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Turning Two - D'backs & Royals

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I'm going to try something new for my posts here at BTB, and we're going to call it "Turning Two". The name is fitting, since it's essentially a close look at something specific for two teams. The plan is to cycle through the league and do my best to keep up-to-date with each team's news at the same time. If you have any suggestions for the format, content, etc, just leave a comment or e-mail me.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Despite his struggles in the spring, Micah Owings was able to shut down the defending National League champion Colorado Rockies in his first start of the 2008 season. Owings, who pitched ineffectively during spring training to the tune of 13 walks and a 9.77 ERA in 15.2 innings, had his and the D'backs 2007 season ended by these same Rockies in the NLCS last October.

Owings pitched well during parts of 2007, but overall was more effective at the plate than he was on the mound. Owings had 14 starts with Game Scores ranging from 50 to 86, but he had just as many starts with Game Scores below 50, including one brutal stretch consisting of 17, 29, 44, 46, and 31. In a nutshell, Owings is a pitcher with some promise who has shown he can pitch well, but he needs to work on his consistency in order to be more than a back-end starter.

Last night was one of those nights where we were able to see what Owings is capable of, as he struck out 9 Rockies and allowed just 2 walks and 2 hits over 6.2 innings. At one point he retired 17 straight batters, and also threw first pitch strikes to 17 of the 24 Rockies he faced. The D'backs will need more performances out of Owings like this as the season progresses, as the National League West looks to be one of the toughest divisions in the majors to come out of this year. With the Rockies, Dodgers and Diamondbacks, there are three teams fighting for what could be one playoff spot, and the Padres could get into the mix with some luck as well.

As for what we should realistically expect from Owings, we can look at some of the forecasts along with last year's highs and lows. PECOTA forecasts Owings to a 4.98 ERA with a peripheral ERA of 4.84, along with 104 strikeouts in 147.0 innings pitched. Part of the reason for the lofty ERA is his home park, though his peripheral ERA lets us see that it isn't all due to that. Owings homer rate is projected to be 1.3. What confuses me about this is that his HR/9 last season was 1.2, and chances are good the 25-year old pitcher is going to improve over the next few years rather than regress. I'm more inclined to agree with his 75th percentile forecast, which gives Owings a a 4.42 ERA and 4.40 PERA and a home run rate of just under 1.2 per nine.

There are a few other minor areas where we should see Owings make progress. Last season he allowed 29.1% of his baserunners to score--you can thank the homers for that--but if he's able to improve on his strikeouts while cutting down on his walks slightly, we'll probably see that figure improve somewhat. Owings also needs to improve his slider from last year, where opponents hit .372 against it. Owings' high-velocity slider is his second pitch versus right-handers, so if he can make it into a more effective pitch--at least as effective as his changeup is versus lefties--we'll see his numbers improve accordingly. Scouts loved his slider in the minor leagues, so it's just a matter of mixing it in more effectively while locating it where batters won't crush it.

My one area of concern is his extreme flyball rate--Owings is in a park designed for hitters, and he gives up plenty of homers. He will have to improve on his flyball rate of 69.2% without having his liner rate jump too high. Owings only allowed 15.4% of his batted balls as grounders, which is problematic in a park like Arizona's. Owings is a pitcher who is in need of an effective 2-seam fastball with some sink, and even if it was something he only used on occasion, it would more than likely improve his effectiveness. His favorite zones, as outlined by Scout's Inc., are in the middle and lower half of the plate. Working down low has its uses for forcing batters to smack grounders, but it hasn't worked out that way for Owings so far.

Whether or not we see these improvements from Owings is a different story of course, but it's the kind of thing that lets you see if Owings is a future #3 starter or forever a back-end guy. He's shown he's capable of contributing with his arm and at the plate, so all that's left is the consistency. This season's performance will be telling as he enters his peak years, so I for one will be watching closely.

Kansas City Royals

The joke going around various publications was that the 3-0 Kansas City Royals could go undefeated, but that ended last night with a loss to the Twins. Joking aside, the Royals are a better club than many people give them credit for; there's a very good chance they could finish in third place in the AL Central this year, ahead of the Chicago White Sox and the aforementioned (and punchless) Twins.

Their lineup still has its problems, though there are a few good hitters in there: Jose Guillen has done well in the past, Alex Gordon is a potential star bat in his second season, and Billy Butler may eventually be the best hitter on the club, though his defense makes him a natural DH. The pitching is the strength of this club, and that's what is going to carry them this season.

Gil Meche is not your traditional ace, but it's clear from last year's solid performance that something clicked for him between the end of 2006 and the 2007 season. Zack Greinke, back from personal problems that plagued his past performances, could be the best pitcher on the team based simply on talent and the ability he has shown when he's on the mound. Brian Bannister is the most intriguing option for me, ever since his admission that he understands the effects of BABIP and plans to utilize that to his advantage against opposing hitters. Before this, I was adamant that Bannister would see regression as his BABIP climbed back to the mean and adversely effected his performance, but now I want to sit back and watch to see how he makes use of his knowledge, and if it has the kind of effects he believes it does. If there was one player in the majors I would want to talk to for an extended period of time, it would be Bannister.

If the Tigers had the Royals bullpen, they would be almost guaranteed 95 wins. Ron Mahay may not post a 2.55 ERA again, but you can't argue with 55 strikeouts in 67 innings; his lofty walk rates however, are certainly a problem. Leo Nunez struck out 7.6 hitters per nine with a K/BB of 3.7 in 2007. Jimmy Gobble has settled in neatly in a relief role after some problems as a starter earlier in his career, with 8.6 and 8.3 K/9 the past two years out of the pen. Ramon Ramirez is another strikeout pitcher, with 78 K in 86 career innings, and Yasuhiko Yabuta is an intriguing import to watch out of the pen.

To top it all off, you have Joakim Soria, who dominated the league in 2007. 75 punchouts in 69 innings, a 2.48 ERA (and 2.46 FIP), a 4.0 K/BB and just 0.4 HR/9; on the sabermetric side of things, his Wins Above Replacement for relievers (WXRL) was 4.774, seventh best in the majors. He's the anchor in the pen, and arguably the best reliever in the entire division.

With the limited bats of the Royals lineup, it's going to take an excellent performance from both their rotation and their bullpen to make things interesting this year, but I'm confident they can do enough to finish in third. If the young hitters improve more than expected and the rotation holds together top to bottom, they may get a bit closer to second, but it's a bit early to speculate about happy endings like that. The Tigers bullpen may allow for that though, as they could just as easily win 83 games as 93; that leaves the window open for a Royals team capable of hitting a .500 record with the right breaks.