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July 24, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Thursday's Games to Watch

by Marc Normandin

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Phillies (54-47) at Mets (54-47), 12:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jamie Moyer (120 IP, 4.13 RA, 1.36 WHIP, 73 K) vs. Oliver Perez (109 1/3, 4.94, 1.43, 95)
Pythagorean Record: Philadelphia, 58-43 (503 RS, 429 RA); New York, 54-47 (493 RS, 457 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Philadelphia, #6; New York, #7
Prospectus: It's essentially Day One again for the Mets and Phillies, as they are now tied for first place in the NL East. The Phillies have scuffled a bit in July, posting a 9-8 record, while the Mets have streaked their way back into the thick of things with a 13-5 record that includes a 10-game win streak, halted late last week by the Reds. There is more of a sense of urgency this time around than there was on Opening Day, as the surprising Marlins-regardless of where they should be in the standings, with an expected record of 48-53-are just one game behind this pair in the race for the division lead, and a hot streak sometime during the last two months of the season may be enough to swing things in their favor. Another worry is that the Cardinals, expected to have issues contending in the strong NL Central due to holes in their rotation and lineup, have stayed in it even more legitimately than the Marlins, and though they aren't a threat for the division, are currently encroaching on the Wild Card race. The Mets/Phillies are two games back of the Cardinals for the extra playoff spot, and the Cards themselves are two games back of an improved and improving Brewers club. The Brew Crew is one game back of the Chicago Cubs in the Central, meaning there are tight, three-team races in two divisions, but with the East lagging behind the more powerful Central at present. That's not good news for either the Phillies or Mets, who may be staring down a one-way path to the playoffs via the East's divisional crown because of it, making games like this afternoon's head-to-head matchup take on additional significance.

Matchup: Blue Jays (49-51) at Orioles (48-51), 12:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Roy Halladay (152 1/3 IP, 3.25 RA, 1.03 WHIP, 127 K) vs. Daniel Cabrera (134, 4.70, 1.44, 75)
Pythagorean Record: Toronto, 53-47 (428 RS, 405 RA); Baltimore, 49-50 (480 RS, 489 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Toronto, #9; Baltimore, #20
Prospectus: Cabrera has improved over last season's dreadful campaign in the sense that his ERA is more aesthetically pleasing, but once you look past the surface numbers it's hard to avoid disappointment in what is yet another sub-par year for Cabrera. His walk rate, always too high, has fallen from 4.8 to 4.2 per nine, which isn't that much of a change given it's still far too many. His homer rate is identical to last season's at 1.1 per nine, and he's actually giving up more HR/FB this year than last, with a career-worst 13.2 percent of fly balls leaving the yard. His ground-ball rates (1.8 G/F, 51.3 percent) have once again put him more in the ground ball-inducer camp than the neutral area he has tread in recent seasons, but he's essentially minimized the positives from that by losing nearly two-and-a-half strikeouts per nine innings. He's punching out a sub-par five hitters per nine, unimpressive to begin with and more so when you remember how many free passes he's handing out.

Last year, Cabrera pitched better than his ERA by a bit, with a 5.01 FIP. He had poor luck with runners on, stranding a below-average 66.8 percent of them, and this helped to make his ERA worse than it should have been. This year, he's around the average for his runners left on base percentage, but that's partially due to his .273 BABIP that should be closer to .306; that's helped him keep his ERA down despite his struggles with command and putting hitters away, but at some point that luck will run out. It's even easier to believe this will happen when you remember that Baltimore's defense is solid but unspectacular, ranking 10th in Defensive Efficiency.

Matchup: Nationals (38-63) at Giants (42-58), 12:45 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Tim Redding (118 2/3 IP, 4.78 RA, 1.37 WHIP, 78 K) vs. Matt Cain (132 1/3, 4.29, 1.34, 126)
Pythagorean Record: Washington, 39-62 (386 RS, 494 RA); San Francisco, 42-58 (404 RS, 471 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Washington, #30; San Francisco, #25
Prospectus: The idea that Tim Redding would be second on the Nationals in SNLVAR wasn't so far-fetched back on Opening Day given the rag-tag and patchwork nature of the staff, but to be second on the club in the stat while at the same time producing effectively is an entirely different story. He's not an ace or a top-flight pitcher by any means, but he's been able to post a solid season by being average in all facets of his game. His 5.9 K/9 isn't wonderful, but it's not hurting him given his 3.1 walks and 1.0 home runs per nine. He gives up homers on 8.3 percent of his fly balls, and gives up fly balls at a pretty normal rate, with a G/F ratio of 1.0, just a tick below the league average. The only negative in his peripherals is the .296 BABIP; though average, like his other statistics, it doesn't jibe with his 19.2 percent liner rate (expected BABIP of .312), especially when you consider that the Nationals are a terrible defensive team that converts just 69.2 percent of balls in play into outs.

Regardless, his FIP is 4.29, which isn't too far off from his actual ERA. Redding is the kind of pitcher a team like the Nats should be moving before the trade deadline, especially with all of the top-line starting pitching that has already been moved, and now Randy Wolf, a ticking time bomb, getting swapped on Tuesday. Redding's not going to win a playoff spot for you by himself or anything, but in front of a solid defense in the right park, he could help you to some wins, just like a Kyle Lohse type did for the Phillies last year. Redding is 30 years old and dependable rotation filler, so he's not the type of piece the rebuilding Nats need to hold on to; he has far more value to the Nats on someone else's roster, if they can get someone to cough up a worthwhile player.

Matchup: Rays (59-41) at Royals (45-57), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Matt Garza (110, 4.09 RA, 1.20 WHIP, 75 K) vs. Gil Meche (126 2/3 IP, 4.69, 1.35, 94)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 54-46 (454 RS, 412 RA); Kansas City, 43-59 (425 RS, 508 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #3; Kansas City, #24
Prospectus: On Sunday, June 8, Matt Garza and his catcher, Dioner Navarro, had a heated discussion in their dugout that involved some shoving and choice words that we are not privy to. Manager Joe Maddon said, "Write what you saw. It's something we're going to take care of. And we're going to take care of it soon." The Rays did take care of it soon after, with the emotional Garza meeting with a sports psychologist who happens to be friends with Maddon, all in order to help the hurler focus his emotions and keep them in check while on the mound.

Whatever that psychologist recommended, the Rays may want to bottle it for the rest of their pitchers, because Garza has been lights out since his mishap. In his last seven starts, Garza has gone from "showing" potential to pitching at the level many thought he could, with 7.6 K/9, just 1.5 BB/9, and a low 0.6 homers per nine. You have to remember that before this incident, Garza had five strikeouts per nine, 3.6 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9, and a 4.38 ERA. After 34 K against 25 BB, a figure somewhat skewed by his 5/28 start with 10 K and a pair of walks, he's had 41 strikeouts against just eight walks since.

Those numbers give the Rays a triumvirate of aces rather than a pair in James Shields and Scott Kazmir, and there's no reason to think they won't hold up in the long run. Garza was the 13th-best prospect heading into the 2007 season, and if you've ever seen him pitch, you know he has wicked stuff when he's on: a low to mid-90s fastball that he utilizes nearly 72 percent of the time, a changeup that the bottom drops out of that complements that heater nicely, and a mid-80s slider that rounds out his secondary stuff. The relationship between sports psychology and performance is an area that will get further research, but for now, enjoy an extremely talented pitcher who is coming into his own during the second half of the year.

Matchup: Brewers (58-43) at Cardinals (57-46), 7:15 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Ben Sheets (128 IP, 3.09 RA, 1.15 WHIP, 111 K) vs. Todd Wellemeyer (111, 4.38, 1.27, 77)
Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 54-47 (477 RS, 443 RA); St. Louis, 54-49 (484 RS, 458 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #13; St. Louis, #10
Prospectus: Milwaukee has gone 13-5 in July, moving from 4 games out of the division lead to just one game back on the strength of 102 runs scored against just 55 runs allowed on the month. Most of the offense, at .278/.346/.510, has been unstoppable, between J.J. Hardy's .392/.442/.772, Ryan Braun's .347/.397/.708, Prince Fielder's .290/.388/.536, Bill Hall's 340/.389/.700, and Mike Cameron's .267/.389/.533 July's, but the addition of CC Sabathia has also helped tremendously. He's won all four of his starts, and arguably deserved to win them all on the strength of three complete games with 31 strikeouts against only eight walks. With nearly four times as many strikeouts as walks, and just the one homer allowed, Sabathia has been all that the Brewers and their fans could have hoped for after his acquisition. It doesn't hurt that the Brewers' defense, a lowly 25th in the majors with 68.4 percent of balls in play converted into outs in 2007, is now ranked eighth in the league in 2008, with 70.8 percent of balls converted, a figure that has improved as the season has gone on. Tonight they attempt to finish off a four-game sweep of the Cardinals, one that has moved them up into second place and past their opponent, and after a weekend series with an Astros team that's convinced they are still in this thing, the Brewers will take on the division-leading Cubs for another four-game set. Given the performance of the team all around in July, there isn't a better time for them to make their move in the division.

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