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August 13, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Wednesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Cubs (71-47) at Braves (55-63), 1:10 p.m. ET, 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jason Marquis (123 2/3 IP, 4.95 RA, 1.44 WHIP, 67 K) vs. Charlie Morton (53 2/3, 6.04, 1.44, 32) in Game 1; Rich Harden (107, 2.44, 1.11, 139) vs. Jorge Campillo (114 1/3, 3.15, 1.06, 81) in Game 2
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 72-46 (627 RS, 488 RA); Atlanta, 62-56 (544 RS, 519 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #2; Atlanta, #16
Prospectus: In the words of the legendary Ernie Banks, "It's a great day for a ballgame; let's play two!" The Cubs will follow their Hall of Famer's advice for the first time since last September thanks to yesterday's rain. The postponement was probably welcomed by Chicago, which will take an extra day of rest for Rich Harden any way it can get it. Thanks to two offdays and then yesterday's postponement, Harden will now be pitching on seven days' rest in the nightcap. The Canadian right-hander has made 19 starts in his career on at least six days' rest, and in those games has allowed a 2.99 RA in 108 1/3 innings, as opposed to a 3.73 RA in all other appearances.

Another Cub who was likely helped by the rainout is Kosuke Fukudome, who gets another day to rest and perhaps extra time to work on fixing the problems he's been having at the plate lately. While the Cubs didn't play yesterday, there was still news from their camp, as Lou Piniella was quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times saying of his right fielder: "We have him in the two-hole, but we need him to start hitting or we'll have to look for more options. Fontenot needs to get some at-bats, DeRosa has been hitting. We need Fukudome to start hitting." After an 0-for-4 in Sunday night's win over St. Louis, Fukudome is just 3-for-28 in August (.107), and since the start of July is hitting .205/.277/.325 in 131 plate appearances. Fukudome's OPS has not been above 800 in any month since his 915 April, and his seasonal mark has now slipped below the 782 NL average for right fielders. While Fukudome has still seen more pitches per plate appearance than all but two other NL batting title qualifiers (Fred Lewis and Adam Dunn), his walk rate has fallen in the last two months, as he has not displayed enough power to keep pitchers from consistently pounding the zone. As Piniella mentioned, he might begin playing Mike Fontenot at the keystone more often, while shifting Mark DeRosa out to right field. Fontenot hasn't started any of the team's last five games despite the fact that his 0.26 MLVr in 204 plate appearances ranks third on the team, and is behind only the 0.29 MLVr of Chase Utley among second basemen.

Matchup: Rangers (61-59) at Red Sox (69-51), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Luis Mendoza (48 IP, 9.75 RA, 1.75 WHIP, 26 K) vs. Jon Lester (153 1/3, 3.40, 1.31, 103 K)
Pythagorean Record: Texas, 57-63 (684 RS, 725 RA); Boston, 71-49 (614 RS, 500 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Texas, #19; Red Sox, #1
Prospectus: In perhaps the most entertaining game of the season, Boston scored 10 in the first inning last night on the strength of two David Ortiz three-run homers and went up by 10 again with two more in the third, but the Rangers hammered away and eventually took a 16-14 lead. Texas nearly held on for a miraculous victory, which would have made the Rangers the 10th team in the last 50 years to come from at least 10 runs down to win, but Dustin Pedroia doubled in the game-tying run in the bottom of the eighth, and Kevin Youkilis later followed that with a three-run shot, his second of the game. Looking to staunch the bleeding tonight after the 19-17 loss will be Mendoza, who by giving up more than a run per inning this season has re-defined the line that bears his name. In Mendoza's three relief appearances he's pitched seven scoreless innings, but in his 10 starts he's given up 52 runs (12 unearned) in 41 innings, as well as seven homers. After last night's first-inning debacle, Rangers starters have a collective 6.52 RA, 1.66 WHIP, and 1.3 HR/9.

Tonight's starter for the Red Sox almost ended up as a member of the Rangers following the 2003 season. Looking to dump Alex Rodriguez's record contract, the Rangers and the Red Sox were deep into negotiations that would have sent Manny Ramirez and Lester, a 19-year-old lefty who had just finished a strong season at Low-A ball, to Arlington in exchange for A-Rod. The Red Sox then would have turned around and dealt incumbent shortstop Nomar Garciaparra to the White Sox for Magglio Ordonez to replace Ramirez in the outfield. The A-Rod/Manny deal hinged upon a massive restructuring of Rodriguez's hefty contract, and because that restructuring required him to voluntarily forgo some of his salary, the player's union blocked the transaction. Thus died what would have been the trade of the (new) century, and one of the biggest deals in baseball history. As it turns out, getting stuck with Ramirez turned out just fine for the Red Sox, as the left fielder hit 43 homers that season and won World Series MVP honors, and the added benefit was that Boston was also able to hang on to Lester, who helped the team to its title last season and is now one of the best young pitchers in the game.

Thanks to William Burke for research assistance.

Matchup: Royals (54-65) at White Sox (66-52), 7:11 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Luke Hochevar (117 IP, 5.92 RA, 1.50 WHIP, 64 K) vs. Mark Buehrle (112, 4.58, 1.32, 92)
Pythagorean Record: Kansas City, 51-68 (496 RS, 585 RA); Chicago, 66-52 (594 RS, 524 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Kansas City, #24; Chicago, #5
Prospectus: After playing 48 straight games in left field, MVP candidate Carlos Quentin was scratched from the lineup yesterday due to general soreness, the result of getting hit by a pitch in five consecutive games. Quentin was hit by the Tigers' Zach Miner last Thursday, and then in all four games of the Red Sox series, by Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, David Aardsma, and Josh Beckett. That streak of new bruises is the longest in the play-by-play era, going back to 1956. Five players shared the record at four straight games before this season-accomplished by F.P. Santangelo in 1997, Don Baylor in '76, Richie Hebner in '75, Ron Hunt in '68, and Joe Cunningham in '61. Quentin also had a three-game streak in late April, and has now been plunked 19 times on the season, almost as many times as the entire Twins team (22), and three more than both Jason Giambi and Chase Utley, who are tied for second place. He is also just four off the franchise single-season record for HBP set by Minnie Minoso in 1956. Quentin sets up in an open-stance crouch extremely close to the plate, and as mentioned back in May has always been adept at taking one for the team, even going back to his college days: Quentin was hit 48 times in 199 games during his three-year career at Stanford, including a school record-tying 19 in 2002. In 2004, his first year in the minors, Quentin was hit by a remarkable 43 pitches in just 125 games between High-A Lancaster and Double-A El Paso, a total that would rank fifth all-time in a major league season, behind the 50 HBP Ron Hunt endured in 1971 and three seasons of 46 or more from Hughie Jennings, who played for the 19th-century Orioles. Quentin led the Pacific Coast League in HBPs each of the next two seasons before graduating to Arizona, where he continued to draw fire at a prodigious rate.

Matchup: Brewers (69-51) at Padres (46-73), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: CC Sabathia (179 1/3 IP, 3.31 RA, 1.13 WHIP, 175 K) vs. Josh Banks (74, 4.01, 1.32, 38) Pythagorean Record: Milwaukee, 64-56 (563 RS, 519 RA); San Diego, 49-70 (461 RS, 564 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Milwaukee, #9; San Diego, #29
Prospectus: Who said a team can't win with bad chemistry? Since Prince Fielder went after starting pitcher Manny Parra in the dugout following Parra's rough outing in a 6-3 Brewers loss, Milwaukee has run off seven straight wins to pull back within three games of the first-place Cubs and open up a four-game lead in the wild-card hunt. The Brewers have even won the last three games without left fielder Ryan Braun, their leader in homers and RBI, who is out indefinitely with rib cage and lower-back strains. Sabathia gives Milwaukee a great chance to make it eight in a row, as the big lefty goes up against the light-hitting Padres in Petco looking for his second straight complete-game shutout, and fifth on the season. Since the 1993 expansion, the most shutouts any one pitcher has thrown in a season is six, accomplished by Randy Johnson in 1998, which Sabathia has a shot at reaching. Sabathia's last loss came on June 5, 13 starts ago, and his RA in 21 outings following his horrible first four turns of the year is now 2.18 in 161 1/3 innings, with a sub-1.00 WHIP and a strikeout per frame.

Jody Gerut hit a home run in a losing cause for the Padres last night, continuing his surprisingly strong season. He now has five homers in his last seven games, having gone deep in two straight and in all three games of the team's series in New York last week, which has raised his seasonal averages to .290/.353/.477 in 306 plate appearances. Those stats leap all the way up to .312/.373/.554 after translation from the dulling effects of Petco Field, and Gerut's .294 EqA ranks third on the team behind Adrian Gonzalez and Brian Giles. Gerut is a leading candidate for Comeback Player of the Year in the NL, because he missed all of the '06 and '07 seasons with a knee injury, last playing in early August of 2005. The old knee problem hasn't seemed to slow him at all this year, and he has even capably manned center field, a position he played only sparingly before this season: Gerut ranks fourth among players with at least 500 innings in center this season with a 2.88 Range Factor, and second with a .937 Zone Rating.

Matchup: Mariners (45-74) at Angels (75-43), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Felix Hernandez (144 IP, 3.38 RA, 1.28 WHIP, 132 K) vs. Ervin Santana (156 1/3, 3.63, 1.13, 150)
Pythagorean Record: Seattle, 51-68 (489 RS, 576 RA); Los Angeles, 66-52 (560 RS, 494 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Seattle, #26; Los Angeles, #6
Prospectus: Two of the AL's top right-handers square off at the Big A in the second and final game of this brief set. The Angels won their fifth straight last night in the opener, erasing a three-run deficit in the process. It was a tough game for Seattle shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, who grounded into a double play-his 15th of the year-and also committed his 18th error, which is more than any other AL shortstop. Betancourt also failed to draw a walk, not surprisingly, and now has more than twice as many GIDPs on the year than free passes (seven). There have been only three men since 1956 who failed to crack double digits in walks while qualifying for the batting title-Shawon Dunston (eight in 1997), Ivan Rodriguez (nine in '07), and Tito Fuentes (nine in '66)-but Betancourt has a shot at joining their ranks. The 26-year-old Cuban has seen just 3.08 pitches per plate appearance this season, which ranks 160th out of 160 batting title qualifiers. Betancourt has drawn an unintentional walk once every 59 plate appearances in 2008, and once every 38 for his career. Notorious free-swinger Garret Anderson, by comparison, has walked unintentionally once every 29 plate appearances over his career. Howie Kendrick has actually walked even less frequently than Betancourt thus far, with 21 unintentional passes in 928 PA, or one in 44. Kendrick is, however, in the midst of a fine season despite the lack of walks, having hit .351 since the start of July.

Realizing that the game is fully up, the Mariners have recently committed to what little youth they have on hand for the rest of the season. Behind the plate, top prospect Jeff Clement has started six of the last seven games, and has picked things up a bit with 11 hits in his last 33 at-bats. At first base, the team has finally given up the charade of playing Miguel Cairo, as Bryan LaHair has made the last 10 starts at the position, offering the 25-year-old fringe prospect a chance to play his way into the team's future. And after slugging .584 at Tacoma, Wladimir Balentien has started all seven games since his recall on August 5, thanks in part to Seattle's decision to cut ties with veteran Jose Vidro, who was having one of the worst seasons in history by a designated hitter.

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

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