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June 19, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Thursday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Dodgers (33-38) at Reds (33-40), 12:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Eric Stults (82 2/3 IP, 3.81 RA, 1.32 WHIP, 67 K--AAA) vs. Aaron Harang (101, 4.37, 1.28, 89)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 36-35 (301 RS, 299 RA); Cincinnati, 33-40 (316 RS, 361 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #15; Cincinnati, #22
Prospectus: The old dog showed off some new tricks last night, as Dusty Baker experimented with a novel lineup, using slugging first baseman Joey Votto (.348 OBP) to lead off for the first time this season. Baker has used Jay Bruce (.417 OBP) in the leadoff spot as well, which is commendable, but the Cincinnati skipper also has hit veteran shortstop Jolbert Cabrera and his .305 OBP in the second slot over the past three games, which tempers one's enthusiasm for the new offensive alignment. Shuffling bats around has not gotten the Reds out of their funk, as after dropping the first two games at home to the Dodgers, Cincinnati has now dropped five straight and eight of its past 11. The Reds appeared to be a team on the verge of contention heading into the season, but now the team finds itself in last place in the NL Central.

The Dodgers have also disappointed this season, as the team has a sub-.500 record due to perhaps the largest imbalance to be found on any team in the National League, with a pitching staff that has allowed the third-fewest runs in the circuit and an offense that ranks 13th in runs. Blake DeWitt has been a great story this year due to both his bat and his glove, but he has stopped hitting along with the rest of the team recently, as his double yesterday was just the third extra-base hit in his last 102 PA. It might be time, therefore, to give Andy LaRoche a chance to start regularly at the hot corner, or at least find a way to rotate LaRoche, DeWitt, and second baseman Jeff Kent in a way that gets LaRoche more playing time. Since being called up from Triple-A Las Vegas on June 10, LaRoche has started just two of the Dodgers' eight games, and gotten just eight plate appearances total. That paucity of playing time is related to the fact that Los Angeles has faced just a pair of lefties in that stretch, but pigeonholing LaRoche into a platoon role is not an optimal usage of the organization's offensive assets--LaRoche is no slouch at all against righties--and could be potentially harmful to the 24-year-old's development. It also ignores the fact that DeWitt has a reverse split this season--a 705 OPS vs. righties and 868 vs. lefties.

Matchup: Padres (31-42) at Yankees (39-33), 1:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Josh Banks (28 IP, 1.61 RA, 1.04 WHIP, 17 K) vs. Joba Chamberlain (36 1/3, 2.97, 1.32, 40)
Pythagorean Record: San Diego, 29-44 (274 RS, 340 RA); New York, 38-34 (343 RS, 320 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Diego, #25; New York, #12
Prospectus: Chamberlain makes his fourth major league start, but his first without a set pitch limit to hold him back. He threw 62, then 78, then 89 pitches in his first three starts, increasing his innings from 2 1/3 to 4 1/3 to six. Chamberlain has walked nine in those 12 2/3 innings, not surprising given the fact that he was stretching himself out after not having started since last Summer. Trying to prevent San Diego from getting swept will be Banks, who has been a big surprise so far in his second stint in The Show. Designated for assignment on April 19 by Toronto after he allowed 15 runs in three starts for Triple-A Syracuse, Banks was snapped up off waivers by San Diego and stuck in Triple-A Portland, where he was hit hard again, giving up 18 runs in 24 1/3 innings. The Padres called him up anyway after Chris Young went down, at which point Banks reeled off a streak of 22 straight innings without allowing an earned run upon joining the major league club. Banks has fine control--a career UBB/9 of 1.4 in 761 1/3--but he gave up 1.3 HR/9 from 2005-2008 in the high minors, with a strikeout rate (6.7 K/9) that is not a good bet to translate well.

Both teams' third basemen hit home runs last night in the Yankees' 8-5 win, with Padres' top prospect Chase Headley launching the first of his major league career, and Alex Rodriguez the 532nd, putting him two behind Jimmie Foxx and four behind Mickey Mantle on the all-time homer list. Headley has now slugged .648 and hit 12 home runs between the minors and majors since the start of May, but it remains to be seen how much power he will hit for in the majors, for he profiled as more of a Bill Mueller-type player (to borrow the comparison used by both Baseball Prospectus 2007 and 2008) heading into the season. The PECOTA system is also not high at all on his potential to be an impact bat, for it listed 20 third base prospects with higher long-term Upside scores heading into the season. Nate Silver, however, stated that he would certainly take the over on the youngster's projection.

Matchup: Royals (30-42) at Cardinals (42-31), 1:15 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Zack Greinke (93 IP, 3.58 RA, 1.30 WHIP, 67 K) vs. Brad Thompson (17 2/3, 4.58, 1.64, 13)
Pythagorean Record: Kansas City, 30-42 (278 RS, 334 RA); St. Louis, 39-34 (337 RS, 315 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Kansas City, #28; St. Louis, #7
Prospectus: Anthony Reyes was originally slated to come up from Triple-A Memphis to pitch this game in place of the injured Todd Wellemeyer, but Reyes instead hit the shelf himself with elbow irritation. That led the Cardinals to put in a late call for Thompson, who has not fared well since getting sent down, giving up eight runs on 13 hits in 8 2/3 innings over his two starts for the Redbirds. Thompson will nevertheless attempt to prevent the Cardinals from being swept at home by their in-state rival, after Kansas City pulled out one-run wins in the first two games. The Royals has fared well in interleague play thus far, winning six of eight games from National League clubs--all on the road. Kansas City has played just 31 of its 72 games at Kauffman Stadium this year, fewer home games to this point than any other team in the majors. As has been the norm lately, the American League has beaten up on its brethren in the senior circuit, with a 67-48 record (.583 winning percentage). The AL has held sway in interleague play over the last four seasons: since the start of 2005, the junior circuit has now gone 494-377 against the NL, a .554 winning percentage. Before the 2005 season, the NL was 988-959 against the AL in the first seven years of the experiment.

Kansas City has drawn just one walk in the first two games of the series, despite winning both, and the Royals rank last in the majors with 169 free passes, or one in every 16 plate appearances. Since the mound was lowered in 1969, just one other team has had a walk rate lower than that: the 2002 Tigers. St. Louis, meanwhile, leads the major leagues with 297 walks, but that of course is primarily due to the presence of Albert Pujols, who is currently on the DL. The Cardinals have now averaged less than four runs in the seven games since Pujols has been out, with replacement Chris Duncan collecting just five singles and a walk in 29 plate appearances during that span.

Matchup: Cubs (45-27) at Rays (42-29), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Sean Gallagher (41 2/3 IP, 4.54 RA, 1.37 WHIP, 36 K) vs. James Shields (89 2/3, 4.72, 1.18, 69) Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 46-26 (393 RS, 287 RA); Tampa Bay, 38-33 (321 RS, 294 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #1; Tampa Bay, #5
Prospectus: The Rays will look to sweep the Cubs tonight in Lou Piniella's first trip back to Tropicana Field since he managed Tampa Bay from 2003-05. After back-to-back one-run victories in the first two games, the Rays have now won 24 of their last 28 home games, and have built up a three-game lead in the AL Wild Card hunt.

Both Tampa Bay and Chicago have built their success this season upon a strong defensive foundation. After finishing dead last in the majors last season in efficiency, the Rays have jumped all the way up to third this year, converting 71.7 percent of balls in play into outs, while the Cubs have maintained their top billing in the National League from 2007, ranking first in the senior circuit again this year (and fourth overall) with a a 71.5 percent conversion rate. The Rays defense has gotten markedly better despite the player they brought in strictly to upgrade the shortstop position, Jason Bartlett, not playing all that well: Bartlett has been three runs below average at shortstop by FRAA, and also carries a slightly sub-par Range Factor (4.28 vs. 4.46 league average). At third base and second base, however, the moves have worked out as the team had hoped. Akinori Iwamura has yet to make an error at second base, and sports an FRAA Rate of 106, while Evan Longoria has been excellent at third base, with just four errors in 61 games and a Rate of 115, making his performance with the glove already worth nearly a win over an average fielder by Clay Davenport's translations (+9 FRAA). In the outfield, B.J. Upton has long since claimed a permanent home, and his seven assists this season lead all major league center fielders. And behind the plate, Dioner Navarro has improved his play substantially; last year he rated six runs below average in 112 games, but this season he has already amassed eight runs above in just 49 games, good for a sparkling rate of 117. Navarro also has yet to make an error this season, after committing 14 last season, and his caught stealing percentage has climbed from 30 to 33 percent as well. This game will showcase two of the best young catchers in the game, for the Cubs' Geovany Soto has been outstanding offensively and defensively, leading to his ranking first amongs Chicago's position players with 3.9 WARP.

Matchup: Indians (33-39) at Rockies (30-42), 6:05 p.m. MST
Probable Starters: Jeremy Sowers (18 2/3 IP, 7.23 RA, 1.77 WHIP, 8 K) vs. Jorge De La Rosa (32 2/3, 7.44, 1.50, 34)
Pythagorean Record: Cleveland, 37-35 (324 RS, 312 RA); Colorado, 30-42 (306 RS, 366 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cleveland, #18; Colorado, #27
Prospectus: Two young lefties with Boeing-level ERAs square off at Coors Field, which could lead to some offensive fireworks in the finale of this three-game interleague series. Cleveland has not taken advantage of the thin air so far, however: after entering Denver having scored over six runs per game in its last seven, five of those wins, the Indians' offensive woes have resurfaced, as they've notched just two runs in each of the first two games, both losses.

These two teams have been linked this season by their struggle to find production in the middle infield, particularly at second base. Both squads handed the second base job to young, defensively-oriented players--Asdrubal Cabrera in Cleveland, and Jayson Nix in Colorado--and neither was able to hit enough to stay in the major leagues, let alone hold down the starting job. Cleveland has found a suitable stopgap in veteran Jamey Carroll, who has done a fine job filling in, with an OBP (.378) that is lower than only Grady Sizemore's amongst Indians with 100 or more at-bats. Carroll has been one of just four Indians to post an average EqA (.260) or better this season, along with Sizemore and two young outfielders, Ben Francisco and Shin-Soo Choo. The Rockies, meanwhile, have hit upon a creative solution at the keystone by going with a platoon of the right-handed Jeff Baker and left-handed Ian Stewart. Since he began regularly splitting time with Stewart at the position, Baker has 11 hits in 26 at-bats, with a pair of homers, while Stewart has struggled lately after a strong start to his second year in the majors. Neither player had ever played second base in his professional career before this season, which shows you just how desperate Colorado was to find a solution for its problems at the position. Second base has been a sinkhole for the past decade in Colorado; since Eric Young was traded during the 1998 season, the Rockies have not had a player serve as the primary starter at the position in consecutive seasons.

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

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