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July 11, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Friday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Orioles (44-46) at Red Sox (55-39), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Brian Burres (92 1/3 IP, 5.26 RA, 1.56 WHIP, 44 K) vs. Clay Buchholz (42 1/3, 5.74, 1.63, 43)
Pythagorean Record: Baltimore, 45-45 (430 RS, 432 RA); Boston, 56-38 (478 RS, 387 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Baltimore, #10; Boston, #2
Prospectus: Buchholz gets the call from Triple-A Pawtucket to make his first major league start since May 12, and will be facing the team which he no-hit last September 1. Boston's top youngster and the second-best prospect in the game heading into 2008 will take the rotation spot of Justin Masterson, who despite pitching very well was sent down to begin his transition to bullpen pitcher, a move that will serve both to limit Masterson's innings and reinforce the weak Boston middle relief. Buchholz made eight starts for Pawtucket following his demotion, and was highly effective, allowing just eight runs (1.86 RA) while striking out 38 in 38 2/3 innings. The team's careful handling of its prize asset led to an average of less than five innings per start for Buchholz at Triple-A, although he did pitch at least five in each of his last five outings.

Buchholz will be facing an Orioles team that is coming off just about the most demoralizing three-game sweep imaginable, losing all three games to Toronto by one run, in two of which they held multi-run leads heading into the late innings. George Sherrill blew another save last night, his third in his last four opportunities, and has now given up six runs in his last five appearances. The good news for the Birds, however, is that the team's offense has undergone a transformation in the last month and a half. Through the end of May, the Orioles had one of the worst attacks in baseball, with a 708 team OPS and average of less than 4.1 runs per game. From June 1 onwards, Baltimore has bumped its OPS to 820, and is averaging 5.8 runs a game. The major catalyst is Aubrey Huff, who has hit .356/.412/.674 with nine home runs since the start of June, while Nick Markakis, as is his wont, has gradually heated up with the progression of the season (a comely .368/.442/.569 from June 1 onward). Markakis ranks second amongst right fielders in VORP (to his counterpart in this series J.D. Drew) while playing excellent defense (second amongst right fielders with eight outfield assists, with just one error committed and an above-average range factor and zone rating). Through his first two seasons, Markakis slugged over 100 points higher in the second half, so his breakout may well get even better after the All-Star game-a game to which he was unfairly denied entry.

Matchup: Yankees (49-43) at Blue Jays (45-47), 7:07 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Joba Chamberlain (58 2/3 IP, 2.76 RA, 1.35 WHIP, 67 K) vs. Roy Halladay (137 1/3, 3.28, 1.04, 113) Pythagorean Record: New York, 49-43 (426 RS, 399 RA); Toronto, 48-44 (386 RS, 366 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #7; Toronto, #19
Prospectus: Toronto played its first game last night in its second go-round this season sans center fielder Vernon Wells, who strained his hamstring on Wednesday while stealing third base (with first and second and two outs, no less-sadly, a play that even when successful this season has not increased run expectancy at all). Wells' injury will keep him out for four to six weeks, and force the team to move Brad Wilkerson into a regular role in right field while shifting Alexis Rios back to center, not a happy proposition for the team considering that Wilkerson has hit even worse for the Jays this season (.226/.314/.331, .234 EqA) than he did with Seattle (.232/.348/.304, .237) earlier in the year. The only good outfield news for Toronto comes from left, where the team finally seems committed to an everyday role for youngster Adam Lind, who has started six of the past seven games. After getting just 20 plate appearances during his first trial in late April, Lind is hitting .320/.340/.580 with three homers and four doubles in 54 PA during his second stint. Lind's power bat is especially critical for a team that ranks last in the American League with 62 homers; he needs just six more long balls to tie Wells for the team lead, as the Blue Jays are the only American League team without a player with double-digit home runs.

While Toronto has no power, its batters at least know how to take a walk, ranking third in the AL with 3.7 passes per game. That ability proved particularly vexing for Chamberlain in his first career start, in which he walked four Blue Jays in 2 1/3 innings on June 3. Chamberlain has now thrown 35 innings as a starter, walking 21, or 5.4 BB/9. Halladay started and won that first meeting with New York's rookie ace, and is now 11-5 lifetime against the Yankees with a 3.03 ERA.

Matchup: Astros (42-50) at Nationals (35-58), 7:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Roy Oswalt (107 IP, 3.95 RA, 1.36 WHIP, 109 K) vs. Tim Redding (121 2/3, 3.55, 1.19, 109)
Pythagorean Record: Houston, 42-50 (403 RS, 444 RA); Washington, 34-59 (336 RS, 456 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Houston, #26; Washington, #30
Prospectus: Back at the beginning of the decade, Redding was a top farmhand in the Astros organization, and the team was hopeful that he would be able to join Oswalt (who is the same age as Redding) and Wade Miller (one year older than that pair) to form an outstanding young trio of flamethrowers at the front of the rotation. Things didn't work out in Houston, but four years after leaving the Astros organization, Redding has found success with Washington. Despite the Nationals having lost the last two times Redding took the hill, the team is a healthy 14-5 (.737 winning percentage) with him on the mound this year, as opposed to 21-53 (.284) in all other games.

The Nationals have gifted Redding with 5.1 runs per game in his starts, while scoring just 3.2 in all other games. Washington ranks last in the majors in slugging percentage at .354, and while it hasn't hit the fewest home runs in the National League-both the Giants and Dodgers have fewer-it is at the bottom of the chart in terms of its long-ball leader's tally. Ryan Zimmerman tops the Nats with eight homers, but he is currently on the DL and not set to return until late July or early August, meaning the National with the highest projected homer total is Ronnie Belliard, who currently has seven-a pace that would lead to all of 12 over the full year. Not many teams have been fronted by a player with a total that low. Since 1960, the lowest team-leading total (in a non-strike year) was nine, by Jose Cruz of the 1979 Astros, while three teams had a leader with 10 homers: the 1963 Astros (John Bateman), 1976 Angels (Bobby Bonds), and 1968 Dodgers (Len Gabrielson). Here are the team leaders with the lowest totals since 1985:


Year  Team      Total  Player(s)
1991  Cardinals  11    Todd Zeile
1995* Phillies   11    Charlie Hayes, Greg Jefferies, Mark Whiten
1992  Angels     12    Gary Gaetti
1985  Pirates    12    Jason Thompson
1986  Cardinals  13    Andy Van Slyke
1992  Reds       14    Paul O'Neill
1989  White Sox  14    Ivan Calderon
1995* Expos      14    Moises Alou, Sean Berry, Tony Tarasco
1990  Cardinals  15    Todd Zeile
*144-game season

Zeile and the 1991 Cardinals earn top billing in this contest of damning with faint praise, but thanks to the 15 triples of Ray Lankford, that year's St. Louis squad finished first in three-baggers and consequently did not place at the bottom of the NL in slugging. In addition to having no home run hitters, the Nats this season don't have any speed, either-they've stolen just 41 bases, and are dead last in the NL with seven triples.

Thanks to Jason Paré for database research.

Matchup: Angels (55-37) at Athletics (50-42), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Jon Garland (117 1/3 IP, 4.22 RA, 1.38 WHIP, 50 K) vs. Sean Gallagher (58 2/3, 4.76, 1.36, 49)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 49-43 (399 RS, 375 RA); Oakland, 53-39 (397 RS, 335 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #5; Oakland, #14
Prospectus: The key return for Oakland in its trade of Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin to the Cubs, Gallagher will make his Green-and-Gold debut tonight in front of his new hometown fans. The Athletics' deal has been thoroughly dissected on these pages, and for the most part found to be lacking. Gallagher, however, is an intriguing commodity. He has thrived at every professional level, including the major leagues this season, where he put up a park-adjusted ERA+ almost exactly league average (4.45 to 4.46) with the Cubs in his age-22 season, while fanning more than twice as many as he walked. The highest ERA Gallagher put up in the minors was the 3.39 he posted last year in Double-A, and from 2006 through this season he compiled a 3.24 RA, 1.31 WHIP, and 212 strikeouts in 216 2/3 innings pitched at Double- and Triple-A-impressive numbers for a pitcher who was 20-22 years old in that span. He does need to work on his control, and in that respect is similar to another young innings-eater the A's acquired via their rebuilding trades of the past year, Dana Eveland.

Gallagher will be facing a new-look Angels offense, as Los Angeles finally decided to begin sitting Gary Matthews Jr. frequently in order to give Juan Rivera a lineup spot. In the second year of his five-year, $50 million deal, the 33-year-old son of Sarge has slumped to a .235 EqA this season, putting him below replacement level with the bat on the season. Rivera's last full season in 2006 saw him produce 23 homers and a .288 EqA that ranked second on the team to Vladimir Guerrero, but a lost year in 2007 due to a broken leg effectively shoved Rivera to the bench behind the team's bevy of outfielders. He started just 11 of the team's first 81 games, and perhaps understandably struggled to get off the ground during that period, with just nine hits in 55 plate appearances. Rivera has now started six of the last 11 games, however, and has celebrated his newfound freedom by slugging his first three homers of the season and collecting eight hits in 22 at-bats. Giving regular playing time to Rivera at the expense of Matthews and Garret Anderson promises to perk up a listing Halos offense that has fallen from fourth in the league in runs scored last season to 10th so far in 2008.

Matchup: Marlins (48-44) at Dodgers (45-47), 7:40 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Chris Volstad (91 IP, 3.66 RA, 1.27 WHIP, 56 K, Double-A) vs. Eric Stults (24 1/3, 3.33, 1.19, 15)
Pythagorean Record: Florida, 44-48 (453 RS, 477 RA); Los Angeles, 47-45 (377 RS, 371 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Florida, #9; Los Angeles, #16
Prospectus: Tonight the Marlins' best pitching prospect makes his first major league start, after getting called up last weekend from Double-A and picking up a win with two scoreless innings out of the bullpen in his debut appearance. A 21-year-old right-hander, Volstad was ranked second on the Marlins Top 11 Prospects list by Kevin Goldstein, joining Cameron Maybin as the only two players on the list to clock in at greater than three stars. Florida decided to skip its prize youngster right over Triple-A, and it's hard to fault that decision given that the Fish remain in the NL East picture, at just a game and half back, and have serious deficiencies in the starting rotation-Florida is currently second to last in the National League in both SNLVAR, with just 4.2 wins over replacement added, and in starting pitcher innings, with 5.5 per outing (ahead of only Pittsburgh in both categories). Volstad's strikeout-to-walk ratio at Double-A Carolina was nothing special at 56/30, but he had yet to allow a home run in his 91 innings of work. Volstad generates a large number of groundballs, ranking in the top seven percent of the over 1,000 pitchers profiled by PECOTA this season in ground-ball percentage (54 percent). That trait will clearly be critical for his big league success, especially since, according to Goldstein, he has no dominant swing-and-miss offering.

Volstad's inaugural start comes one day after Josh Johnson returned from over a year on the shelf to throw five decent innings last night, and these two occurrences should bring the Fish faithful a good deal of hope. Florida's rotational issues have stemmed from the the sub-par work of Mark Hendrickson, who has the worst ERA (6.24) of any pitcher qualified for the ERA title, as well as the fifth starter's spot-without counting Johnson, the Marlins' fifth spot has been occupied by four different pitchers (Burke Badenhop, Ryan Tucker, Rick Vanden Hurk, and Eulogio De La Cruz) who have combined to allow 67 runs in 76 innings over 17 starts, a 7.93 RA. If Johnson can stay healthy, and Volstad's sinking stuff baffles opponents, then the Marlins could remove Hendrickson and the straggling fifth-man crew to create a very young quintet (the elder statesman would be Ricky Nolasco at 25) that could also be very effective-both in the second half of this season and for years to come.

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

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