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July 1, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Tuesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Nationals (33-51) at Marlins (43-39), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Collin Balester (78 2/3 IP, 4.23 RA, 1.30 WHIP, 64 K, Triple-A) vs. Mark Hendrickson (91, 6.53, 1.56, 56)
Pythagorean Record: Washington, 30-54 (305 RS, 420 RA); Florida, 39-43 (391 RS, 408 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Washington, #30; Florida, #20
Prospectus: Balester gets the call from Triple-A Columbus tonight to make his major league debut. The 22-year-old right-hander ranked seventh on Kevin Goldstein's preseason list of the Nats' top 11 prospects. Goldstein called him the "most advanced pitcher in the system," while also tempering the appraisal by stating that his greatest strength is the lack of any major weaknesses, and his greatest weakness is the lack of any major strengths. Balester performed about as well at Triple-A this season as one would expect a prospect with that profile to perform, and now joins the beleaguered Nationals in place of the disabled Shawn Hill.

Balester isn't the only Nationals newcomer who could see action in this game. The team brought up outfielder Roger Bernadina from Double-A Harrisburg on Saturday. After Lastings Milledge went on the DL on Sunday, Bernadina has already made back-to-back starts in center field, going 1-for-10 with three strikeouts and one caught stealing. A 24-year-old speedster, Bernadina has been in the Expos/Nationals organization since 2002, but despite an abundance of tools had hit just .250/.340/.362 in almost 2,500 minor league plate appearances before this season. This year, however, Bernadina put it together in his second shot at Double-A, with a .323/.398/.474 line in 303 PA. As far as the rookie's defense goes, he was rated as the top defensive outfielder in the system for the Nats after the 2007 season by Dan Fox using his Simple Fielding Runs metric, but that is damning with faint praise, for Bernadina actually had -8.4 SFR. Bernadina hails from Curacao, and is the ninth player from that island in the Dutch Antilles to play in the majors. The active Curacao natives in the majors are Bernadina, Jair Jurrjens, Andruw Jones, and Wladimir Balentien, while Ivanon Coffie, Yurendell de Caster, Hensley Meulens, Ralph Milliard, and Randall Simon all came before (and de Caster's still active, and in the Nats system, no less).

Matchup: Mets (40-42) at Cardinals (48-36), 7:15 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Tony Armas (102 2/3 IP, 2.72 RA, 1.02 WHIP, 88 K) vs. Todd Wellemeyer (88 1/3, 3.67, 1.19, 68)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 40-42 (379 RS, 386 RA); St. Louis, 45-39 (395 RS, 361 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #14; St. Louis, #9
Prospectus: Armas returns to the majors tonight to face the Cardinals after spending the first half at Triple-A New Orleans. The 30-year-old right-hander reached his professional low last season after moving to the Pirates, which led to his having to accept a minor league deal from the Mets. He was dominant in the Pacific Coast League in his 17 starts: amongst qualified pitchers, Armas is at the top with a 2.54 ERA-the next-best mark is 3.15-while his 102 2/3 innings rank first and his 88 strikeouts third. That performance earned Armas a ticket to New York, where he will become the teammate of Pedro Martinez, the pitcher whom he was famously dealt for (along with the equally unfortunate Carl Pavano) back in December of '97.

Each of these teams has a rich history of detestation for the other, which dates back to their days as rivals in the old NL East from 1969 to 1993. The Mets-Cardinals feud really set down roots in 1973, when New York was in last place at midseason, prompting Yogi Berra to famously proclaim, "It ain't over till it's over." The Mets made good on that aphorism, coming back to beat out St. Louis by a game and a half to take the East. New York then finished either in last place or second-to-last place in the division every year from 1977-1983, but during that '83 season the team traded for Cardinals first baseman Keith Hernandez, the former MVP and one of the heroes of St. Louis' championship run in 1982. Hernandez hated the Mets and dreaded being shipped to the last-place squad at the time, but his acquisition helped turn them around, and in 1984 New York finished in second place, six games better than the Cardinals. The next season the Mets battled the Cardinals for first all year-this was the season St. Louis fans began calling the Mets "pond scum" (an epithet created by late night host David Letterman)-and New York eventually fell three games short of catching the 101-win Cardinals club. That set up the Mets 1986 campaign in which Hernandez and Co. blew away the rest of the division by more than 20 games. The two teams met in the playoffs for the first time in the 2000 NLCS, when Bobby Valentine's team thumped Tony La Russa's squad four games to one, but St. Louis got revenge with its victory in Game Seven of the 2006 NLCS at Shea.

Matchup: Indians (37-46) at White Sox (47-35), 7:11 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Cliff Lee (103 2/3 IP, 2.52 RA, 1.04 WHIP, 90 K) vs. John Danks (92 2/3, 2.72, 1.23, 69) Pythagorean Record: Cleveland, 42-41 (368 RS, 359 RA); Chicago, 50-32 (405 RS, 318 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cleveland, #21; Chicago, #4
Prospectus: Lee and Danks have been the two top left-handers in the American League this season, ranking first and third in the circuit, respectively, in SNLVAR. Danks' peripherals are solid across the board, with no clear warning signs so far of any impending second-half collapse in his statistical record. If there is a complaint to be filed against the second-year left-hander, it is that he has not pitched into the seventh inning in any of his last eight starts, and has not completed seven frames since his fourth start of the year on April 20. Because of this, and because of his lack of run support, the White Sox are just 9-7 in games Danks has started despite his outstanding overall numbers. That failure to get deeper into ballgames appears to be a result of the Sox coddling Danks a bit, as he has not thrown more than 107 pitches in any of his appearances this season, and has tossed 100 or more in just four of his 16.

Offensive highlights have been scarce for the Indians this year, who flopped into last place in the AL Central with yesterday's loss, but one of the few players actually hitting the ball has been Shin-Soo Choo, the outfielder the team acquired from the Mariners for first baseman Ben Broussard in 2006. Only the second position player from South Korea to ever appear in the majors, this season Choo is getting the chance to play that his predecessor, Hee-Seop Choi, was often denied by the likes of managers Dusty Baker and Jim Tracy. Choo's numbers are up to .280/.391/.467 in 92 plate appearances since he was recalled from Triple-A Buffalo on May 31. That performance has been good for a .293 EqA, second best on the team behind Grady Sizemore's .304 mark. Choo has a much larger platoon split than most lefty bats, and manager Eric Wedge has sensibly been platooning him, starting Choo in 17 of the team's 21 games against right-handers since his recall. Choo's strong play has helped the team move past the disappointment of Franklin Gutierrez's campaign. Gutierrez was expected to be the team's regular right fielder after hitting 13 homers and slugging .472 in limited duty last year, but has managed just a .213 EqA and three homers so far this season.

Matchup: Rangers (43-41) at Yankees (44-39), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Kevin Millwood (85 IP, 5.29 RA, 1.68 WHIP, 60 K) vs. Joba Chamberlain (48 2/3, 2.40, 1.27, 56)
Pythagorean Record: Texas, 41-43 (458 RS, 468 RA); New York, 44-39 (386 RS, 366 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Texas, #17; New York, #7
Prospectus: Chamberlain has grown stronger with each outing, and last Wednesday got all the way up to 114 pitches in the best performance of his career, firing 6 2/3 shutout innings with seven strikeouts in Pittsburgh. Chamberlain has now given up just two runs in his last three starts, a span of 19 innings, and only two batters have taken him deep all season. Facing the majors' best offense should make for a fine test.

In last Monday's Ten Pack, Kevin Goldstein touted the season that outfielder Brett Gardner was having at Triple-A, and made a case for his promotion to play center field in place of the slumping Melky Cabrera. After a one-week experiment with Justin Christian, New York finally did call up Gardner yesterday, and he played left field and batted leadoff in his major league debut. At the time of his call-up, the 24-year-old Gardner was batting .287/.412/.429 for the Scranton Yankees, with 34 steals against eight times caught, a strong 81 percent success rate on the basepaths. According to Clay Davenport's translations, Gardner's minor league performance was good for a .296 EqA, the fourth best mark put up in the International League this season, behind Jay Bruce (.323), Brent Clevlen (.316), and Adam Lind (.300). That same mark would be good for third on the Yankees, tied with Hideki Matsui-whose injury freed up space in the outfield for Gardner-and behind only Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi.

Meanwhile, Cabrera has slid down to a. 238 EqA, as he has continued to regress since his solid rookie campaign in 2006. Even so, manager Joe Girardi has stuck with Cabrera through his struggles, starting him in each of the last 13 games in center and in 30 of the last 31. Not helping matters any is the fact that the Yankees are down to four outfielders, including Johnny Damon, who is battling foot problems, but if Damon is able to play the team might be better off giving Gardner a shot to replicate his minor league production in place of Cabrera, as Goldstein has suggested. Since Gardner has a rep for strong glove work, he should be able to spot Cabrera in center as much as needed.

Matchup: Athletics (45-37) at Angels (49-34), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Rich Harden (67 IP, 2.15 RA, 1.09 WHIP, 83 K) vs. Ervin Santana (108 1/3, 3.49, 1.07, 99)
Pythagorean Record: Oakland, 48-34 (363 RS, 299 RA); Los Angeles, 42-41 (341 RS, 334 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Oakland, #5; Los Angeles, #11
Prospectus: Harden is coming off of his best start of the season, an eight-inning shutout of the Phillies, in which he struck out 11 while allowing just three baserunners. That performance earned a Game Score of 88, which was topped by Harden only once before in his (brief) career, in a complete-game shutout that he threw against the Rangers on July 14 of 2005, which was scored a 91. Santana also has thrown a gem that was rated an 88 this season-a complete-game, four-hit, nine-strikeout shutout of the Royals on May 5-and has thrown two more games so far in 2008 that clocked in at 80 as well. Always a threat to break down and miss significant time, Harden has been allowed to throw 100 pitches or more in just four of his 11 starts this year, while Santana has reached that mark in 14 of 16 outings.

With last night's loss, the Angels have now scored a total of six runs in their last five games. The LA offense has been hurt this season by a lack of power in the infield, particularly at second and third base. Angels third basemen have hit just a pair of homers, the least in the majors, while their second basemen have hit only one (which is more than one other team, as Cleveland's keystone contributors have yet to get on the board). The team's first basemen (eight homers) and shortstops (five) haven't shown much power either, and therefore LA has gotten fewer homers from its infielders (not including catchers) than any other team in baseball.

Besides first baseman Casey Kotchman, whose power stroke seems to have dried up this season-two homers in his past 59 games, after six in his first 20-the Angels home run leader amongst non-first base infielders is Maicer Izturis, with three (he has 16 career bombs), which underlines the seriousness of the problem. As long as Chone Figgins and Howie Kendrick stay healthy enough to man third and second base, the Angels offense should be fine, but the team has shown that it has no suitable depth to survive if either (or both) again hit the shelf for any extended period. While Figgins was out for most of May and part of June, the replacement Halos at the hot corner were dreadful: despite Figgins' OBP of .398, Angels third basemen have collectively put up a line of .256/.326/.305, which adds up to the lowest OPS in the majors at the position. At second base, the Angels' overall line is a grisly .259/.323/.342, and that's with the benefit of Kendrick's decent performance in the limited time he has been healthy.

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

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