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April 15, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Tuesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Yankees (7-7) at Rays (6-7), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Andy Pettitte (11 2/3 IP, 13 H, 6 R, 4/4 K/BB) vs. Edwin Jackson (14 IP, 7 H, 1 R, 10/6 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: New York, 97-65 (1st, AL East); Tampa Bay, 88-74 (3rd)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #18; Tampa Bay, #13
Prospectus: The first game of this series last night was a great one, with the Yankees initially building up a 7-1 lead, only to see the Rays storm back with three home runs in the seventh, the last a game-tying solo shot from Evan Longoria, his first major league homer. New York answered back the next inning in the form of a Robinson Cano blast, the first of 2008 for the second baseman who has made a habit out of beginning the year slowly (.185/.200/.278 in 55 plate appearances this season, with a career 640 OPS in April and 677 in May), and closed out the 8-7 win with Mariano Rivera on the mound. Tonight the Yankees will look for the sweep of the brief two-game set behind Andy Pettitte, who has pitched about as well as could be expected in the early going given the PED-related issues that clouded his spring and the back spasms that pushed him back in the rotation at the beginning of the season.

Pettitte will be opposed by young Edwin Jackson, who has been one of the year's greatest surprises thus far, having beaten both the Yankees and Mariners to start the year while allowing just one run in the process. Is this the same Edwin Jackson that entered the season with a 6.30 RA in 272 2/3 career innings? Perhaps Jackson is being motivated by the fear of an unstoppable force--the advancing wave of talent coming up through the Rays' farm system, a force that for the fist time is endangering Jackson's job security. For most of the Devil Rays era in Tampa Bay, it didn't take much to hold down a rotation spot. As long as you had a sound arm, any hint of promise, past or future, and were drawing breath (and the league minimum), you didn't have much fear of losing your rotation spot. All that has changed; Jeffrey Niemann made his big league debut two days ago, the first to break through, with his six innings of one-run ball a harbinger of things to come. Niemann's debut is a warning to Jackson, Andy Sonnanstine, and Jason Hammel, the trio at the back end of the Rays rotation; those three are now pitching for their baseball lives, as David Price, Wade Davis, Jeremy Hellickson, Jacob McGee threaten to sweep them out of their rotation spots, perhaps into the bullpen, or perhaps out of Tampa Bay entirely. Maybe that threat was simply all Jackson needed to revive his long-dormant potential, or maybe it's just April 15, the time of year when dramatic predictions fueled by small sample sizes are de rigueur.

Matchup: Reds (6-7) at Cubs (7-5), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Aaron Harang (16 IP, 13 H, 8 R, 7/10 K/BB) vs. Ryan Dempster (16 1/3 IP, 13 H, 5 R, 7/1 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Cincinnati, 80-82 (3rd, NL Central); Chicago, 91-71 (1st)
Hit List Rankings: Cincinnati, #2; Chicago, #3
Prospectus: The best matchup of the week in terms of the Hit List rankings pits the Reds, who are armed with new hope (quite literally), against the Cubs, the favorites to win the NL Central for the second straight season under manager Lou Piniella. Chicago has gotten great work so far from Ryan Dempster, who the club converted back into a starter this season from the closer role. It will be interesting to see how long Dempster can sustain his early success; obviously, after pitching in short one-inning bursts for the last several years, and having not exceeded 100 innings since 2003, stamina will be a major issue for him. Luckily for the Cubs, the team has quality depth in the starting rotation. Behind their front five of Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Dempster, Jason Marquis, and Rich Hill, Chicago has a long-time starting pitcher currently chewing up inning of long relief in Jon Lieber, who has returned to the team he played for from 1999 to 2002. Lieber has already tossed 9 1/3 innings over three appearances out of the bullpen, and the veteran appears to be chomping at the bit to get back into the rotation. The Cubs also have a pair of Seans, Marshall and Gallagher, who could potentially step in and capably hold down a rotation spot. It's somewhat inexplicable that a prospect like Marshall is pitching out of the bullpen for Chicago and not the rotation, and, furthermore, that the club went out of its way to convert one of its better relievers into a starter rather than simply insert Marshall into the job that his performance has warranted, or that Marshall's sitting behind Jason Marquis.

As a result, the Cubs rotation behind Zambrano has the chance to be something of a circus all year long. Chicago has already pushed back the next start of Rich Hill, the club's second best starter in 2007, so the lefty can move to the bullpen for a few days to work out his mechanics; this seems to be an overreaction to one poor start. Now the club is concerned about Ted Lilly, who hasn't gotten out of the fifth in any of his first three starts. It appears that after Big Z there could be quite a bit of turnover in the 2-5 spots throughout the year.

Matchup: Brewers (8-4) at Cardinals (9-4), 7:15 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Dave Bush (10 2/3 IP, 12 H, 11 R, 8/8 K/BB) vs. Braden Looper (11 2/3 IP, 10 H, 4 R, 7/2 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Milwaukee, 88-74 (2nd, NL Central); St. Louis, 75-87 (3rd)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #4; St. Louis, #8
Prospectus: The second-place Brewers take on the first-place...Cardinals? Yes, Cardinals, in the first of three games at Busch Stadium. It appears that Tuesday is "Bring Your Relief Pitcher to the Starting Rotation" Day in the Midwest, as a little after Dempster begins his night of work for Chicago against the Reds, Looper will take the mound for St. Louis. This is of course Looper's second season in the rotation upon making the transition from the bullpen last year, that after eight years pitching in relief. Looper's first month of work last year was by far his best of the season, with a 1.91 RA in 33 innings; in four of the other five months, he had an RA of 5.61 or higher. Looper has gotten off to another good beginning this year, and has won both of his first two starts to help the Cardinals take the surprise early lead in the division.

The real focus tonight lies not on how the two starting pitchers perform on the mound, however, but on where they hit in the order. Tony La Russa has gone back this season to his old gambit of hitting his pitchers eighth in the order, which he used back when Mark McGwire was in his St. Louis heyday. The rationale of the move was to put an OBP threat in the ninth slot to serve as an extra lead-off man, which would then put more runners on base in front of Big Mac, who hit third. La Russa began using this kind of batting order again on occasion last season, and this year he has gone whole hog, putting either shortstop Cesar Izturis or second basemen Aaron Miles and Adam Kennedy in the ninth slot in all 13 games so far, in part to get No. 3 hitter Albert Pujols more RBI chances, but more basically to maximize the team's scoring opportunities.

While the move is not so unusual for La Russa, no one else had employed it more than once in a blue moon until this season, when Ned Yost began employing the strategy with Jason Kendall hitting in the ninth hole; Yost has hit Kendall ninth in 11 of the Brewers' first 12 games. Kendall seems to be the perfect position player to utilize in the nine hole, for though he has almost no power any more, he owns a .375 career OBP (and is even hitting .405 in 43 PA this season). Hitting Kendall ninth would appear to be especially advantageous for a team like the Brewers, who not only have two big sluggers hitting third and fourth in the order in Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, but also have a slugging lead-off hitter in second baseman Rickie Weeks, who already has three homers this year. Weeks has already batted with Kendall on base in almost half of his plate appearances this season, and while Kendall obviously won't keep getting on at a .452 clip, his presence in the ninth slot will help ensure that Weeks brings home more runs with his blasts than he otherwise would if the pitcher were hitting before him.

Matchup: Rockies (5-7) at Padres (7-6), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Ubaldo Jimenez (11 IP, 13 H, 6 R, 7/9 K/BB) vs. Randy Wolf (12 IP, 9 H, 3 R, 9/3 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Colorado, 82-80 (3rd, NL West); San Diego, 78-84 (4th)
Hit List Rankings: Colorado, #25; San Diego, #15
Prospectus: Wolf offers a prime case of what might have been. One of the most promising arms developed by the Phillies organization lately, Wolf was overworked early in his career, as one can see from the progression of his player comments from the Baseball Prospectus annuals:

1999: Uberprospect who faced a dangerously high workload at SWB this year...should be a very good pitcher if the Phils haven't ruined him; if they have, the entire organization should be canned, because they just wasted their best pitching prospect this decade...

2000: Here's the perfect example of how not to handle a young pitcher. Wolf was still working on polishing his curve at Triple-A when injuries forced the Phillies to call him up to the majors. They then rode him hard, frequently letting him throw well over 100 pitches. If he doesn't burn out...he's going to be an outstanding pitcher. Unless the team changes its approach to handling pitchers, that's not going to happen.

Wolf threw 107 pitches in his major league debut at the age of 22, on June 11, then 119 and 116 in his next two starts. He continued to be worked like a dog throughout the sweltering Philadelphia summer, throwing over 100 pitches in 17 of his 20 starts, over 110 in 10, and over 120 three times, including a 133 pitch effort on August 6.

2001: Terry Francona's legacy may be the destruction of Randy Wolf's star potential. If he has survived the abuse, Wolf could be a fun pitcher to watch for years to come because he has four good pitches thrown at four different speeds...Unfortunately, Bowa will likely finish the job Francona started.

2000 offered more of the same for Wolf: 27 of 32 starts over 100 pitches, 19 of 110 or more, and 11 of 120 or more, including outings in which he threw 131 and 134 pitches. He finished fifth in the majors in Pitcher Abuse Points (PAP) at the age of 23, behind Randy Johnson, Livan Hernandez, Rick Helling, and Al Leiter.

2002: As badly as Wolf was abused in 2000 and in the early going of 2001, he seemed to recover his arm strength during his demotion to the bullpen, returning to post a 2.19 ERA and allow just 62 base runners in 70 innings over ten post-break starts. On talent alone, Wolf is among the NL's best young pitchers; by the end of 2002, he'll either be a Cy Young contender or he'll have a torn labrum.

On back-to-back starts in early May of '01, Wolf threw 138 and then 119 pitches, then a start later, followed that up with 124- and 128-pitch efforts.

2003: After a case of elbow tendonitis in the spring, Wolf was among the best pitchers in the majors in the second half. If he stays healthy, and with a good chance at a whole lot of runs being scored for him, a Cy Young isn't out of the question.

In 2002, Wolf was a worthy Cy Young contender, thanks to a fantastic August-September in which he lowered his ERA from 3.95 to 3.20. From August 16-31, Wolf made three starts in which he pitched 26 innings without allowing a run; that success came at a price, however, producing pitch counts of 126, 124, and 117.

2004: On July 23 last year, Wolf was staring at the possibility of a Cy Young award, sitting at 11-5 with a 3.07 ERA. He threw a four-hit shutout against the Cubs that day, striking out 13 while throwing 132 pitches -- well above his 99 pitch per game average. In his next six starts, he allowed 33 runs in 30 innings; for the rest of the season; his ERA was 6.61. Was it worth the shutout?

And there you have it. Randy Wolf's career displays the startling length that teams have come in the past ten years in terms of better handling of young pitchers. Following that critical turn in 2003, Wolf has never been the same; he threw 136 2/3 innings in 2004, 80 in '05, and 56 2/3 in '07, ending his Phillies tenure. Last year he bounced back somewhat with the Dodgers, but still managed only 18 starts and 102 2/3 innings with an ERA above league average. Wolf is still just 31, and San Diego's big ballpark is a great place to revive a career, but it is doubtful he can recapture the potential greatness that was squeezed out of him.

Thanks to Baseball Reference for pitch count data.

Matchup: Pirates (7-6) at Dodgers (5-8), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Matt Morris (12 IP, 19 H, 11 R, 5/4 K/BB) vs. Hong-Chih Kuo (6 2/3 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 8/4 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Pittsburgh, 72-90 (tied for 5th NL Central); Los Angeles, 87-75 (tied for 1st NL West)
Hit List Rankings: Pittsburgh, #27; Los Angeles, #19
Prospectus: Japanese pitchers started and finished the game for the Dodgers last night--Hiroki Kuroda pitched six innings while allowing three runs in his Dodger Stadium Debut, and after LA took the lead in the bottom of the sixth, things were set up nicely for Kuroda's countryman, closer Takashi Saito, to provide another classic Vin Scully "happy ending" at Chavez Ravine. Things didn't turn out that way, though, as Saito gave up a three-run go-ahead homer to Nate McLouth--who now ranks second in the NL with 14 RBI--which was only the ninth homer Saito has surrendered in the two-plus seasons he has spent stateside with the Dodgers. Saito, in fact, entered last night having allowed batters to slug just .246 against him in 549 plate appearances. However, Saito did turn 38 before the season, so you would expect some slippage from the transcendent dominance he displayed from 2006-07. Between Saito and setup man Jonathan Broxton, though, the Dodgers should still have one of the most dominant late-inning tandems in baseball; Broxton, pitching in his fourth major league season at the age of 24, has already struck out 12 in 6 1/3 innings while walking one.

Another Dodgers Asian-born pitcher will take the mound tonight versus Pittsburgh when Taiwanese right-hander Hong-Chi Kuo makes his second start of the season. His first start was more of a relief outing, as he went only three innings filling in for Chad Billingsley, who was held back due to the threat of rain. Kuo is taking the fifth slot in the rotation from Esteban Loaiza, who was given the quick hook by manager Joe Torre after one bad start.

An update on the Dodgers outfield playing time situation: Los Angeles played their optimal outfield yesterday, starting Matt Kemp in right, Andre Ethier in left, and Andruw Jones in center, which was the fifth time in 13 games they had started that configuration. Before yestreday's game, Kemp was held out of the lineup for three straight in favor of Juan Pierre, who batted second in the order and played left in each of the three weekend games with San Diego. Kemp has gotten off to a slow start, but then, so has Pierre. At this point in his career, at age 23, Kemp needs regular playing time--he failed to reach 500 plate apperances last year, when he split time between Los Angeles and Las Vegas of the Pacific Coast League. Another such season in 2008 would threaten to stunt Kemp's considerable offensive potential, while also not really doing the Dodgers' finish in the standings this year any favors. In 2005, Dodgers manager Jim Tracy helped wreck a young player's career by failing to give him the playing time he deserved--anyone remember Hee Seop Choi? The situation with Kemp is not as extreme as that one was, but still, Choi's sad story should offer the organization a clear warning of the sometimes severe consequences playing time decisions can have on the development of young talent.

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

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