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May 1, 2008
Thursday's Games to Watch
Matchup: Rays (15-12) at Orioles (15-12), 12:35 p.m. ET
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
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
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
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
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.