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September 27, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Saturday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

Today's Full Slate of Games

Matchup: Marlins (83-76) at Mets (88-72), 1:10 p.m. ET
Probable Starters: Ricky Nolasco (205 1/3, 3.77, 1.11, 176) vs. Johan Santana (225 1/3, 2.96, 1.17, 197)
Pythagorean Record: Florida, 80-79 (766 RS, 763 RA); New York, 89-71 (795 RS, 711 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Florida, #16; New York, #4
Prospectus: The Mets' nightmare scenario of missing the playoffs came that much closer to happening as a result of yesterday's action. New York no longer controls its own destiny, needing a Milwaukee loss in order to regain a share of the wild-card lead. Facing the possibility of elimination today with a loss and a Milwaukee win, the Mets have decided to move Santana up to start on short rest for just the fourth time in his career and the first since 2003. Obviously, these are desperate times, so New York's ace will get the ball for what could be the second-to-last game ever played at Shea Stadium, despite throwing a career-high 125 pitches this past Tuesday in a win over Chicago. Santana has truly been the stopper for the Mets down the stretch: he fought through eight innings on Tuesday while allowing just two runs to halt a three-game losing streak, and New York has won nine of his 10 starts dating back to August 7. The noted second-half pitcher has a 2.37 RA and a 7-0 record in 98 2/3 innings after this year's All-Star break, saving the Mets from falling apart completely. He will now be asked to save them one more time, and to get the team to Sunday with their hope still alive; if they succeed, New York plans to bring back Oliver Perez to pitch the finale on short rest as well.

Although Mets fans are understandably wary about suffering through another disastrous end to another September-their playoff odds peaked at 92 percent on September 11-they have nonetheless been coming out in huge numbers to support their squad. The Mets passed their attendance total from last season on Thursday night and set a new franchise record, and in Sunday's final game they will hit the 4,000,000 fan mark, joining the 1993 Rockies (a major league record 4.48 million) as the only National League teams to ever draw four million. Those millions have also been coming out to "Shea Goodbye" to their 45-year-old ballpark, which has produced a number of huge moments throughout the years, and which the Mets faithful hope will be able to produce a few more before this year is through. The old greats will be on hand to try to will the team and the ballpark to one final stand, as Mike Piazza, Darryl Strawberry, Tom Seaver, and dozens of others have made a last pilgrimage to Shea and will participate in ceremonies to be held on Sunday.

Matchup: Indians (80-80) at White Sox (86-73), 7:05 p.m. CT
Probable Starters: Zach Jackson (51 1/3 IP, 6.31 RA, 1.52 WHIP, 27 K) vs. Javier Vazquez (204, 4.68, 1.31, 195)
Pythagorean Record: Cleveland, 84-76 (792 RS, 750 RA); Chicago, 87-72 (791 RS, 714 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Cleveland, #14; Chicago, #7
Prospectus: Before Vazquez made his last start in Tuesday's opener of Chicago's huge series in Minnesota, manager Ozzie Guillen questioned the clutch credentials of his right-handed workhorse. "He hasn't been [a big-game pitcher]. That's the bottom line," Guillen told the press, and Vazquez proceeded to go out and give up five runs in four innings to Minnesota in a 9-3 loss. Vazquez pitched poorly in his only postseason in 2004 with the Yankees, but there's little other evidence to support Guillen's claim: Vazquez has pitched better in the second half than the first for his career, and his career September RA (4.04) is actually the lowest he has put up in any month. Vazquez can prove his manager and any doubting fans wrong tonight with a strong performance against Cleveland in this, his biggest start of the season. Getting knocked out early on Tuesday led to him throwing just 78 pitches, so Vazquez will come back tonight on three days' rest for the second time this year. The first came two starts ago at Yankee Stadium, when he was lit up for seven runs in 3 2/3 innings after throwing 106 pitches in beating Detroit the last time out. Vazquez also lost his two other outings on short rest, in 1999 with the Expos, and in 2004 with the Yankees.

Perhaps part of the problem for Vazquez is the outfield defense behind him, and in particular having Ken Griffey Jr. trying to cover center field, as he has for the last four of the righty's starts. Vazquez is a fly-ball pitcher, with a G/F ratio below one this season, and Griffey can no longer run those flies down in center like he used to, as evidenced by the catchable ball he let sail over his head for a Joe Mauer run-scoring double in the first inning of Thursday's loss to Minnesota. Griffey's 2.23 Range Factor since moving to Chicago is lower than that of any other starting major league center fielder this year, and his .864 Zone Rating is not much better. Coupled with his slumping bat, Griffey's defense suggests that perhaps Nick Swisher (who has started just four times in the last 10 games) has been unfairly made the scapegoat in the Chicago outfield.

Matchup: Nationals (59-100) at Phillies (90-70), 3:55 p.m. ET, FOX
Probable Starters: John Lannan (177 IP, 4.37 RA, 1.32 WHIP, 112 K) vs. Jamie Moyer (190 1/3, 3.97, 1.34, 122)
Pythagorean Record: Washington, 62-97 (635 RS, 813 RA); Philadelphia, 91-69 (787 RS, 674 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Washington, #29; Philadelphia, #6
Prospectus: The Phillies owe a great deal of their success this season to Moyer, who will wrap up one of the more remarkable seasons in major league history this afternoon. Moyer can win his 16th game, which would tie the record for most wins in a season by a pitcher at the age of 45 or older. (Phil Niekro won 16 in both 1984 and 1985 for the Yankees at the ages of 45 and 46.) Moyer ranks 22nd in the NL with 4.7 SNLVAR, and right ahead of him is fellow lefty Lannan, who leads the Nationals (and all major league rookies) with a 4.9 mark. Lannan might be a Moyer in the making, as his fastball usually tops out in the high 80s and is mixed with a slider, curve, and change. Unlike Moyer, Lannan is a ground-ball pitcher-he has a 2.09 G/F ratio this year, which among qualified pitchers is the fourth-highest in the majors, behind noted ground-ball machines Brandon Webb (3.32), Derek Lowe (2.59), and Aaron Cook (2.54), and just ahead of noted worm-killer Roy Halladay (2.08). Moyer is in the middle of the pack with his 1.26 G/F mark.

For the second straight season, Moyer and the Phils have played their best baseball in September: last year they were 17-11 in the season's final month, and this year they are 15-8, having reduced their magic number for a second straight division title down to one with yesterday's win over Washington and the Mets' loss to Florida. Also for the second straight season, Ryan Howard has been behind the Phils' charge to the division title-he hit more home runs in September last year (11) than in any other month while putting up a 1043 OPS, and he hit his 11th of this September last night, which raised his monthly line to .349/.423/.880 in 97 plate appearances. That might just be enough for Howard to win over the BBWAA and capture a second MVP award if the Phillies do win the NL East, despite the fact that Howard's impressive raw stats mask what has been a down season for him.

Matchup: Cubs (96-63) at Brewers (89-71), 2:55 p.m. CT, FOX
Probable Starters: Ted Lilly (198 2/3 IP, 4.30 RA, 1.25 WHIP, 180 K) vs. Ben Sheets (196, 3.21 RA, 1.13 WHIP, 157 K)
Pythagorean Record: Chicago, 97-62 (847 RS, 665 RA); Milwaukee, 86-74 (744 RS, 681 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Chicago, #2; Milwaukee, #9
Prospectus: The Brewers' magic number separating them from advancing to their first postseason since 1982 is down to two, as they have revived themselves just in time to win five straight games. When Sheets takes the mound this afternoon, he may be pitching for the clinch if New York falls in its afternoon game to the Marlins. What to expect from Sheets is unknown, as the right-hander has been in and out of the rotation all September due to elbow trouble, and has not pitched since he left after two innings in a game against the Cubs at Wrigley Field on September 17. The latest injury issue for Sheets began on September 1 against the Mets: he was forced to leave after five shut-out innings with a sore arm, and although he came back to shut out San Diego in his next start, he was knocked around by Philadelphia before that early exit in Chicago. Dave Bush was originally scheduled to start this game on short rest, and he will likely be on full alert in the bullpen ready to come on if Sheets is not to be ready to go or if he has to leave early for a third time this month.

One of the major reasons that Milwaukee has picked up five straight wins is the work of its much-maligned relief corps of late. The Brewers' pen has spent most of the season burning down leads, but recently has done an excellent job compensating for shortened outings from the starting pitchers, and has put up a 1.13 RA in the past six games. Last night Jeff Suppan went five, and Seth McClung dominated over the final four, striking out six while allowing a lone hit, while the night before was a much more piecemeal effort: after Yovani Gallardo tossed four solid frames in his first start back from knee surgery, Dale Sveum went to his pen seven times over the next six innings, and his pitchers answered the call by shutting out Pittsburgh until the Brewers could win it. The pen also picked up the slack for McClung when he was knocked out of the box in the fourth inning last Sunday, and that, added to Sheets' short outings, has the Brewers' relievers becoming accustomed to putting in overtime, and they have certainly risen to the challenge.

Matchup: Royals (74-86) at Twins (87-73), 2:55 p.m. CT, FOX
Probable Starters: Gil Meche (204 1/3 IP, 4.23 RA, 1.31 WHIP, 176 K) vs. Glen Perkins (146, 4.93 RA, 1.49 WHIP, 70 K)
Pythagorean Record: Kansas City, 71-89 (687 RS, 773 RA); Minnesota, 88-72 (821 RS, 740 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Kansas City, #24; Minnesota, #12
Prospectus: The Royals won their 12th game in the last 14 last night, preventing Minnesota from extending its half-game lead in the AL Central. You know things are going especially well for the Royals when even Tony Pena Jr. is chipping in the odd single, as he has in each of his last three games. Minnesota now has to rely on the struggling Perkins to get them a step closer to an unexpected division title, making this the biggest start of his young career. The 25-year-old left-hander will be on the mound for the first time since September 18, as he had his last turn in the rotation skipped after giving up five runs in 2/3 of an inning to the Rays. That was the worst of a rough stretch of starts; over his last four outings Perkins has given up 20 runs in 14 1/3, taking his RA up by nearly a full run. It appears that he has simply hit a wall: between the minors and majors this year he has thrown 179 1/3 innings, over 130 more than he threw in an injury-shortened 2007, and over 40 more than his previous career high of 134 in the minors during '05. Perkins has been tagged for nine home runs in his last five starts, after being hit with 16 in his first 20. The Royals have not faced Perkins yet this season, but they hit left-handers well, with a team OPS 82 points higher against southpaws than righties.

If the Twins do manage to win the division, it will be the fifth time in seven years since Ron Gardenhire took the helm for the 2002 season. Minnesota's run under Gardenhire is especially impressive when you consider that in none of those seasons did the team have a payroll above $71 million, according to the indispensable site, Cot's Baseball Contracts. Here are Minnesota's payrolls during Gardenhire's tenure, along with where that figure ranked in the junior circuit and where the Twins finished in the Central:


Year  Payroll  AL Rank  Finish
2008   $56.9      12      1*
2007   $71.4      10      3
2006   $63.4      10      1
2005   $56.2       8      3
2004   $53.6       8      1
2003   $55.5       7      1
2002   $40.2      12      1
*pending

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

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