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July 9, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Wednesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Marlins (46-44) at Padres (36-55), 12:35 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Scott Olsen (111 1/3 IP, 4.77 RA, 1.30 WHIP, 61 K) vs. Cha Seung Baek (65 2/3, 4.93, 1.29, 44)
Pythagorean Record: Florida, 42-48 (443 RS, 471 RA); San Diego, 37-54 (340 RS, 420 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Florida, #9; San Diego, #29
Prospectus: The Padres struck a blow for all minor league veterans yesterday by bringing up both 28-year-old Chip Ambres and 31-year-old Brian Myrow from Triple-A Portland. Ambres celebrated the promotion by going 1-for-3 with two walks while starting in right field, and Myrow hit a pinch-hit home run in the bottom of the seventh inning-his first big league shot-to provide the final tally in San Diego's 10-1 whipping of Florida, the most runs scored by the Padres in a nine-inning game at Petco Park since last August 16. The fact that Ambres has never really been given a clean major league shot has stuck in the BP craw for years now; the former first-round pick of the Marlins back in 1998 is nearly everything you would want in a fourth outfielder, as he has some power, a good deal of patience, can run, and can play decent defense. Ambres' plate discipline is his strongest skill-in his minor league career he averaged a walk every 7.6 plate appearances. That all-around profile, however, has not been much appreciated, for after leaving the Florida organization following the 2004 season, Ambres spent time with the Triple-A affiliates of Boston, Kansas City, and the Mets, collecting just 170 major league plate appearances in the process. Ambres finally landed in Portland this season, and piled up 44 extra-base hits for the Beavers in 82 games before getting the call.

While Ambres has gotten a raw deal, he has at least gotten a deal, which is more than can be said for Myrow. It's hard to imagine that a player with a career minor league line of .306/.419/.504, mostly compiled in the high minors, has had only 37 plate appearances in the show, but Myrow has never really been viewed as a prospect, as he was not even drafted coming out of college at Louisiana Tech. Myrow played with Winnipeg of the independent Northern League after college, signed with the Yankees in 2001 at the age of 24, and then moved on to the Dodgers, Red Sox, and finally the Padres. With Portland last year Myrow led the Pacific Coast League in both batting and on-base percentage, hitting .354/.440/.579. This year, his .455 OBP tops the circuit, and his 71 walks rank second in the minors. Myrow was third in the PCL in Equivalent Runs while also putting up a .285 EqA, which would be good for third on the Padres behind Adrian Gonzalez and Brian Giles.

Matchup: Astros (41-50) at Pirates (42-47), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Brian Moehler (69 2/3 IP, 4.26 RA, 1.39 WHIP, 41 K) vs. John Van Benschoten (62 1/3, 3.90, 1.22, 49 at Triple-A)
Pythagorean Record: Houston, 41-50 (397 RS, 440 RA); Pittsburgh, 39-50 (434 RS, 492 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Houston, #26; Pittsburgh, #22
Prospectus: The eighth pick overall in the 2001 draft out of Kent State, Van Benschoten has had a tough go of it since missing all of 2005 and most of '06 due to labrum and rotator cuff surgeries. The right-hander made it back last season and pitched relatively well in his first full shot at Triple-A, but when the Pirates brought him up he was pounded for 45 runs in 39 innings, and so far this year has not fared any better, having surrendered 14 runs and four homers in his 11 innings of work with the parent club. Add in the bitter cup of coffee he had back in 2004, and his career major league ERA is an unsightly 9.04 in 78 2/3 innings. That mark is the highest any pitcher has carried in a career of at least 60 innings since the start of the 20th century. Van Benschoten will look to remove his name from the top of that list in his third start of the season tonight. He pitched well at Indianapolis before his recall, and had given up just a single homer in his 62 1/3 innings of work there, so there is some hope that he can cleanse himself of his past troubles in the waters of the Monongahela. The Pirates, however, probably regret not developing Van Benschoten as a hitter after he led NCAA Division I with 31 homers his junior season. NL Central teams might now think twice about turning two-way amateur stars into pitchers, for in addition to the Big Van's struggles there is also the case of Rick Ankiel, and most recently Houston minor leaguer Brian Bogusevic, the Astros' first-round pick in '05 who recently switched to the outfield after compiling a 5.06 ERA in four minor league seasons.

Nate McLouth was named to the NL All-Star team for the first time on Sunday, serving as the Pirates' lone representative, and he celebrated by smacking home runs in back-to-back games Monday and Tuesday, giving him 17 on the year. McLouth is also tied for the NL lead in doubles with Lance Berkman at 29, giving him 49 extra-base hits on the year. The center fielder is thus on pace to finish with 89 extra-base hits, which would fall one short of the Pirates franchise record, set by Willie Stargell in 1973.

Matchup: Cardinals (51-40) at Phillies (48-43), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Mark Mulder (34 1/3 IP, 7.34 RA, 1.75 WHIP, 18 K--minors) vs. J.A. Happ (101 2/3, 3.90, 1.27, 104 at Triple-A) Pythagorean Record: St. Louis, 47-44 (417 RS, 399 RA); Philadelphia, 53-38 (457 RS, 382 RA)
Hit List Rankings: St. Louis, #8; Philadelphia, #6
Prospectus: Mulder will be making his first major league start of the season tonight, having already given up two runs in 1 1/3 relief innings following his recent return from multiple shoulder surgeries. Considering how badly Mulder was knocked around during his minor league rehab stint, and how long it has been since the lefty last pitched well at the major league level, Cardinals fans have to be nervous about what fortune may bring to the erstwhile ace tonight, especially since he is going up against the second-best National League offense in its bandbox of a ballpark. Mulder's previous two seasons have been rough. His last quality start came on May 22 of 2006; in the 10 starts he has made since then, opponents have scored 66 runs in his 37 innings. The velocity on Mulder's pitches was up in his two brief relief outings earlier this month, though-the fastball was clocked at 90 mph-so there is at least some reason for optimism regarding his latest foray back into the rotation. But given that Mulder was ready to retire one month ago rather than undergo a potential third shoulder surgery (thankfully, he avoided one more time under the knife), and given his recent performances, a return to effectiveness still seems like an extreme long shot.

Another lefty who gets by without top-notch velocity, Happ led the Triple-A International League in strikeouts on July 4, the day he traded in his Lehigh Valley IronPigs jersey for one of the Phillies' upon his recall. Despite middling stuff, Happ has racked up impressive strikeout totals, and now has 498 in his 495 1/3 career minor league innings. The Phillies are in the unenviable position of asking their young fifth starter to serve as the stopper, for they have dropped four in a row to see their lead in the NL East over both Florida and New York drop down to 1 games. Philadelphia has not had much of a home field advantage this season, as it is just 23-22 at Citizens Bank Park as compared to 25-21 on the road. That statistic appears to be more than just a fluke, for in Nate Silver's study of home-field advantage, the Phillies came out dead last of all 30 teams by a wide margin, having just a .014 difference between home and road winning percentage from the 2004 season (when Citizens Bank Park opened) to late June of this year.

Matchup: Giants (39-51) at Mets (46-44), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jonathan Sanchez (107 IP, 3.95 RA, 1.36 WHIP, 109 K) vs. Johan Santana (121 2/3, 3.55, 1.19, 109)
Pythagorean Record: San Francisco, 40-50 (367 RS, 415 RA); New York, 47-43 (436 RS, 417 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Francisco, #25; New York, #15
Prospectus: Santana and Sanchez are tied for sixth in the National League with 109 strikeouts, behind Sanchez's teammates Tim Lincecum (league-leading 126 K)-who the Mets beat yesterday-and Matt Cain (112). Lincecum is a near-lock to reach 200 strikeouts, Matt Cain is also on track to hit that milestone, and Sanchez has a good shot to get there as well if he stays in the rotation for the rest of the season. There have been just two teams in baseball history to have three pitchers all fan 200 or more batters in the same season-the 1967 Twins, with Dean Chance (220), Jim Kaat (211), and Dave Boswell (204), and the 1969 Astros, with Don Wilson (235), Larry Dierker (232), and Tom Griffin (200). Whether the Giants become the third such team depends not only upon how Cain and Sanchez pitch in the second half, but also upon how San Francisco decides to manage Sanchez's innings. The 25-year-old made just nine starts combined between the majors and minors last season against 32 relief appearances, leading to a total innings count of 75 2/3. Sanchez has already thrown 30 innings more than that this season, an increase which Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci has identified as a danger zone for young pitchers. The left-hander threw 94 innings in 2006, and a career-high 125 2/3 while starting at Low-A ball in 2005, but even based upon that threshold Sanchez will hit the +30 mark sometime in late August. With the Giants likely to be out of the race in the second half, it will be interesting to see how San Francisco handles its budding star.

No position players on either the Mets or the Giants made the All-Star team, although that could change pending the results of the vote for the final man, which features Aaron Rowand and David Wright amongst its five candidates. Carlos Beltran had his streak of four straight All-Star appearances snapped, even though he is producing essentially a replica of last season's offensive performance, with a bit less power and a bit more on-base prowess. Rowand's presence on the final man ballot is questionable-both Beltran and Rick Ankiel have been better center fielders this season-but the real New York snub was the selection by the players of Miguel Tejada over Jose Reyes at shortstop. Reyes is enjoying the best year of his career at the plate, and his VORP total of 37.5-second amongst major league shortstops behind Hanley Ramirez-more than doubles up the 17.0 posted by Tejada.

Matchup: Angels (54-36) at Rangers (47-44), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Jered Weaver (37 IP, 7.54 RA, 1.62 WHIP, 20 K) vs. Michael Ballard (80, 4.61, 1.63, 58 at Double-A)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 48-42 (384 RS, 360 RA); Texas, 43-48 (497 RS, 522 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #5; Texas, #17
Prospectus: Tonight for the second straight game the Rangers rotation will turn to a rookie making his major league debut, the first time that has happened since the Brewers' Ben Diggins and Dave Pember debuted in back-to-back starts on September 2 and 3, 2002. It worked out well last night, when lefty Matt Harrison-one of the key pieces in last July's trade of Mark Teixeira to the Braves-came up from Triple-A in place of injured fellow rookie Eric Hurley and tossed seven innings of two-run ball to beat All-Star Joe Saunders and the first-place Angels. Vicente Padilla was slated to start tonight, but he can't go either because of a sore neck and a bruised thumb, so the team has dipped into the minor leagues yet again to bring up another young lefty, as Ballard makes the jump from Double-A Frisco. The 24-year-old Ballard was taken in the 14th round of the 2006 draft out of the University of Virginia, and last year put up a 5.10 RA in his first full season while splitting time between the Midwest and California leagues. Ballard did not make Kevin Goldstein's offseason list of the Top 11 Rangers prospects, and he was not pitching particularly well for Frisco, although he did do a good job of limiting the long ball in the offensive wonderland of the Texas League (three homers in 80 innings). Ballard will be the 12th pitcher to start a game for the Rangers this season, which is more than any other team has used-not surprising given the historic futility that the starting staff has displayed thus far.

Second baseman Ian Kinsler hit safely in his 20th straight game last night, and also tied the Texas franchise record by scoring a run for the 11th straight game, a mark which shortstop Michael Young also accomplished in 2005. Kinsler is now up to 81 runs in 88 games, putting him on pace to shatter the Rangers team record for runs, which is currently the 133 scored by Alex Rodriguez in 2001. In addition to his offensive contribution, Kinsler helped turn two double plays. The Rangers have now turned a major league-leading 111 twin killings, which helps explain how Texas has been able to survive despite one of the worst-ever pitching staffs.

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

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