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April 11, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Friday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Yankees (5-5) at Red Sox (5-5), 7:05 ET
Probable Starters: Chien-Ming Wang (13 IP, 10 H, 2 R, 8/4 K/BB) vs. Clay Buchholz (2.38 RA, 0.7 SNLVAR in 2007)
PECOTA Projection: New York, 97-65 (1st AL East); Boston, 91-71 (2nd)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #1; Boston, #7
Prospectus: Rookie Clay Buchholz gets his first taste of the Boston-New York rivalry tonight at Fenway, as the Red Sox open a three-game set against the Yankees. Buchholz will have an easier go of it against New York than he normally would, as the lineup he faces will likely feature either Wilson Betemit or Alberto Gonzalez at shortstop instead of Derek Jeter, and Jose Molina at catcher. Jeter is out for the time being with a quad strain, and backstop Jorge Posada has a shoulder issue, although he felt healthy enough to DH last night against Kansas City, and homer off Hideo Nomo in the Japanese right-hander's first appearance since 2005. Buchholz's opponent on the mound, Chien-Ming Wang, has not enjoyed pitching against the Red Sox on the road thus far in his career: Wang has a 6.69 RA and 1.86 WHIP in 35 innings against Boston at Fenway, the worst numbers that he has put up in any park in which he's thrown more than 10 innings.

The Red Sox will have another rookie besides Buchholz playing against New York for the first time in infielder Jed Lowrie, who was called up yesterday from Triple-A Pawtucket to take the roster spot of third baseman Mike Lowell, who went on the DL with a hand injury. Lowrie will likely make his major league debut at some point in the next three days against the Yankees. He has gotten off to a slow start this season, with just one extra-base hit in his first eight Triple-A games, but last year put up 44.6 runs of VORP between Double-A Portland and Pawtucket, slugging above .500 at each level. Lowrie ranks at No. 57 on the Baseball Prospectus 2008 top 100 prospects list. He has played shortstop in the minor leagues, but according to BP's Kevin Goldstein, it is doubtful Lowrie will be able to handle that position at the highest level; with Lowell out, Lowrie was called up to play some third base, a position he has never played before, allowing Kevin Youkilis to slide back to first base at times in place of veteran fill-in Sean Casey. Lowrie is a switch hitter, who PECOTA sees as having virtually an identical OPS against both left and right-handers, with a better ability to get on base from the left side, and more power from the right. The left-handed Casey displays significantly less of a platoon split than most lefties, and has actually hit southpaws better than righties in each of the past three seasons, so the playing time decisions that manager Terry Francona makes at first and third base while Lowell is sidelined will not be especially obvious ones.

Matchup: Cubs (6-3) at Phillies (4-6), 7:05 ET
Probable Starters: Carlos Zambrano (13.2 IP, 10 H, 2 R, 12/1 K/BB) vs. Brett Myers (10 IP, 13 H, 8 R, 6/5 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Chicago, 91-71 (1st NL Central); Philadelphia, 86-76 (tied for 2nd NL East)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #4; Philadelphia, #13
Prospectus: April has indeed been the cruelest month for Carlos Zambrano. Last year he had a 5.77 ERA and 1.63 WHIP in 34.1 April innings, the year before a 5.34 and 1.72 in 33.2, and in 2005, a 4.32 and 1.21 in 31.1. Over the course of his career, April is the only month in which Zambrano has posted an ERA above 3.81 (4.33) and a WHIP above 1.32 (1.43). This year, however, Zambrano is off to a strong start, having remarkably walked just one batter in his first two starts. The last time Zambrano walked as few as one in consecutive starts was in the the 2003 postseason, when he gave out one free pass over 11.2 innings in his first two starts, against Atlanta and Florida. Zambrano has walked more men than any pitcher in baseball over the last two seasons, 216 combined, leading the National League in walks both seasons and the major leagues in 2006. (What is it about Zambranos and control, anyway?) It's still far too early to be drawing much meaning from season statistics, of course, but Zambrano's precision thus far is still an encouraging sign. This is Zambrano's age-27 season, after all, the year that most players experience their career peak.

At the age of 31, Kosuke Fukudome likely already spent his career peak across the Pacific with the Chunichi Dragons, but it's looking like the Japanese right fielder is still very much in the midst of his prime in the early going, as Fukudome has begun his stateside second career by hitting .371/.488/.543 through 43 PA. Fukudome won over the Wrigley bleacher bums for good on Opening Day when he went 3-for-3 and launched a game-tying three-run homer off of Brewers closer Eric Gagne, and he's kept on hitting since. You would think that a player coming over from Japan to play his first year in the U.S. would have a large amount of unpredictability inherent in his projected performance, but PECOTA sees Fukudome's forecast--.289/.401/.504 in 465 PA, with 15 homers--as being one of the less volatile ones in baseball, as the system assigned Fukudome a low Beta value of 0.87. Fukudome's consistently strong performance in Japan--he posted OBPs of .431, .438, and .443 over the past three seasons--suggest he can be a J.D. Drew-type performer (Drew is his top PECOTA comparable), with outstanding plate discipline, a strong ability to hit for average, decent power, and some speed. With the additions of Fukudome and rookie catcher Geovany Soto, who has hit .333/.410/.667 thus far, the Cubs offense looks to be a much more formidable unit this season than the one that finished eighth in the NL with 752 runs scored last year.

Matchup: Brewers (6-3) at Mets (4-4), 7:10 ET
Probable Starters: Manny Parra (4.44 RA, 4.4 VORP in 2007) vs. Nelson Figueroa (DNP in U.S>)
PECOTA Projection: Milwaukee, 88-74 (2nd NL Central); New York, 93-69 (1st)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #8; New York, #2
Prospectus: Rookie Manny Parra takes the mound for Milwaukee in the opener of a three-game series at Shea tonight. Parra is a 25-year-old left-hander with strong stuff who has found it extremely difficult to stay healthy so far in his young career. He managed to hold up for 17 starts last year between Double and Triple-A, in which he struck out 106 in 106.2 innings, to go along with a 2.45 ERA and 1.11 WHIP, before striking out 26 in 26.1 innings with Milwaukee. Parra is not to be confused by Mets fans with Jose Parra, a reliever who threw 14 innings for New York in 2004, which was the last year that Nelson Figueroa appeared in the majors before this season. Figueroa did not pitch professionally in the U.S. in 2005 after giving up 18 runs in 28.1 innings for Pittsburgh in '04. He returned in 2006 to pitch for Washington's Triple-A affiliate, then spent 2007 pitching in Mexico and Taiwan. Figueroa is a native of Brooklyn, so after his sojourns around the globe, tonight's start truly is a homecoming for the 34-year-old right-hander.

Today's edition of You Know It's Early When... features Milwaukee catcher Jason Kendall, who has gotten off to a .538 start (14-for-26) and currently leads the major leagues in Equivalent Average at .427. Kendall hit .242/.301/.309 last season in 514 plate appearances, with a VORP of -9.9, and 34-year-old catchers do not usually experience late-career renaissances. After an 0-for-4 day yesterday, meanwhile, Kendall's teammate Prince Fielder is sitting at .242/.333/.303 on the season, and after hitting 50 home runs last year has yet to go deep in 2008. In 2007, however, Fielder also left the gate sluggishly, as he hit just one home run through his first 15 games and 58 at bats.

The Mets are experiencing difficulty with the long ball as well, having hit three home runs in their first eight games, the lowest total in the major leagues. New York has still managed to put up 5.5 runs per game, third most in the National League, thanks in large part to the strong play of outfielder Angel Pagan, who singled in Jose Reyes with the winning run in the 12th inning to beat the Phillies 4-3 last night. Pagan leads New York with a 976 OPS thus far, filling in admirably for injured left fielder Moises Alou. Possessor of one of the most wonderfully confounding names in baseball history, the 26-year-old Pagan is serving his second tour with the Mets organization after spending several year with the Cubs. He was pegged by PECOTA for a breakout chance of 41 percent this season, the highest percentage of any Mets player on the active roster.

Matchup: Tigers (1-8) at White Sox (5-3), 7:11 CT
Probable Starters: Dontrelle Willis (4.14 RA, 5.9 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. Jose Contreras (3.54, 1.9)
PECOTA Projection: Detroit, 91-71 (tied for 1st AL Central); Chicago, (3rd)
Hit List Rankings: Detroit, #5; Chicago, #20
Prospectus: Dontrelle Willis suffered through a rough debut for the Tigers, walking seven and striking out none in a five inning outing against Chicago last Saturday, a game the Tigers lost 5-3. The seven walks were a career high, and the zero strikeouts marked the second time in his career Willis went at least five innings while not striking out a batter (The first came last June 3 in Milwaukee, when Willis went six innings and walked six). Willis' K/BB ratio has dropped each of the past two years, from a high of 3.09 in 2005 to 1.93 to 1.68 in his disastrous 2007. His strikeout rate has remained relatively steady in that period, while his UBB/9 IP rate rose from 2.0 to 3.1 to 3.5. Consequently, the number of pitches per inning thrown by Willis has also climbed, from 15.1 to 16.2 to 17.1. The left-handed Willis has a funky, high leg-kick and throws across his body, a delivery that makes him one of the most fun players to watch in baseball, but that also makes him prone to getting out of balance mechanically. A flaw in his high-maintenance wind-up could explain Willis' severe struggles during spring training and in his opening start.

Tonight, the D-Train gets his second crack at ironing things out, and a second chance against the White Sox, who rank first in the majors with an OPS of 853 and runs/game average of 6.25. Chicago catcher A.J. Pierzynski has been the AL's version of Kendall, as he leads the White Sox with averages of .429/.484/.786 and ranks second in the American League in EqA, behind Baltimore outfielder Luke Scott. Joe Crede has also bounced back in a huge way so far from last season's injury-plagued campaign in which he hit just .216/.258/.317, with a team-leading three homers, 11 RBI, and .781 slugging percentage.

The Adjusted Standings are up on the BP Stats page, and, not surprisingly, the Tigers clock in with the largest difference between their actual record and their third-order record, at -2.7 wins. Detroit has scored 28 runs and given up 58, but by AEqR, those totals are 37 and 45, which suggests a record of 4-5. Despite the team's slow start, the PECOTA-adjusted playoff odds report still has Detroit with a 42 percent chance to make the playoffs.

Matchup: Padres (5-5) at Dodgers (4-5), 7:40 PT
Probable Starters: Jake Peavy (16 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 12-4 K/BB) vs. Brad Penny (12.2 IP, 14 H, 4 R, 6/3 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: San Diego, 78-84 (4th NL West); Los Angeles, 87-75 (tied for 1st)
Hit List Rankings: San Diego, #18; Los Angeles, #9
Prospectus: Tonight at Dodger Stadium, the aces of the Padres and Dodgers face off for the second time this season. Last Saturday, Peavy beat Penny with a complete game two-hitter, in which he walked eight and struck out one in a 4-1 San Diego victory. Peavy has been so good in his two starts this year that he has been accused of using a foreign substance to doctor the ball, an accusation Peavy called comical. A more likely explanation for Peavy's dominance thus far, if any explanation is needed at all given his Cy Young Campaign last year, is Peavy's increased reliance upon a changeup in addition to his fastball and filthy slider. Last year at Chavez Ravine, Peavy won two of his three starts and allowed just four runs in 21 innings (1.71 RA) with a sub-1.00 WHIP.

Standing between Peavy and another win over the Dodgers is LA shortstop Rafael Furcal, who has hit Peavy harder than any other Dodger, with three home runs, two triples, and a .658 slugging percentage in 38 career at-bats against the right-hander. Furcal has gotten off to a great start this season, with a .382/.488/.588 line in 41 PA. That start is a good indication that Furcal is fully past the injuries that seriously hampered his production last season. Chief among those was an ankle sprain Furcal suffered last March. The speedy shortstop didn't play his first game until April 13 because of the injury, and put up just a 515 OPS for the month on the way to a career-low in seasonal OPS. Furcal is in the last year of the three year, $39 million deal he signed before 2006, and, at just 30 years old, could set himself up for another hefty payday if he can come close to replicating his career year of 2006 (.300/.369/.445).

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

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