Talking Baseball

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Posted by Ben K. on Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Missing the Mark

While the exorcism of the Steve Bartman ball may have led many Cubs fans to believe the Curse was at end, news out of Chicago probably has many fans rethinking their spring optimism.

The definite news, as ESPN and various other news services have reported, is that Cubs' ace Mark Prior is off a timetable and may not return until late May or early June. That's also the good news.

For the bad news, some newspapers have picked up on a few rumors circulating about the condition of Prior's inflamed right (pitching) elbow. Sunday's edition of The Newark Star Ledger had this to say about Prior's arm:
"MARK PRIOR'S right elbow injury could be serious enough to require Tommy John surgery and keep him out for the whole year, according to the word circulating among baseball executives. Cubs manager DUSTY BAKER, who has a tendency to leave his starters in for extremely high pitch counts, has been confiding in friends that the situation is bleak. Losing Prior for an extended time would obviously be a big blow for the Cubs, who don't have a lot of wiggle room in their payroll budget to trade for another starter."
Dusty, who doesn't think there is such a thing as "too long" when talking about his starting pitchers, has adamantly denied these rumors. While I personally doubt the Cubs would have Prior throwing even long toss if he did indeed need reconstructive elbow surgery, the reality of the situation is that the Chicago Cubs will be without Mark Prior through at least the first two months of their season. While he should be healthy and ready to go for the stretch drive of the summer, these two months could mean the difference between the Cubs' playoff chances and another long October in Chicago. While some people tend to dismiss games at the beginning of the season as meaningless games, when the pennant race promises to be as competitive as the NL Central will be, it's important to remember that every missed start weighs heavily on a team. Just how big will Prior's absence be to the Cubs? (For a different take on the Prior injury, check out Jon's post from March 24.)

Last year was Mark Prior's first full season with the Cubs. In April and May of 2003, Prior made 11 starts. In those starts, he was 6-2 with a combined with a 2.82 ERA. Overall, during that stretch, the Cubs were 8-3 in games Prior started. Furthermore, in those 11 starts, opponents hit just .219 against Prior, and he walked 21 while striking out 83. Tellingly, he also exceeded 100 pitches in nine of those 11 starts, with two starts at 123 and 124 pitches. For a pitcher who at the time was 22, it's no big surprise that his elbow may have been a little sore this year after averaging 113.4 pitchers per game in 30 regular season starts and 122.67 in three post-season starts.

To study Prior's immediate replacement, first I'm going to look at Greg Maddux's numbers. As of now, Maddux is serving as Prior's direct replacement, taking the number two spot in the rotation behind Wood. Maddux so far has not put up pretty numbers in two starts this season. He's thrown 9.2 innings this season and has given up 8 earned runs. He has surrendered 12 hits and has walked 7. This is the same Greg Maddux who never walked more than 52 men when he was with the Braves, and even that was back in 1992, his first year in Atlanta. With an 0-2 record, a WHIP of 1.987 and an un-Maddux-like ERA of 7.45, he has yet to instill faith in the Wrigley Faithful, and some people are beginning to doubt that he can win the 11 he needs to get to 300.

Going back to Maddux's first 12 starts between March, April, and May of last year, the numbers don't look much prettier. Maddux was 4-5 with a 4.89 ERA. If Maddux straightens his ship after two rough outings and manages to meet last year's opening numbers, the Cubs would project to 2.5 games worse with Maddux than with Prior. Those 2.5 games could be the difference between them and the Astros or even the Cardinals come September.

But the trend doesn't stop at Maddux. Remember, Maddux would be pitching and making the same starts whether Prior were healthy or not. I just wanted to illustrate Maddux's recent struggles. The true replacement in the pitching rotation is the number five guy,Sergio Mitre, a second- or third-tier prospect in the Cubs' organization. Researching Mitre, I didn't find too much information that would make me feel good about him. The 2004 Baseball Prospectus book says, "When your ace is on the shelf for a turn or two, and you don't want to taint the psyche or the arbitration status of one of your best pitching prospects, what do you do? You call up Sergio Mitre."

Over on ESPN, John Sickels of Baseball Prospectus elaborated a little. He wrote that Mitre is the "surprise pick as No. 5 starter, taking advantage of Mark Prior's injury. He's received less notice than other hot prospects in the Cubs' pitching-rich system, but his sinker is nasty and he usually throws strikes. Our Bet: He's not quite ready, and will struggle at times until Prior comes back." Faced with a prolonged absence of Prior, it's hard to find comfort in the scouting reports. Looking at the numbers, Mitre was good in his first start of the season. He limited the Braves to two runs and five hits in 7 and a third innings. Yet, last year, in three outings, he surrendered 15 hits and 8 earned runs. It seems that Mitre's effectiveness varies from appearance to appearance, and no scouting report makes him out to be better than a 5th starter. Last season, the Cubs' fifth starter, the seemingly-rejuvenated Shawn Estes, was 5-4 with a high ERA during the first two months of the season. The unproven Mitre would hypothetically have to match those numbers to keep the Cubs on pace to Maddux's hypothetical 2.5 game deficit. If Mitre sticks around for the duration of Prior's absence, the Cubs could be facing a bigger challenge when it comes time to catch up to the NL Central leader.

Before I look at what the Cubs should do, it is important to recognize that a lot of my projections are fairly unscientific. The projections are based upon what this year's Cubs are doing in relation to last year's Cubs. I'm not looking at what the rest of the NL Central is doing this year as compared to last year. I'm assuming that Kerry Wood, Matt Clement, and Carlos Zambrano all perform at their 2003 level. If they perform better, they could compensate for the temporary loss of Prior. It's interesting to note that the Cubs right now are 3-4. After the first seven games last year, they were 4-3, the difference right now fitting my theory. Mark Prior in the first seven games of 2003 was 1-0. Greg Maddux in the first seven games of 2004 is 0-2. If Maddux had been the number 3 starter behind Prior from Opening Day, it's possible to assume that the Cubs could be 4-3 or even 5-2 by now.

Finally, I wonder if the Cubs are making the right decision using Mitre if Prior is going to be out until the end of May or the beginning of June. While the Cubs' organization is stacked with pitching, the top prospects have only begun their ascent to Chicago; most of them pitched at an A-ball level last year with one making a late-season leap to AA. Their second-tier prospects will have to fill in for Prior. If Mitre doesn't work out, the Cubs will turn to Todd Wellemeyer to start. Wellemeyer is currently in the bullpen in Chicago, and while he has a great fastball and an effective slider, he's also walked 7 in 4.1 innings.

In the end, things look a little bleak for the Cubs if the bad news rumors come true. Losing Prior for the entire season would probably mean that the Cubs won't win the World Series that was supposed to be theirs. Losing Prior for just two months could mean the same thing, but if Wood, Clement, and Zambrano hold down the fort for a few weeks and Prior can make a successful and healthy return by late May or early June, the fans in Chicago could be primed for a great summer run and an exciting pennant race in the Central.

Picks of the Week

Tuesday, April 13: Tampa Bay at New York Yankees, 7:05 p.m.
For all the reasons to watch this game, see today's trivia question.

Wednesday, April 14: Seattle Mariners at Anaheim Angles, 10:05 p.m.
Here's a shout out to the under-represented West Coast (or at least under-represented on the East Coast). Freddy Garcia had a game during his first start of the season. He threw 7 shut-out innings, giving up 4 hits while striking out 7 and walking 2 against Anaheim. Ramon Ortiz, on the other hand, was horrible. Against the Rangers, he lasted 2.2 innings, giving up 9 hits and 7 earned runs. The two will square off against each other on Wednesday night as Seattle fans hope that Garcia's first outing is a preview of great things from the starter who's struggled the last few seasons.

Thursday, April 15: Toronto Blue Jays @ Detroit Tigers, 1:05 p.m.
The struggling Blue Jays take on the upstart Tigers this week, and during Thursday's matinee, the incumbent AL Cy Young Award winner will look to right a sinking ship. Roy Halladay is 0-2 with a 5.93 ERA this season. While he didn't win a game until May 1 last year, he didn't pitch this poorly during his victory-less start. Canadians everywhere will be holding their breaths as they hope Roy can recover his form. He is after all the only decent pitcher left in Toronto. On the other side, the Tigers will look to continue their strong play against a team with a strong offense. This series against the Blue Jays will be a test of the Tigers' shaky pitching. If they can come away from this series with a few victories, it may be time to start taking Detroit seriously.

Trivia Answer and a New Question

In my post on Friday, I asked our readers to name the two teams against which the Red Sox have a lifelong losing record. The two responses both guessed the Yankees and the Tigers. I have to admit, in the context of the post, it was a trick question. First, the real reason it was a trick question was the Red Sox are 973-928 against Detroit. Second, there are actually three teams that are over .500 against the Bo Sox. The Yankees are 1050-870 against Boston; the Indians are 994-919 against the Sox; and the team I forgot, the Royals, are 192-175 against Boston.

Today's new question has a twist: I don't know the answer. Today, Kevin Brown will for the third time face the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. So far against Tampa this year, Brown is 2-0 with a 1.29 ERA. If Brown wins, it will be his third start of the season, his third start against Tampa Bay, and his third victory of the season. My question: Has any pitcher in baseball history opened the season with three straight starts against the same team and has come away as a winner in each of those three starts? If you think you know an answer, leave a comment, and I'll attempt to find out whether or not this has happened in baseball history. It's quite possible that with a victory tonight, Kevin Brown will be the first pitcher to accomplish this strange feat.

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