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April 10, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Thursday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Reds (5-4) at Brewers (6-2), 12:05 CT
Probable Starters: Aaron Harang (13 IP, 9 H, 5 R, 12/5 K/BB in 2008) vs. Carlos Villanueva (4.09 RA, 1.8 SNLVAR in 2007)
PECOTA Projection: Cincinnati, 80-82 (3rd NL Central); Milwaukee, 88-74 (2nd NL Central)
Hit List Rankings: Cincinnati, #16; Milwaukee, #8
Prospectus: Reds ace Aaron Harang makes his third start of the season today in the series finale against the Brewers, as the Reds try to take two of three in Milwaukee after yesterday's 12-4 win in the second game of the series. Harang has become one of the premier workhorses in the majors, having thrown 677 2/3 innings over the past three seasons. He is the rare gem that Billy Beane let get away--the A's traded him to the Reds at the deadline in 2003 for Jose Guillen, who hit poorly down the stretch and then bolted after the season to the Angels. Another interesting thing to note about Harang is that the most similar pitcher to him, by Bill James' similarity score, is his partner at the top of the rotation, Bronson Arroyo, who has thrown 656 2/3 innings over the past three seasons. Harang has been remarkably consistent since stepping to the fore of the Cincinnati rotation, with ERAs of 3.83, 3.76 and 3.73 from 2005-2007. If he can post a similar figure this year as a 30-year-old, Harang will anchor what has a chance to be an excellent rotation. Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez, the team's young No. 4 and 5 starters, have both been very impressive in their first Cincinnati appearances (Cueto especially so, with an 18/0 K/BB ratio in two starts). Homer Bailey, the third member of Cincinnati's promising 24-and-under trio, has allowed just one run in 12 2/3 innings over his first two starts for Triple-A Louisville. If Bailey continues to pitch well, he will likely come up soon to take the rotation spot of Josh Fogg, who got the win yesterday. That would give the Reds a 3-4-5 in the rotation, behind Harang and Arroyo, that has more breakout potential than the back-end starters of any other team in baseball.

For the Brewers, what's especially frightening about the quintet that could potentially be together by midseason in the Queen City is that all of them are right-handers. As Joe Sheehan recently discussed, and as was also outlined in this space on Tuesday, Milwaukee is murderous against left-handers but susceptible to righties because of their heavily right-handed lineup. Arroyo beat the Brewers twice last season, going more than seven innings and allowing three runs in each game, and Harang also had a strong season against Milwaukee, with a 3.42 RA and 1.06 WHIP in three starts versus the Brewers. Last July 23 at home, Harang pitched 10 innings and gave up just one run on seven hits to Milwaukee, striking out 10 while walking none in a game the Reds eventually won 2-1 in 12. If Cincinnati ends up battling Milwaukee for the NL Central title or a wild-card berth, the Reds' right-handed starting staff could give them an important edge in their head-to-head matchups with the Brewers.

Matchup: Braves (3-6) at Rockies (4-5), 1:05 MT
Probable Starters: Tim Hudson (13 IP, 9 H, 5 R, 7/0 K/BB in 2008) vs. Jeff Francis (4.30 RA, 5.4 SNLVAR in 2007)
PECOTA Projection: Atlanta, 86-76 (tied for 2nd NL East); Colorado, 82-80 (3rd NL West)
Hit List Rankings: Atlanta, #10; Colorado, #15
Prospectus: After two low-scoring one-run games at Coors Field, both won by the Rockies, Colorado broke out last night in a 12-6 win over Atlanta, and today will look for the four-game home sweep of the Braves. Even with that outburst, the Rockies have scored the second-fewest runs in the NL thus far (28), more than only San Francisco. The series finale features an excellent pitching matchup between Tim Hudson, off to a strong start this season for the Braves, and Rockies ace Jeff Francis, who gave up five runs on 12 hits in a loss to Arizona in his second outing of the season. Last year was Hudson's finest of his three in Atlanta, as he put up a 3.49 RA in 224 1/3 innings. The owner of one of the best sinkers in the game, Hudson allowed just 10 home runs in 2007, becoming the first pitcher to throw more than 220 innings in a season and allow 10 homers or fewer since Roy Halladay, another sinkerball pitcher, threw 239 1/3 innings with 10 homers allowed in 2002. Hudson's 0.40 HR/9 IP from last year was the second-best such mark of his career--he gave up eight homers in 188 2/3 innings with Oakland in 2004, 0.38 HR/9--and he also posted his best groundball/flyball ratio, 2.76. You might think Hudson's groundball-inducing, homer-depressing stuff would lead to success for him at Coors Field, but in two starts there--one during the 2005 season, one in 2006--he has given up 13 runs on 19 hits in nine innings.

Another pitcher on the Braves staff with extreme groundball tendencies is reliever Peter Moylan, who threw 90 innings last season with a groundball percentage of 64, just slightly better than Tim Hudson's 63. Before 2006, when he was signed by the Braves following a strong showing for his native Australia in the World Baseball Classic, Moylan spent nine years away from professional baseball, having last pitched in the Twins' minor league system in 1997. All of a sudden, however, the 29-year-old right-hander finds himself at the center of the Atlanta bullpen, due to closer Rafael Soriano going on the disabled list yesterday. The Braves relief core has been shaky thus far, having allowed 24 runs in 33 innings, which is the main reason why Atlanta has started off 3-6 despite ranking second in the NL with 50 runs. The Braves have already lost five one-run games on the young season, and performance in one-run games is sometimes indicative of how strong a teams' bullpen is. In three of those five losses the bullpen blew the save, and in one other it gave up the winning run in a tie game (on opening night in Washington, when Ryan Zimmerman homered off Moylan).

Matchup: Phillies (4-5) at Mets (3-4), 7:10 ET
Probable Starters: Adam Eaton (6.51 RA, 0.7 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. John Maine (4.24, 5.4)
PECOTA Projection: Philadelphia, 85-76 (tied for 2nd, NL East); New York, 93-69 (1st)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #13; New York, #2
Prospectus: Last night at Shea, the Mets snapped a nine-game losing streak against Philadelphia, beating the defending NL East champions 8-2. New York took advantage of two third-inning errors by Philadelphia shortstop Eric Bruntlett to score six unearned runs, and cruised the rest of the way, as Mike Pelfrey turned in a usable start (five innings, two runs) to earn the victory in his first outing of the season. Bruntlett started in place of 2007 NL MVP Jimmy Rollins, who sprained his ankle in Tuesday's win over the Mets. Rollins played in all 162 games last year, setting records for both at-bats (716) and plate appearances (778) in a single season. Rollins also played all but 17 of Philadelphia's 1458 total innings at shortstop in 2007, with since-departed utilityman Abraham Nunez collecting the tiny remainder.

The Mets have not hit for much power to begin the year, with just three home runs in their first seven games. One of those homers belongs to Carlos Delgado, who went deep off Jamie Moyer on Tuesday and has gotten out to a .357/.419/.536 start through his first 31 plate appearances. Delgado is the Mets hitter perhaps most in need of a fast start, as last year he began the season terribly, finishing April with just one homer and a 522 OPS. It was not until a two-hit performance on July 1, in fact, that Delgado got his OPS above 700 for good. Last year was Delgado's worst full season in the major leagues, as he was beset by a number of physical ailments on the road to settig career lows in home runs (24), batting average (.258), OBP (.333) and SLG (.448). PECOTA does not predict much of a bounceback for the 36-year-old Delgado, with a weighted mean forecast of .265/.343/.471 with 21 home runs in 491 PA, and a collapse rate of 46 percent, as compared to a breakout rate of just five percent. Mets fans should be terrified to see a former Amazin' at the No. 2 spot on Delgado's list of top comparables--Mo Vaughn, who like Delgado was a leaden-gloved first baseman with classic "old-player skills" who was beset by injuries late in his career.

Matchup: Orioles (6-1) at Rangers (3-4), 4:05 CT and 7:05 CT
Probable Starters: Steve Trachsel (4.67 RA, 3.0 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. Kevin Millwood (14 IP, 16 H, 4 R, 9/4 K/BB in 2008) in Game 1; Adam Loewen (4.15 RA, 1.1 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. Kason Gabbard (4.65, 1.5) in Game 2
PECOTA Projection: Baltimore, 66-96 (5th AL East); Texas, 73-89 (4th AL West)
Hit List Rankings: Baltimore, #30; Texas, #19
Prospectus: The Orioles are perhaps the greatest surprise of the young season, as they stand at 6-1 and in first place by 2 1/2 games in the AL East. This season is shaping up like the beginning of the 2005 campaign, when Baltimore ran out to a 17-7 start. The Orioles continued to play well throughout the first two-and-a-half months of that season, and maintained first place in the AL East up until the end of June, when a six-game losing streak loosened their surprising hold on the top of the division. The Orioles were then officially knocked out of the race by a stretch from late July to early August in which they lost 14 of 15 games. From July until the end of the season, the O's went 31-53, and finished the year in fourth place, 21 games behind the Yankees and Red Sox.

Suffice to say, it's a long season. Despite their good start, it will be difficult for Baltimore to keep from finishing last in the AL East for the first time in the wild-card era. After a rainout last night, the O's will look to extend their strong opening in a doubleheader with the Rangers at the Ballpark in Arlington. Sound familiar? Remember back to last August 22, when these same two teams also played a doubleheader in Baltimore's Camden Yards. The Rangers scored 30 runs in the opener, becoming the first team to score 30 in 110 years, then scored nine more runs in the nightcap to earn the sweep. That first crushing loss for Baltimore came the same day the team announced that manager Dave Trembley would return for 2008. Entering that fateful day, the O's were just seven games under .500, but the doubleheader sweep produced the first two of nine consecutive losses, and the beginning of an 11-28 stretch to close the season. The 30-3 loss was absorbed by three Baltimore relievers--Brian Burres, who gave up eight runs in 2/3 of an inning, Rob Bell, who was tagged for seven in 1 1/3 IP, and Paul Shuey, who closed out the game with nine runs allowed in two frames. All in all, the Baltimore bullpen, which was expected to be the team's major strength in 2007 after the team handed out big contracts to relievers Danys Baez, Chad Bradford and Jamie Walker in the offseason, finished second-to-last in the majors in WXRL, with a -0.11 mark, meaning that Orioles relievers as a group were actually worse than replacement level.

Surprisingly, this season it is the bullpen that has been driving the team's success. Baltimore relievers have allowed just two runs in 24 1/3 innings (0.74 RA) on 11 hits, to go with a 19/5 K/BB ratio. Gone are the three pitchers who were beat up in the 30-run game (Burres to the O's rotation, Bell to the minors and Shuey to retirement). The O's have two of the three high-priced middle relievers they brought in before last season in Walker and Bradford (Baez is out for the season after Tommy John surgery), but none of the other five relievers in the Baltimore pen pitched for the Birds last season. Closer George Sherrill came over in the Erik Bedard trade from Seattle, and has converted all four of his save chances thus far. Matt Albers and Dennis Sarfate arrived from Houston in the Miguel Tejada deal; Albers has tossed 6 1/3 shutout innings with a 7/0 K/BB ratio in the first week, and Sarfate hasn't give up a hit in 3 1/3 frames. Randor Bierd was a Rule 5 pick from Detroit last December who has stuck with the Orioles. An extreme groundball pitcher, Bierd tossed 67 2/3 innings between Class A and Double-A for Detroit last season, with an 81/16 K/BB and just two home runs allowed. Greg Aquino, claimed off waivers from the Brewers last December, has given up the only two runs that the Orioles pen has allowed so far.

Matchup: Cardinals (7-2) at Giants (3-6), 7:15 PT
Probable Starters: Adam Wainwright (4.14 RA, 5.9 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. Kevin Correia (3.54, 1.9)
PECOTA Projection: St. Louis, 75-87 (4th NL Central); San Francisco, 68-94 (5th NL West)
Hit List Rankings: St. Louis, #22; San Francisco, #27
Prospectus: Break up the Cardinals! St. Louis has been the National League version of their avian relatives in Baltimore, getting off to a surprising 7-2 start that has them currently a half-game ahead of the Brewers for first place in the NL Central. As discussed Monday in this space, the starting rotation, thought to be a team weakness entering the season, has carried the Cards in the early going. The team has gotten a 1.99 RA from its starters through the first nine games. St. Louis finally had its stretch of strong starts to open the season snapped on Tuesday when Brad Thompson got through just four innings and allowed three runs, the first time a Cards starter failed to go five, but the team won anyway thanks to an excellent three-inning relief outing from Anthony Reyes and a go-ahead eighth inning two-run double from the team's import at third base, Troy Glaus. St. Louis beat the Astros again last night 6-4, as Albert Pujols hit his first two home runs of the year to provide the margin of victory.

Tonight the Cardinals begin a four-game series at San Francisco, the continuation of St. Louis' soft opening schedule (St. Louis opened the season with six at home, including three against the Nationals, then traveled to Houston for three). The Cardinals play the Giants seven times in the next 10 days, the only times they face San Francisco this season, so St. Louis will have plenty of opportunity to fatten up its record and solidify its position at the top of the NL Central against the league's leading candidate to lose 100 games. Adam Wainwright gets the start tonight, looking to build upon a strong first official outing: eight innings of eight-hit, two-run ball in a win over Washington. Wainwright will be facing a Giants offense that has scored 20 runs over its first nine games, the fewest in the majors, and which has yet to break the four-run barrier in any game. With just four home runs so far--three coming off the bat of catcher Bengie Molina--the Giants are on pace for 72 over the course of the full season, which would be the lowest total since the 1992 Dodgers, who also hit 72.

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

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<< Previous Article
Premium Article Under The Knife: Injur... (04/10)
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Prospectus Preview: We... (04/09)
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Prospectus Preview: Fr... (04/11)
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Premium Article Prospectus Matchups: T... (04/11)

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