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May 1, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Thursday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Rays (15-12) at Orioles (15-12), 12:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Matt Garza (13 IP, 17 H, 7.62 RA, 6/8 K/BB) vs. Brian Burres (25 1/3 IP, 21 H, 2.49 RA, 13/10 K/BB)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 16-11 (130 RS, 109 RA); Baltimore, 13-14 (119 RS, 125 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #10; Baltimore, #13
Prospectus: The Rays and Orioles play the rubber match of their three-game set. Garza will make his second start since coming off the DL, and is looking for his first quality outing of the year after he gave up three runs in five innings to Boston last Friday. Burres is coming off the best start of his major league career, an eight-inning gem against the White Sox; the 27-year-old left-hander made 17 starts last season, his first full major league campaign, and did not reach eight innings in any of them. Burres has succeeded this season despite an unimpressive K/BB ratio, thanks mostly to his BABIP dropping from a lofty .335 last year down to .263 so far. A fly-ball pitcher, Burres has certainly benefited from the Birds' improved outfield defense.

The Rays finished April with a winning record for the first time in team history. Tampa Bay's strong start is mostly due to its pitching, which has allowed the third fewest runs in the American League. The Rays bullpen has been a strength, which represents a dramatic turnaround--last year, Tampa Bay's relievers had a -95.4 Adjusted Runs Prevented (ARP) total, a performance nearly 10 wins below average, the worst in the BP database dating back to 1959. This year, the Rays are well ahead of any other team in baseball with a 21.5 ARP through the first month (Oakland is second at 16.5), despite the fact that their best reliever last year by WXRL, Al Reyes, is currently on the DL after pitching just five ineffective innings. If it lasts, that improvement would be the biggest jump in ARP from one year to the next ever, just ahead of the Texas bullpen's upswing from 2003 to 2004. Among the holdovers from the 2007 disaster, Dan Wheeler, Scott Dohmann, and Gary Glover have all pitched much better, and J.P. Howell has taken well to his conversion from starter to long man out of the pen. The team's veteran imports have also been excellent: specialist Trever Miller has retired 13 of the 17 left-handed batters he's faced, while closer Troy Percival is channeling his former greatness, converting all five of his save chances.

Thanks to Jason Paré for database research.

Matchup: Royals (12-15) at Rangers (10-18), 1:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Zack Greinke (36 IP, 30 H, 1.50 RA, 19/10 K/BB) vs. Sidney Ponson (37 2/3 IP, 7.41 RA, -0.2 SNLVAR in 2007--MIN)
Pythagorean Record: Kansas City, 10-17 (100 RS, 129 RA); Texas, 10-18 (130 RS, 177 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Kansas City, #25; Texas, #29
Prospectus: As per usual with the Rangers, the team's pitching staff has been a failure this season. Texas ranks last in the majors with an RA of 6.3, has walked more batters (131) and struck out less (135) than any other team in baseball, and given up the highest batting average against (.300), thanks in part to a defense which also ranks last in efficiency, having converted just 67.5 percent of balls in play into outs. The Rangers have had several injuries to their starting pitchers, with Kason Gabbard and most recently Jason Jennings going down, and it is not a good sign when a storied journeyman like Ponson--now with his sixth organization in six years--represents the cavalry. Ponson has had two seasons of average or better pitching in his 10 year career prior to 2008, the last coming in 2003, and he has not put up an RA below 6.50 since 2004.

While the Rangers are at the bottom in pitching, Kansas City ranks last in the AL in runs scored (3.7 per game). One handicap has been at shortstop, where Tony Pena Jr. is already 7.5 runs below replacement thanks to a .156/.175/.208 line. (Despite that, Pena was actually intentionally walked in a game against Toronto last week, already the second time in his career.) Pena is in the lineup for his defense, but so far this year he ranks 22nd among major league shortstops in range factor per nine innings (3.93), well below the major league average (4.65), and 14th in zone rating (.845). Needless to say, it's been a very rough first month all around for Pena, and he has consequently started to lose playing time to Alberto Callaspo, who is off to an excellent start with the bat.

Matchup: Brewers (15-12) at Cubs (17-10), 1:20 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Yovani Gallardo (14 IP, 10 H, 0.64 RA, 9/5 K/BB) vs. Carlos Zambrano (40 2/3 IP, 37 H, 2.21 RA, 32/9 K/BB)
Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 13-14 (126 RS, 128 RA); Chicago, 18-9 (171 RS, 120 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #12; Chicago, #2
Prospectus: The top two contenders in the NL Central play the rubber match of their three-game series in a classic daytime matchup at Wrigley Field. The Brewers took the first game Tuesday night, as Mike Cameron's return to the lineup coincided with Milwaukee shaking off its offensive doldrums to pound out a season-high 17 hits in the 10-7 win. Last night the Cubs fired right back, unloading for 17 hits of their own in a 19-5 thumping. In contrast, this afternoon's contest promises to be an outstanding pitchers' duel (unless the wind is blowing out, of course) between the Brewers' ace-to-be and the Cubs' workhorse, both of whom looking to be as dominant in May as they were in April.

Cubs catcher Geovany Soto slugged a pair of three-run homers last night, and right fielder Kosuke Fukudome also had two hits, continuing the first-year teammates' competition for top rookie honors in the NL. Fukudome has clearly captured the hearts of the Wrigley bleacher bums, but Soto currently has the statistical edge on his Japanese teammate, ranking first among rookies with a 12.3 VORP and .484 MLVr, one spot ahead of Fukudome, who has a 9.0 VORP and .304 MLVr. Soto has had a remarkable season thus far; as reported by David Laurila, he struck out in eight consecutive at-bats recently, three short of the major league record for position players, but he has also ripped the ball, with 14 extra-base hits and a .333/.427/.621 line in 103 plate appearances. It's still very early, but Soto led the minor leagues in slugging percentage last season, while it seems the Cubs have also found their next great right fielder in Fukudome, a successor worthy of carrying on the tradition of Andre Dawson and Sammy Sosa. Four Cubs have won the Rookie of the Year award, most recently Kerry Wood in 1998, while Jerome Walton was the last Chicago position player to win it, in 1989.

Matchup: Mariners (13-15) at Indians (13-15), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Miguel Batista (28 2/3 IP, 35 H, 6.91 RA, 24/7 K/BB) vs. Paul Byrd (19 IP, 23 H, 8.53 RA, 15/17 K/BB)
Pythagorean Record: Seattle, 15-13 (127 RS, 119 RA); Cleveland, 15-13 (127 RS, 120 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Seattle, #23; Cleveland, #19
Prospectus: The Mariners sent a strong message to several of their slumping regulars, as they called up two of their top prospects on the same day--catcher Jeff Clement and right fielder Wladimir Balentien. Clement was rated as the top prospect in the Seattle system by Kevin Goldstein, and Balentien the fourth best. Both players were destroying the baseball at Triple-A Tacoma, with Balentien off to a .254/.329/.619 start with six homers and five doubles in 73 plate appearances, and Clement hitting .397/.535/.692 with five homers and eight doubles in 101 PA. Those numbers are especially impressive because Tacoma played as the most pitcher-friendly ballpark in the Pacific Coast League over the past three years, and the second best pitchers' park in Triple-A overall. Both players certainly deserved the promotion, and the Mariners were certainly eager to get them up and plugged into offensive voids posthaste, as they eschewed waiting until May 7 to promote the pair, which would have pushed their eligibility for free agency back by a season.

Balentien has always had issues with strikeouts, but has "more power than anyone in the organization," according to Goldstein. He yanked three homers in his final Triple-A game on Monday, then launched a three-run homer to deep right field in his third at-bat last night. That shot was the first hit all season by a Mariners right fielder; Seattle had been the only team without a homer from the position. Clement figures to take time from a pair of struggling starters, designated hitter Jose Vidro and incumbent backstop Kenji Johjima, but it is unclear whether Clement currently has the defensive ability to handle regular playing time behind the dish. However, Seattle also just signed the 32-year-old Johjima to a three-year contract extension last week, signaling that the organization is committed to playing him regularly despite his cold start.

Matchup: Tigers (13-15) at Yankees (14-15), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Nate Robertson (28 2/3 IP, 35 H, 6.91 RA, 24/7 K/BB) vs. Ian Kennedy (19 IP, 23 H, 8.53 RA, 15/17 K/BB)
Pythagorean Record: Detroit, 13-15 (142 RS, 148 RA); New York, 14-15 (125 RS, 133 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Detroit, #18; New York, #14
Prospectus: Two winless pitchers take the mound tonight in the Bronx, as the Yankees attempt to avoid getting swept at home, and the Tigers look to creep a game closer to .500. All eyes in the Big Apple will be on Kennedy, who is surely hoping that the new month will bring with it his control, which he lost during April. Fellow youngster Philip Hughes has been knocked from the rotation due to an oblique strain after his own April struggles, so the Yankees now badly need Kennedy to firmly grab his rotation spot to keep from dipping into the replacement-level starting stock that they had to rely on extensively during the early part of last season. Kennedy and Hughes, however, got a vote of confidence from Hank Steinbrenner on Wednesday, who acknowledged that "it will take time" for the pair to succeed.

It took time for the Tigers' offense to succeed, but after a miserable first 12 games in which they averaged less than three runs, they have scored nearly seven per game over the last 16, and now lead the AL in scoring, on-base percentage, and slugging. Center fielder Curtis Granderson has provided a huge lift since returning from his finger injury, with a .375/.531/.958 line in seven games, and the only big Tiger bat yet to deliver is that of Sheffield, who hit his second homer in the series opener on Tuesday night and added two hits in last night's win over his former team (while uncle Doc Gooden cheered him on). Meanwhile, New York's offense has yet to get off the ground, with just one double-digit output and an average of under 4.5 runs per game, and the current absence of top bats Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada has exacerbated matters. Last night Alberto Gonzalez played third base in place of the disabled Rodriguez, about as big a drop-off in offensive production as there can be: by the PECOTA-projected MLVr of each player, that scenario costs the Yankees nearly half a run per game, and between it and the difference between the offense of backup catcher Jose Molina and Posada, the Yankees are losing around eight-tenths of a run per game with their two franchise hitters on the shelf.

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

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