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August 9, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Saturday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Athletics (54-61) at Tigers (56-59), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Dan Meyer (122 2/3 IP, 4.77 RA, 1.35 WHIP, 109 K-Triple-A) vs. Armando Galarraga (119 2/3, 3.91, 1.13, 82)
Pythagorean Record: Oakland, 59-56 (467 RS, 450 RA); Detroit, 59-56 (579 RS, 564 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Oakland, #17; Detroit, #15
Prospectus: Meyer makes his first start of the season tonight, and just his fourth for the A's since arriving from Atlanta in the December 2004 trade that sent Tim Hudson to the Braves. Over the last four years Meyer had become a primary example in the "Don't make a deal with Atlanta involving a prospect" casebook, as well as the major mark against Billy Beane's otherwise-excellent trading record. The left-hander joined Oakland as the owner of a 3.22 RA, 1.11 WHIP, 9.7 K/9, and 4.4 K/BB in 352 minor league innings, which earned him a spot as Baseball Prospectus' 29th ranked prospect in 2005. In the 2004-05 offseason Meyer hurt his shoulder while working out, and has since never managed to get back to the level at which he pitched in the Atlanta system. Meyer was clearly not right during 2005, when he had a 6.47 RA over 89 innings for Sacramento, and the next season he made just 10 starts for the River Cats before being shut down for the year. It was later discovered that, to quote last year's annual, "a piece of his shoulder blade had broken off and become lodged somewhere inconvenient." Meyer was healthy enough to make 22 starts last season, and he pitched much better, putting up a 3.43 RA for Sacramento, a performance he has slipped back from slightly in 2008. Meyer gets a tough assignment in his first big-league start of the year, for Detroit is 21-11 in games against left-handers this season, although one of those losses came last night at the hands of teammate (and fellow southpaw) Dallas Braden.

Matchup: Marlins (61-55) at Mets (61-54), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Scott Olsen (142 IP, 4.56 RA, 1.28 WHIP, 78 K) vs. Brian Stokes (130 2/3, 5.10, 1.32, 97-Triple-A)
Pythagorean Record: Florida, 56-60 (546 RS, 568 RA); New York, 62-53 (555 RS, 514 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Florida, #18; New York, #8
Prospectus: Last seen in the majors with the then-Devil Rays, Stokes resurfaces tonight to spot for John Maine. In 2007 Stokes was one of the worst relievers in the worst relief corps of the last 50 years, racking up a WXRL of -1.258 and ARP of -12.6 out of the D-Rays' pen. The Mets elected to go with the right-handed journeyman with four career big-league starts instead of the left-handed rookie Jon Niese, a decision which can be questioned: the Marlins have a right-leaning lineup, but curiously have fared much better versus right-handers than lefties this year; their OPS against left-handers is 76 points lower than it is against righties (698 to 774). Florida has the lowest batting average of any major league team against southpaws, which dropped to .232 after Oliver Perez shut down the Fish on two hits over seven innings last night. In that game's telecast, Sportsnet New York announcer Gary Cohen said that general manager Omar Minaya had admitted the team did not want to start the service-time clock of their top pitching prospect, and manager Jerry Manuel also felt Niese should arrive only under the assumption that the youngster would be up for good, rather than just for a single turn.

Rookie left fielder Dan Murphy went 2-for-3 with a walk in the series-opening 3-0 win, and is now 9-for-18 with four walks in six games since being called up. Murphy spent most of this season at Double-A Binghamton (he played one game for Triple-A New Orleans prior to his recall), batting .308/.374/.496 for the B-Mets, with 13 homers in 407 plate appearances. Murphy has shown a strong ability to work the count this season, walking nearly as often as he struck out in the minors (40 to 46), and has so far seen 4.3 pitches per plate appearances with the Mets, a figure that would lead the National League. He is the third position player from the 2006 draft to make the majors, after Evan Longoria (the third overall pick) and Manny Burriss (33rd overall), but Murphy was not even selected until the 13th round (394th pick). Murphy has also undergone two position changes already, moving from third base to second base due to the presence of David Wright, and then to left in order to reinforce the Mets' depleted outfield corps.

Matchup: Twins (64-51) at Royals (53-63), 6:10 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Francisco Liriano (118 IP, 3.56 RA, 1.13 WHIP, 113 K-Triple-A) vs. Zack Greinke (146 2/3, 3.99, 1.32, 131) Pythagorean Record: Minnesota, 61-54 (571 RS, 537 RA); Kansas City, 50-66 (488 RS, 565 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Minnesota, #14; Kansas City, #24
Prospectus: These two 24-year-old franchise pitchers have never before faced one another, so this could be the first of many important battles to come, at least as long as both stick with their small-market organizations. Liriano was knocked around by the Royals in his first start of the season on April 13, but that was during the pitcher's premature comeback attempt, when his velocity was down and his control well off. Now, Liriano is looking like the pitcher who decimated the American League in 2006; after his overly-long, dominant stint with Triple-A Rochester, Liriano shut out the Indians for six innings on Sunday in a triumphant return to the Minnesota rotation.

The Twins shut down the Royals last night, 4-1, despite a four-hit effort from shortstop and newly-minted leadoff hitter Mike Aviles. It appeared that the 27-year-old rookie had exhausted his debut magic back at the beginning of July, when an 0-for-16 slump dropped his OPS from 882 to 757; since then, Aviles has come back to hit .405/.425/.612 in 120 plate appearances. The 5'9" right-hander has only drawn eight walks so far, but he's carried over the ability to hit for average from Triple-A Omaha, where he was batting .336 at the time of his recall. Aviles has already amassed four four-hit games in his 56 with the Royals; the franchise record is nine such games, set by Johnny Damon in 2000, when he played in 159 contests. Only two players in the majors this season have more four-hit games than Aviles: Placido Polanco (six), and Aubrey Huff (five), and both of them have played more than 100 games. Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria has all but locked up the AL Rookie of the Year award, but thanks in part to his positional advantage, Aviles is closing in on the Rays' rookie in VORP (32.6 to Aviles' 26.0) and Aviles actually sports a higher MLVr (.282 to .205, though Aviles has 200 fewer plate appearances). He certainly has been Kansas City's most pleasant surprise this season, and not just because of his bat-Aviles was initially thought to be no better than a replacement-level glove at short, but he is holding his own in all major defensive categories (above-average fielding percentage, Range Factor, and Zone Rating thus far).

Matchup: Red Sox (66-50) at White Sox (64-50), 7:11 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Daisuke Matsuzaka (106 2/3 IP, 3.29 RA, 1.36 WHIP, 94 K) vs. Jose Contreras (119 1/3, 4.83, 1.36, 68)
Pythagorean Record: Boston, 69-47 (579 RS, 474 RA); Chicago, 64-50 (576 RS, 508 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Boston, #1; Chicago, #5
Prospectus: Contreras returns to the hill tonight following nearly a month on the DL with elbow tendonitis. It's clear that the injury was seriously affecting the Cuban right-hander: over his last seven starts, from June 10 to July 13, he gave up 38 runs in 37 2/3 innings, with a WHIP over 2.00 and nine home runs. Prior to that gruesome stretch Contreras had thrown six consecutive quality starts, allowing a total of seven runs. He is likely none too happy to see the Red Sox in his first start back, because Boston has been Contreras' personal bugbear over the years, going back to his tenure with the Yankees. In 10 career games versus the Red Sox, Contreras has allowed 49 runs in 48 1/3 innings, a 1.82 WHIP, and 12 home runs. The last time he faced Boston was at US Cellular field on July 20 of '07, which was the opener of what would prove to be Boston's four-game slaughter of Chicago; Contreras gave up all 10 runs in a 10-3 defeat. Contreras does have one memorable victory over the Red Sox, however: he beat them in Game One of the 2005 ALDS, pitching 7 2/3 innings of two-run ball to help key the sweep by Chicago and begin its title run.

Ozzie Guillen started Juan Uribe at third base for the seventh straight game last night, as Josh Fields continued to waste away, riding pine. Called up on July 25 to play third base in place of the injured Joe Crede, Fields has not even picked up a plate appearance since August 3rd after he got off to a tough beginning (4-for-22). Uribe is not ripping it up himself, however, with 10 hits in 40 at-bats since the All-Star break, and sub-replacement level performance for the season (-3.6 VORP). Fields was not hitting all that well at the time of his recall (.248/.325/.450 at Triple-A Charlotte, numbers caused in part by a knee injury), but he is a 25-year-old who smashed 23 home runs and slugged .480 in his rookie season last year. Uribe is certainly the superior defender, although it seems that Fields' poor reputation at the hot corner is a bit undeserved, given that his Range Factor in 93 major league games there is comfortably above average (2.79 to 2.65).

Matchup: Rays (69-46) at Mariners (45-71), 7:10 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Matt Garza (129 IP, 4.05 RA, 1.23 WHIP, 84 K) vs. Ryan Rowland-Smith (55, 3.76, 1.36, 42)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 63-52 (520 RS, 464 RA); Seattle, 50-66 (476 RS, 550 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #3; Seattle, #26
Prospectus: The Rays beat Seattle 5-3 last night, helped along by 1 1/3 perfect innings of relief from Grant Balfour, a continuation of his dominance this season. Baseball-Reference recently pointed out that Balfour has allowed opponents an OPS+ of 4 this season-meaning that their performance against him has been four percent as good as their performance against an average pitcher (the next-best OPS+ against this year is the 22 of Mariano Rivera). Balfour has held the opposition to 12 hits in his 33 2/3 frames, for a batting average of .109. This is easily the lowest average against in the majors this year, and in fact is the lowest since 1956 in any season of at least 30 innings. Eric Gagné checks in second at .133, a number posted during his remarkable 2003 campaign, while Billy Wagner had a .135 BAA in 1999.

Both Gagné and Wagner earned their low marks while pitching well over twice the number of innings that Balfour has so far, and the Australian right-hander could easily see his number jump into non-historic territory down the stretch. When you consider Balfour's minor league work this season, however-he gave up an incredible five hits in 23 2/3 innings for Triple-A Durham to open the season before arriving in Tampa Bay-then his overall numbers are even more eye-popping: 17 hits surrendered in 185 at-bats, for an average against of .091 in 57 1/3 frames. Balfour is healthy, something he has rarely been for any extended period throughout his career, and is throwing harder than ever (an average of 94.5 mph on his fastball and 87 on his slider). When added with Tampa Bay's excellent defense (second in the majors with a .712 efficiency), that combination has proven impossible for American League hitters to solve. Balfour's efforts have contributed to the Rays pen holding opponents to less than seven hits per nine innings, the lowest average of any team.

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

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