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June 24, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Tuesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Rays (44-31) at Marlins (40-35), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Andy Sonnanstine (89 2/3 IP, 5.42 RA, 1.42 WHIP, 58 K) vs. Scott Olsen (92 1/3, 4.39, 1.30, 50)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 41-34 (338 RS, 307 RA); Florida, 38-37 (368 RS, 366 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #4; Florida, #15
Prospectus: The Marlins lead the majors with 112 home runs, and should get a power boost tonight when left fielder Josh Willingham returns to the fold following a nearly two-month absence brought on by a back injury. Willingham was living up to his nickname before he went down, with six homers and a .637 slugging percentage in 91 at-bats; all other Marlins left fielders this season have combined for four homers and slugged .441 in 188 at-bats. Five Marlins are currently on pace to hit more than 20 homers this year, and if Willingham can also get there--not an unreasonable assumption given his good start and 47 combined long balls between 2006-07--Florida would become just the second National League team in history to boast six players with at least 20 home runs, joining the 1965 Milwaukee Braves, who had Joe Torre, Felipe Alou, Eddie Mathews, Mack Jones, Hank Aaron, and Gene Oliver. And if Jeremy Hermida continues his recent slugging--two homers in his past three games, and eight on the season--Florida might be able to tie the major league record of seven players with 20 or more, held by the 1996 Orioles and the 2000 Blue Jays.

The Marlins could break all kinds of home run records and still not stick around the division lead in the second half due to their rotation, which is the worst in the National League by SNLVAR, and has also tossed the fewest innings in the majors, 5.4 per game. Olsen got off to a strong start through his first seven outings, but his peripheral numbers--namely, an extremely low BABIP--hinted at a course reversal, which has occurred over his past eight starts: a 6.60 RA in 43 2/3 innings. However, that Olsen has been effective at all this year (1.8 SNLVAR) is impressive given that his velocity has fallen steeply: Olsen is averaging 87.4 mph on his fastball, down from 90.1 last year and 90.9 in 2006, and the speed of his slider is also off. Often such a velocity drop indicates an injury, but Olsen has kept his name out of Under the Knife so far.

Matchup: Orioles (38-36) at Cubs (48-28), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Jeremy Guthrie (102 2/3 IP, 3.86 RA, 1.21 WHIP, 68 K) vs. Sean Marshall (31 2/3, 3.69, 1.01, 25, Triple-A)
Pythagorean Record: Baltimore, 36-38 (329 RS, 343 RA); Chicago, 49-27 (418 RS, 306 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Baltimore, #17; Chicago, #2
Prospectus: The Cubs implement phase one of the Marshall Plan tonight, bringing up Sean from Triple-A Iowa to take ace Carlos Zambrano's spot in the rotation. Zambrano's injury is not serious and he is expected to miss just the minimum, so given the quality performance of fifth man Sean Gallagher, Marshall will likely return to the cornfields after pitching tonight and on Sunday. The 25-year-old left-hander has gotten a bit of a raw deal this year from the parent club, as he was not given a legitimate shot to win a spot in the starting rotation out of the spring after he made 19 starts and put up an ERA 19 percent better than league average last year. Chicago had Marshall pitching in an ill-fitting lefty specialist role out of the bullpen, then sent him down to resume starting in Iowa, where he has thrown well in seven starts. Guthrie has also gotten a raw deal from the Orioles, who have scored just 3.5 runs per game in his 16 starts. Guthrie has tossed 12 quality outings, but has been credited with just three wins thus far, or 3.4 fewer than his performance has deserved. Guthrie can't complain too loudly, however, given that those batters who have failed to put up runs for him have supported him fully in the field, as the Orioles are now way out in front of the other 29 teams with a defensive efficiency of .723.

Cubs pitchers have been outstanding this season, but if there has been an Achilles heel for the staff, it is control. Rich Hill has already lost his, and now Carlos Marmol is going through a stretch where he can't find the plate. In his last two outings, Marmol has faced 10 batters, walking five and hitting two, and five of which scored, which has raised his ERA from 2.09 to 3.07. Marmol, however, has not given up a hit in his last six appearances, and on the season has now allowed just 18 safeties in 44 innings, or 3.7 H/9. If the season ended today, Marmol would own the lowest H/9 rate in a season with 40 or more innings pitched in major league history, besting the 4.0 that Eric Gagne allowed in 2003.

Matchup: Rangers (39-38) at Astros (35-41), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Eric Hurley (74 2/3 IP, 6.15 RA, 1.54 WHIP, 72 K, Triple-A) vs. Brian Moehler (51 2/3, 4.53, 1.37, 30)
Pythagorean Record: Texas, 38-39 (429 RS, 438 RA); Houston, 34-42 (332 RS, 369 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Texas, #19; Houston, #23
Prospectus: When the Rangers last saw the Astros, Houston was 24-18 and just a game and a half behind the Cubs in the NL Central. Texas won two out of three in that series, launching the Astros into a 11-23 stretch, the worst record in the National League since that point. Houston will look to get back on track against Hurley, who has given up 18 homers in less than 90 innings between the minors and majors. The ball could well be flying all over the yard tonight, for the Rangers--who rank first in the AL in slugging and second in home runs--will be teeing off against Moehler, who has already given up nine jacks in his work this season, and nearly 1.2 HR/9 IP over the course of his career. Texas will however be without outfielder Milton Bradley, who smashed two homers in the first series with Houston and who leads the AL in VORP. Bradley has not started the past five games due to a quad injury, and is still unable to play the field.

With 12 home runs and 19 stolen bases, the Rangers' Ian Kinsler is on pace to become the first second baseman since Alfonso Soriano in 2002 to hit at least 25 homers and steal at least 40 bases in a season, and just the fourth in history. Kinsler also is akin to Soriano in the field. The current Cubs outfielder made more errors than any other major league second baseman in all five seasons he played the position, starting in 2001. Soriano's last two years at the keystone were spent in Texas, in 2004 and '05, and the player that succeeded him as the Texas second baseman--Kinsler--has taken on at least one aspect of Soriano's leather work. That's because Kinsler tied for the major league lead in errors in his rookie season of 2006 (18), was tops again last year with 17, and so far this season is first once more, with 14 already. However, Kinsler is a much better second baseman than Soriano was because of his extraordinary range, for while Kinsler makes a great number of errors, he also reaches more balls than any other second baseman: he has ranked first in Range Factor at second base by a healthy margin in each of his three major league seasons, including this year.

Matchup: Cardinals (44-33) at Tigers (36-39), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Braden Looper (90 IP, 4.50 RA, 1.34 WHIP, 39 K) vs. Kenny Rogers (88 2/3, 4.97, 1.50, 36) Pythagorean Record: St. Louis, 41-36 (355 RS, 331 RA); Detroit, 37-38 (360 RS, 362 RA)
Hit List Rankings: St. Louis, #10; Detroit, #16
Prospectus: St. Louis and Detroit meet in a rematch of the 1968 and 2006 World Series. The '68 affair was a classic, with Mickey Lolich besting Bob Gibson in the seventh game to win it for Detroit, while the '06 meeting was a bit of a dud. The Tigers gained a modicum of revenge for their five-game loss two Octobers ago during last season when they swept three games from the Cardinals at Comerica Park. Detroit has surged back into the picture in the AL Central by winning 11 of its past 14 games, and one of the driving forces behind the hot streak has been Rogers. After a rough beginning, the Gambler has thrown five straight quality starts, a 36-inning stretch in which he has allowed just seven runs. Rogers' current run is reminiscent of his remarkable performance in that '06 post-season, when he did not allow a run in beating the Yankees in the ALDS and the A's in the ALCS, and then again pitched shutout baseball in Game Two of the series for eight innings, giving Detroit its only win against the Cardinals. Controversy surrounded that stunning stretch of 23 straight scoreless playoff frames for Rogers, due to the infamous smudge that was noticed on his left pitching hand--a mark which was later determined to be present in his previous two playoff starts as well. Tony La Russa decided not to ask the umpire to check Rogers for foreign substances, which deepened the controversy, and led to speculation that the long-time friendship between La Russa and Leyland had something to do with the St. Louis skipper's non-action.

Both Leyland and La Russa are still around this season and angling to get their clubs back into position to meet in October once more, and while Leyland has much of his roster intact from his '06 pennant winner, La Russa's crew looks substantially different. Just four position players who appeared in that World Series are still with the club--Chris Duncan, Aaron Miles, Yadier Molina, and Albert Pujols. Of the four pitchers who started the five games--Jeff Weaver, Chris Carpenter, Anthony Reyes, and Jeff Suppan--just Reyes has thrown a pitch for St. Louis this season, and that only in relief. Two of the Cardinals who relieved against Detroit, however, have now been moved into the rotation--Adam Wainwright and Looper.

Matchup: White Sox (41-34) at Dodgers (35-40), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Mark Buehrle (96 2/3 IP, 4.84 RA, 1.36 WHIP, 55 K) vs. Derek Lowe (97, 4.55, 1.28, 67)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 45-30 (367 RS, 296 RA); Los Angeles, 37-38 (318 RS, 319 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #3; Los Angeles, #18
Prospectus: It's a rematch of the 1959 World Series, which was the first post-season appearance for the White Sox since the Black Sox scandal of 1919, and the first for the Dodgers in LA after moving west in 1958. The series was also the first ever played on the West Coast, and the first in 11 years that was not played in New York. The White Sox won the opening game behind Cy Young winner (and future Hall of Famer) Early Wynn, but LA won four of the next five games to take its second World Series title. The series was notable for the two pinch-hit home runs hit by Chuck Essegian, who hit just one homer during the regular season. Joe Torre, who grew up in Brooklyn but was a New York Giants fan, was 19 at the time, and one season away from making his major league debut with Milwaukee, while Ozzie Guillen would not be born for five more years.

Lowe is in the final season of the four-year, $36 million dollar contract he signed after going 3-0 in the 2004 playoffs to help lead Boston to the championship. Signed by former GM Paul DePodesta, Lowe has turned out to be an excellent value for the Dodgers. Over the first three seasons of his deal Lowe made 101 starts and pitched 640 innings with a 4.36 RA, and is on his way to a similar campaign this season. Lowe's signing looks even better when you consider the other long-term deals that were handed out to starting pitchers that offseason. Here's a list of the pitchers who inked contracts of three or four years after 2004, along with their performance in the first three seasons of those deals:


Pitcher         YR, $   IP 2005-07  ERA+ 2005-07*
Derek Lowe      4, $36    639.1         118
Pedro Martinez  4, $53    377.2         124
Odalis Perez    3, $24    372.1          82
Eric Milton     3, $26    370.1          77
Kris Benson     3, $23    357.1          97
Matt Clement    3, $26    256.1          90
Russ Ortiz      4, $33    227.0          65
Jaret Wright    3, $21    214.1          87
Carl Pavano     4, $40    111.1          89
*Data from Baseball-Reference.com

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

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