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April 14, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Monday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Red Sox (7-6) at Indians (5-7), 7:05 ET
Probable Starters: Jon Lester (16 IP, 13 H, 8 R, 7/10 K/BB) vs. Jake Westbrook (16.1 IP, 13 H, 5 R, 7/1 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Boston, 91-71 (2nd AL East); Cleveland, 91-71 (tied for 1st AL Central)
Hit List Rankings: Red Sox, #14; Indians, #25
Prospectus: Last year's participants in the ALCS face off for the first time this season in the opener of a two-game series at Jacobs Field. Lester pitched in relief in two games of last year's playoff series, both of which were won by the Indians, including the wild Game Two, when he gave up the final two runs of the Tribe's seven-run 11th inning outburst. Westbrook started two of the games--Game Three at Jacobs Field, when he gave up two runs in 6.2 innings to beat Boston, and Game Seven, when he allowed three in six at Fenway Park to take the loss. Westbrook, an extreme sinkerball pitcher, has started the season off with two strong starts, including his 12th career complete game in last Tuesday's 4-3 win over the Angels. Just like his rotation mate Fausto Carmona, another groundball pitcher, Westbrook's numbers could improve this season thanks to the likely improvement of Cleveland's infield defense as a result of Asdrubal Cabrera playing at second every day.

Cabrera, however, hasn't been hitting at all--a .209/.244/.256 line in 45 plate appearances--and he sat yesterday in favor of journeyman Jamey Carroll for the second time this season. Cabrera put up a .283/.347/.415 line in 1666 minor league plate appearances over four seasons, and essentially duplicated those numbers last year in the major leagues. PECOTA projected a .263/.324/.383 season for 2008, and if Cabrera can reach even those modest numbers, he would still be an extremely valuable player for the Tribe because of his defense. Carroll is no slouch with the glove himself, as his 2006 season at second base with Colorado ranks as the fourth best by an infielder over the past eight seasons by simple fielding runs (SFR), and he is at +31 FRAA in 297 games at second base for his career. No matter who plays second, therefore, the keystone for the Indians should be a position of defensive strength this season.

While Cabrera has been one of the most egregious offenders thus far at the plate, the Indians as a team have not hit in the early going, with a collective OPS below 700. Travis Hafner could really use a strong start after last season's somewhat mysterious slump; his power, however, has thus far failed to fully return, as he has slugged .435 so far in 53 plate appearances after his slugging percentage fell from .659 in 2006 to .451 last season. This game will feature left-handed hitting designated hitters on both sides of the dugout who are (or perhaps in Hafner's case, were) on the short list of most feared AL sluggers, but who are currently going through slumps. Ortiz got the day off yesterday after starting the season 3-for-43, the worst stretch of his career.

Matchup: Twins (6-6) at Tigers (2-10), 7:05 ET
Probable Starters: Nick Blackburn (12 IP, 12 H, 3 R, 11/3 K/BB) vs. Jeremy Bonderman (11.3 IP, 13 H, 6 R, 3/6 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Minnesota, 74-88 (4th AL Central); Detroit, 91-74 (tied for 1st)
Hit List Rankings: Minnesota, #21; Detroit, #30
Prospectus: After a 2-4 road trip, the Tigers return home to Comerica Park, where they opened the season with six straight losses. The last time Detroit dropped its first six at home was 2003, when the team went on to lose a franchise-record 119 games. Not since the 1992 Tigers lost their first six at the old Tiger Stadium has a Detroit team fallen in more than six in a row at home to begin the year. The Tigers will try to give their fans some cheering material tonight with Jeremy Bonderman on the hill. Bonderman has put up a disturbing K/BB ratio in his first two starts, suggesting that his pitching elbow, which was inflamed at the end of last season, is still not entirely right.

Bonderman's poor peripherals, however, are of course not the team's greatest source of concern right now. Detroit ranks last in the major leagues in slugging percentage (.335), OPS (657), and, most importantly, runs (33, 2.75 per game). Magglio Ordonez, Gary Sheffield and Miguel Cabrera--the three core hitters in what was viewed as potentially the strongest lineup in baseball--each have an OPS of 609 or lower. Luckily for Bonderman, Minnesota's offense ranks just three points of OPS ahead of Detroit's, and has an on-base percentage of .305, last in the American League.

One additional thing to consider when evaluating Detroit's collective offensive slump is that the Tigers' hitters are the second oldest offensive group in baseball, behind Toronto's. Detroit's new franchise player Miguel Cabrera is just 25, and should be entering the prime of his career, but every other offensive starter is at least 31 years old, with core players Sheffield (39), Ivan Rodriguez (36), and Ordonez (34) considerably older than that. Of the 2106 batters since 1947 evaluated by Clay Davenport's quick study that was recently posted on BP Unfiltered, just 13 percent had their peak seasons at age 31 or older. Adjust that up one more year to 32, the age at which seven of Detroit's offensive starters are at or above, and that figure drops to eight percent. Even before the season began, then, the collective age of Detroit's hitters should have raised at least some doubt as to just how many runs such an aging roster could put on the board. Of course, injured center fielder Curtis Granderson bucks that trend along with Cabrera, as he is 27 this year, an age which has produced more career years than any other historically. When he returns from a fractured finger, likely at the end of the month, Granderson will bring a much-needed infusion of youth and offensive ability at the top of the lineup to the struggling Tigers.

Detroit will try to break free from the doldrums against the rookie right-hander Nick Blackburn tonight. Originally it was expected that Blackburn would be sent down to Triple-A Rochester upon the return of franchise left-hander Francisco Liriano, who made his first major league start yesterday after missing all of 2006 with Tommy John surgery, but an injury to young right-hander Kevin Slowey, combined with Blackburn's solid first two starts, have kept the rookie in the mix.

Matchup: Angels (7-6) at Rangers (5-7), 7:05 CT
Probable Starters: Ervin Santana (12 IP, 10 H, 4 R, 8/5 K/BB) vs. Jason Jennings (9.2 IP, 12 H, 8 R, 2/6 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Anaheim, 85-77 (1st AL West); Texas, 73-89 (4th)
Hit List Rankings: Anaheim, #10; Texas, #16
Prospectus: Ervin Santana takes the mound on the road tonight, and throughout his career, that has been bad news for the Angels. Santana has a home/road split that is hard to fathom: in 287 innings at home, he has a 3.48 RA and 1.18 WHIP, while in 212.2 innings away from Anaheim, his RA is 7.41 and WHIP 1.62. Santana has held batters to a .235/.302/.358 composite line at home, against .296/.369/.540 on the road. Angel Stadium has played as a pitcher's park over the past three seasons, but only a very slight one, with factors of 971, 982 and 998 over the past three seasons (1000 being neutral; park factors from Clay Davenport in Baseball Prospectus 2008). The performance gap can be explained mostly by the difference in Santana's home run rates: he has allowed just 0.7 HR/9 IP in Anaheim, and 1.8 away from home. Thirteen of the 42 road jacks that Santana has given up, 31 percent, have come in one ballpark. You can probably guess which one--the Ballpark at Arlington, where he pitches tonight. Rangers Ballpark has been the 24-year-old right-hander's personal nightmare factory, as in seven starts there, Santana has allowed 38 runs in 36.1 innings, with 51 hits and 13 walks. The Rangers tonight could run out a lineup containing seven players who have previously homered against Santana. Santana has never started a game at Rangers Ballpark in April, before the summer humidity turns Arlington into the American League's premier launching pad. He also pitched well in his first road start of the year, last Tuesday in Cleveland. The young righty seemed on the track towards being a very solid starter after his strong 2006 campaign, in which he put up a 4.28 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in 204 IP, and was then mentioned in trade rumors for Alfonso Soriano. A disappointing 2007 season ensued, but Santana is an excellent bet to improve this year, and perhaps improve significantly. If he starts giving up fewer homers on the road and pitching similar away from home to the way he throws at Angels Stadium, then Santana could turn into a top-of-the-rotation starter.

No matter how he performs tonight, Santana is a good bet to get some healthy run support from the Anaheim offense, which ranks second in the majors with an OPS of 827. LA has the best collection of high-average hitters in the game, and not surprisingly the Angels top the majors with an average of .301. Also not surprisingly, the squad has drawn just 30 walks, less than 2.5 per game, tied for the lowest total in the AL. If it weren't for Chone Figgins, LA of A wouldn't hardly have any free passes to show for the first two weeks. Figgins, the 30-year-old all-purpose speedster, has walked 12 times in the season's first 13 games, despite his career season high being 65. Currently hitting .404/.525/.447, Figgins has carried over his play from the last four months of 2007. After the All-Star break last year, Figgins walked 33 times in 245 plate appearances, versus 18 walks in 258 PA before the break. He also hit .361 following the break after a hot June in which he set the Angels record for hits in a month (53).

Matchup: Athletics (8-5) at White Sox (7-4), 7:11 CT
Probable Starters: Greg Smith (122 IP, 4.20 RA, 10.7 VORP in 2007--minors) vs. Mark Buehrle (8.2 IP, 14 H, 9 R, 2/3 K/BB in 2008)
PECOTA Projection: Oakland, 80-82 (2nd AL West); Chicago, 77-85 (3rd AL Central)
Hit List Rankings: Oakland, #11; Chicago, #7
Prospectus: Two of the AL's surprise teams face off in the first of two games at U.S. Cellular Field. Oakland rookie left-hander Greg Smith will make his second career start, facing off against fellow southpaw Mark Buehrle. The two lefties have similar profiles, in that neither throws hard or has the stuff to rack up lots of strikeouts, and both induce more fly balls than grounders. Smith came over to Oakland in the deal that shipped Dan Haren to Arizona. According to BP's Kevin Goldstein, he ranks as the fifth-best prospect of the six that Oakland received; however, at 24 years old and having already reached Triple-A, Smith was ready to step into the rotation when both Rich Harden and Justin Duchscherer hit the shelf. He limited the Blue Jays to three runs (two earned) in six innings during his first start last Wednesday, but walked five batters against five strikeouts. PECOTA sees Smith's biggest problem being the home run ball, as the soft-tossing lefty's projection for 2008 has him giving up 1.4 HR/9 IP.

Smith and Dana Eveland, who won a rotation spot out of spring training and who has allowed just a run over 13.1 innings and two starts, give Oakland a back end of the rotation consisting of two intriguing 24-year-old lefties, both acquired from the Diamondbacks for Haren. Billy Beane stockpiled arms all winter, and the considerable pitching depth that Oakland consequently built up has paid off immediately in the early going. Despite dealing Haren, and having Harden go down after two starts, the Athletics currently rank second in the AL with a 3.49 collective RA from their starters. Chicago, on the other hand, has been carried to the top of the AL Central thus far by its offense, which ranks second in the league in OPS to the Angels, and which has ripped 17 home runs through its first 11 games. Third baseman Joe Crede has already matched his home run total from 178 plate appearances in last season's injury-shortened campaign (four) in just 46 2008 PA, and has a pair of grand slams in the early going. Former Oakland outfielder Nick Swisher is also playing well, with a team-leading 11 walks and 10 runs out of the leadoff spot. Swisher will be playing for the first time against the team that traded him in the offseason, with which he spent the first four seasons of his career. One of the players the A's got back for Swisher, 23-year-old center fielder Ryan Sweeney, has started the year with eight hits in 23 at bats, but is currently sidelined with a quad strain.

Matchup: Diamondbacks (9-3) at Giants (5-8), 7:15 PT
Probable Starters: Randy Johnson (56.2 IP, 4.13 RA, 1.5 SNLVAR in 2007) vs. Jonathan Sanchez (10 IP, 10 H, 7 R, 18/4 K/BB in 2008)
PECOTA Projection: Arizona, 87-75 (tied for 1st NL West); San Francisco, 68-94 (5th)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #1; San Francisco, #29
Prospectus: The greatest mis-matched series of the week, by the Hit List rankings, gets underway tonight at AT&T Park with Randy Johnson coming off the disabled list to make his first start of the 2008 season. Johnson made just 10 starts last year at the age of 43 due to back problems, and begins 2008 16 wins shy of 300 for his career. How many pitchers have been effective at age 44 and beyond? From 1959, the year the BP database stretches back to, here's the list of hurlers at least as old as Johnson who threw 100 innings or more during their geriatric seasons, sorted by innings:

YEAR NAME         AGE  IP      RA   WHIP  K/9   BB/9
1985 Phil Niekro   46  220    4.50  1.47  6.1   4.9
1984 Phil Niekro   45  215.2  3.55  1.37  5.7   3.2
1986 Phil Niekro   47  210.1  5.39  1.60  3.5   4.1
1993 Charlie Hough 45  204.1  4.80  1.34  5.5   3.1
1983 Phil Niekro   44  201.2  4.20  1.57  5.7   4.7
2007 Jamie Moyer   44  199.1  5.33  1.44  6.0   3.0
1965 Warren Spahn  44  197.2  4.74  1.35  4.1   2.5
1987 Tommy John    44  187.2  4.56  1.38  3.0   2.3
1983 Gaylord Perry 44  186.1  5.23  1.41  4.0   2.4
1988 Tommy John    45  176.1  4.85  1.51  4.1   2.3
1992 Charlie Hough 44  176.1  4.50  1.28  3.9   3.4
1991 Nolan Ryan    44  173    3.02  1.01  10.6  3.7
1992 Nolan Ryan    45  157.1  4.29  1.32  9.0   3.9
2007 David Wells   44  157.1  5.55  1.54  4.7   2.4
1987 Phil Niekro   48  138.2  6.43  1.65  4.2   4.3
1994 Charlie Hough 46  113.2  5.86  1.50  5.1   4.1
The only non-knuckleballers on this list are Jamie Moyer and David Wells from last season (Roger Clemens was also 44 last year, and threw 99 innings), Warren Spahn, Tommy John, Gaylord Perry and Nolan Ryan. The best-case scenario for Johnson's 2008 campaign would be if he could come close to the 44-year-old Ryan's 1991 season, which ranks fifth on Johnson's list of most comparable pitcher seasons. No. 1 on that list is Satchel Paige's 1951 campaign, when the 44-year-old Paige threw 62 innings for the St. Louis Browns, mostly in relief, and posted a 5.66 RA. Anytime Paige shows up on a list of comparables, you know that the player in question is unique. Johnson, in fact, has a PECOTA similarity score of zero, meaning that there has been no one like him in major league history. (The only other major league pitchers with similarity scores of zero for this season are Francisco Liriano and Stephen Randolph.) The only lefthander on the list above is Jamie Moyer, who is a soft-tosser, whereas Johnson's career K/9 is 10.8. PECOTA sees Johnson, who had surgery on his back last August for the second time in a year, as being able to make 14 starts this season, with a 90th percentile projection of 22 starts. There's no question that if the Big Unit's back is sound, he can still be an outstanding starter--last season, he struck out 11.4/9 IP in his 56.2 innings, and from May 9 to June 10 turned in quality starts in five of six outings, with a 51/5 K/BB ratio, 2.02 RA, and 0.81 WHIP in 35.2 innings. That's pure, undiluted dominance, the Randy Johnson of old with even better control.

Tonight's game will be a fantastic battle of left-handed power pitching. The Giants starter, 25-year-old Jonathan Sanchez, is coming off the best start of his career--last Wednesday against San Diego, he struck out 10 in six innings, and has now K'd 113 in 102 career major league frames.

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

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