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April 23, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Wednesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Mets (10-9) at Nationals (6-15), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Johan Santana (27 2/3 IP, 20 H, 3.58 RA, 28/4 K/BB) vs. Tim Redding (22 IP, 17 H, 5.73 RA, 17/9 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: New York, 93-69 (1st, NL East); Washington, 73-89 (4th)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #2; Washington, #30
Prospectus: Losers of three straight, the Mets head to Washington for a two-game set and their first look at new Nationals Park. The Nationals have not christened their new grounds well, as they are off to the second worst start in franchise history. (Back when it was still the Montreal Expos, the franchise began the year 5-16 in 2004, and went on to lose 95 games.) Washington occupied the bottom spot in last week's Hit List, and it has gotten worse since then, with losses in three of their last four and a clicking sound in closer Chad Cordero's shoulder. Even despite those woes, however, you would expect that the team's new park would have more of a honeymoon period than one game. Opening Night against the Braves produced a sellout--although the listed attendance of 39,389 was less than the official 41,000 capacity of the new stadium--and the fans were treated to a walk-off home run from Ryan Zimmerman. Upon returning home after a road trip, however, the Nationals averaged just 26,351 fans over their first homestand, a six-game affair. That included a 20,487 night in the second game at Nationals Park, which represented the second-largest drop-off from game one attendance in a new park to game two in the 21 stadiums that opened in the past 20 years:


Year Team         New Park                 Game 1  Game 2    Diff.
1997 Braves       Turner Field             45,044  45,698  +   644
1993 Marlins      Joe Robbie Stadium       42,334  42,689  +   355
2004 Padres       Petco Park               41,400  41,625  +   225
2000 Giants       PacBell Park             40,930  40,390  -   540
1994 Rangers      Ballpark at Arlington    46,056  45,455  -   601
2006 Cardinals    Busch Stadium            41,936  40,648  - 1,288
1999 Mariners     Safeco Field             44,607  43,252  - 1,355
2001 Brewers      Miller Park              42,024  40,651  - 1,373
1992 Orioles      Camden Yards             44,568  42,870  - 1,698
2001 Pirates      PNC Park                 36,954  35,045  - 1,909
2000 Astros       Enron Field              41,583  39,018  - 2,565
1989 Blue Jays    Skydome                  48,378  45,520  - 2,858
1998 Diamondbacks Bank One Ballpark        47,484  43,758  - 3,726
2004 Phillies     Citizens Bank Park       41,626  37,512  - 4,114
1992 White Sox    Comiskey Field           42,191  36,420  - 5,771
1994 Indians      Jacobs Field             41,459  34,087  - 7,372
1995 Rockies      Coors Field              47,228  38,087  - 9,141
1993 Rockies      Mile High Stadium        80,227  65,261  -14,966
1998 Devil Rays   Tropicana Field          45,369  30,109  -15,260
2008 Nationals    Nationals Park           39,389  20,487  -18,902
2003 Reds         Great American Ballpark  42,343  22,878  -19,465

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference and Retrosheet

The Nationals have something of an excuse, given that Major League Baseball scheduled their home opener as an isolated game to start the season. The Nationals immediately traveled to Philadelphia afterwards, and so did not have the continuity of an opening series to aid attendance--something the Reds cannot similarly cite to save face. That doesn't excuse Washington, of course, especially considering that concerns about attendance formed part of the reason for the failure of the city's first and second iterations of the Senators. If the fans can't come out tonight to watch their squad take on the division favorite and the best pitcher in baseball, then something is indeed amiss in our nation's capital.

Matchup: Angels (12-9) at Red Sox (15-7), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jon Garland (24 1/3 IP, 33 H, 5.92 RA, 3/7 K/BB) vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka (28 2/3 IP, 18 H, 3.14 RA, 28/17 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Los Angeles, 85-77 (1st, AL West); Boston, 91-71 (2nd, AL East)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #11; Boston, #9
Prospectus: Is it time yet to begin a "Free Juan Rivera" campaign? At 29, Rivera is the youngest of the five Angels outfielders currently on the roster, and has more offensive potential than both the 36-year-old Garret Anderson and the 33-year-old Gary Matthews Jr., as measured by PECOTA's 2008 forecast. In his last full season, 2006, Matthews hit .310/.362/.525, and finished second on the team in both home runs (23) and VORP (33.5) to Vladimir Guerrero. Since returning late last year from a broken leg, Rivera has been buried on the bench, the player hurt the most by the team's decision to sign a pair of past-peak center fielders to multi-year deals in consecutive offseasons. So far this year, Rivera has received 19 plate appearances in the Angels' first 21 games; Anderson has gotten 89, and Matthews 94. Rivera was kept from playing the field in the middle of spring training by a sore right shoulder, so it's possible that injury is still hampering him, but if Rivera is now healthy, then the Angels are letting runs leach through the pine he's riding.

Los Angeles could elect to trade away some of its outfield depth, of course. But if the team decides to keep both Rivera and Reggie Willits--the latter of whom was sent down to Triple-A to play regularly after putting up a .391 OBP in 518 plate appearances last season--both players could end up seeing a significant amount more playing time later in the year. That's because both Anderson and Guerrero received red lights in Will Carroll's Angels' preseason Team Health Report. There, Carroll disagreed with his system's giving Matthews Jr. a green light, noting that he believed Matthews' knee problems would cause Little Sarge to miss at least some time this year. With such risks roaming the corners, and the additional chance that Hunter could get hurt due to his all-out defensive style, Rivera and Willits will almost definitely be needed to step to the fore at some point.

Matchup: Rangers (7-14) at Tigers (8-13), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Luis Mendoza (15 2/3 IP, 16 H, 6.32 RA, 11/12 K/BB) vs. Kenny Rogers (30 2/3 IP, 35 H, 2.05 RA, 24/9 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Texas, 73-89 (4th, AL West); Detroit, 91-71 (tied for 1st, AL Central)
Hit List Rankings: Texas, #21; Detroit, #28
Prospectus: Yesterday, Detroit announced that Miguel Cabrera will start playing first base on a more regular basis, and that Carlos Guillen will swap positions and take over at third. Cabrera had already made five errors in 116 innings at third base so far this season, the most among AL third basemen. That start reemphasized the negative defensive returns from his last two seasons: in 2006, Cabrera's first year playing full-time at the hot corner, he had -5.7 SFR and -4 FRAA, and last year those figures slipped to -9.8 and -9, encouraging he make a move down the defensive spectrum to first base. It's unclear how Guillen will perform at third, since the last time he played there was in 2003 during 32 games with Seattle. Guillen's defense at shortstop slipped badly in the last couple of years, but much of that may have been a lateral movement problem for a player who is now 32 and who has had multiple issues with his knees. Guillen's range factor at short ((putouts + assists)/innings) fell three consecutive years from 2004 to 2007, from 4.97 to 4.29, and his Zone Rating also dropped each year since 2004, from 837 to 807 last year. If Guillen's defensive instincts remain intact, however, he could very well play a good third base.

Detroit is currently 15th in defensive efficiency, and, all other things being equal, that ranking can be expected to improve with the move. One of the pitchers primed to be assisted the most by Detroit's infield shuffle is Rogers, who when on generates a good number of groundballs (a 50 percent ground-ball rate over the past two seasons in Detroit). Much of the Detroit bullpen is also made up of ground-ball pitchers, including closer Todd Jones and middle relievers Denny Bautista, Zach Miner, and (currently injured) Fernando Rodney.

Matchup: Cubs (14-6) at Rockies (9-11), 6:35 p.m. MDT
Probable Starters: Rich Hill (15 1/3 IP, 19 H, 7.04 RA, 7/3 K/BB) vs. Franklin Morales (15 1/3 IP, 22 H, 6.46 RA, 13/5 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Chicago, 91-71 (1st, NL Central); Colorado, 82-80 (3rd, NL West)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #7; Colorado, #20
Prospectus: Fresh off a two-game sweep of the Mets, the Cubs roll into Coors Field with the second best record in the National League. Chicago has scored more runs than any other team in baseball (126, 6.3 per game) thanks primarily to an offense that has been the best in the NL at getting on base (.371 team OBP). Every one of Chicago's offensive starters so far has an on-base percentage above .400, led by right fielder Kosuke Fukudome (.357/.477/.500). The team's start is not in keeping with its performance this century--the last time a Chicago team ranked in the top half of the NL in OBP was 2001. In fact, the last time a Cubs team was even in the NL top five in OBP was 1989. If you want a good example of how the offensive context of the game has changed since then, consider that Chicago in '89 led the NL with a .261 batting average, finished second with a .387 slugging percentage, and third with a paltry .319 OBP. In 2006, the Cubs posted that exact same .319 mark, and ranked dead last in OBP of the league's 16 teams.

One of those players with an OBP over .400 is middle infielder Ronny Cedeno, who has gotten the chance to play lately with Alfonso Soriano on the DL and Ryan Theriot nursing some minor injuries. Cedeno has already driven in 13 runs in just 32 plate appearances; he has had 34 runners on base while hitting, giving him an OBI% (others batted in percentage) of 35, currently the highest in the majors among hitters with 20 PA or more. Cedeno failed in his full-time trial as the Cubs shortstop as a 23-year-old in 2006, but his minor league numbers detail substantial offensive promise: a .359 BA and 959 OPS last season in 327 PA at Triple-A Iowa, and a .355 BA/921 OPS in 274 PA in his first crack at Triple-A in 2005. Cedeno's not likely to display much patience at the major league level, but he could be a decent source of batting average, and his grand slam yesterday highlighted the fact that he has quite a bit more power potential than Theriot. Given that, as well as the fact Cedeno rated as a better defensive shortstop in 2006 than Theriot did last year by both SFR and FRAA, it's not hard to build a case for Cedeno as the more deserving everyday player.

Matchup: Diamondbacks (15-5) at Dodgers (8-12), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Dan Haren (25 IP, 18 H, 2.52 RA, 19/4 K/BB) vs. Derek Lowe (24 1/3 IP, 26 H, 3.70 RA, 18/5 K/BB)
PECOTA Projection: Arizona, 87-75 (tied for 1st, NL West); Los Angeles, 87-75 (tied for 1st)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #1; Los Angeles, #4
Prospectus: The Dodgers get their second crack at the NL-leading Diamondbacks, this time at home, after Arizona swept Los Angeles in a three-game series two weeks ago in Phoenix. After losing four of its last five, Los Angeles finds itself already seven games behind the Diamondbacks, who have won six of seven. Arizona's bats have been blazing, with a major league-leading 845 OPS, but the Diamondbacks also lead the majors with a 3.59 RA from their pitchers. The D'backs' pitchers also have posted a major league-low .220 batting average against. That last figure is directly tied in to defensive efficiency, in which the Snakes are also tops, with an outstanding 75.5 percent of balls in play having been turned into outs by their fielders. No team has ever converted at that high a percentage over a full season. The most efficient defensive team in the years BP has complete data from (1959 and onward) was the 1968 Indians, who turned 75.4 percent of balls in play hit against them into outs.

Which players are fueling Arizona's top-notch defense? Second baseman Orlando Hudson has won a Gold Glove each of the past three years, and the statistics bear out those honors. In the outfield, the evidence points to center fielder Chris B. Young, who could well be a blossoming defensive superstar in addition to his prodigious offensive skills. Young has been compared to Mike Cameron since he first became a prospect, and Cameron's one of the great defensive center fielders of this generation. Having a young flycatcher of Young's quality manning the middle is a particular boon to the Snakes bullpen, as closer Brandon Lyon and middle relievers Juan Cruz, Brandon Medders, Yusmeiro Petit, and Doug Slaten all allow a lot more fly balls than the average.

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

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