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August 12, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Tuesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Rangers (61-58) at Red Sox (68-51), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Scott Feldman (112 IP, 5.30 RA, 1.38 WHIP, 54 K) vs. Charlie Zink (152 1/3, 3.78, 1.13, 94-Triple-A)
Pythagorean Record: Texas, 56-63 (667 RS, 706 RA); Boston, 71-48 (595 RS, 483 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Texas, #19; Boston, #1
Prospectus: The Red Sox replace one knuckleballer with another tonight, as Charlie Zink will be called up from Triple-A Pawtucket to spot for Tim Wakefield, who went on the DL Sunday with stiffness in his right shoulder. Zink will make his major league debut on three days' rest, having started on Saturday, but that shouldn't be as big of a factor for him as it might be for most other pitchers due to the less-stressful nature of the pitch that defines his arsenal. The 28-year-old right-hander has been in the Boston organization since 2002, and 2008 is his seventh pro season-old to debut by conventional standards, but a relative youngster in the realm of the knuckleball, as Rany Jazayerli (a knuckle devotee) wrote about last year. This season has been his best so far, and his 13 wins ties him with teammate David Pauley for the International League lead. The big breakthrough for Zink has been a drop in his walk rate from 4.6 BB/9 last season to 2.5 this year.

As might be expected due to his connection with the knuckler, a remarkable story is behind Zink's rise to the majors. Zink transferred to Division III Savannah College of Art and Design to pitch for Luis Tiant, who managed the school's team, but after three strong seasons he wasn't drafted. An excellent golfer, Zink was thinking of turning pro in that sport when Tiant got him a tryout with the Red Sox, who signed him at the end of spring training. Zink pitched very well in the minors out of the bullpen in that first season with his conventional repertoire (a 90-mph fastball, a curveball, and a changeup), but he was still an undrafted 22-year-old reliever in A-ball-in other words, not yet in the team's plans. One day he was fooling around during practice and threw some nasty knuckleballs, which sparked the interest of the Red Sox pitching coordinator, and in spring training of 2003 the team asked him to convert full-time to the floater. Zink was resistant at first, but agreed to the experiment. Five years later he's reached Fenway Park, starting in place of the craft's resident master, who helped teach him the pitch back when Zink first started out on this path.

Matchup: Reds (52-67) at Pirates (54-64), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Edinson Volquez (138 IP, 3.72 RA, 1.33 WHIP, 141 K) vs. Jeff Karstens (68 2/3, 4.06, 1.18, 55 K-Triple-A)
Pythagorean Record: Cincinnati, 50-69 (510 RS, 610 RA); Pittsburgh, 52-66 (566 RS, 646 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cincinnati, #25; Pittsburgh, #28
Prospectus: Arguably the fourth-best prospect out of the four that Pittsburgh received from New York for Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte, Karstens has nevertheless provided a spectacular return thus far, tossing 15 scoreless innings in his first two starts for the club. Last Wednesday, the 25-year-old right-hander threw 7 2/3 perfect innings against Arizona before having his bid broken up by a Chris Young double, but finished it out for a complete-game shutout, the first that any Pirates pitcher has recorded this season. Karstens' early success hasn't changed his long-term outlook, but perhaps he is the bellwether for Pittsburgh's more promising future under new management.

While Karstens gets going for the Pirates, Volquez appears to be slowing down after looking like a Cy Young candidate at midseason. The right-hander does not have a quality start in any of his last four, a 20 1/3-inning stretch in which 19 runs have scored against him, and over his previous eight outings he sports a 7.12 RA in 43 frames. Volquez gave up just a pair of home runs in his first 15 starts (in 93 1/3 innings), but over those last eight has surrendered seven long balls. It could be that Volquez is tiring and leaving more balls up in the zone, although he is still 40 innings shy of the 178 he threw last season. Volquez's recent slump has dimmed his chance to reach 20 wins, which looked strong after he had 12 by the All-Star break, and he'd have to win seven of his final nine starts in order to become the first Reds pitcher since Danny Jackson in 1988 to reach the 20-win plateau. Even if Volquez returns to his first-half dominance, his team likely won't be able to muster the support to get him there, having just traded Adam Dunn to the Diamondbacks. The good news is that Jerry Hairston Jr. appears ready to return to the lineup tonight after an extended period of being limited to pinch-hitting. It seems a strange thing to assert, but the Reds badly missed Hairston. He has been Cincinnati's second-best player on a per-at-bat basis (best with Dunn gone); from April 21, when he played his first game, to June 9, when he went on the DL, the Reds scored 4.8 runs per game, and have averaged just 3.9 since.

Matchup: Mets (62-56) at Nationals (44-75), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Johan Santana (161 IP, 3.30 RA, 1.16 WHIP, 135 K) vs. Odalis Perez (112, 4.50, 1.46, 75)
Pythagorean Record: New York, 62-56 (570 RS, 535 RA); Washington, 46-73 (445 RS, 575 RA)
Hit List Rankings: New York, #8; Washington, #30
Prospectus: August 12 is a dark day in baseball history, but an even darker one in the history of the Washington franchise. It was on this date in 1994 that the game's worst labor stoppage started, leading eventually to a cancellation of the regular season and wiping out the playoffs. The labor war also prematurely ended the best season ever for the Montreal Expos, who led all of baseball with a 74-40 record, putting them on pace to win 105 games, make the playoffs for the second time, and perhaps head to their first World Series. That Expos team was loaded with talent-Pedro Martinez, Jeff Fassero, Ken Hill, John Wetteland, and Mel Rojas on the pitching side, and a lineup stocked with Larry Walker, Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom, Wil Cordero, Rondell White, and Cliff Floyd. Huge seasons from Walker and Alou paced the offense, while Fassero, Hill, and Martinez provided a terrifying troika atop the rotation, with Wetteland and Rojas shutting doors in the late innings. It was the season where everything came together, and it might have been the season to re-energize baseball in Montreal had it run its full course. Instead, 1994's stoppage started the slow death of the Expos-Walker left in free agency after the season, and the team traded Hill, Wetteland, and Grissom before the '95 season for players who never had an impact in Montreal. That next year Fassero and Alou came back to earth, and the Expos finished 66-78.

Returning to the present, Santana takes the hill today looking for just his 10th win despite excellent overall numbers. Santana has been let down by his bullpen on numerous occasions: he left with a 3-1 lead in his last start after putting two runners on in the eighth, and the Padres tied the game one inning later (although David Wright's homer in the ninth won it for New York), and the start before that he departed in the seventh with a 4-1 lead, which Mets relievers also blew in an eventual 5-4 loss. Overall, Santana has left the game with the lead and had the pen give it back in six games this year. What's most disturbing for New York is that the Mets are only 13-11 in games pitched by their ace this season, despite having scored an average of 4.9 runs per game with Santana on the mound.

Matchup: Diamondbacks (60-58) at Rockies (53-67), 7:05 p.m. MDT
Probable Starters: Randy Johnson (125 1/3 IP, 4.88 RA, 1.29 WHIP, 114 K) vs. Ubaldo Jimenez (147, 4.29, 1.44, 118) Pythagorean Record: Arizona, 61-57 (534 RS, 516 RA); Colorado, 53-67 (557 RS, 628 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #11; Colorado, #22
Prospectus: The Diamondbacks play their first game with new left fielder Adam Dunn tonight, acquired yesterday from the Reds for miscellaneous prospects, and he should certainly perk up an offense that ranks 11th amongst NL units in OBP and 10th in slugging. Dunn took the opposite tack from Brian Giles, who recently refused a trade from his last-place Padres to the Red Sox, as the now ex-Cincinnati slugger said that the news was "one of those pleasant surprises. To come off the terrible month that we had in Cincinnati, and you get a phone call today saying you're being traded to a first-place team. As a player that's all you could ask for." Thanks to the big trade, the Diamondbacks will no longer need to turn on the air conditioning at Chase Field: they now have three of the top five NL batters in strikeouts, with Dunn (120, fifth), Chris Young (122, third), and Mark Reynolds (147, second). Dunn and Ryan Howard are the only two players in major league history to fan 190 or more times in a season (and Dunn's the only to do so twice thus far), and Reynolds is likely to join his new teammate in that rare club before long. The third baseman's strikeout pace has slowed a bit, but he is still on track to be wearing a 200-K collar at season's end; he would be the first player ever to strike out 200 times in the majors, unless Ryan Howard (149 Ks) beats him to it.

Jimenez got shelled by the weak-hitting Nationals at Coors in his last outing, but before that he was pitching as well as anyone in the game-from July 2 to August 1 he gave up just eight runs in seven starts, while allowing 31 hits in 48 1/3 innings (1.49 RA, 5.8 H/9). In his first full major league season as a 24-year-old, Jimenez is on pace to put up only the third sub-4.00 ERA season by a qualifier in franchise history (the two to turn the trick are Joe Kennedy with a 3.66 in '04, and Jason Jennings with a 3.78 in '06; Marvin Freeman with a 2.80 in '94 just misses qualifying, while Armando Reynoso's 4.00 in '93 is exactly 4.00, a scorer's decision on one run's being earned or unearned away from the list). With his mid-90s sinking fastball, Jimenez has allowed less than 0.5 HR/9, which would also be the lowest mark ever put up by a Rockies' ERA qualifier.

Matchup: Rays (71-46) at Athletics (54-63), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Scott Kazmir (104 IP, 3.38 RA, 1.26 WHIP, 114 K) vs. Gio Gonzalez (123, 4.76, 1.36, 128-Triple-A)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 65-52 (539 RS, 474 RA); Oakland, 59-58 (470 RS, 466 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #3; Oakland, #17
Prospectus: Tonight's game offers the chance to watch a tremendous pair of young left-handers. Gonzalez made his major league debut last Wednesday against the Blue Jays, and comported himself well: after allowing four straight batters to reach with two outs in the first inning, including a three-run homer by Rod Barajas, Gonzalez retired 16 of the next 17 to face him, eight on ground-ball outs. Gonzalez pitched into the seventh inning, getting pulled after giving up a leadoff single, and his quality start was blown when Santiago Casilla allowed that run to score. Completing six innings is something that Kazmir has struggled to accomplish of late-he's done so just twice in his last 10 starts, and in his last two has failed to even get out of the fifth inning due to a combination of pitch inefficiency and the extreme caution with which Joe Maddon and the Rays organization treat their prize lefty. Kazmir said after the game that he was "striding way too long," and he worked on fixing that problem in his bullpen session prior to tonight's outing, telling MLB.com, "We talked about a couple of things on my stride, like maybe I was going a little too far, a little too long. I ended up having a stiff front leg and couldn't get over it. I have a bent leg [now], so I can actually get through the ball."

Another draw in tonight's game is Rocco Baldelli, who made his first major league appearance since May 15 of last year in Sunday afternoon's win over Seattle, going 1-for-4 and making a diving catch in right field. A rare mitochondrial disorder causing extreme fatigue kept Baldelli out until mid-June, when he started a rehab assignment with High-A Vero Beach. Baldelli picked up just eight hits in 37 at-bats with the Vero Beach Devil Rays, but upon moving to Double-A Montgomery in July hit .297 in 44 plate appearances with a 977 OPS. Baldelli's return comes at an opportune time for Tampa Bay, which recently sent both Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria to the DL. Baldelli also helps to balance out the Rays lineup, which has gotten only 41 percent of its plate appearances from right-hand batters, the second-lowest total in the American League (behind the Yankees).

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

Related Content:  The Who,  Triple-A,  Prospectus,  Jeff Karstens,  The Call-up

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