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July 30, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Wednesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Rays (62-44) at Blue Jays (54-53), 12:37 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Edwin Jackson (119 1/3 IP, 4.30 RA, 1.39 WHIP, 68 K) vs. Scott Richmond (121 2/3, 4.81, 1.23, 115-Double- and Triple-A)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 57-49 (471 RS, 431 RA); Toronto, 57-50 (455 RS, 422 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #3; Toronto, #11
Prospectus: The Blue Jays needed just two spot starts through the first half of the season outside of their rotational top five, but that stability has broken down due to injuries to Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan and the demotion of Jesse Litsch. Richmond becomes the second rookie to start a game for Toronto this season (along with David Purcey). It's unclear how many turns Richmond will take for the Jays, but his arrival certainly makes for a good story. A native of Vancouver, Richmond pitched for four different colleges, including his last two seasons for the Oklahoma State Cowboys, but he wasn't drafted after his final year in college (2005). Already 25 years old at that point, Richmond traveled back to Canada and signed on with the Edmonton Cracker-Cats of the independent Northern League, where he pitched for three years. Following the 2007 campaign, in which he went 10-9 with a 4.26 ERA for Edmonton, Richmond signed a minor league deal with the Blue Jays. He was not pitching all that well for Double-A New Hampshire, with a 5.52 RA and 14 home runs allowed in 89 2/3 innings, but after a promotion to the International League gave up just 10 runs in 32 innings over five starts for Syracuse. Richmond was slated to pitch for Team Canada in next month's Summer Olympics in Beijing, but is happily passing up that opportunity to get his first shot at the big leagues.

Richmond will be backed up by a bullpen that has been better than every other except that of the Dodgers in terms of raw performance, as Toronto's relievers have compiled an AL-leading ARP of 47.2. The intriguing thing about the Blue Jays' pen is that its top four relievers by innings pitched are all left-handers: B.J. Ryan, Jesse Carlson, Scott Downs, and Brian Tallet. That southpaw quartet has been excellent, combining for 160 innings with a 2.36 RA, 1.21 WHIP, 149/65 K/BB ratio, and 40 ARP. Downs has been the best of the bunch, leading the team's firemen in innings and ARP, and since the start of last season, his first as a full-time reliever, has provided Toronto 106 2/3 innings of 1.94 RA ball.

Matchup: Angels (66-40) at Red Sox (61-47), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Joe Saunders (133 2/3 IP, 3.57 RA, 1.15 WHIP, 66 K) vs. Josh Beckett (127, 3.90, 1.17, 119)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 58-48 (480 RS, 437 RA); Boston, 63-45 (536 RS, 447 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #10; Boston, #1
Prospectus: Heading into 2008, Los Angeles had experienced quite a bit of difficulty against Boston this decade. As good as the Angels had been against the Yankees-knocking them out of the playoffs twice and putting up a winning record versus the Joe Torre-era Bombers in the regular season-is as bad as they had been against the Red Sox, who swept them from the playoffs in both 2004 and '07. Mike Scioscia's crew last won a season series from Boston in 2001, but his outfit finally ended that streak this year; since losing their first game of the season to the Sox the Angels have beaten the defending World Champions seven times in a row. The latest came on the strength of a complete-game effort and near no-hitter from John Lackey, who managed to exorcise the demons that had previously plagued him at Fenway Park.

Tonight the Angels will go for their first Fenway sweep since 2001, with newly-acquired Mark Teixeira set to make his Halos debut. Solely based upon 2008 production, Teixeira provides an upgrade of .180 runs per game over Casey Kotchman (.250 MLVr to .070), who is headed to Atlanta. The Angels have 56 regular-season games remaining, which means that, should both players continue at their current level, Los Angeles would add a little more than 10 runs, or one extra win. Not that this sort of regular season accounting matters for the Angels, who are way out in front of the division-as Christina Kahrl wrote in her analysis, this acquisition is all about building an offense that can win in October. The Angels will be hoping that Teixeira's typical second-half surge in productivity will help towards that end; the slugger has done his best career work in September, with a 989 OPS. A former Ranger, Teixeira steps back into his old haunts in the AL West to join an Angels offense that has been averaging over six runs per game so far in July. Despite manager Mike Scioscia batting Maicer Izturis (-0.087 MLVr) third in 14 of LA's 26 July games, the Angels have still put up a collective batting line of .284/.346/.470 for the month, helping to lead them to a 17-6 record. Not coincidentally, the team's rampage has paralleled Juan Rivera's promotion to regular duty, and has also been fueled by a seven-homer, .623 SLG month from Torii Hunter, as well as Howie Kendrick's hot hitting (.376/.396/.624).

Matchup: Tigers (54-52) at Indians (46-59), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Nate Robertson (124 2/3 IP, 5.70 RA, 1.55 WHIP, 80 K) vs. Cliff Lee (141 2/3, 2.41, 1.03, 120)
Pythagorean Record: Detroit, 56-50 (532 RS, 501 RA); Cleveland, 53-52 (482 RS, 480 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Detroit, #12; Cleveland, #21
Prospectus: Lee has kept pitching at a remarkably high level lately, with a 1.96 RA and 50/6 K/BB ratio in his last eight starts, seven of them quality performances. Each of Lee's last three outings have resulted in victories, pushing his total on the season to a major league-leading 14, on pace to end the season with 22. Considering that the Indians are heading towards a 71-91 record, 20 wins from Lee would be a highly impressive performance. The last year in which a pitcher won 20 on a team with a losing record was 1997, when both Roger Clemens (21 wins on a 76-win Blue Jays team) and Brad Radke (20 on a 68-win Twins team) turned the trick. The year before that, Pat Hentgen won 20 for a 74-win Toronto team, and in 1992 both Greg Maddux (20 for the 78-win Cubs) and Kevin Brown (21 for the 77-win Rangers) accomplished the feat.

Lee will be facing his most difficult assignment of the month, as the Tigers hit lefties better than any other American League team, with a line of .296/.369/.466 against them, second only to Colorado's 843 OPS off of southpaws. At 20-8, Detroit also has the best winning percentage in the major leagues when an opposing lefty dares take the hill. The Tigers' domination of port-siders this season can be directly attributed to the fact that its offense is so right-hander heavy, with 71.4 percent of Detroit plate appearances coming from that side of the plate, the second-highest percentage in the American League (next to Chicago, at 72.1 percent). One of those righty bats, owned by Edgar Renteria, has shown some signs of coming back to life recently after a long slump, as Renteria's double in last night's win was his fourth two-bagger in the last 11 games. That doesn't sound like much, but consider that before the recent stretch, Renteria went 59 games and 236 plate appearances without hitting any doubles, a drought that lasted from April 25 to July 9. Renteria has so far had the worst season of his career, made all the more difficult to stomach for Tigers fans given that the young pitcher he was traded for, Jair Jurrjens, has already racked up 3.5 wins above replacement for the Braves, while Detroit has struggled all season to find enough flame-retardant material with which to outfit its starting pitchers.

Matchup: Cardinals (60-49) at Braves (49-57), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Chris Carpenter (221 2/3 IP, 3.29 RA, 1.07 WHIP, 184 K-2006) vs. Jair Jurrjens (125 1/3, 3.45, 1.27, 92) Pythagorean Record: St. Louis, 57-52 (520 RS, 492 RA); Atlanta, 55-51 (482 RS, 464 RA)
Hit List Rankings: St. Louis, #13; Atlanta, #14
Prospectus: The Cardinals' ace makes his first start since he was beaten by the Mets on Opening Day of last season. Carpenter hit the shelf with elbow trouble following that outing, and after arthroscopic surgery couldn't fix the problem, he eventually had to undergo the Tommy John procedure in late July. Last year was not the first time that the 6'6" right-hander ran into injuries: Carpenter tore up his labrum in August of 2002, back when he was pitching for Toronto, which forced him to miss all of the 2003 season, and a biceps issue in September of 2004 led to his sitting out the end of that regular season and St. Louis' run to the World Series. Carpenter's latest injury came after he had signed a five-year, $63.5 million extension (with a club option for 2012 at $15 million) after the '06 season, which the team drew up despite the fact that his previous deal still had two years yet to run. If St. Louis had not given Carpenter that mammoth extension, it could have bought out his 2008 option year at $1 million under the terms of his previous contract, and presumably re-signed the rehabbing star to an incentive-laden deal worth far less. That analysis comes with the benefit of hindsight, but the list of pitchers signed to deals of five years or longer in this decade contains only one transaction that can be said to have worked out well so far-Mike Mussina's six-year, $88 million deal signed before the '01 season. Here are the other, less-happily-ever-after pitchers signed to five or more years, with how many millions they signed for:


Pitcher        Length   $    Starting
Denny Neagle     5     $51    2001
Darren Dreifort  5     $55    2001
Mike Hampton     8    $121    2001
Chan Ho Park     5     $65    2002
Kevin Millwood   5     $60    2006
A.J. Burnett     5     $55    2006
Roy Oswalt       5     $73    2007
Barry Zito       7    $126    2006

Now a veteran of both major pitching surgeries, Carpenter will attempt to return to the form that allowed him to win the 2005 NL Cy Young Award and throw 463 1/3 inning between '05 and '06, the third-highest total in the majors during that two-year stretch. The 33-year-old is taking the mound tonight after just two rehab starts-one for Double-A Springfield in which he threw four shutout frames, and one for Triple-A Memphis in which he allowed two runs in 5 2/3 innings-so he'll likely need some time to find his command.

Matchup: White Sox (59-46) at Twins (59-47), 7:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Gavin Floyd (123 2/3 IP, 4.80 RA, 1.24 WHIP, 85 K) vs. Livan Hernandez (135 2/3, 5.84, 1.60, 53)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 60-45 (525 RS, 450 RA); Minnesota, 56-50 (523 RS, 492 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #4; Minnesota, #16
Prospectus: Hernandez gave up 12 hits in eight innings in a 5-4 loss to Cleveland his last time out, which brought his total hits allowed for the season up to a major league-leading 190, 25 more than any other pitcher (Carlos Silva is second at 165). Those 190 knocks average out to 12.6 H/9, a rate that has not been equaled by any major league starter in over 70 years. It would place as the fifth-highest single-season mark amongst ERA qualifiers since the advent of the American League in 1901. The top seven spots are all occupied by live ball-era pitchers from 1929-40 (including brilliantly-named hurlers Chubby Dean and Chief Hogsett). If Hernandez stays in the rotation for the rest of the year while continuing to allow safeties at his current pace, he will finish the season with 290 hits allowed, which would be the most surrendered by any pitcher since Phil Niekro gave up at least 295 hits in three straight years from 1977-79.

Whether or not Hernandez does get that chance to stay in the rotation is the major issue currently surrounding the Twins, due to the continued domination of Francisco Liriano at Triple-A Rochester. Liriano actually gave up four runs over six innings in his last start for the Red Wings, but before that had reeled off a five-start stretch in which he allowed one run in 35 innings, and on the season the lefty boasts a 3.36 RA and 113/31 K/BB ratio in 118 frames for Rochester. The reasons for Liriano's continued stay on the farm are unclear, for he has likely passed the point at which he would have qualified for "Super Two" arbitration eligibility. Usually the minimum ceiling for such status kicks in at two years and 128 days of major league service time, and Liriano is at two years and 31 days, with just 62 days left in the season. Between the Liriano situation and injuries-yesterday the team learned that second baseman Alexi Casilla might be out for the year with a torn thumb tendon-the Twins' shot at the division seems to be slipping away, although after two straight wins over the White Sox they can move into first place for the first time since May 13 with another victory tonight.

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

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