17 April 2008

Pitchers with Something to Prove, NL Edition

Lots of big-name, or big-game, and/or big-contract pitchers will toe the rubber for their respective teams today.

(To be honest, I only thought to look for this because of Rob Neyer's blogging about Dave Pinto's comments yesterday about "Aces in Trouble", but still, it's true.)

National League:

As I write this, the games in Philadelphia and St Louis have already started. Brett Myers started the game for the Phightin's. He was, you'll recall, the best pitcher on the Philly staff as recently as 2006, but last year Charlie manuel panicked when his bullpen seemed to have imploded and made Myers (struggling at the time) his closer for the remainder of the year.

With the acquisition of Brad Lidge, Myers returned to the starting rotation this year, and while he hasn't been as bad as he was in his three starts last year, he has given up five homers in only 18 innings coming into today's game, and had a 5.00 ERA to boot. Fortunately for him, the Houston lineup has only three real hitters in it (Berkman, Lee and Tejada). The other five non-pitchers are Punch-and-Judy hitters like Geoff Blum, Mark Loretta, Michael Bourn, and Humberto Quintero. Right field is manned these days by Darin Erstad, who might be Punch or Judy, but these days, the "and" would be too generous for him.

The Reds play at Chicago, and both pitchers have something to prove there. North-Side southpaw Ted Lilly currently sports an 0-2 record and a 9.95 ERA. After having a career year in 2007 (15-8, 3.83 in 207 innings) he was due to come back to Earth a little bit, but he's practically underground right now. He has yet to get out of the 5th inning or to allow fewer than 4 runs, but his trikeouts are still there, so maybe it's just been some bad luck.

Lilly's opponent, Cincinnati rookie Edinson Volquez, has been dominant but short winded (5 and 5.1 innings) in his two starts so far. He likely would have pitched longer if not for an extended rain delay in Pittsburgh last time out, but still, most teams can't abide many 5-inning starters. Dusty Baker, in particular, has reputations both for overworking pitchers and for being reluctant to use young players. This presents Volquez with a conundrum: How to pitch well enough to keep his job in the starting rotation but not so well that Baker will ask him to throw 140 pitches every time he goes to the mound.

In New York, the Mets' Nelson Figueroa needs to prove that winning his first start since 2003 last week wasn't just a fluke. He's facing the last-place Washington nationals, who have hit .227 as a team so far in 2008, so that should help stave off his being designated for assignment for at least another week. Don't get me wrong: the guy's named Nelson. I want him to succeed. But if he's still pitching in the majors every 5th day come August, something is very, very wrong.

In Miami, the seemingly ageless John Smoltz starts for the Braves. Nobody expects the 40-year old to keep his 0.82 ERA down there all year, nor to remian undefeated. With that said, the team with the oldest rotation in baseball has to get more than it has any right to expect from John Smoltz and Tim Hudson any time they take the mound, because they're not likely to get much from the rest of the rotation (42-year old and already gimpy Tom Glavine and three youngsters you never heard of). Also, many of the better pitchers in the bullpen are on the DL keeping Mike Hampton company, so the 5-6 innings games that Smoltz has given them to this point just will not cut it.

And last but not finally, Colorado's Jeff Francis faces defending Cy Young Award winner Jake Peavy in San Diego. Peavy's been lights out this year, like he was last year, but Francis, after posting the second-best VORP in team history (after Jason Jennings in 2006) has been positively awful this year. He's allowed 23 baserunners and 12 runs (including 6 homers!) in just over 11 innings of work. Granted, the Rockies have scored a "grand" total of two runs in each of his two starts, but you can't pitch like that and expect to win. I mean, unless you're Shawn Estes, right?

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