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June 22, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Sunday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Angels (45-30) at Phillies (42-34), 1:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jered Weaver (91 1/3 IP, 4.83 RA, 1.31 WHIP, 65 K) vs. Cole Hamels (106, 3.40, 1.04, 91)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 39-36 (321 RS, 309 RA); Philadelphia, 46-30 (396 RS, 316 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #12; Philadelphia, #5
Prospectus: There's been some talk of Jered Weaver struggling this season relative to the success he's had in the past, but little has actually changed from last year to this despite a jump in his ERA from 3.91 to 4.73. The twelfth overall pick in the 2004 amateur draft is striking out 6.4 hitters per nine-same as last year-walking around the same number of batters at 2.4 per nine, and giving up a barely higher homer rate than before, 1.2 against his even one per nine in '07. Until recently, he was pitching better than last year, but he's taking a beating his last few starts out. Since May 30, Weaver has allowed opponents to hit .317/.343/.535 against him, striking out just 5.5 hitters per nine while giving up at least one homer in all four of the his starts. These problems may crop up against a powerful Phillies' lineup today-Weaver's allowing a .285/.344/.489 line on the road, and the Phillies have hit .256/.335/.444 at home this year with a homer every 22 at-bats as a club.

Watch today's game to get a sense of how Weaver is approaching the opposition. For the season, his fastball velocity is roughly one mph higher than last year's, but given his recent struggles and propensity for giving up the long ball over the last four starts, his velocity is an indicator that bears watching. There's no reason to panic over Weaver yet-it's just four starts after all-but he has been curiously hittable much of the last month; whether that's something mechanical or related to a tired arm is what I'll be watching for today. Given his slinging motion and poor shoulder history, it could be either.

Matchup: Rangers (38-38) at Nationals (30-46), 1:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Vicente Padilla (91 2/3 IP, 4.61 RA, 1.40 WHIP, 63 K) vs. John Lannan (83, 3.47, 1.34, 49)
Pythagorean Record: Texas, 37-39 (424 RS, 435 RA); Washington, 28-48 (279 RS, 381 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Texas, #19; Washington, #30
Prospectus: The offense watch goes on for the Nationals, who now find themselves with a team EqA of .237, still "good" for last place in the majors. The organization's offense has not been this poor since the last season in Montreal, when they posted a .243 mark as a club. As was mentioned almost a month ago to the day, Washington's on pace to put up some of the worst team numbers over the past 10 years, and the worst in this decade and still young century. There isn't one player the team can point a finger at for being a drag on the offense-both Austin Kearns (-10.4 VORP) and Wily Mo Pena (-11.0) have been awful, but it isn't like Ryan Zimmerman's sub-.300 OBP and meager .427 slugging has helped the situation. The Lastings Milledge/Ryan Church swap, Church's concussion aside, is looking like an excellent deal for the Mets thanks to Milledge's paltry production-he's hitting just .246/.314/.367, putting him around replacement level for the season. Fellow new Nat Elijah Dukes has failed to live up to his potential thus far, but his 5.2 VORP is fifth-best among Washington's hitters.

The emergence of 23-year-old Jesus Flores is the lone bright spot on the offense outside of Cristian Guzman. PECOTA forecasted the right-handed hitting catcher for .259/.321/.450 this year, and he's outpaced that with .308/.373/.525, numbers similar to his 90th -percentile projection. This is a significant leap forward from his .233 EqA during the 2007 season, one in which he stuck around in the majors for at the tender age of 22 as a Rule 5 draftee. Granted, he's had all of 134 PA this year, but it's a bright spot that shines brighter when you realize they stole him from the Mets for what amounts to chump change, and now their division rivals have to put up with former Nat and replacement-level hitter Brian Schneider behind the plate. Even if Flores' production slows down during the rest of the year, he's a young catcher with some pop, and at a position where any offense (.252 average EqA at catcher this year) is a plus.

Matchup: Blue Jays (35-41) at Pirates (36-39), 1:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Dustin McGowan (89 IP, 4.45 RA, 1.35 WHIP, 72 K) vs. Ian Snell (81 2/3, 6.28, 1.87, 62)
Pythagorean Record: Toronto, 39-37 (300 RS, 294 RA); Pittsburgh, 34-41 (365 RS, 406 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Toronto, #11; Pittsburgh, #27
Prospectus: Saying the Blue Jays have struggled offensively is taking the easy way out; a more detailed look is necessary to explain the problems with this lineup:


Pos  AB 2B 3B HR RBI BB  K  AVG  OBP  SLG
C   265 19  0  7  33 29 42 .287 .360 .438
1B  267 12  2  6  27 44 58 .255 .359 .382
2B  293 18  0  3  31 27 44 .249 .315 .341
3B  272 15  3  4  28 34 41 .254 .349 .375
SS  275 15  0  2  26 29 31 .276 .360 .353
LF  277  5  5  2  17 35 36 .224 .306 .300
CF  310 13  1  7  38 23 49 .268 .318 .384
RF  303 20  2  6  34 26 73 .274 .328 .413
DH  252  6  1 10  37 35 53 .214 .322 .365

The absence of slugging from any of the slots in the lineup is especially notable. The only position where the Jays are really getting above-average production is at catcher, and they are failing miserably at producing runs from the spots that should be easiest to figure out. Their problem at DH is a punishment from the baseball gods for giving up on Frank Thomas-who has hit .319/.417/.516 since heading back to the Athletics-and with Matt Stairs (.255/.330/.411) shifting over to DH to plug that self-created hole, the Jays are left with Lyle Overbay (.262/.369/.402) at first base and the ghost of Brad Wilkerson (.248/.323/.368 since joining the Jays) in left. Adam Lind is now listed as the starting left fielder-again-and hopefully the Jays leave him alone so he can adjust to major league pitching after tearing up Triple-A to the tune of .330/.389/.524.

John Gibbons was dismissed as manager of the team this week in favor of former manager Cito Gaston, but the organization needs to take a long look at the people who somehow built a roster without a capable bat in three of the easiest to fill positions on the diamond. Yes, the Jays have a very good defensive club, one that helps their pitching out immensely, but they can't win consistently if they can't score runs, and the team can't even do that in their home park, one of the friendliest towards hitters in the American League. They also lack the prospects to bolster the lineup immediately; top prospect Travis Snider, currently hitting .281/.365/.480 with strikeouts in over 34 percent of his plate appearances at Double-A, is the only five-star prospect in the organization, and they are without a single four-star prospect. This recent mess with Gibbons leads one to think that the people who helped to create the problem are being forced to clean it up, rather than be let go and given a chance to escape it. We'll see if the Jays front office is up to the challenge during the rest of this season.

Matchup: Giants (32-43) at Royals (32-43), 1:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Tim Lincecum (97 2/3, 2.58 RA, 1.23 WHIP, 95 K) vs. Kyle Davies (24 2/3 IP, 1.46, 1.42, 12)
Pythagorean Record: San Francisco, 33-42 (304 RS, 349 RA); Kansas City, 32-43 (291 RS, 347 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Francisco, #22; Kansas City, #26
Prospectus: Davies had his share of struggles in 2007 when he split the season between Dayton Moore's old organization and his new one, posting a 6.09 ERA over 136 innings with 1.5 HR/9; sadly for Davies' performance, that 1.5 was a vast improvement over the 2.0 HR/9 he put up in 2006 with the Braves over 63 1/3 innings. This year, the seventh-best talent under the age of 25 in the Royals organization held opponents to 0.7 HR/9 in at Triple-A Omaha over 56 2/3 innings, and that trend has held up during his first 24 2/3 innings in the majors this year. Davies has not allowed a homer yet, and it's just as well, because this has helped make up for his problems in other areas, most notably his walking 4.4 batters per nine, but it is the kind of thing you pay attention to given his career rates. The samples are too small to make much noise about at this point, but if Davies can perform at even a league-average level, he'll help to form a trio of useful, young starters, joining Luke Hochevar and Zach Greinke. PECOTA sees it in the cards at his higher percentiles, which foresee lower homer rates. That's the key to keeping him on the mound, and based on his work in 2008 thus far, it's something he may be delivering on.

Matchup: White Sox (41-33) at Cubs (47-28), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Javier Vazquez (96 IP, 4.22 RA, 1.31 WHIP, 93 K) vs. Ryan Dempster (94 2/3, 3.42, 1.09, 81)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 45-29 (366 RS, 289 RA); Chicago, 47-28 (411 RS, 305 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #3; Chicago, #2
Prospectus: The White Sox have a run differential of +77 thanks to fielding a well-balanced team. The defense is tied for eighth in the league with the Tigers and Blue Jays, as they have converted 71.1 percent of balls in plays into outs, and the pitching staff has done its part to make the defense's job easy by striking out nearly 19 percent of the opposition while dishing out walks on just 7.3 percent of the plate appearances. Those figures, coupled with the club's 0.8 HR/9 mark as a team, second best in the majors, has helped keep runs off of the board and post a team SNLVAR that's good for 11th in the majors. The bullpen has been just as impressive thanks to Scott Linebrink (1.592 WXRL) and Bobby Jenks (1.539), the two most productive pieces in a bullpen that also ranks 11th in WXRL as a team. The offense, with a .263 EqA, has also been a shade better than the league average.

The Twins are 2.5 games back at the start of today's action, but they're starting to catch up, and they and the Tigers have both gone 8-2 in over their last 10, pushing the former over .500 and giving the latter a shot at getting there sooner than later. Both of those teams have enough flaws that an "average" White Sox squad may be able to retain its lead; after all, their expected record is a few games better than their actual record, meaning they have some room for improvement. The lineup especially can hope for some improved performances, given that Jim Thome (.272 EqA), Nick Swisher (.253), and Paul Konerko (.239), three bats that the team expected to key components on Opening Day, have all done their part to drag down the offense in the first half. If two of those three can reverse their fortunes from here on out, the White Sox may be able to stave off any charge that comes from behind, and even a rebound from one might be enough to push them over the edge.

Related Content:  Homer,  The Who,  Hit List,  Prospectus,  Manager Of The Year

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