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June 27, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Friday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Mets (38-39) at Yankees (42-36), 2:05 p.m. ET; Yankees at Mets, 8:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Mike Pelfrey (81 2/3 IP, 4.51 RA, 1.60 WHIP, 43 K) vs. Dan Giese (14, 2.57, 0.79, 9) in game one; Sidney Ponson (55 2/3, 5.82, 1.56, 25) vs. Pedro Martinez (24 2/3, 6.93, 1.70, 17) in game two
Pythagorean Record: Mets, 38-39 (358 RS, 360 RA); Yankees, 41-37 (366 RS, 344 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Mets, #14; Yankees, #7
Prospectus: After a rainout in their last series, the Mets and Yankees meet today for an unusual subway day-night doubleheader. The twin bill offers a great chance to attend games in both Yankee and Shea Stadiums on the same day, and in the final season for both parks, no less. This will be the third day-night, bi-borough set that the crosstown rivals have played against each other; the first came on July 8, 2000, and started off in Shea with the very bizarre sight of Dwight Gooden donning Yankee pinstripes and pitching against the Mets for the first-and ultimately only-time in his career. Dr. K beat his former club with five innings of two-run ball. In the nightcap, the rivalry was cranked up several notches when Roger Clemens hit Mike Piazza in the head with a fastball, forcing the dazed slugger (who owned Clemens at the plate throughout his career) to leave the game. That incident would spill over into their subsequent rematch in the World Series, when Clemens would throw a piece of Piazza's shattered bat at the catcher as he jogged down the first base line in the first inning of Game Two. The second doubleheader came on June 28 of 2003, when Clemens again beat the Mets in the Bronx opener, and Brandon Claussen picked up his only win as a Yankee by beating Tom Glavine in the nightcap.

This season, the Mets took the first two from the Yankees at the Stadium, defeating Andy Pettitte and ace Chien-Ming Wang. Wang is now down, and with Philip Hughes and Ian Kennedy having flamed out, New York has tabbed the journeyman pairing of Ponson and Giese to start today's games-a duo which one would expect to see pitching in the International League, not in this major-interleague matchup. Giese will be making his second big league start in the opener, and Ponson--beginning his second stint with the club--will be making his first for the Yankees this season. Ponson was dumped by Texas earlier this month for unspecified disciplinary reasons, despite the fact that he was 4-1 with a sub-4.00 ERA in his nine starts. The Rangers likely weren't too sorry to see him go, however, because his ERA did not reflect his performance: Ponson allowed 12 unearned runs in his 56 innings, the second highest total of any pitcher.

Matchup: Rays (47-31) at Pirates (37-41), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Scott Kazmir (62 IP, 2.18 RA, 1.02 WHIP, 68 K) vs. Jimmy Barthmaier (78, 4.50, 1.18, 69, Double- and Triple-A)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 44-34 (365 RS, 315 RA); Pittsburgh, 35-43 (382 RS, 429 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #3; Pittsburgh, #27
Prospectus: With two-fifths of their starting rotation having hit the shelf this past week, the Pirates have had to call up Barthmaier from Triple-A Indianapolis to make his major league debut. Barthmaier was taken in the 13th round of the 2003 draft by the Astros, and was rated by Kevin Goldstein as the team's fourth best prospect heading into last season after putting up a 3.92 RA and 134 K in 147 innings in the High-A Carolina League. Barthmaier was promoted to Double-A for the start of 2007, and gave up 73 runs in 90 innings, leading the Astros to place him on waivers. The 24-year-old right-hander was then claimed by Pittsburgh, who stuck him in Double-A Altoona to begin this year, recently promoting him to Triple-A despite his mediocre performance in 10 Eastern League starts. With the Indy Indians, Barthmaier put up a 29/6 K/BB ratio and 3.41 RA in 31 2/3 innings over five starts, and now finds himself matched up with perhaps the American League's most dominant left-hander in his inaugural big league outing.

The Rays and Pirates had the first and second picks in this year's draft, respectively, and by all analyses each did extremely well, with Tampa Bay selecting the best high school talent in shortstop Tim Beckham, and Pittsburgh nabbing the top college talent in third baseman Pedro Alvarez. Both teams are used to picking towards the top, but while the Rays have done an outstanding job with their high selections--building up this year's AL Wild Card leader--last month's aggressive Pirates strategy of drafting the top players available, despite signability concerns, represented a dramatic shift for the franchise. Perhaps the draft most emblematic of the old regime was the 2002 edition, when the Pirates and Rays also had the top two selections. Pittsburgh took pitcher Bryan Bullington with the first overall pick, while the Rays went with B.J. Upton at No. 2. Besides Upton, the list of first-rounders Pittsburgh passed on is formidable: Zack Greinke, Prince Fielder, Jeff Francis, Jeremy Hermida, Joe Saunders, Nick Swisher, Cole Hamels, James Loney, Jeremy Guthrie, Matt Cain, and Kazmir, who fell to the Mets at No. 15 because of fears about his agent Scott Boras' salary demands, and later fell into the Rays' lap when the Mets decided to trade him for Victor Zambrano.

Matchup: Braves (39-41) at Blue Jays (38-42), 7:07 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jair Jurrjens (90 IP, 3.80 RA, 1.39 WHIP, 66 K) vs. Dustin McGowan (94, 4.60, 1.38, 74) Pythagorean Record: Atlanta, 44-36 (365 RS, 324 RA); Toronto, 43-37 (334 RS, 307 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Atlanta, #8; Toronto, #10
Prospectus: The Braves travel to Toronto for a rematch of the 1992 World Series, which Toronto won four games to two, and also a renewal of acquaintances between Atlanta manager Bobby Cox and Toronto skipper Cito Gaston. The connection between Cox and Gaston goes way back, for not only did they manage against each other in '92, but Gaston served as Cox's hitting coach while Cox guided the Blue Jays from 1982-85. Gaston stayed in that position after Cox left the Jays to become the general manager of the Braves following a 99-win season in '85, and was eventually hired as Toronto's manager upon the firing of Jimy Williams in May of '89. Both Gaston and Cox are still guiding their respective teams 16 years after the '92 Series, although of course Gaston just began his second stint on the Blue Jays bench after he was fired by the club following the 1997 season. That '92 Series was the first played outside of the US, and the Jays' victory made Gaston the first African-American manager to win a fall classic. Three of Toronto's wins were decided in the team's final at-bat, including Game Six, when Dave Winfield's two-run double in the top of the 11th gave the Jays a 4-2 lead. Toronto survived a Braves rally for a 4-3 win and the title, with Mike Timlin--who along with Tom Glavine is the only active player to have appeared in that Series--getting the final out.

The '92 Series was also the first one which saw a manager ejected, as Cox was tossed from Game Three after he threw a helmet on the field. (Cox was also ejected from Game Six of the '96 series, and remains the only manager to be run out of a World Series game.) Cox is the patriarch of temperamental skippers--last August 14 he was thrown from a game for the 132nd time, breaking the record that had been held by John McGraw. Gaston was actually the first manager to be sent packing from a playoff game, which happened when he was ejected after the end of the second inning of ALCS Game Five in 1991, with his team down 3-1 in the series to the Twins and 2-0 in the game. If they hope to continue their October irritability, both managers have quite a bit of work to do, for the Braves and Jays are each badly underperforming based upon Pythagorean record.

Matchup: Red Sox (49-32) at Astros (37-42), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Daisuke Matsuzaka (65 IP, 3.88 RA, 1.42 WHIP, 56 K) vs. Runelvys Hernandez (84 2/3, 4.15, 1.09, 63, Triple-A)
Pythagorean Record: Boston, 47-34 (406 RS, 336 RA); Houston, 36-43 (345 RS, 377 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #1; Houston, #22
Prospectus: Boston heads to Houston to take on the Astros, who have fallen apart both on and off the field. Hernandez gets the start after being called up to take the rotation spot of Shawn Chacon, who the team recently demoted to the bullpen--a decision that led to the bizarre incident Wednesday in which Chacon attacked general manager Ed Wade. Not surprisingly, Chacon was waived by the organization yesterday. While a player had never before initiated a fight with his GM, Alan Schwarz of the New York Times reported that the opposite confrontation has occurred: in 1978, Expos GM Charlie Fox punched Montreal pitcher Steve Rogers in the face after Rogers tried to intervene in a heated conversation between Fox and shortstop Chris Speier. According to Schwarz, Speier hit for the cycle and drove in six runs that same night, and yesterday the Astros broke out of their team hitting slump by pounding the Rangers for 15 hits and seven runs. Of course, the reason for that outburst was likely the major league-worst Rangers pitching staff, rather than any intangible motivation derived from Chacon's pugilism.

Hernandez will be making his first major league appearance since 2006, when he was with the Royals. Kansas City released Hernandez following that season, in which he'd put up a 7.14 RA in 109 2/3 innings. The 28-year-old right-hander then bounced around the International League between the affiliates of three organizations last year, spending time first with Pawtucket (Red Sox), Scranton Wilkes-Barre (Yankees), and Indianapolis (Pirates), before signing a minor league deal with the Astros in the offseason. Hernandez pitched relatively well upon moving to the Pacific Coast League with Round Rock, posting a 4.15 RA and 1.09 WHIP in 15 starts (84 2/3 innings). Surfacing in the National League, and as a right-hander in Minute Maid Park, could well lead to better results for Hernandez than he put up for Kansas City, although he gets a very tough assignment in his first start back in the bigs. Matsuzaka, however, is coming off the worst and shortest start of his career, a one-inning, seven-run outing against St. Louis in his initial appearance since coming off the DL, so the pitchers on both sides have major questions to answer in today's game.

Matchup: Brewers (43-35) at Twins (43-36), 7:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Seth McClung (54 2/3 IP, 3.79 RA, 1.24 WHIP, 44 K) vs. Nick Blackburn (93, 4.35, 1.33, 49)
Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 39-39 (353 RS, 353 RA); Minnesota, 40-39 (381 RS, 374 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #12; Minnesota, #18
Prospectus: Ron Gardenhire is regarded as one of the best managers in the game, a notion backed up by the crude measure of Pythagorean plus/minus: since 2002, his first year managing Minnesota, the Twins are 22 wins over their expected record. Gardenhire has done another good job this year, guiding a team that many expected to finish at or near the bottom of the AL Central to within a half-game of the first-place White Sox. How much of that success should be attributed to Gardenhire's leadership is unclear, but one key component of the Twins' recent hot streak--nine straight wins and counting--has been his playing-time decision at third base. In a recent article, Jay Jaffe uncovered the "replacement level killers" at each position, hackers who were dragging their team away from the playoffs with horrid hitting in regular playing time, and the nominee at third base was Minnesota's Mike Lamb. After suffering another 0-for-4 collar on June 8, Lamb was hitting .230/.269/.311 in 201 plate appearances, and Gardenhire decided to sit the veteran down for good. Lamb started one more time on June 13, but the next game Brian Buscher played for the first time since getting recalled two days earlier, and Lamb has not started a game since.

That transition has paid large dividends for Minnesota's offense. Buscher has played third in nine of the Twins' last 11 games since Lamb was benched, and has reeled off 15 hits in 36 at-bats to continue his hot hitting from Triple-A Rochester, where he was batting .319/.402/.514 in 214 PA. Heading into last season, Buscher was a soon-to-be 26-year-old with a career minor league line of .268/.331/.366 in 1587 PA. But in his third crack at Double-A, he suddenly took off, hitting .308/.391/.478 in 247 PA, and upon a promotion to the International League kept right on hitting, actually increasing his OPS to 897. What's especially noteworthy about Buscher's breakout is that it appears to be based upon a wholesale improvement in plate discipline and bat control: in his first four years in the minors he struck out 244 times while walking 129 times, but in 2007 he actually walked more than he struck out, 44 to 41, and this year he had a 20/21 K/BB ratio at Triple-A. Buscher has walked just three times so far in the majors this year, but he has also maintained his newfound ability to make frequent and solid contact, with just two strikeouts in 49 plate appearances.

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

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UTK Wrap: Slugger Reco... (06/27)
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