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April 7, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Monday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Phillies (2-4) at Reds (4-2), 12:35 ET
Probable Starters: Cole Hamels (3.53 RA, 5.2 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. Bronson Arroyo (4.66, 4.2)
PECOTA Projection: Philadelphia, 85-76 (tied for 2nd, NL East); Cincinnati, 80-82 (3rd, NL Central)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #13; Cincinnati, #16
Prospectus: Monday's early game at the Great American Ballpark features a pitcher's duel between Hamels, who tossed eight innings of one-run ball in a 1-0 loss to Washington last Wednesday, and Arroyo, who took a no-decision that same day against Arizona in a game Cincinnati won 6-5. Arroyo and the Reds will be looking to take three of four from Philadelphia. Yesterday, Cincinnati beat up Brett Myers and reliever Clay Condrey in an 8-2 victory, keyed by three hits (including a double and a home run) from shortstop Jeff Keppinger.

The game raised Keppinger's early-season line to .435/.480/.826 in 25 PA, as the 28-year-old continued his strong play from last season, when he hit .332/.400/.477 in 276 PA with the Reds. Cincinnati is Keppinger's fourth organization--he was drafted by Pittsburgh in 2001, traded in 2004 with Kris Benson to the Mets for Jose Bautista and Ty Wigginton, dealt again by the Mets in 2006 to the Royals for Ruben Gotay, and once more last January to the Reds for a minor leaguer. From the way he's hit so far, it appears that Keppinger might be able to unpack his suitcase and settle in for a while. It will be interesting to see how Dusty Baker proportions the playing time once Gonzalez returns from injury; between Keppinger/Gonzalez at short and rookie Joey Votto/veteran Scott Hatteberg at first base, Baker has two big playing time decisions in the infield, and how many plate appearances he allows Keppinger and Votto to collect could determine whether the Reds score enough runs to challenge the Cubs and Brewers for the NL Central title.

Matchup: Twins (3-3) at White Sox (3-2), 3:05 CT
Probable Starters: Nick Blackburn (3.40 eqERA, 25.9 VORP at Triple-A in 2007) vs. Javier Vazquez (3.95 RA, 5.2 SNLVAR)
PECOTA Projection: Minnesota, 74-88 (4th, AL Central); Chicago, 77-85 (3rd)
Hit List Rankings: Minnesota, #25; Chicago, #20
Prospectus: Fresh off a sweep of the reeling Tigers, Chicago welcomes in the Twins to U.S. Cellular Field for a three-game set. White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen will no doubt be glad to see that the "Little Piranhas" that so irritated him two years ago have for the most part disappeared. Jason Bartlett was packaged in the off-season trade that brought in right fielder Delmon Young, Jason Tyner was non-tendered and signed with the Indians, and Luis Castillo was traded to the Mets at the deadline last year. That just leaves Nick Punto, but Minnesota is grooming another piranha in center fielder Carlos Gomez, who has started the year 10-for-28 (.357) at the plate and 4-for-4 on the basepaths. Gomez, the centerpiece of the Johan Santana trade, has the potential to be an excellent leadoff hitter in the future, but his 8/1 K/BB ratio suggests that he probably won't reach that potential this season. Together with Young, who has yet to walk this season in 27 PA, and who walked just 26 times last season in 681 PA, Minnesota has two of the most talented yet undisciplined players in the game.

Another of the Twins' rookies in addition to Gomez is the 26-year-old right-hander Blackburn, who pitched well in his first start of the season (7 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 6/1 K/BB) but took a 1-0 loss against Anaheim. Blackburn and his cohorts on the Twins staff are likely to experience quite a few of those tough-luck losses, for Minnesota's offense is projected by PECOTA to score 712 runs, the second fewest in the American League. Blackburn is holding a rotation slot warm for the rehabbing Francisco Liriano, and has middling stuff--he struck out just 4.5/9 IP in 148 2/3 innings between Double- and Triple-A last season, and 5.5 the season before at Double-A. He survives by virtue of his impeccable control, which last year produced a UBB/9 rate of 1.2 in the minor leagues.

Matchup: Cardinals (5-1) at Astros (2-4), 6:05 CT
Probable Starters: Todd Wellemeyer (4.38 RA, 1.2 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. Wandy Rodriguez (5.03, 4.0)
PECOTA Projection: St. Louis, 75-87 (4th, NL Central); Houston, 72-90 (5th)
Hit List Rankings: St. Louis, #22; Houston, #28
Prospectus: The Cardinals have jumped out to a 5-1 start thanks to fantastic performances from their starting pitchers, as well as a favorable schedule (six straight home games). After seven shutout innings from newly-imported right-hander Kyle Lohse, Cardinals starters have thrown 37 2/3 innings in the first six games while allowing just four runs, or a 0.96 RA. This is arguably the biggest surprise in baseball thus far, considering that the Cardinals' starters were expected to be one of the team's weaknesses. After Adam Wainwright, the rotation consists of three converted relievers (Braden Looper, Todd Wellemeyer, and Brad Thompson) who had 59 career starts between them entering the season, and who all had ERAs above 4.50 last year, plus Lohse, who has a 4.80 career ERA in nearly 1200 innings. Long-term injuries to Mark Mulder and Chris Carpenter, as well as a shorter-term setback to Joel Pineiro, forced the Cardinals to slap together this five-man unit.

Wellemeyer went five innings and gave up one run in last Wednesday's 8-3 win over Colorado. The right-hander began last season (his fifth in the majors) with 103 career relief appearances in the bigs and no starts. He made 21 more relief appearances, which were generally ugly, but also made 11 spot starts, in which he was much more effective. Wellemeyer threw 49 1/3 innings in those starts, and average of just over four frames per outing, but he kept the Cardinals in the game with a 4.74 RA.

The other storyline from St. Louis's big start has been the hitting of center fielder Rick Ankiel. With his third home run and second double of the season in yesterday's 3-0 defeat of Washington, Ankiel is hitting .348/.400/.826 in 25 PA. Ankiel's conversion to full-time outfielder after his well-publicized failure to regain his command on the mound has gone about as well as could be expected, as he's off to a good start towards the 30-homer season that PECOTA projects for him. Ankiel's power is unquestioned, but what remains to be seen is whether he can draw enough walks to be a true middle-of-the-order hitter, as last year he walked just 13 times in 190 PA.

Matchup: Dodgers (4-2) at Diamondbacks (4-2), 6:40 MT
Probable Starters: Esteban Loaiza (5.79 RA, 0.9 VORP in 2007) vs. Dan Haren (3.68, 6.3 SNLVAR)
PECOTA Projection: Los Angeles, 87-75 (tied for 1st, NL West); Arizona, 87-75 (tied for 1st)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #9; Arizona, #11
Prospectus: The Dodgers and Diamondbacks are the two teams expected by PECOTA and by the BP staff to battle for first place this season in the NL West, and they meet tonight for the first of 18 times in Arizona's home opener at Chase Field. Both teams are projected to reach 87 wins; for the Dodgers, that number is predicated in part upon Matt Kemp getting 472 plate appearances while Juan Pierre gets only 319. Kemp has gotten off to a slow start, with just two singles in his first 15 PA, and manager Joe Torre has sat him down the past two games in favor of Pierre. This is a troubling development for the Dodgers offense; if Torre loses faith in Kemp and begins giving Pierre the bulk of the playing time, the Dodgers will not perform up to their offensive potential, and will be at a disadvantage in a race where just a couple of runs over the course of the season could be the difference between a division title and missing the playoffs. Pierre might well play himself back onto the bench--he has one single in 11 PA, and has been caught on his only steal attempt--but in the meantime, the Dodgers are in danger of leaving potentially their best hitter on the bench; PECOTA projects Kemp to lead all Dodgers this season with a .509 SLG.

While the Dodgers have yet to fully embrace their youth movement, the D'backs are fully invested in theirs, and the team's offense is flourishing because of it. Arizona leads the majors thus far with 12 home runs, having gotten three each from 20-year-old right fielder Justin Upton and 24-year-old center fielder Chris Young, as well as two apiece from 24-year-old third baseman Mark Reynolds and 25-year-old shortstop Stephen Drew. No doubt Arizona's early slugging has been significantly aided by the team playing its six games in homer-happy Great American Ballpark and Coors Field, but the power surge from the youngsters is still encouraging, especially for Drew; last season, he struggled early on and did not hit his second homer of the season until June 1. Arizona is not going to outstrip its Pythagorean record as it did last year--the Diamondbacks won 90 games in 2007 despite being outscored on the season, 11 wins better than expected--so the team needs its young offensive core to improve across the board in order to fend off the Dodgers.

Matchup: Indians (3-3) at Angels (4-3), 7:05 PT
Probable Starters: Fausto Carmona (3.27 RA, 6.8 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. Joe Saunders (4.70, 1.7)
PECOTA Projection: Cleveland, 91-71 (tied for 1st, AL Central); Anaheim, 85-77 (1st, NL West)
Hit List Rankings: Cleveland, #3; Anaheim, #6
Prospectus: Fausto Carmona threw seven innings of one-run ball to beat Chicago his first time out, and makes his first career start against Anaheim tonight. Despite taking the ball 32 times last year and his team playing the Angels nine times, Carmona managed to miss them. He did appear three times in relief against the Halos in 2006, throwing 5 2/3 shutout innings. The Angels are fortunate that they missed facing Carmona in 2007, because he overpowered the rest of the American League with what's arguably the best sinker in baseball, finishing first in the junior circuit in ground-ball percentage (64.8). He also got stronger as the year wore on--in the first half, he put up a 3.85 ERA and 1.35 WHIP in 107 2/3 innings, and after the break was downright filthy, with a 2.26 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and .217 BAA, as well as a spike in his strikeout rate to boot. The old adage about sinkerballers--that they become more effective with more work, as a tired arm causes the ball to drop more--may help explain part of Carmona's second-half success. What could have also been part of it is the switch at second base from Josh Barfield to Asdrubal Cabrera, who manned the keystone from August 8 onward. Infield defense is of course crucial to Carmona, and Cabrera was a much better defender last season than Barfield. With the rest of the infield returning intact, getting a full season out of Cabrera could significantly improve Cleveland's defense over last year, when the Indians ranked 16th in the majors in defensive efficiency (converting balls in play into outs), and give a boost to Carmona and fellow sinkerballer Jake Westbrook.

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

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