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April 11, 2008

Prospectus Hit List

Small-Sample Theater

by Jay Jaffe

As always, most early season numbers should be taken with a grain or two of salt, and that goes doubly for the year's first regular season Hit List. We haven't yet let these teams outrun their PECOTA projections; the "week" column below is their projected won-loss record, which has also been factored into the current rankings.

RkTeam
Overall W-L
Week W-L
Hit List Factor
Trend
Comment

1


Diamondbacks
7-2
87-75
.717
Up
How Ya Like That Run Differential, Beeyatch?: Everything's clicking for the Diamondbacks so far. Mark Reynolds, Chris B. Young, and Justin Upton have combined for 12 homers already, with Upton going yard in three straight games against the Rockies. Brandon Webb, Dan Haren, and Micah Owings are six-for-six in quality starts, while Doug Davis' pre-surgical sendoff couldn't have gone any better (6 6 2 2 0 7, 2-for-2, RBI)--here's wishing him the best in his recovery from thyroid cancer.

2


Reds
6-4
80-82
.617
Up
No Homers Club: Johnny Cueto's debut is one for the books (7 1 1 1 0 10), and his second start isn't too bad either. With 18 strikeouts and no walks in his first 13.2 innings, the #41 prospect on our Top 100 Prospect list is making the Reds brass look sharp for keeping him around while shipping out strike zone-challenged Homer Bailey to Triple-A.

3


Cubs
6-3
91-71
.601
Up
Welcome to the Fukudome: the new Cubs' right fielder is hitting .371/.488/.543 so far, though his game-tying three-run homer on Opening Day went for naught. Speaking of Opening Day, Carlos Zambrano goes bananas after leaving his first start with cramps. And elsewhere in the rotation, the calls are already coming for Jon Lieber (9.1 IP, 0 ER) to find a home among the starting five in place of struggling Rich Hill.

4


Brewers
6-3
88-74
.573
Up
Cue the Infinite Improbability Drive: from Ben Sheets' complete-game shutout (his first since 2001) to Jason Kendall's .522/.556/.739 showing to the pair of Gabe Kapler homers, the Brewers have already unveiled a few pleasant surprises enabling them to overcome early hiccups from Eric Gagne (three appearances, two blown saves) and Prince Fielder (slugging just .345). It's probably wishful thinking to suggest that Bill Hall's four homers mean his move to the infield will lead to a return to 2006 form, but hope springs eternal.

5


Royals
6-3
73-89
.562
Up
The majors' stingiest staff thus far, the Royals have allowed just 2.67 runs per game. Better still, Zack Greinke and Brian Bannister have combined to yield just three runs in four starts while stifling the Tigers and Yankees, the league's top two projected offenses. Frankly, we're worried Rany Jazayerli might injure himself turning cartwheels.

6


Orioles
6-3
66-96
.561
Up
Telltale Sign That It's Early In the Season #343: Luke Scott leads the league with a .457 EqA. Before anybody starts hyperventilating over whether or not this team has turned a corner, recall that the 2005 Orioles got out of the gate at 17-7 before finishing the year at the bottom of the Inner Harbor. With a rotation that's already sunk to 12th in the league in Fair Run Average, they'll be sinking again before you know it.

7


White Sox
5-3
77-85
.559
Up
Enjoy the Moment: thanks to A.J. Pierzynski (.429/.484/.786), Joe Crede (.406/.429/.781), and Jermaine Dye (.400/.455/.733), the White Sox claim the major league lead in runs per game, OBP, SLG, and EqA. That probably won't last, but it does offer hope that Dye can continue the trend of last year's solid second-half showing, that Crede can resuscitate his trade value, and that the team can improve from a miserable 2007 showing, in which they ranked last in the league in scoring and 29th in the majors in EqA.

8


Cardinals
7-3
75-87
.559
Up
They'll Remember Early April: continuing the theme of things that won't hold up, not even if Tony LaRussa's wildest fantasies about Mark Mulder, Matt Clement, Joel Pineiro, and Chris Carpenter come true, to say nothing about the shape of things to come regarding Kyle Lohse's 0.00 ERA. Nonetheless, the Cardinals' patchwork rotation has put together a 2.40 Fair Run Average thus far, helping the team get off to its best start since 2000, the year before Albert Pujols showed up. Speaking of Phat Albert, his .379/.526/.655 thus far suggests there won't be any performance dips so long as his elbow is attached to the rest of his body.

9


Mets
4-4
93-69
.556
Down
The long shadow cast by last season's late collapse still has the wags' tongues flapping, though halting their nine-game losing streak to the Phillies may help. Still, the injury bug is biting the Mets; Luis Castillo's already sitting due to soreness in his knees, and both Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez may be out until mid-May at the earliest. Claudio Vargas will make for a decent stopgap, but he's no savior.

10


Angels
6-4
85-77
.543
Up
The Angels in the crowded outfield are hitting a combined .333/.375/.592 thus far, with Torii Hunter bashing four homers and Gary Matthews Jr. collecting hits in his first nine games. The Angels in the bullpen are of more concern; they're in the red, WXRL-wise, with Francisco Rodriguez spraining his ankle and Scot Shields yet to prove that he's recovered his stopper form.

11


Athletics
6-4
80-82
.533
Up
Delicate Flowers: the reconstituted A's rotation barely makes it to fifth starter Chad Gaudin's activation from the DL before Rich Harden and Justin Duchscherer go down with injuries. Warm-bodied inning-eaters may be in short supply in Oakland, but for now the staff ranks second in the league in ERA and strikeout rate. Meanwhile, Travis Buck starts the year with the season's longest 0-fer, a 24 PA string of futility.

12


Blue Jays
4-5
78-84
.530
Up
For $2 All I Get Is This Lousy Ballclub? A cheap seats promotion goes horribly awry, even worse than the consecutive meltdowns by closer-for-now Jeremy Accardo. The Jays may want to consider scrapping the promo, or at least upping the ante to pay for the lengthy extensions of Alex Rios and Vernon Wells that should do their part to ensure that the Jays keep chasing the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Orioles, Expos, Maple Leafs, and Argonauts into the middle of the next decade.

13


Rays
4-5
88-74
.529
Down
Never mind the valuable but fragile elbows of Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza. Forget James Shields, this man's off-the-wall pick for the AL Cy Young. If Edwin Jackson has figured it out, the Rays may really be that much closer to respectability. Jackson's yielded seven hits and whiffed 10 in 14 innings; going back to last July 31, he's put up a 3.60 ERA thanks to his ability to limit homers (0.85 per nine) and generate more ground balls (1.5 G/F).

14


Red Sox
5-5
91-71
.510
Down
Blame the Jet Lag: for the first time since 2000, the Sox are carrying a negative run differential after 10 games. The trouble is with the offense, which, assuming you missed Thursday's leaderboard, featured Alex Cora at the top and David Ortiz at the bottom. The latter is just 3-for-36 to start the year, and to make matters worse, Mike Lowell figures to remain in the red for awhile longer, having gone on the DL with a sprained thumb.

15


Padres
5-5
78-84
.508
Up
Jake Peavy is caught brown-handed la Kenny Rogers, though he helps the Padre rotation establish an early lead in the Support Neutral rankings. The bigger problem is Trevor Hoffman, who takes two losses in his first four appearances; going back to the final weekend of last year, the all-time saves leader has blown three saves and taken three losses in his last six games, surrendering nine runs and 13 baserunners in five innings of work.

16


Rangers
5-4
73-89
.508
Up
Count the Ranger rotation among the season's early anomalies. It currently ranks fifth in the league in SNLVAR, which may not seem like much until you consider that horrible starting pitching is as Texan a tradition as chicken-fried steak, and about as healthy. Since 1997, the Rangers have finished no higher than 12th in the AL in SNLVAR, dragging bottom four times, including last year, and never producing a Fair Run Average below 5.41 in that span; in fact, you have to go back to 1993 to find a Ranger rotation that even broke 5.00.

17


Braves
3-6
86-76
.485
Down
If It Wasn't For Bad Luck, They Wouldn't Have No Luck at All: the Braves are 0-5 in one-run games, John Smoltz's knotty shoulder is acting up, and Rafael Soriano's elbow sends him to the DL. There's trouble on the farm as well, as top prospect Jordan Schafer (#17 on suspended for 50 games for non-analytic implications of HGH use. Other than that, things are great.

18


Yankees
5-5
97-65
.482
Down
Joe Girardi's juggling skills are already being tested, as the new skipper hasn't been able to use the same lineup twice due to suspensions and injuries. The vaunted Yankee offense is sputtering, as minor strains sideline Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter, the lineup's #2 and #3 VORP sources last year. Replacing the latter is Alberto Gonzalez; with a projected MLVr of -.158, he makes a better Attorney General than a big-league shortstop. Ba-dum-pum.

19


Dodgers
4-5
87-75
.479
Down
Ding-dong, Juan Pierre's consecutive game streak is dead at 434, but the early returns on Joe Torre's ability to manage the crowded outfield are less encouraging. Thus far, Andre Ethier's started nine times, Andruw Jones eight, Pierre and Matt Kemp five apiece, and the four outfielders are hitting a barren .204/.241/.301. On a more positive note, Rafael Furcal looks like the 2006 model as opposed to the 2007 one, and Jeff Kent has been solid despite missing most of spring training.

20


Phillies
4-6
86-76
.477
Down
There's no middle ground in the Phillies' lineup thus far; three regulars have EqAs above .300, the rest are below .238. Leading the team is Pat Burrell, who's third in the league at .404. In the small-sample-sized world, he's killing the ball (.429/.571/.952) away from Citizens Bank Ballpark, but since it opened in 2004, he's hit only .248/.367/.457 on the road, compared to .284/.410/.538 at home. Caveat emptor to his next employer.

21


Twins
4-5
74-88
.475
Up
Johan Who? Francisco Who? With their former staff ace now a Met and their putative one still stuck on the farm, the Twins make an early grab for respectability thanks to the performances of two starters projected for ERAs above 5.50 and VORPs below zero in Livan Hernandez and rookie Nick Blackburn. The former hasn't walked a batter in 14 innings and has gotten the W in both of his starts; the latter has allowed just three runs in 12 frames with an 11/3 K/BB ratio, though the Twins have come up short on his watch twice.

22


Marlins
6-3
71-91
.465
Up
Sure, they're atop the NL East, but with a negative run differential and the league's worst ERA, that doesn't figure to last long. The rotation's Fair Run Average of 6.60 is actually worse than last year's 6.50, and the common denominator is Defensive (in)Efficiency; the Rotting Fish are at .668 right now, 28th in the majors and just a point below last year's NL-worst .669. As noted in the preseason Hit List, the Uggla-Ramirez-Cantu infield will hold them back, and having Josh Willingham and right fielder (cough) Luis Gonzalez waiting for the birds to land on their shoulders in the outfield corners isn't helping either.

23


Indians
4-5
91-71
.462
Down
It doesn't solve their C.C. Sabathia problem, but the four-year, $15 million deal to which the Tribe signed Fausto Carmona is a good one. According to his PECOTA MORP, Carmona figures to be worth $45.9 million over that span, and his 171.0 Upside--his VORP forecast over the next seven years, essentially--ranks 21st among all pitchers, with names like Buchholz, Billingsley, Hughes, Harang, Bonderman, Oswalt, and Zambrano directly below him.

24


Mariners
4-6
75-87
.443
Down
Last year's Mariners overachieved in part thanks to a bullpen that was WXRL, with J.J. Putz leading the majors in that category while converting his first 29 saves. It's a different story this year, as Putz blows his first save in the team's second game, then hits the DL with an oblique strain while the bullpen sinks to last in the majors in WXRL.

25


Rockies
4-5
82-80
.441
Down
The defending NL champs apparently left their bats in 2007. Aside from Todd Helton (a vintage-looking .353/.450/.676), the team is hitting just .219/.289/.343 thus far, and ranks second-to-last in the NL in scoring at 3.11 runs per game. And while Franklin Morales' initial outing (6 2 0 0 3 2) offers hope that his spring shakiness is a thing of the past, Ubaldo Jimenez's nine walks in 11 innings serves to remind that the going may be, um, rocky for the team's young pitchers.

26


Astros
3-7
72-90
.411
Down
Throwing in the Towles: any concerns that Brad Ausmus' Opening Day start meant another year of the deathless, hitless backstop and thus an abrupt end to Cecil Cooper's managerial honeymoon have been abated for the moment, as J.R. Towles has started eight of the other nine games, hitting .217/.400/.522 thus far. Still, the offense as a whole is struggling to stay above the Mendoza Line, with Hunter Pence (.186/.186/.302) the most egregious offender.

27


Pirates
3-6
72-90
.401
Down
The Bucs Stop Nobody: despite solid work from Ian Snell and Zach Duke (2.94 ERA and 20/4 K/BB combined), the Pirates rank last in the majors in runs allowed per game thus far. Particularly worrisome is the performance of Tom Gorzelanny (10.38 ERA), on the heels of a late-2007 collapse (8.64 ERA and 32 hits over his final 16.2 IP) and spring shoulder troubles. If double-digit ERAs are your thing, the roster presence of Phil Dumatrait offers a chance to watch one pitcher's agonizing attempt to lower his career ERA below 9.00; at this writing, it's 11.77 and he needs eight more innings than earned runs allowed.

28


Nationals
3-7
73-89
.385
Down
Ryan Zimmerman's Opening Day walk-off homer inaugurates the Nationals' new ballpark, Nick Johnson's solid return provides additional promise, and Lastings Milledge looks right at home. But thus far the Nats have been wracked by injuries, with Chad Cordero's absence compromising the bullpen and the outfield so thin that Felipe Lopez has started four times in left--Frank Howard apparently wasn't available.

29


Giants
4-6
68-94
.332
Down
Resolute in their plans to play all 162 games, the Giants may as well adopt The Color of Money's signature quote as their motto: "It's like a nightmare, isn't it? It just keeps getting worse and worse." Barry Zito's first two starts (6.30 ERA, 4/3 K/BB in 10 innings) don't offer significantly more promise than his ugly spring, while the infield combines to "hit" .223/.294/.308. But at least they're bringing back Barry Bonds, right?

30


Tigers
1-8
91-71
.328
Down
Panic in Detroit: touted by some as capable of scoring 1000 runs this year, the Tigers--minus Curtis Granderson and with a less-than-healthy Gary Sheffield--eke out just 15 over their seven season-opening losses. No team has ever started 0-7 and made the playoffs, and only two 0-6 teams did, the 1974 Pirates and 1995 Reds. Furthermore, in the three-division era, just three teams have had losing streaks of seven games or more at any time during the season and gone on to be World Champions. Gulp.


The Prospectus Hit List rankings are derived from Won-Loss records and several measurements pertaining to run differentials, both actual and adjusted, from Baseball Prospectus Adjusted Standings through the close of play on every Sunday.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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