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August 1, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Friday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Pirates (50-58) at Cubs (65-44), 1:20 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Jeff Karstens (68 2/3 IP, 4.06 RA, 1.18 WHIP, 55 K-Triple-A) vs. Jason Marquis (111 1/3, 4.93, 1.45, 62)
Pythagorean Record: Pittsburgh, 48-60 (533 RS, 602 RA); Chicago, 67-42 (580 RS, 450 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Pittsburgh, #27; Chicago, #2
Prospectus: The most active team at the trading deadline, Pittsburgh will begin showcasing the returns from its two deadline deals today, with Karstens making his National League debut. The 25-year-old right-hander was pitching well for Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre, but his age and lack of overpowering stuff peg him as a fifth starter, rather than a building block for Pittsburgh's long-prophesied next contender. Karstens should still prove to be an improvement upon John Van Benschoten, who gave up 26 runs in his five starts this season. Karstens has already had a small helping of success at the big-league level, making quality starts in four of six turns while filling in for the Yankees two years ago. He'll be the 11th pitcher to start a game for Pittsburgh this season, tying the Pirates with Florida and St. Louis as the senior circuit teams with the most used this year. Those 10 starters have put up a 6.23 RA, and the Pirates' rotation has produced fewer wins above replacement (4.6) than any other in the NL; the Marlins are the next worst team, with 1.5 wins more than Pittsburgh by SNLVAR.

Meanwhile, the Cubs lead the majors in SNLVAR at 16.8 wins added. Marquis has been the weakest member of the outstanding Cubs rotation, the only Chicago starter to post an ERA below league-average, but he has beaten the Pirates in two out of three starts against them earlier this season in April and May. Marquis will be facing a much different lineup than he did then, for Pittsburgh's corner outfielders are both gone, replaced by Brandon Moss in left field and a platoon of Jason Michaels and rookie Steven Pearce in right. On the infield, Andy LaRoche will be manning third, with Doug Mientkiewicz shifting over to his natural position of first base to replace Andy's brother Adam, who went on the DL Tuesday with a strained rib cage muscle. The batting order will also be different, as John Russell began utilizing Tony LaRussa's gambit of hitting the pitcher in the eighth slot around a month ago. With Bay now gone from the cleanup spot, it will be interesting to see whether Russell continues using this strategy or returns to the more conventional alignment.

Matchup: Brewers (60-49) at Braves (50-58), 7:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jeff Suppan (114 1/3 IP, 5.90 RA, 1.61 WHIP, 61 K) vs. Chuck James (23, 8.22, 1.78, 17)
Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 55-54 (505 RS, 495 RA); Atlanta, 56-52 (493 RS, 475 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #6; Atlanta, #14
Prospectus: James returns from Triple-A to take the rotation spot of Charlie Morton, who gave up 34 runs over 39 2/3 innings in his rookie campaign. The 26-year-old left-hander pitched well following his demotion in mid-May, and holds a 3.18 RA over 14 appearances for Richmond on the season. Most importantly, James allowed just three home runs in his 76 1/3 innings pitched for the Triple-A club. Throughout his major league career, the fly-ball pitcher has been repeatedly burned by the home run-among pitchers with at least 300 big-league innings (James has 309), he has the third highest HR/9 ratio of all time (1.72), behind only the 1.93 of Ruben Quevedo and the 1.73 of Jose Acevedo. That problem was especially evident during his time in the majors this season, when he allowed seven homers over five starts. Unfortunately for James, tonight's matchup will not provide a particularly easy transition back to the show, for he's facing a Brewers team that crushes southpaws (an 818 OPS against, second best in the NL behind Colorado) and which has hit 142 home runs, the fourth highest total in the majors. James did however beat the Brewers in his only career start against them; a six inning, eight strikeout, one-run performance in Milwaukee in May of '07.

With the left-hander on the mound, it's doubtful that Ned Yost will put lefty-swinging Russell Branyan in the lineup-but then again, Branyan hasn't been playing against right-handers lately, either. From May 25 to June 29, Branyan started every game in which the Brewers faced a righty pitcher, mostly at third base over Bill Hall, and in that stretch hit .279/.370/.721 with 11 home runs in 100 plate appearances. Yost appears to have lost faith in his three-true-outcomes masher, for since the Fourth of July Branyan has started in just six of 24 games (once in the last 11), despite the fact that Hall is still not hitting righties. Branyan's best seasons have come in Milwaukee-he hit very well in his first tour with the Brewers in '04 and '05, and now owns a career line of .248/.349/.531 in 565 plate appearances with the team-so it would be nice to see him get a fair shot at continuing his strong season.

Matchup: Blue Jays (54-54) at Rangers (56-53), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Shaun Marcum (109 IP, 3.47 RA, 1.09 WHIP, 91 K) vs. Tommy Hunter (144, 3.94, 1.25, 95-High-, Double-, and Triple-A) Pythagorean Record: Toronto, 58-50 (457 RS, 425 RA); Texas, 52-57 (610 RS, 644 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Toronto, #11; Texas, #19
Prospectus: The Rangers rotation has been the source of a season-long firestorm in Arlington-as mentioned before, Texas is well behind every other team in SNLVAR, and is on pace to finish the season with a historically poor showing from its starters. Now down to only 1.26 wins added above what a replacement level staff would produce, Texas will need to more than double that total in its final 53 games just to reach the level of the next worst starting staff in the past 50 years, the 2.61 SNLVAR put up by the 1964 Kansas City Athletics. Thanks to injuries and the ejection of Sidney Ponson, the Rangers have lately been forced to call up any warm body from the minor leagues that management thinks can avoid being eaten alive, which has to this point produced some unsightly performances: the six rookie pitchers Texas has used (Luis Mendoza, Eric Hurley, Doug Mathis, Matt Harrison, Warner Madrigal, and A.J. Murray) have combined to allow 107 runs in 108 innings. Hunter becomes the latest frosh to try to conquer the void, and the 13th starter used by Texas overall this season, the most of any team.

Hunter's climb to the big leagues has been a remarkably steep one. Selected with the 54th pick of last year's draft out of the University of Alabama, the 21-year-old right-hander began his second professional season at Bakersfield of the High-A California League, where he made nine starts while compiling an impressive 50/8 K/BB ratio in 58 1/3 innings, with a 4.01 RA and 1.22 WHIP. From the Blaze, Hunter moved to the RoughRiders of Frisco in the Double-A Texas League. Eight starts and a 4.13 RA later, Hunter was promoted again up to Triple-A Oklahoma, where he once more pitched well, posting a 3.51 RA and 17/4 K/BB over five starts and 33 1/3 innings. A 6'3" righty with a plus fastball, Hunter will become just the second player taken in the 2007 draft to make it to the majors so far, and the only one to play at the highest level this season. The player who made it before Hunter was pitcher Ross Detwiler, the sixth overall selection, who threw one inning last September for the Nationals.

Matchup: Mets (58-50) at Astros (50-57), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Pedro Martinez (44 2/3 IP, 6.45 RA, 1.63 WHIP, 34 K) vs. Brandon Backe (123 2/3, 4.88, 1.54, 96)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 58-50 (532 RS, 486 RA); Houston, 48-59 (466 RS, 522 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #7; Houston, #25
Prospectus: Martinez makes his first start tonight since July 12, when he cruised through four shutout innings against the Rockies before being pulled with stiffness in his right shoulder, an unfortunate development given that the former ace was headed towards his best outing of the season. Martinez did not deem the injury serious, and wanted badly to go back in the game, but Jerry Manuel pulled his fragile righty, continuing a pattern of extreme caution with in-game injuries (Jose Reyes was removed during the first inning of Manuel's first game as Mets manager following a hint of injury, causing the shortstop to slam his helmet and retreat to the clubhouse, and John Maine was lifted before five innings last week, a move the pitcher was unhappy with).

David Wright will attempt to start a new run-scoring streak tonight, after his last was stopped at 13 games on Wednesday. Wright's stretch of consecutive contests with at least one run was the longest in Mets history, besting the 12 in a row that Carlos Beltran put up two years ago. New York's third baseman has had no trouble crossing the plate recently thanks to the torrid hitting of his teammates; in July, the Mets batted .304/.374/.481, with 5.9 runs per game. Leading that charge was a pair of over-30 sluggers, Fernando Tatis and Carlos Delgado. Tatis hit .397/.463/.767 in 83 plate appearances during July, while Delgado contributed a .357/.445/.714 line in 119 PA. Tatis and Delgado are both partying like it's 1999-back when Delgado was in his heyday with the Blue Jays, and Tatis was enjoying his only star-level season in the big leagues. Now 33, the player best known for hitting two grand slams in the same inning off of the same pitcher (Chan Ho Park) entered 2008 with just 64 plate appearances in the majors over the last four years. Those came in '06 with Baltimore, after Tatis decided to return to baseball following a two-year period of retirement in order to buy land on which to build a church in San Pedro de Macoris, his Dominican hometown. The way Tatis is hitting now, he can afford to build a whole village. Manuel recently named him the team's starting left fielder, and his play took the pressure off of Omar Minaya to deal New York's top pitching prospect, Jon Niese, for an outfielder at the trade deadline.

Matchup: Diamondbacks (56-52) at Dodgers (54-54), 7:40 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Randy Johnson (112 IP, 5.22 RA, 1.34 WHIP, 101 K) vs. Clayton Kershaw (47 2/3, 4.53, 1.70, 40)
Pythagorean Record: Arizona, 57-51 (491 RS, 463 RA); Los Angeles, 56-52 (450 RS, 431 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #15; Los Angeles, #17
Prospectus: Two left-handers take the mound tonight at Dodger Stadium, one with 292 career victories, and the other with just one. That first victory for the rookie Kershaw came last Sunday, in his best major league start to date, in which he fired six shutout innings against the Nationals. Johnson is 24 years older than Kershaw, and made his major league debut in September of 1988, some six months after Kershaw was born. To this point, Kershaw's statistical profile looks a bit like that of the young Johnson: plenty of heat, plenty of strikeouts, and plenty of walks. The Big Unit took five seasons to get his walk rate under control-in his first four full campaigns, his BB/9 rates were 5.4, 4.9, 6.7, and 6.2. Kershaw's control problems are not nearly as severe as Johnson's were, but he has walked 5.3/9 so far in the majors. At just 20 years old, however, the rookie has more than held his own, and is poised to be a fearsome force on the Dodger Stadium mound for many years once he drops those walks and forces opposing hitters to contend with his nasty offerings inside the strike zone.

While tonight's contrast between southpaws on the mound is extremely compelling, the fanfare in this game will emanate from left field, where the phenomenon known as Manny Ramirez will be appearing for the first time as a member of the Dodgers. While Los Angeles made the big move, Arizona stood still, leaving its current collection of players to win or lose the divisional race on their own. That means that the Snakes will stick with the Conor Jackson experiment in left field, leaving Chad Tracy and Tony Clark to platoon at first base. Not everything has gone smoothly for Jackson, as he has committed three errors in 30 games while playing left field, but overall the former first baseman has done a fine job, actually making more plays out there than the average fielder (2.28 Range Factor, compared to the left field average of 1.91). Jackson also has a pair of outfield assists, one of which came last night in a huge spot, as he cut off Andre Ethier's attempt to score the tying run on an eighth-inning would-be sacrifice fly. The positional switch certainly hasn't affected Jackson's offense, for he's batting .318/.400/.503 and leading the team in all three categories.

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

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