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June 28, 2013

What You Need to Know

Pandamonium Cools with Coors

by Daniel Rathman

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The Thursday Takeaway
With a month and four days left before the trade deadline, teams are beginning to evaluate their positions in the standings to determine whether they intend to buy, sell, or stand pat when the clock ticks down on July 31. Those that expect to add major-league talent are mulling over their most pressing needs and deciding which of the available players they most covet, which would make adequate fallback plans, and which won’t even merit calls to their employers.

The phone lines for Theo Epstein’s office in Chicago are likely to teem, over the next four weeks, with inquiries from general managers shopping for arms. Closer Kevin Gregg, who is enjoying something of a renaissance at the age of 35, could be a popular bullpen target. Scott Feldman, a free-agent pickup during the past winter, has experience pitching out of the rotation and in relief, and could add needed depth to a contender’s staff. Epstein’s most prized chip, though, is Matt Garza, who has bounced back from an early injury to build up considerable value—in trade right now and in free agency come November.

On Thursday, in the rubber match between the Cubs and Brewers at Miller Park, Garza fired seven innings of one-run ball to lead the Cubs to a series-clinching, 7-2 win. The 29-year-old scattered eight hits (seven singles and an RBI double by Logan Schafer), issued a walk, and hit a batter, but he fanned 10 Brewers along the way. Skeptics will point out that Ron Roenicke’s lineup is hardly imposing with Corey Hart out for the season, Ryan Braun on the disabled list, and Carlos Gomez day to day, but the scouts in attendance would have needed to squint hard to come away unimpressed.

As you can see in the above table, from the Brooks Baseball PITCHf/x breakdown of the outing, Garza sat in the 93-94 mph range with his fastball and had a reach-back velocity well over 95 mph. His slider elicited seven whiffs in 24 tries, including a pair of strikeouts (first, second) against Jean Segura, the National League’s fourth-leading hitter entering play on Thursday afternoon. And Garza showed strong control of his curveball, notching a strike on seven of the 10 occasions that he used it.

Garza tossed five goose eggs onto the Miller Park scoreboard before Schafer’s two-bagger plated a run in the bottom of the sixth, and, by then, the Cubs were in the clear. He returned for the seventh inning and surrendered back-to-back singles to open the frame, but recovered quickly and escaped the jam. Garza’s stuff stayed crisp even as his pitch count ticked into triple digits, and his 101st delivery of the afternoon, which coaxed an inning-ending ground out from Segura, was a two-seamer that registered at 94 mph on the gun.

The strong outing was Garza’s third in a row, coming on the heels of an eight-inning, one-run win over the Astros on June 21 and a seven-inning blanking of the Mets on June 16. Garza was lit up for nine runs in the outing that immediately preceded the recent stretch of dominance, hitting the showers after five helpless frames against the Reds, but his ERA, which soared to 6.26 with that dud, has since come down to 3.83.

As the calendar rolls into July, Garza—who spent the first 43 games of the season on the disabled list with a lat strain—will soon have opportunities to prove that his improvements are robust and not merely the product of a friendly schedule. His next turn is likely to come on Wednesday night in Oakland, and, barring a rotation shuffle-up from manager Dale Sveum, the Fresno State product will take on the White Sox and Cardinals during the week before the All-Star break.

Like the Marlins, who are said to be pitching veteran right-hander Ricky Nolasco to a slew of potential suitors in hopes of finalizing a deal well before the deadline, the Cubs are already fielding a high volume of calls about Garza, according to the Boston Globe's Nick Cafardo. Garza signed a $10.25 million contract with the Cubs to forgo his final year of arbitration eligibility, so if a team were to acquire him today with no salary assistance, it would be on the hook for more than $5 million. Although Garza’s recent run of excellent outings is likely to drum up interest and an earlier trade would enable his buyer to milk more starts during the second half, his market may not cool much even if Epstein opts to wait, especially if he fares well in the upcoming dates with contenders.

After Garza made his case on Thursday, Nolasco and Bud Norris will get their next auditions this evening. The former welcomes the Padres to Marlins Park (7:10 p.m. ET); the latter hosts the Angels in Houston (8:10 p.m. ET). Yovani Gallardo, who took the loss in Wednesday’s game against the Cubs, gets the weekend off and will aim for better results when he toes the rubber next week.

Matchup of the Day
Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval went 2-for-12 in his first series after returning from a two-week-long stint on the disabled list to nurse a foot strain and has not homered since May 21, a 15-game drought. He also has not made the most of his visits to Coors Field, batting just .258/.324/.530 in 34 games at one of the league’s most hitter-friendly yards, where the second-place Rockies will play host to the fourth-place Giants for the next three days.

Jhoulys Chacin, tabbed by first-year manager Walt Weiss as the starter in tonight’s opener, though, has been a gracious host to Sandoval in Colorado and a welcomed guest in their meetings in San Francisco. The 26-year-old Sandoval is 7-for-19 in his career against his countryman with one double, one triple, two homers, four walks, and only one strikeout. The resulting 1320 OPS is his second-best effort against any active pitcher he has faced at least 20 times; only Tim Stauffer has incurred more of Sandoval’s wrath.

Most of the damage that Sandoval has done to Chacin came in a string of showdowns that took place between July 2, 2010, and April 9, 2012, bookended by a couple of walks. Sandoval went 0-for-5 the first five times he dug in against Chacin. Then, he drew a base on balls in the sixth, homered in the seventh, singled in the eighth, doubled in the ninth, tripled in the 10th, grounded out in the 11th, singled in the 12th and 13th, homered again in the 14th, and worked another base on balls in the 15th. That accounts for all seven hits, and in eight head-to-head plate appearances since the outburst of ownage, Sandoval has gone 0-for-6 with two more walks.

It appears that Chacin has put the brakes on Sandoval’s surge, and all that it took for him to do so was minimizing the plethora of location mistakes that led to hit after hit for nearly two years. This elevated sinker and this center-cut heater accounted for the big flies. This hanging slider turned into the triple. And this get-me-over changeup became a line-drive single. (How Sandoval earned a double on this curveball, well off the outside corner, is anyone’s guess.)

Command, control, and effective mixing of his fastball and changeup are the keys to Chacin’s success against opposite-handed batters, and when he has hit his targets, keeping Sandoval on his heels hasn’t been a problem. He notched the only strikeout in their 23 encounters with this backdoor slider. He induced a ground out by painting the corners with his fastball. And he coaxed a double-play ball with four consecutive changeups, the last of which tempted Sandoval to reach.

The 25-year-old Chacin was effective in each of his last three assignments, in which he limited the Nationals (twice) and the Phillies to four combined runs over 20 2/3 innings, an upswing in what has been a rollercoaster season. Seven shutout frames in the nation’s capital on June 22 brought Chacin’s ERA to 3.92, its lowest point since May 27, and he’ll need to hit his spots against Sandoval to ensure that it will stay below 4.00 through tonight’s game (8:40 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for This Weekend

  • Third-ranked Brewers prospect Johnny Hellweg is coming up from Triple-A Nashville to toe the rubber in the series opener versus the Pirates. In it, the 6-foot-9 behemoth will take on fellow rookie Gerrit Cole, who has helped Clint Hurdle’s club bring home a victory in each of his first three trips to the bump. Hellweg, a 24-year-old acquired from the Angels in the Zack Greinke trade, has amassed a 2.82 ERA over 14 starts for the Sounds to date, though his 50-to-44 K:BB is evidence of the below-average command that Jason Parks and some other evaluators believe will eventually pave his way to the bullpen. For more on Hellweg, check out the Call-up post by Jason Cole and Bret Sayre. To see the first-year righties square off, tune in tonight (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • A fractured ulna, suffered when a batted ball struck his left forearm in a spring training game, knocked Martin Perez out of the Rangers’ Opening Day rotation and put him on the disabled list for the better part of two months. The young Venezuelan has since made eight starts in the minors, six of them for Triple-A Round Rock, and in those half-dozen Pacific Coast League dates, he has authored a 1.75 ERA and a 28-to-8 K:BB over 36 innings. Perez did not permit an earned run in either of his last two outings and he held opponents to a total of three over his last five, proving to general manager Jon Daniels and skipper Ron Washington that he is ready for another go-‘round in the majors. The 22-year-old, who once was considered the top player in the Rangers’ farm system, is no longer expected to attain an “All-Star-level” ceiling, but if he can offer stability at the back end of the rotation—beginning with this evening’s showdown with Johnny Cueto and the potent Reds offense—the Rangers will be pleased (8:05 p.m. ET).

    Later in this series, don’t miss the weekend’s most intriguing on-paper pitching matchup, which pits Mat Latos against Yu Darvish. Latos matched a career high with 13 strikeouts in a win over the Diamondbacks on June 23. Darvish has exceeded that total thrice this year, but he failed to record a seventh-inning out in each of his last two starts. Neither of the hard-throwing right-handers has faced the club against which he is scheduled to pitch in the weekend finale (Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET).
  • At some point this weekend, while the A’s host the Cardinals, Stephen Vogt is going to need a hit. The catcher, who came to Oakland from the Rays in exchange for future considerations on April 5, batted .325 for Triple-A Sacramento prior to his promotion, but he brought an 0-for-25 schneid with him from Tampa Bay and has added six more hitless at-bats to it since returning to the big leagues with the Athletics.

    The A’s are no strangers to long 0-fers at the outset of a player’s career: Chris Carter, who was shipped to the Astros during the past offseason in a trade for Jed Lowrie, began his time in The Show with an 0-for-33 rut. But Vogt remains in search of a big-league batting average, and if he goes three more at-bats without collecting a knock, he’ll pass Carter for the longest lull in the majors by a non-pitcher since 1990. If he goes five more, he’ll break the dubious 0-for-35 record held by Vic Harris, a first-round pick of the Athletics in 1970, who debuted with the Rangers in 1972 and waited 12-plus games before breaking into the hit column. Depending on the health of John Jaso, the left-handed-hitting Vogt could be in tonight’s lineup, which will take its hacks against Cardinals rookie Shelby Miller (10:05 p.m. ET).
  • Justin Verlander’s ERA is 3.90, and if that looks unfamiliar, well, it’s probably because it hasn’t been that high since March 31, 2011. The 30-year-old right-hander had not, over a span of more than two years, ever exited a start with his ERA more bloated than it was when he left a five-inning, four-run outing against the Red Sox on June 23. Moreover, Verlander’s ERA has not been this high this late in a season since June 27, 2010, when he carried a 4.02 mark for a few days, before lowering it to 3.85 with seven innings of one-run ball. Verlander compiled a 2.82 ERA the rest of the way that year, and the Tigers will hope that a similar run begins this weekend, when he duels Chris Archer and the Rays in the middle match at Tropicana Field (Saturday, 7:15 p.m. ET).
  • There may not be a hotter hitter in the majors right now than Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis, who over the past 19 games is 29-for-67 (.433 average) with nine doubles, a triple, three home runs, and 13 walks. Kipnis, one of the toolsiest keystoners in the league, has raised his OPS from 746 to 876 over that torrid stretch while stealing six bases in seven tries. Perhaps most impressively, Kipnis is now 30-for-96 (.313) on the year when facing left-handed pitchers, a glaring weakness in his game in 2012, when he batted only .215/.298/.282 against them.

That last point could prove critical this weekend, as the Indians visit the White Sox in a series that begins with a Friday doubleheader. Assuming that Robin Ventura’s current plans hold, the home team will throw two lefties, Hector Santiago and Jose Quintana, in the true twinbill (5:10 p.m. ET/TBD), and then another southpaw, Chris Sale, to close out the set. Kipnis, who ranks third among second basemen with 11 home runs and leads the crop with 17 stolen bases, is 4-for-12 lifetime versus Sale (Sunday, 2:10 p.m. ET).

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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