Finally, Major League Baseball’s myriad of Opening Days is over. Stretched over four different days, the “event” yielded some great moments. Baseball was played in the early morning, it was played in a brand new, albeit slightly terrifying, ballpark, it was played for 16 edge-of-you-seat innings, and it was played with Mariano Rivera blowing a save. Baseball’s back, kids, and it’s just as entertaining as ever.
Today marks the very first day that all 30 teams are in action so I present to you, for the first time in the 2012 season: Five to Watch for Saturday, April 7th.
It should also be mentioned that I assume pretty much everyone reading this blog will be watching the Blue Jays and Indians at 1:05 pm EST when Brandon Morrow takes on the suspension-appealing Ubaldo Jimenez at the Jake (“Progressive” Field, my left cheek), therefore that game is not included here.
Washington Nationals (LHP Gio Gonzalez) @ Chicago Cubs (RHP Matt Garza)
The Nationals are the sexy pick in the NL East this season, partly due to the fact that they went out and bolstered their starting rotation this winter and now have a group of four pitchers that rivals just about anyone in the NL.
Today, they sent one of their newly acquired hurlers to the mound in lefthander Gio Gonzalez who was brought in for a cabal of prospects from the Oakland Athletics. Gonzalez is a tough pitcher to project going forward for Washington. Over the last two seasons, while pitching half his games in the cavernous Oakland Coliseum, Gonzalez has posted a 3.17 ERA in just over 400 innings. Despite his success, he struggles at times commanding his pitches which has led to more walks than any other pitcher in baseball over those same two years.
What’s encouraging for Gonzalez, however, is that he posts consistently good groundball rates and is capable of getting his fair share of strikeouts which should suggest continued success going forward. Still, Nationals Park is not the coliseum and most are projecting a step back for the southpaw. I’ll be watching today to see how he fares against a weak Cubs team.
Speaking of those Cubs, they do have at least one interesting player on their roster and that’s today’s starter Matt Garza. After never posting an xFIP under 4.14 in his career in the AL, Garza moved to the senior circuit and dominated in 2011 finishing with a 3.19 xFIP and an excellent 3.31 SIERA due to much improved peripherals. He tossed career bests in strikeout-rate, home run-rate and groundball percentage while keeping his walk-rate slightly above average. Simply put, Garza went from being a good number three pitcher with the Rays to a great number two, skirting on the outer fringes of being a number one. He finished in the top 12 in the NL in xFIP, tERA and SIERA; three excellent ERA predictors.
The Nationals lineup is as close to punchless as any potentially contending team, but it will be interesting to see if Garza’s 2011 breakout continues into early 2012.
San Francisco Giants (LHP Madison Bumgarner) @ Arizona Diamondbacks (RHP Daniel Hudson)
I know it’s the trendy pick, but don’t be surprised when Giants’ lefty Madison Bumgarner takes home the NL Cy Young Award this fall. There’s nary a pitcher I would rather watch than Bumgarner. He mixes three different fastballs with an excellent slider and has a plus curveball and a plus changeup for good measure. The way he’s able to keep hitters completely off balance with terrific deception and movement on his pitches reminds me a lot of Roy Halladay, but from the left side. At just 22-years-old, Bumgarner is already one of the best lefthanded pitchers in the NL. Anytime he’s pitching, I’ll be watching.
Just take a look at the movement on his pitches:
When you can throw with that much varied movement at speeds ranging from 95 mph to 75 mph, you’re going to have a lot of success. At 4:05, drop what you’re doing and watch Madison Bumgarner carve up the D’Backs lineup.
Also, Brandon Belt.
St. Louis Cardinals (RHP Adam Wainwright) @ Milwaukee Brewers (RHP Zack Greinke)
Like Madison Bumgarner, Zack Greinke looks primed for a breakout season in 2012, or at least a return to his dominant 2009 season in which he easily took the AL Cy Young Award while with the Royals. Last season, Greinke put up the peripherals of a pitching god, striking out more than 10-and-a-half batters per nine innings, and leading the NL in both xFIP and SIERA. By all accounts, Greinke should have been in the class of Clayton Kershaw, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee in 2011, but terrible infield defense and equally awful luck buoyed his ERA to the league average. His ERA at the end of June sat at about 5.50, but he then reeled off three excellent months to end the season. With improved infield defense this year in Milwaukee, the sky’s the limit for Greinke. Today, we’ll see what kind of a start he gets off to against the defending World Champs.
Speaking of those Redbirds, St. Louis counters with their ace, Adam Wainwright, who’s making his first start in the big leagues since 2010 after sitting out last season with Tommy John’s surgery. Wainwright had established himself as one of the best pitchers in the NL before succumbing to his injuries and he should be a big boost for the Cards’ rotation in 2012. Still, there’s usually a bit of a readjustment period for pitchers coming off of major elbow surgery and the Cards may be reluctant to let Wainwright go full tilt, at least right away. It’ll be interesting to see just how much, or how little, time Wainwright will need to get his groove back, as I’m told the kids say.
Colorado Rockies (LHP Jamie Moyer) @ Houston Astros (RHP Lucas Harrell)
Normally, the Houston Astros, as they’re currently constructed, have no place on anyone’s ‘to-watch’ list, but the proverbial Triple-A team is about to get dominated by a man who’s old enough to be my father. That’s right, 49-year-old Jamie Moyer who, like Wainwright, is coming off of Tommy John’s surgery will be starting tonight for the Colorado Rockies and that makes this game your priority this evening. If you’re at all worried about the readjustment period for Wainwright, Moyer should terrify you, but somehow this writer isn’t worried. Anyone who can make an Opening Day roster at his age should have no trouble coming back from major elbow surgery. I can’t wait to see him make Jordan Schafer, Brian Bogusevic and Chris Johnson look utterly foolish with his 82 mph fastball.
New York Yankees (RHP Hiroki Kuroda) @ Tampa Bay Rays (LHP David Price)
Any game between these two AL East goliaths is probably worth watching, even if you hate yourself for it a little. Tonight, Hiroki Kuroda makes his first start for the Bombers against a man who could take another step forward in 2012 to become an elite AL pitcher in David Price. The former number one overall pick has all the tools to dominate any lineup and this could be the year he puts it all together.
It also helps for watchability that these two teams played the most entertaining game on yesterday’s schedule with the Rays scoring two in the bottom-of-the-ninth off of confirmed robot Mariano Rivera to come back and win against the Yankees 7-6. No matter how you think the AL East will shake out this year, these two teams figure to be in the thick of things and pretty much any game between them will be one to watch.
Starting pitcher information gathered from Baseball Press’ lineup page.