penny, the Dodgers' best pitcher in 2007, and Peavy, the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner. Penny was looking like he might beat out Peavy for Cy honors throughout much of the first half, and after a strong outing in his first start following the All-Star break had a 2.33 ERA and 10-3 record. Penny faded down the stretch, however, as he had in each of the previous two seasons. In 2006, Penny's first- and second-half split was even more pronounced than last year--he won 10 games before the break, the same as in 2007, to go along with a 2.91 ERA and 1.21 WHIP, but those averages surged up to a 6.25 ERA and 1.60 WHIP in 80 2/3 second-half innings, as he allowed batters to hit .317. In 2005 it was more of the same--3.43 ERA, 1.19 WHIP pre-break, 4.48 and 1.42 after. The Dodgers may want to consider giving Penny as much rest as possible in between starts, and perhaps skipping his turn here and there, in order to keep him strong down the stretch drive of what should be an extraordinarily tight NL West race this season.

The last time these two pitchers squared off was last June 30 at Dodger Stadium, in a game that proved to be a tremendous battle between the right-handers. Peavy and Penny both went seven innings while allowing five hits and only one run. The game went to the 12th inning, when San Diego got to Brett Tomko for a 3-1 win. While he fared well in that game against the Padres, Penny has strangely been uncomfortable pitching in the best hurler's haven in the game, Petco Park, as he enters tonight having allowed 10 walks and 14 runs in 19 innings at Petco. Peavy, on the other hand, is 9-1 in 18 career starts against Los Angeles, with a 2.30 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and .209 batting average against. Neither Penny nor Peavy allowed a run in their first start this season, and both earned the victory.

Matchup: Diamondbacks (2-2) at Rockies (1-3), 6:05 MT
Probable Starters: Brandon Webb (3.47 RA, 7.1 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. Jeff Francis (4.30, 5.4)
PECOTA Projection: Arizona, 87-75 (tied for 1st NL West); Colorado, 82-80 (3rd)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #11; Colorado, #15
Prospectus: Last year's NL West winner and NL wild-card team face off in a reprisal of the 2007 NLCS, in which the Rockies swept the Diamondbacks to advance to their first-ever World Series. Webb and Francis went at it in the opener of that series, with the Rockies scoring three in the third inning off of Webb to take a 5-1 victory. Webb and Francis also met in the last game of the regular season, which Webb and the Diamondbacks took 4-2 at Coors Field. Webb is certainly familiar with pitching in the altitude at Coors, as his 13 career starts there are more than he's had at any park besides Chase Field, his home venue. Webb is one of most extreme ground-ball pitchers in the major leagues--he was third amongst all pitchers who threw 100 or more innings last season with a ground-ball percentage of 63.6, and is projected by PECOTA to have the highest ground-ball percentage of all major league starters this season. You would therefore think that Webb would succeed better than most in the high altitude of Coors. That altitude, of course, reduces the movement of all pitches, including Webb's fantastic sinker, but Webb has put up a respectable 4.24 ERA in 80 2/3 Coors innings.

Francis came up in 2004, and actually has better numbers in his home park for his career than he does on the road--a 4.36 ERA and 1.40 WHIP in 303 1/3 innings at altitude versus 4.97 and 1.45 in 331 1/3 innings everywhere else. What's especially remarkable about that split is that he has given up homers at a lower rate at home (one per nine IP) than on the road (1.2).

The fuss over the Coors Field humidor may have made some think that the offensive advantage in Colorado has lessened the past several years, but Coors has still played as the best hitters' park in baseball in each of the past three seasons, per the park factors listed in Baseball Prospectus 2008. The second-best hitters' park in that span? Arizona's Chase Field. That makes the accomplishments of Webb even more impressive, considering that 56 percent of his career starts (92 of 164) and innings pitched (614 of 1095) have come in two of the most extreme offensive environments in baseball.

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

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