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September 22, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Monday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Rays (92-62) at Orioles (67-87), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: David Price (109 2/3 IP, 2.46 RA, 1.13 WHIP, 109 K-minors) vs. Brian Bass (78 2/3, 5.95, 1.55, 36)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 87-67 (727 RS, 632 RA); Baltimore, 71-83 (764 RS, 828 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #3; Baltimore, #23
Prospectus: After a great deal of speculation and hype, phenom David Price was finally called up on September 13, and he will make his first major league start tonight at Camden Yards after pitching twice out of the Rays bullpen. The first pick in last year's draft, Price made his debut eight days ago at Yankee Stadium, coming on in relief for an ineffective Edwin Jackson in the third, and pitching 5 1/3 innings, allowing three hits, two runs, no walks, and striking out four. Price pitched again last Thursday, fanning a pair of Twins while giving up one hit. Thus far, he is relying on only two pitches, but oh, what pitches they are: a fastball that averaged 95 mph and an 87 mph slider. Major league hitters have not yet witnessed his third plus offering, a changeup; it will be interesting to see if the phenom dusts it off in his initial starting opportunity tonight.

Before he had ever thrown a pitch as a professional, Price was rated by Kevin Goldstein as the second-best prospect in the Tampa Bay organization (behind likely 2008 AL RotY Evan Longoria) and the sixth best in all of baseball, and he has justified those rankings in his inaugural campaign. Price's minor league debut was delayed nearly two months by an elbow issue, but since getting going in late May he was more than bush-league batters could handle. In six starts for Vero Beach the High-A Florida State League, he gave up seven runs over 34 2/3 innings with 37 Ks, and then made nine starts for the Biscuits of Double-A Montgomery, putting up a 2.05 RA and 55/16 K/BB in 57 innings. Price moved again in mid-August up to Triple-A Durham, and gave up 10 runs in 18 innings over four regular-season starts for the Bulls, but turned it on for the International League playoffs, fanning 15 in 11 frames. Tonight's outing will help the Rays determine whether or not to carry the rookie on their post-season roster, because despite his inexperience at the highest level, Price's talent is certainly a tempting-his pair of power pitches could be especially overpowering in short relief, and neither of the two lefties Tampa Bay has carried in its bullpen all season (J.P. Howell and Trever Miller) is a flamethrower.

Matchup: Indians (78-77) at Red Sox (91-64), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Zach Jackson (45 1/3 IP, 6.75 RA, 1.50 WHIP, 23 K) vs. Josh Beckett (168 1/3, 4.06, 1.18, 166)
Pythagorean Record: Cleveland, 82-73 (768 RS, 723 RA); Boston, 93-62 (812 RS, 653 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cleveland, #14; Boston, #1
Prospectus: The Red Sox can clinch a playoff berth tonight with a victory over Cleveland at Fenway Park, and assure their fifth trip to the postseason in the past six years. While the wild card is a lock, Boston still has designs on the division title-the Red Sox are two behind in the loss column and Tampa Bay owns the tiebreaker, so Boston will have to be three games better than the Rays in the final week to take home a second straight AL East flag. The Red Sox still have a number of injury issues heading into the playoffs, chief among them the status of J.D. Drew's herniated disc, but it appears the club no longer needs to worry about Josh Beckett, who is perhaps their most important asset come October. Since returning from a trip to Alabama to have Dr. James Andrews examine his troublesome elbow, Beckett has allowed two runs on 13 hits in 19 innings, with a 21/3 K/BB ratio. Cleveland certainly wants no part of a healthy Beckett: the last time the Indians faced him was in the 2007 ALCS, when the Texan cemented his reputation for post-season dominance by winning the first and fifth games of the series, and taking down the pitcher who beat him out for the AL Cy Young Award (CC Sabathia) both times. In this game he'll be going up against a young pitcher who was part of the package the Indians received in the Sabathia trade.

Having to watch the inevitable Red Sox celebration in this series will only emphasize the disappointment that 2008 has brought for the Indians. Cleveland has left its long stretch of bad baseball in the past, however-the Tribe is on a six-game winning streak, and has gone 41-24 since ending a 10-game slide on July 10, the second-best record in the American League behind the Angels during that period. Part of the reason for Cleveland's revival is the strong play of middle infielder Asdrubal Cabrera. After putting up some of the ugliest numbers in baseball through early June-a 529 OPS-the 22-year-old Cabrera went down to Triple-A Buffalo and hit .326/.375/.475. He has kept right on going at that clip since being recalled at the start of the second half, hitting .311/.390/.461 in 217 plate appearances, substantially better than even last season's strong rookie campaign. Cabrera has also continued to play phenomenal defense, ensuring himself a big role on next year's team.

Matchup: Braves (69-87) at Phillies (88-68), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jair Jurrjens (181 1/3 IP, 4.22 RA, 1.39 WHIP, 138 K) vs. J.A. Happ (23 1/3, 4.24 RA, 1.37 WHIP, 18 K)
Pythagorean Record: Atlanta, 75-81 (722 RS, 753 RA); Philadelphia, 89-67 (767 RS, 655 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Atlanta, #21; Philadelphia, #6
Prospectus: The Phillies opened up a 1-game lead over the Mets in the NL East yesterday, and Atlanta is exactly the team Philadelphia wants to play in order to pad that advantage. Philly has won 13 of its 15 games against the Braves this season, more wins for the franchise against Atlanta than in any prior season. That includes a 9-0 mark at Turner Field, making this year's Phillies the first team ever to sweep a yearly series of more than four in Atlanta. These two rookie starters matched up last Wednesday at Turner Field, and Happ picked up his first major league win in his fourth start with six scoreless innings, outdueling Jurrjens, who labored through five innings with five walks and four runs allowed. Happ moved into the rotation in place of Kyle Kendrick, who was pounded for 29 runs in 23 innings over six starts from August 11 to September 9. While not as bad as what Kendrick went through, Jurrjens has also been scuffling lately; in his last five starts he's surrendered 24 runs in 30 innings, pushing his ERA from 3.15 to 3.72. It appears that the 22-year-old right-hander from Curacao is tiring-he threw between 141 and 143 1/3 innings in each of the last three seasons, and this year is almost 40 innings over that, putting him beyond the pale in terms of Tom Verducci's "Rule of 30" for pitchers under the age of 25, a warning sign for next year as well.

Braves closer Mike Gonzalez recently had his save opportunity conversion streak stopped at 39 straight, but Brad Lidge's streak marched on last night, as he picked up his 40th of the season. Lidge became the fourth Phillies pitcher to notch 40 saves in a year, after Jose Mesa, Mitch Williams, and Steve Bedrosian. Dating back to last season he has not blown a save in 43 straight chances, which is the third-longest streak, just past the halfway point of Eric Gagne's 84 in a row from 2002 to 2004, and also behind Tom Gordon, who cashed in 54 consecutively from 1998 to '99. Lidge still leads the majors with 7.45 WXRL, the greatest number of wins added by a reliever since Lidge himself posted 8.10 for Houston in 2004.

Matchup: Cubs (94-60) at Mets (86-69), 7:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Jason Marquis (160 IP, 4.56 RA, 1.42 WHIP, 87 K) vs. Jonathon Niese (164 IP, 3.73 RA, 1.28 WHIP, 144 K-Double- and Triple-A)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 95-59 (820 RS, 636 RA); New York, 86-69 (770 RS, 679 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #2; New York, #4
Prospectus: The Cubs and Mets begin a four-game series tonight that opens up the last-ever homestand at Shea Stadium, a series that means everything to New York and nothing to Chicago-or almost nothing, as they need only one more win or one more Phillies loss to clinch home field for their appearance in the NLCS. The moral dilemma facing Lou Piniella is therefore what balance to strike between resting his regulars for the postseason and fielding a competitive team to maintain the integrity of the NL pennant race. A further variable thrown into that equation is that if the season ended now, the Mets would be the wild-card winner and would travel to Wrigley Field; Piniella therefore might want to get his starters as many looks at Mets pitching as possible, going on the theory that the batter is the one who benefits most with increased exposure. Piniella played an entire lineup of backups yesterday in Chicago's first game since clinching, but has indicated that will not be the norm over the rest of the week: "If we need to rest a player here or a player there, that we can do. I just can't play the lineup like we're playing today the rest of the week. It just wouldn't be fair to the teams, and it wouldn't be fair to us, because we haven't clinched home-field advantage yet either."

The Cubs and Mets are similar in that both have excellent offenses (Chicago is first in the NL in runs, New York is second) and play outstanding defense (again, Chicago ranks first in defensive efficiency, at .704, while New York is tied for second at .700). But while the Secret Sauce is plentiful on the North Side-the Cubs strike out more batters than any other team and have a devastating back-end of the bullpen-the Mets have a very well-publicized hole at the end of games. New York's pen blew another late advantage yesterday afternoon, giving up four in the eighth, which led to the 13th loss for the Mets when leading at the start of the eighth inning. The Cubs have surrendered just three such contests. Over the Mets' last 11 games, in which they are 5-6, New York's relievers have posted a 7.92 ERA.

Matchup: Diamondbacks (78-77) at Cardinals (80-75), 7:15 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Brandon Webb (212 2/3 IP, 3.77 RA, 1.19 WHIP, 170 K) vs. Todd Wellemeyer (179 1/3, 3.91, 1.22, 124)
Pythagorean Record: Arizona, 80-75 (693 RS, 672 RA); St. Louis, 81-74 (728 RS, 697 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #15; St. Louis, #13
Prospectus: A reptilian resurgence in the past week has brought Arizona six wins over its last seven games, moving the Snakes to within two in the loss column of the first-place Dodgers, and boosting their chances up to a 1-in-20 shot at the division title. If the Diamondbacks can win tonight while Los Angeles is idle, they would be two games back with six left to play, still quite a difficult spot, but not an impossible one. Webb is already the first 20-game winner the National League has seen in three years, and he will attempt to pick up his 22nd victory tonight, a total that the right-hander hopes might be enough to pull the wool over the eyes of the Cy Young voters. Webb has already locked up his fifth consecutive season of over 200 innings with a sub-4.00 ERA; he, Johan Santana, and Roy Oswalt are the only pitchers to put those numbers up in every season since 2004.

Even if Arizona falls short of its desperate bid to catch up, the Diamondbacks have several individual pursuits worth tracking in the season's final week. Adam Dunn has done an excellent job of getting on base since coming over from the Reds, with a .424 OBP in 158 plate appearances, but his power has leveled off a bit, so that he still stands two homers short of 40 for the season. If Dunn can get those two long balls in the team's last seven games, he would become the seventh player in major league history to hit 40 or more in at least five straight seasons. Dunn's power-hitting teammate Mark Reynolds is chasing a more dubious mark: 200 strikeouts in a season. He was tied with Ryan Howard entering Sunday's games at 194 whiffs, but fanned twice while Howard avoided any Ks, leaving Reynolds just four shy of becoming the first player to break the two-century mark. He has one more game remaining than Howard does, so Reynolds is the current favorite to own the new single-season strikeout record come year's end, which would mark the third straight season that the record fell since Adam Dunn broke Bobby Bonds' 35-year-old total of 189 in 2006.

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

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