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September 8, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Monday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Rays (85-56) at Red Sox (84-58), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Edwin Jackson (159 1/3 IP, 4.12 RA, 1.47 WHIP, 92 K) vs. Jon Lester (181 2/3, 3.52, 1.32, 129)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 79-62 (658 RS, 573 RA); Boston, 86-56 (757 RS, 602 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #3; Boston, #1
Prospectus: The Red Sox return from Texas to play a huge three-game series with the Rays, whose lead over Boston in the AL East has been cut down to 1 games following Tampa Bay's road sweep at the hands of Toronto. The next 10 days will determine whether the Rays can hang on to cap their unbelievable turnaround season with a division crown, or whether Boston will come back to take a second straight AL East title for the first time since divisional play began in 1969, because following these three games the two teams reconvene in St. Pete next week for their last meetings of the season. The Sox and Rays have split 12 games, with each team sweeping its two series at home. In the six at Fenway Park, Boston has outscored Tampa Bay 45-16. The Red Sox are 48-19 at Fenway this year, the best home winning percentage in the majors (.716, just barely above Tampa Bay's mark), and the best for the Sox since 1978, when they went 59-23 (.720).

While the Rays have mostly put up their home record in front of half-empty stands at Tropicana Field, Boston plays every game at Fenway before a full house. Tonight will be the 456th straight sellout at Fenway, breaking the previous record of consecutive sellouts set by the Indians at Jacobs Field from mid-June 1995 to April of 2001. Boston's current streak began on May 15 of 2003, and according to Ballparks.com, the capacity of Fenway Park has been expanded four times since then, from 33,993 in 2001 to 36,298 in '04, 37,654 in '06, 38,805 in '07, and 39,605 this year. (The club has said there are no plans to add any more seats.) With the Red Sox in the midst of their most glorious glory days in franchise history, it's hard to imagine any tickets at America's oldest major league stadium left unaccounted for anytime in the foreseeable future.

Matchup: Athletics (65-77) at Tigers (69-74), 7:05 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Gio Gonzalez (26 1/3 IP, 8.54 RA, 1.79 WHIP, 27 K) vs. Zach Miner (94 1/3, 4.10, 1.38, 48)
Pythagorean Record: Oakland, 67-75 (559 RS, 591 RA); Detroit, 70-73 (720 RS, 735 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Oakland, #22; Detroit, #16
Prospectus: It has been a mostly miserable season for the Tigers, but one positive development for the club is center fielder Curtis Granderson's continued strong play. Granderson had a historically great 2007, becoming one of three players to hit 30 doubles, 20 triples, 20 home runs, and steal 20 bases in a season (Jimmy Rollins also pulled it off last year, along with Frank Schulte in 1911), but this year he is arguably having an even better campaign. While he missed most of April, Granderson has already scored 101 runs in only 122 games, a testament to his career-high .391 OBP. His EqA has increased from .308 last year to .312 so far this season, and his MLVr has also been bumped up, from .260 to a team-leading .288, the sixth-best mark in the American League. Granderson's strong follow-up season can be attributed to better discipline at the dish: he has increased his walk rate from one in every 13 plate appearances last year to one in every 8.8 this year, and also lowered his strikeouts from one in 4.8 PA to one in 6.2.

Perhaps most importantly, he has substantially improved his hitting against left-handers. With Detroit trailing 4-2 in the top of the eighth inning at Minnesota on Saturday, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire brought in lefty Dennys Reyes with one on and one out to face Granderson, who responded with a game-tying home run. Then yesterday, Granderson went 3-for-4 with a walk against Twins lefty starter Glen Perkins and two southpaw relievers. Those performances raised his batting line against lefties this season to .292/.351/.450 in 132 plate appearances-a solid peformance by a left-handed hitter, and a tremendous jump of nearly 300 points in OPS from last year, when he had about as extreme a split as is possible: .160/.225/.269 in 133 PA versus lefties, .337/.393/.621 in 543 against righties. Granderson will get to test himself further against southpaws in the next three games, as Oakland has an all left-handed rotation.

Matchup: Blue Jays (76-66) at White Sox (80-62), 7:11 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: A.J. Burnett (193 1/3 IP, 4.75 RA, 1.40 WHIP, 201 K) vs. Javier Vazquez (182 2/3, 4.53 RA, 1.30 WHIP, 175 K)
Pythagorean Record: Toronto, 81-61 (631 RS, 543 RA); Chicago, 80-62 (719 RS, 624 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Toronto, #7; Chicago, #6
Prospectus: The Blue Jays completed a sweep of the Rays yesterday, running their winning streak to eight games, the team's longest since 1999. Toronto's win and the Yankees' loss moved the Jays past New York in the AL East standings for the first time since June 6. If Toronto was in the AL Central, it would probably be tooth and nail with Chicago right now for the division crown, as these two squads have nearly equal Pythagorean and third-order records. But playing in the AL East as one of four of baseball's top nine teams, the Jays are eight games out of a playoff spot. Canadian fans can still take solace in playing the spoiler down the stretch, which their team has done expertly in the past week-Toronto hasn't been beating up on the league's underlings, taking down the Yankees, the Twins, and the Rays during their streak. Now they will attempt to ruin another contending team's day, but they'll have to do so on the road in a very tough venue.

While Toronto's pitching staff has been outstanding all season, the team's recent surge can be attributed to the offense finally lending some support, with six runs per game in the last eight. The Blue Jays' big-ticket outfield combination of Alex Rios and Vernon Wells has finally begun to hit like the franchise cornerstones that Toronto management is paying them to be. Vernon Wells is at .320/.375/.580 since returning from the DL on August 10, while Alex Rios has pulled out of his long season-opening funk, with a .358/.391/.679 performance over that same period. Add in left fielder Adam Lind, who has an 868 OPS since being recalled from Syracuse on June 22, and top prospect Travis Snider, who is holding his own thus far, and Toronto has gone from a team that was scrambling to fill its outfield corners with replacement-level talent back when Wells was hurt, to a team that has one of the better outfield rotations in the league.

Matchup: Dodgers (73-70) at Padres (55-88), 7:05 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Greg Maddux (170 IP, 4.92 RA, 1.25 WHIP, 88 K) vs. Cha Seung Baek (122 2/3, 5.58, 1.40, 85)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 74-69 (603 RS, 577 RA); San Diego, 60-83 (554 RS, 662 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #13; San Diego, #28
Prospectus: LA is now 1 games up on Arizona after its weekend sweep, and the Dodgers have a smooth road towards protecting that advantage and advancing to the postseason. Nineteen games remain for Los Angeles, and all of them are against losing teams. The Dodgers play the hapless Padres, Giants, and Pirates in 16 of the 19 remaining contests, with the 67-77 Rockies representing the best team left on their schedule. Not only do they get to play the Padres the next three games in an attempt to pad their lead, they also miss San Diego ace Jake Peavy, who has already beaten the Dodgers all three times he's faced them this season, as well as Pads' second starter Chris Young, who nearly tossed a perfect game yesterday. The one drawback to the rest of their September slate is that the Dodgers have just six remaining home games, with tonight's contest the first of a 10-game trip that takes them across the country. Maddux will be pitching against his former team for the second straight time tonight, after he beat the Padres last Monday. If he beats them again tonight, Maddux will move past Roger Clemens on the all-time wins list into sole possession of eighth place with 355 victories.

San Diego scored in double digits for just the fifth time this season yesterday afternoon, beating Milwaukee 10-1, and did so with a lineup that featured five rookies (Matt Antonelli at second, Chase Headley at third, catcher Nick Hundley, center fielder Will Venable, and shortstop Sean Kazmar) and a sixth player, right fielder Chip Ambres, who entered the game with fewer than 200 big-league plate appearances. As Christina Kahrl recently discussed, the Padres have gone green in their effort to sift through the options for next season and the 40-man roster. The club already cut veteran second baseman Tadahito Iguchi, the worst regular at the keystone in baseball this year. Antonelli was one of two Padres prospects to be given five stars by Kevin Goldstein in his preseason ranking, but the 23-year-old had a down year at Triple-A. In discussing the rookie's callup, Paul DePodesta stated that the Padres have struggled to find production at second for some time now, finishing second-to-last in the NL in OPS at the position two of the last three seasons. This year, San Diego is last among all major league teams with a 631 mark.

Matchup: Diamondbacks (71-71) at Giants (62-80), 7:15 p.m. PT
Probable Starters: Yusmeiro Petit (52 1/3 IP, 3.78 RA, 0.86 WHIP, 41 K) vs. Tim Lincecum (190 1/3, 2.84, 1.19, 216)
Pythagorean Record: Arizona, 72-70 (643 RS, 631 RA); San Francisco, 59-83 (557 RS, 670 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Arizona, #15; San Francisco, #24
Prospectus: Arizona will have to overcome a 1-game deficit and a slightly tougher schedule in order to beat out the Dodgers and claim their second straight NL West title. The Diamondbacks have 20 games remaining, including seven with the Giants, but they also play Colorado six times, Cincinnati three times, and St. Louis for four on the road. Tonight they will have to deal with Lincecum, the NL's best pitcher this season, who in his last start versus Arizona struck out a career-high 13. The underrated Petit just might be able to stand up to Lincecum tonight, however, and get the Diamondbacks a badly-needed victory. Despite getting roughed up in his last outing against St. Louis, Petit's WHIP still sits at a sparkling 0.86 in seven starts and nine relief appearances, which is the third-lowest in baseball this year among all pitchers with at least 50 innings, behind Mariano Rivera (0.68) and Jonathan Papelbon (0.85).

Petit will be facing a Giants team that has been thoroughly bolstered through September expansion, as San Francisco recently called up nine players, expanding its active roster to 34. One of those players was Nate Schierholtz, the organization's top power prospect, who has collected 11 hits in his first 22 at-bats while starting in right field each of the last five games. Schierholtz had a nearly identical season this year at Triple-A Fresno to the breakout campaign he put up in 2007 for the Grizzlies, generating up about the same OBP (.363 this year to .365 last) while bumping his slugging 30 points (to .594 from .560). The main knock on the lefty slugger is that he is not very disciplined-he walked just 17 times in 439 plate appearances last year, and is at 21 in 401 so far this season. Schierholtz also doesn't strike out very often, however, which bodes well for his chances of maintaining the ability to hit for average (.327 at Triple-A from '07-'08) in the majors. He has improved quite a bit in the strikeout department: back in 2005 he fanned 132 times in 548 PA at High-A (once every 4.2 PA), but his strikeouts have dropped three straight seasons now, to 81 at Double-A in '06 (every 6.3 PA), 77 last year between Triple-A and the majors (7.2), and just 52 so far this year (7.7).

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

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