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August 10, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Sunday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Astros (57-59) at Reds (52-66), 1:15 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Wandy Rodriguez (97 1/3 IP, 4.81 RA, 1.36 WHIP, 84 K) vs. Aaron Harang (123, 4.98, 1.40, 108)
Pythagorean Record: Houston, 53-63 (514 RS, 561 RA); Cincinnati, 50-68 (506 RS, 597 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Houston, #23; Cincinnati, #25
Prospectus: Bronson Arroyo broke Carlos Lee's pinky last night with an 88 mph fastball, likely ending Lee's season. The injury came at a terrible time for the Panamanian slugger, because in his previous nine games Lee hit .500 (15-for-30) with four homers and 13 RBI, and since June 8th he'd crushed the ball at the rate of .385/.446/.690 in 224 plate appearances. That was good for the highest OPS in the majors over that time period, to go with the most RBI (53) and the second-most home runs (16). Lee, who recently reached 100 RBI for the fifth time, was on pace to bring home 141 runs, a total which would have set the Houston franchise record, but teammate Lance Berkman's total of 136 from two season's ago is now safe for at least one more year. Along with Berkman, Lee was the linchpin holding together an otherwise-flimsy Houston offense: even with the league leader in RBI and the major league leader in VORP hitting back-to-back, down seasons from Hunter Pence and Miguel Tejada and sinkholes behind the plate and atop Tal's Hill in center have brought the Astros down to a .257 team EqA, (coincidentally the same mark as Cincinnati through Friday's games). In Lee's absence, the Astros will likely turn to Darin Erstad to man left field, a switch that, going by the two players' 2008 production, will lead to a loss of about 0.4 runs per game (.317 MLVr for Lee minus -0.074 for Erstad).

Erstad and company will be facing the newly-rehabilitated Reds ace today, as Harang makes his first start since July 8, when he was touched for six runs in 4 1/3 innings by the Cubs. That outing capped an eight-start stretch in which he had a 7.51 RA in 44 1/3 innings, and afterwards he hit the DL with forearm tightness. It is unclear whether Harang's lengthy relief appearance in Cincinnati's 18-inning loss to the Padres on May 25 had anything to do with the injury-he had a similar forearm issue last season, which required him to skip a start-but up to and including his four-inning stint out of the pen on two days rest, the righty pitched very well, with a 3.55 RA.

Matchup: Rangers (60-58) at Orioles (56-59), 1:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Matt Harrison (30 2/3 IP, 7.63 RA, 1.73 WHIP, 7 K) vs. Chris Waters (122, 5.02, 1.38, 94-Double- and Triple-A)
Pythagorean Record: Texas, 55-63 (652 RS, 699 RA); Baltimore, 57-58 (567 RS, 571 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Texas, #19; Baltimore, #21
Prospectus: In his eighth professional season, Waters made his professional debut last Tuesday in Anaheim, pitching eight shutout innings to beat the best team in baseball on its home turf. Waters was once briefly an Angels farmhand, back in 2004; he began his career with Atlanta after getting selected in the fifth round of the 2000 draft out of South Florida Community College. The left-hander rose no higher than Double-A in the Braves system, then signed a minor league deal with Baltimore before last year. He pitched well at Double-A Bowie to open '08, but was largely ineffective for Triple-A Norwich, posting a 6.20 RA and 1.56 WHIP over 90 innings. Nevertheless, with the back end of Baltimore's rotation in tatters, the Orioles decided to bring up Waters for a look anyway, certainly an odd move given his difficulty with International League hitters. The promotion paid off for at least one turn, though, as Waters garnered a Game Score of 80 in his debut. In the play-by-play database that stretches back to 1956 there have been just 30 pitchers who threw up an 80 or higher in their first big-league appearance-Johnny Cueto's April introduction was an 81, with the last before that being the 81 of Jason Jennings in 2001. (Other notable names on the list are Juan Marichal, Dave McNally, Luis Tiant, and Don Larsen; Marichal owns the best debut appearance in the database, a complete-game 12-strikeout shutout that rated a 96.) Of those 30 pitchers, the 27-year-old Waters is the oldest by a good margin, with the next-oldest on the list being a then-25 Mike Remlinger in 1991.

The Orioles really don't have anything to lose by throwing Waters out there for the rest of the season, because when your second-best starter (Daniel Cabrera) has an RA of 4.96, there isn't much farther down to go. Before Waters' arrival, the last three spots in the O's rotation behind Jeremy Guthrie and Cabrera had yielded 243 runs in 322 innings, a 6.79 RA. Baltimore has the second-worst starting staff in the AL, at 7.8 SNLVAR, although that's still a good six wins better than Texas's staff. Combine those pedigrees with Camden Yards, which has been the best home-run hitter's park this season, mix in the Rangers' major league-leading offense, and this afternoon's game appears to be the recipe for a slugfest. As Waters proved in his first start, though, you just never know.

Matchup: Pirates (53-63) at Phillies (63-53), 1:35 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jason Davis (116 1/3 IP, 4.80 RA, 1.38 WHIP, 68 K-Triple-A) vs. Jamie Moyer (138, 3.98, 1.35, 88)
Pythagorean Record: Pittsburgh, 51-65 (556 RS, 635 RA); Philadelphia, 65-51 (567 RS, 495 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Pittsburgh, #28; Philadelphia, #7
Prospectus: With their lead in the NL East shaved down to a game over New York, Philadelphia will look for the series win over Pittsburgh this afternoon behind its 45-year-old left-hander. Moyer will be pitching to a rebuilt Pirates lineup that has scored less than three runs per game in the eight contests Pittsburgh has been without both Xavier Nady and Jason Bay. Getting the majority of the benefit from Nady's absence so far has been Steven Pearce, the rookie outfielder who has started nine of the last 13 games in right. Pearce has tremendous raw power, reflected in his blasting 75 extra-base hits in 134 games last season, including 31 homers, while slugging .622. He got a late start to his career after spending four years in college (two with Indian River CC in Florida, and two with South Carolina after transferring), though, and was unable to conquer Triple-A in his first extended shot at the level this season, batting .258/.310/.425 with 11 homers in 391 plate appearances. Kevin Goldstein rated him as the second-best prospect in Pittsburgh's system before the year, and 43rd-best overall, but his stock is now down, with Goldstein stating that "as a 25-year-old without a lot of defensive possibilities, he's not going to get a lot of chances." The team's trades have left little other right-field options beyond journeyman Jason Michaels, however, so now is the time for Pearce to win a spot in next year's Bucs outfield.

While the Pirates experiment with Pearce in right, the Phillies continue to struggle for production at the position, as Philly right fielders have just a 719 OPS so far. Philadelphia is stuck in a tough spot, for it has committed to a platoon situation in which the player with the long end of the timeshare isn't hitting. Things have been tough for Geoff Jenkins this summer, and not because of the tension caused by the Brett Favre saga: the 33-year-old former Brewer has just not hit at all for his new team, putting up a -3.3 VORP. The alternative for Philadelphia would be playing Jayson Werth full-time, rather than just against lefties, but despite his poor season Jenkins has still hit a little better than Werth against righties this year (732 OPS to 689), an advantage backed up more forcefully by their respective career splits. Werth is also an outstanding fielder, though, which lessens the gap between the two versus right-handers.

Matchup: Nationals (44-73) at Brewers (66-51), 1:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: John Lannan (131 2/3 IP, 3.96 RA, 1.31 WHIP, 81 K) vs. Manny Parra (125, 4.46, 1.50, 103)
Pythagorean Record: Washington, 46-71 (440 RS, 563 RA); Milwaukee, 62-55 (546 RS, 512 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Washington, #30; Milwaukee, #9
Prospectus: The Brewers got their second consecutive complete-game shutout last night, as Ben Sheets followed up CC Sabathia's five-hit effort with a five-hitter of his own, striking out six without walking a batter. It was the 15th time in franchise history that two Brewers pitchers each completed shutouts in back-to-back games, and the first since September of 1992, when Cal Eldred and Chris Bosio both conspired to shut down the California Angels. Manny Parra will attempt to go for a team-record three straight tonight, making his first start since being attacked in the dugout by Prince Fielder. For their part, the Nationals were shut out for the 17th time this season, and have now gone scoreless in their last 22 frames. Washington has gotten shut out six more times than the team with the next highest total, Detroit. If the Nats continue getting shut down at their current pace, they will finish with 24 whitewashings, which would be tied for the fourth highest team total since 1956. The record in the last 50 years is held by the 1963 Mets, who were blanked 30 times in their second year of existence.

Milwaukee has scored over 100 runs more than the Nationals this season, and part of that difference can be traced to the two teams' performance with runners on base. Milwaukee has grounded into just 61 double plays this year, the fewest in the majors, while Washington has bounced into nearly twice that number, 115, which ties them with Toronto for tops amongst all teams. The Nationals hit the ball on the ground more than every team except the Dodgers and Giants, with a G/F ratio of 1.51. Milwaukee is not an especially speedy team, but their G/F ratio is down at 1.08, which ranks in the league's bottom five. Not surprisingly, with all those grounders the Nationals are last in the majors in extra-base hits, with 293, while Milwaukee is first in the NL, with 418. After leading the American League with 27 GIDPs in 2005 with Oakland, and collecting 19 the next season, catcher Jason Kendall has hit into only one this year, fewer than every other batting title qualifier except the blazing fast Willy Taveras. Unfortunately for Milwaukee, that has been essentially the catcher's lone contribution to the offense, as he has produced a near-facsimile of last season's desultory campaign.

Matchup: Padres (45-72) at Rockies (53-66), 1:05 p.m. MDT
Probable Starters: Chris Young (64 1/3 IP, 4.20 RA, 1.40 WHIP, 64 K) vs. Livan Hernandez (139 2/3, 5.99, 1.63, 54) Pythagorean Record: San Diego, 47-70 (443 RS, 552 RA); Colorado, 54-65 (550 RS, 612 RA)
Hit List Rankings: San Diego, #29; Colorado, #22
Prospectus: The first hit by a Friars batter tonight will be the 200th allowed by Hernandez this season, and the first while in a Rockies uniform. After getting released by Minnesota, the veteran right-hander quickly returned to the senior circuit, where he was employed for all 12 seasons of his career prior to 2008. Things didn't go very well for Hernandez in his foray into the American League, so he is likely happy to be back in that regard, although the marriage between a pitcher on pace for a historically hittable season and Coors Field could prove to be a particularly explosive one. Hernandez will be facing the Padres, though, who are batting just .246 as a team.

While Colorado has been hurt by the prolonged absence of Todd Helton and his .393 OBP, the loss of their first baseman has benefited the club by allowing Ian Stewart to play regularly. In the first two weeks after Helton went down in early July, Colorado tried a platoon of the lefty Joe Koshansky and righty Jeff Baker at the position, but Koshansky didn't hit, and the Rockies realized Baker's bat would be more valuable at second base. So they moved Garret Atkins from third base to first, and brought up Ian Stewart to man the hot corner. In his second season at Triple-A, Stewart had been slugging .607 in 298 plate appearances, the highest mark of his career and a welcome improvement from last season's .478 mark for the 23-year-old whose top prospect status had taken a hit in the last couple of years. Stewart has continued his terrific season with the parent club, hitting .354/.482/.585 in 83 plate appearances. It appears that the rookie's pitch recognition has got stronger as the year has progressed-in his first stint with Colorado, from late May to late June, he walked three times against 28 strikeouts while hitting .218 in 60 PA, but this time around has 14 walks versus 24 Ks. With how well Stewart is hitting right now, as well as his better glove work than that of Atkins at the position, it would be hard to send him back to the bench when Helton returns; the Rockies might not have to deal with that problem for some time yet, however, since the franchise first baseman "remains out for an indefinite period of time."

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

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