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June 21, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Saturday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Reds (34-41) at Yankees (40-34), 1:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Daryl Thompson (89 IP, 3.03 RA, 0.96 WHIP, 78 K, combined Double- and Triple-A) vs. Dan Giese (59, 2.44, 0.97, 51, Triple-A)
Pythagorean Record: Cincinnati, 33-42 (324 RS, 370 RA); New York, 39-35 (347 RS, 325 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cincinnati, #25; New York, #7
Prospectus: A pair of rookies make their first major league starts in the Bronx; it will also be Thompson's debut. Thompson's stock exploded this season after outstanding performances in the Southern and International Leagues. The right-hander toiled for five years in the lower minors after he was drafted out of high school in 2003 before moving to the high minors this season. However, that's nothing compared to the time that Giese has put in: the 31-year-old right-hander's first minor league season was in 1999. Giese pitched for 10 different minor league teams in four different organizations over nine seasons before he was finally called up to receive his first taste of the big leagues with San Francisco last year, then switched teams again this offseason before finding himself a beneficiary of the Yankees' injury crunch. Giese owns a career minor league RA of 3.48 and WHIP of 1.09, so he's overdue for a shot. He was exclusively a reliever up until this season, having appeared in 374 minor league games and thrown 597 1/3 innings before making his first pro start this year for Triple-A Scranton. Giese made an excellent transition, so he now gets a shot at replacing Chien-Ming Wang.

Thompson was originally drafted by the Nationals, but was shipped to the Reds along with Bill Bray, Royce Clayton, Brendan Harris, and Gary Majewski in the July 2006 trade that sent Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez, and Ryan Wagner to Washington. Then-Reds GM Wayne Krivsky was derided at the time, but nearly two years later, it appears that the Reds may have actually gotten the better of that deal--and Thompson's a big part of the reason why. Thompson had to undergo labrum surgery and missed most of 2006, but he has come back strong and is now one of the fastest risers in the minors. He was in the running for Kevin Goldstein's Pitcher of the Month award for the Southern League in April, and kept dealing after a promotion to Triple-A Louisville. Thompson just missed the cut for Goldstein's list of the Reds Top 11 Prospects, but you can bet that he'll be featured prominently next season--that is, unless he pitches well enough in The Show to lose his rookie status.

Matchup: Cardinals (43-32) at Red Sox (46-30), 3:55 p.m. ET, FOX
Probable Starters: Mitchell Boggs (71 1/3 IP, 3.79 RA, 1.16 WHIP, 44 K, Triple-A) vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka (64, 2.95, 1.30, 55)
Pythagorean Record: St. Louis, 40-35 (343 RS, 323 RA); Boston, 45-31 (387 RS, 318 RA)
Hit List Rankings: St. Louis, #10; Boston, #1
Prospectus: The last time a Boggs faced the Red Sox at Fenway Park, the year was 1999, and future Hall of Famer Wade was playing out the last season of his career as a member of his hometown team, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Now the rookie Mitchell--no relation--will make his third career major league start against Matsuzaka, who is coming off of the DL after missing three and a half weeks with a mild rotator cuff strain. Dice-K was pitching through serious command issues before his injury (5.3 BB/9), and it will be interesting to see whether those problems were related to the shoulder fatigue he was experiencing. The Cardinals are first in the majors in walks, so you might expect them to try to wait Matsuzaka out even more than usual in an effort to run up his pitch count--likely to be limited in his first start back off the DL--and force an early exit.

Last night an unusual sight was witnessed at Fenway Park: a two-inning save by Cardinals closer Ryan Franklin. Multi-inning saves by closers have been virtually eliminated from today's game; not taking into account games in which a pitcher entered in a non-save situation and pitched the final three or more innings, there have been seven saves in which the pitcher threw two or more innings this year. Four of those were recorded by middle relievers who came on in a save situation in the eighth and then stayed on to finish off the game after their team scored enough insurance runs to eliminate the save chance for the closer. Just three times, therefore, has a manager sent his closer out for the start of the eighth inning in a save situation with the intent of having him finish out a tight win. One of those was last night, one came on May 31 as Joakim Soria pitched the eighth and ninth in a 4-2 Royals victory against Cleveland, and the other on April 24, when Manny Acosta did the same in Atlanta's 7-4 win over the Marlins. Franklin also threw 44 pitches in the process, the second most any pitcher has thrown in recording a multi-inning save this season. Franklin's workload serves as a reminder of just how careful the Red Sox are by comparison with Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon went two or more innings in six appearances in 2006, his first year as closer, but the Red Sox realized that such outings were not worth the risk to his fragile shoulder, and he has not gone that far in any game since the start of 2007.

Matchup: Orioles (38-34) at Brewers (39-34), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Daniel Cabrera (97 IP, 4.45 RA, 1.36 WHIP, 52 K) vs. Seth McClung (48, 3.94, 1.25, 38)
Pythagorean Record: Baltimore, 35-37 (324 RS, 333 RA); Milwaukee, 36-37 (333 RS, 340 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Baltimore, #17; Milwaukee, #14
Prospectus: The Summer Solstice arrived one day earlier than usual yesterday, but you can forgive fans exiting Miller Park after this game if they mistakenly think that today is actually the longest of the year, because if these two pitchers perform at their career norms, this contest could take quite a while to complete. Of all currently active pitchers who have thrown at least 300 innings since 2003--the year McClung entered the league--only one, J.C. Romero, has walked more per nine innings than McClung (5.21) and Cabrera (5.09) have. It appeared that Cabrera was making big strides with his control earlier this season, as he walked just four men in a four-start stretch last month, and has four starts total this year in which he has walked none. In his last two outings, however, Cabrera has gone back to his old, bad ways, handing out nine free passes combined. McClung has also shown flashes of his potential this season, and with seven walks in 27 2/3 innings since he moved into the rotation has actually exhibited good command. McClung's early returns as a starter are surprising considering his past struggles and the fact that he walked 13 in 20 1/3 innings out of the pen before making the shift.

Cabrera's wildness this season has filtered into his statistics beyond walks totals, for he has thrown an AL-leading seven wild pitches, and also has already nailed a major league-leading 11 men at the plate in 97 innings. Cabrera is on pace to pitch around 215 innings this season, which if he continues brushing them back at his current rate would lead to a total of 24 hit batsmen for the full year. That would be the highest total since the integration of baseball, breaking the record of 21 set by Kerry Wood in 2003 and the California Angels' Tom Murphy in 1969. Six players have plunked as many as 20 in that span, including the Zambranos (Carlos in 2004 and Victor in '03) and Don Drysdale in 1961. The overall single-season record since 1900 is well out of reach--Joe McGinnity of the turn-of-the-century Brooklyn Superbas nailed 41 in his 343 innings of work. There's a good chance Cabrera could add to his total tonight, for the Brewers lead the National League with 37 hit batsmen, although the team leader in that department, Rickie Weeks, is currently on the DL.

Matchup: Blue Jays (35-40) at Pirates (35-39), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jesse Litsch (82 2/3 IP, 3.81 RA, 1.29 WHIP, 44 K) vs. Paul Maholm (89, 4.75, 1.38, 59) Pythagorean Record: Toronto, 39-36 (297 RS, 288 RA); Pittsburgh, 33-41 (359 RS, 403 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Toronto, #11; Pittsburgh, #27
Prospectus: When it rains in the middle of the night in Anaheim, it pours, as the firing of Willie Randolph on Tuesday has been followed in quick succession by two other managerial dismissals, with the Blue Jays' John Gibbons the latest skipper to fall under the axe. In the first game following the firing of Gibbons, the Jays' bats remained silent as Toronto lost its sixth straight, a 12-inning 1-0 decision in the opener of three games with the Pirates. The Blue Jays' choice to replace Gibbons is a transparent attempt to recapture the organization's past glory, for general manager J.P. Ricciardi brought back Cito Gaston to serve as the interim manager. Gaston guided Toronto to its only two World Series championships in 1992 and 1993, and was skipper of the Jays for nine seasons (1989-1997), compiling an overall record of 683-636 (a .518 winning percentage). He has not managed anywhere else since his firing by the Jays in 1997, and is now 64 years of age, making him the oldest manager in the American League. In his press conference, Ricciardi addressed this by stating that "now is not the time to bring in a younger manager."

Gaston has already provided an interesting quotation in his short time back in the saddle, saying, "I get goose bumps when I look at that lineup." Presumably Gaston meant that as a compliment, although it wouldn't be hard to construe an alternate meaning given the offensive issues Toronto has been dealing with, especially after the team was just shut down for 12 innings by the National League's worst pitching staff. While Gaston is saying the right things in public, secretly he might be wishing he could just bring back his old roster from the early-'90s Jays--the team that led the AL in slugging in three out of four seasons from 1990-1993. Toronto ranks last in the junior circuit in slugging percentage (.374) this year, is the only American League team without a single player who has hit double-digits in home runs, and is currently being led in slugging percentage and OPS by 32-year-old journeyman catcher Rod Barajas.

Matchup: Mets (36-36) at Rockies (31-43), 5:05 p.m. MST
Probable Starters: Pedro Martinez (80 IP, 6.41 RA, 1.56 WHIP, 49 K) vs. Ubaldo Jimenez (53 1/3, 2.53, 1.18, 67)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 37-35 (344 RS, 334 RA); Colorado, 31-43 (314 RS, 376 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #13; Colorado, #24
Prospectus: The old adage regarding good pitchers, that you have to get them early, has held true this season for Martinez. The erstwhile ace has given up at least one first-inning run in all four of his starts this season, and in seven straight dating back to last season. According to Mets TV broadcaster Gary Cohen that is the longest such streak by a Mets pitcher since Nolan Ryan gave up first-inning runs in his final eight starts with New York in 1971. Opponents are 9-for-20 and have scored seven runs in the first against Martinez this season, and they are also 6-for-16 in the second, but the from the third inning onwards they have hit just .235/.278/.275 in 54 plate appearances. This pattern was also exhibited in 2006, Martinez's last full season, when he got progressively harder to hit as the game went along.

Jimenez has been the opposite this season, as he has generally held teams down in the early going before getting hurt later on. In his last start versus Atlanta, Jimenez shut out the Braves over the first four innings but gave up three runs in the fifth, and on the season has limited opponents to a .259/.335/.342 line in 255 plate appearances over the first four innings, as opposed to .298/.417/.447 in 116 PA thereafter. Jimenez is a bit like a younger, National League version of Cabrera, as he has the same control issues, right down to the wild pitches--a major league-leading 10 this year.

Willy Taveras stole two more bases in Colorado's 7-2 loss last night, and now has nabbed 10 in his past seven games, and 14 straight without getting caught. He got the better of the best team in baseball at throwing runners out in the series opener. The Mets have been the anti-Padres this season, as they have gunned down 19 of 43 would-be thieves, good for the best caught stealing percentage (44) and the lowest stolen bases against (24) in the majors. Brian Schneider has caught 14 out of 31 attempting to steal against him this season, while backup Ramon Castro has gunned down three of six.

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

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