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August 6, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Wednesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Brewers (63-51) at Reds (52-62), 12:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jeff Suppan (121 1/3 IP, 5.56 RA, 1.58 WHIP, 62 K) vs. Homer Bailey (31, 8.71, 2.10, 14)
Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 59-55 (529 RS, 509 RA); Cincinnati, 49-65 (493 RS, 572 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #11; Cincinnati, #25
Prospectus: Bailey pitched two decent games after getting called up to Cincinnati for a second time this season in mid-July, giving up two runs in five innings to the Brewers and then three in 6 1/3 to San Diego, but his last two outings have been extremely ugly: a 4 2/3-inning, 15-hit, five-run performance against Colorado at home, and then a seven-hit, five-run, two-inning stint in Washington. As a result, Bailey has given up an astounding 22 hits over his last 6 2/3 innings. The pounding that the Rockies handed the young right-hander marked the first time since the start of 2006 that a pitcher allowed 15 or more hits in less than four innings, and just the fifth time since the first full year of available play-by-play data (1956). The other unfortunate pitchers to take a similar beating were the Royals' Zack Greinke in 2005 (4 1/3, 15 hits, 11 runs vs. Arizona), the Tigers' Scott Sanders in '98 (4, 16, 11 vs. Texas), the Phillies' Danny Jackson in '93 (4 2/3, 15, 11 vs. San Francisco), and the Indians' Charles Nagy in '92 (4 2/3, 15, 7 vs. Oakland).

Bailey was also knocked around in three starts at the beginning of June, and his 14.8 H/9 mark on the year is the highest any pitcher has given up in a season of at least 30 innings since Colorado's Roberto Ramirez let up 15.2 in 1999. The Reds have also lost all seven of the games in which Bailey has appeared this season. Bailey reeled off four strong starts for Triple-A Louisville to open the year, but over his last 12 for the Bats had a 6.15 RA over 67 1/3 innings, so the second-rated prospect in the Cincinnati system has seen his stock fall considerably. One must keep in mind, though, that the righty is just 22 years old.

Thanks to William Burke for database research

Matchup: Marlins (60-53) at Phillies (61-51), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Anibal Sanchez (28 IP, 2.89 RA, 1.18 WHIP, 25 K-minors) vs. Kyle Kendrick (121 2/3, 5.18, 1.49, 55)
Pythagorean Record: Florida, 55-58 (543 RS, 560 RA); Philadelphia, 63-49 (558 RS, 488 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Florida, #18; Philadelphia, #8
Prospectus: Sanchez's first start back from Tommy John surgery was a successful one, as he allowed two runs in 5 2/3 innings to beat Colorado last Thursday. The right-hander threw 95 pitches, 56 of them for strikes (59 percent). His fastball averaged 90 mph in the outing, essentially the same speed Sanchez threw in his rookie season of 2006, when he tossed the fourth no-hitter in Florida franchise history. Having seen the returns of both Josh Johnson and Sanchez from Tommy John surgery, and promoted their top prospect Chris Volstad from the minors, the Marlins now have a talented quintet of young starters, the oldest of whom is just 25 (Ricky Nolasco). Florida's weighted pitcher age this season is 26.7, according to Baseball-Reference.com, which is the youngest of any team in the majors. The Phillies, conversely, have the second-oldest pitching staff, averaging 30.7 years.

Florida beat the Phillies 8-2 last night in the opener of this critical series, moving to a game and a half behind Philadelphia in the NL East. Part of the Marlins' attack was generated by rookie catcher John Baker, who went 1-for-2 and walked twice. Called up on July 9 from Triple-A Albuquerque after Matt Treanor went on the DL, Baker has started 19 of 23 games behind the plate, and from the way he has hit it doesn't appear that he'll relinquish the starting role when Treanor gets back to full strength. After batting .321/.398/.497 in 221 plate appearances for the Isotopes, Baker has hit .246/.367/.462 in 80 PA for the Fish, a hearty improvement upon the production of Treanor (-2.2 VORP) and Mike Rabelo (-6.1), who split time in the season's first three months. Baker is already 27 years old, having spent five years in the Oakland chain before the Marlins claimed him off of waivers before the 2007 season, and he entered 2008 having hit a mediocre .272/.358/.407 in 570 minor league games, so his season has been a surprise. Baker's presence is also a boon for the Marlins considering he swings the bat from the left side, helping to balance out a lineup that has just two other lefty regulars (Jeremy Hermida and Mike Jacobs) and which has had a high 62.3 percent of its plate appearances from right-handed batters this year.

Matchup: Athletics (53-59) at Blue Jays (57-56), 7:07 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Gio Gonzalez (123 IP, 4.76 RA, 1.36 WHIP, 128 K-Triple-A) vs. Shaun Marcum (113 1/3, 3.81, 1.12, 93)
Pythagorean Record: Oakland, 58-54 (458 RS, 437 RA); Toronto, 60-53 (485 RS, 450 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Oakland, #12; Toronto, #10
Prospectus: The Athletics will call up one of their top pitching prospects, the 22-year-old left-hander Gonzalez, to start tonight in place of Dana Eveland, who was optioned to Sacramento after a series of rough outings. Part of the package that Oakland received from the White Sox in exchange for Nick Swisher, Gonzalez was rated by Kevin Goldstein as the second-best prospect in the Chicago organization (and the fifth-best prospect in the newly-infused A's system). Gonzalez led all of the minor leagues last year with 185 strikeouts (in 150 innings) while pitching in the Southern League, and this season his 128 Ks are two off the Pacific Coast League lead, and 11 off the overall minor league leader. While his fastball is not powered by pure gas, the left-hander features the best curveball in the minors, according to Goldstein, "a hard-breaking power pitch that comes in fast, then falls off the table." As can be divined from his unimpressive RA, however, Gonzalez has not been as dominant as those strikeouts might suggest, mainly due to the youngster having walked nearly 4.5 men per nine innings, up from 3.4 BB/9 last year. Gonzalez has also been quite flaky this season-in an early-July Ten Pack, Goldstein wrote that Gonzalez was being lit up "around once every three starts...no one seems to have a good explanation for this inconsistency." Lately it's been more up than down for Gonzalez, who has allowed either one run or no runs in five of his last seven starts, and threw eight shutout innings in his latest effort on Friday against Nashville while striking out nine. The A's picked a good team for Gonzalez to make his debut against, for Toronto is the second-worst offensive squad in the majors against lefties (.249/.325/.358, with a league-low 13 homers), better only than Oakland itself.

Matchup: Padres (43-70) at Mets (59-53), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Cha Seung Baek (88 IP, 5.42 RA, 1.36 WHIP, 58 K) vs. Pedro Martinez (49 2/3, 6.34, 1.61, 39)
Pythagorean Record: San Diego, 45-68 (425 RS, 536 RA); New York, 60-52 (545 RS, 507 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Diego, #29; New York, #6
Prospectus: New York's bullpen problems continued last night, as right-hander Aaron Heilman, filling in for disabled closer Billy Wagner, surrendered a three-run homer in the ninth to Jody Gerut. Fortunately for the Mets, they entered the inning with a four-run lead, and Jerry Manuel was able to piece his way to the win, bringing in side-arming righty Joe Smith to retire Tadihito Iguchi and LOOGY Scott Schoeneweis to get Brian Giles for the final out. Manuel had announced before the game that Heilman would front the committee in the bullpen while Wagner is out, chiefly because, in Manuel's estimation, "our best crossover guy who can get lefties and righties out late, I would have to say, is Aaron Heilman." The former first-round pick out of Notre Dame does have a strong changeup in his arsenal, but it hasn't helped him against left-handers this season: Heilman has been crushed by them (.341/.435/.637), with seven home runs allowed in 110 plate appearances, while holding righties to a 619 OPS and two homers in 169 PA. After a strong month of June, Heilman has been revisited by his early-season demons lately, giving up 10 runs in his last 6 2/3 innings, including three homers. His nine homers allowed are his most since allowing 13 in his rookie campaign in 2003.

A better choice to serve as the bullpen stopper right now would be Duaner Sanchez, who has pitched well in his comeback season after missing all of last year due to injuries suffered in a New York taxicab accident. Sanchez has not displayed nearly as drastic a platoon split as Heilman this season, with righties posting a 604 OPS against him in 104 PA and lefties a 653 in 97. Another pitcher who could work his way into the late-inning mix is right-hander Eddie Kunz. A supplemental first-round pick by the Mets last season, Kunz was called up from Double-A Binghampton on Sunday, where he had a 3.54 RA and 43/25 K/BB ratio in 48 1/3 innings. Kunz comes slightly from the side with a mid-90s sinking fastball, which helped him to avoid allowing a home run in his minor league work. He is the third player from last year's draft to make the majors, after Ross Detwiler (Nationals) and Tommy Hunter (Rangers).

Ed. note: Sanchez was hurt in a taxicab accident in Miami, not New York

Matchup: Red Sox (65-49) at Royals (53-61), 7:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Tim Wakefield (141 IP, 4.09 RA, 1.20 WHIP, 92 K) vs. Luke Hochevar (111 1/3, 5.82, 1.49, 62)
Pythagorean Record: Boston, 67-47 (568 RS, 467 RA); Kansas City, 50-64 (485 RS, 553 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #2; Kansas City, #23
Prospectus: Rookie oufielder Jacoby Ellsbury, recently demoted from the leadoff spot to the nine hole after a long slump, got two hits and stole two bases in yesterday's 8-2 Boston win, his first thefts since July 1. Ellsbury stole 34 bases in his first 65 games, but since June 18 had grabbed just one in the ensuing 37 before last night, a fallow period in which he had a .253 OBP over 159 plate appearances. Joe Sheehan addressed Ellsbury's slump in early July, coming to the conclusion that pitchers had started challenging him in the zone much more due to his lack of power, resulting in fewer walks and a larger number of strikeouts, and leading to "the toughest challenge of his baseball career." So far, Ellsbury has not been able to adjust, as he has fanned 38 times versus five walks since the start of June, although last night's game could be a start in the right direction. Even with his prolonged drought on the bases, Ellsbury still ranks first in the American League in steals, with two more than Ichiro Suzuki, and he could become the first Red Sox player to top the junior circuit in thefts since left fielder Tommy Harper stole a league-leading 54 in 1973.

Alex Gordon, another well-regarded 24-year-old who has not met the high expectations set for him, also had a solid game last night, going 2-for-3 with a double and a walk. After a tough rookie season last year, the second pick in the 2005 draft was expected to break out at the plate in his sophomore effort. Gordon's seasonal numbers (.257/.350/.418) therefore seem disappointing, but he's showing improvement from last year, specifically with regards to patience: the third baseman walked once every 14.6 plate appearances in 2007, a ratio he has pushed way down to once every 8.6 so far in 2008. Gordon's power has not been fully turned on, however-his ISO of 161 is actually a bit down from last year's 164 mark-and the ability to hit for average has also yet to show up. Still, Gordon has been one of just three above-average offensive players on the Royals, along with Mike Aviles and David DeJesus, and his jump in walk rate could be a sign of better pitch recognition, which in turn should lead to him picking out more pitches to drive.

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

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