Their manager having thrown away a chance to take the season's opening series last night, the Yankees are forced to play a rubber game against the A's tonight in Oakland. Taking the hill for the A's will be Dan Haren, whose similarities to last night's Oakland starter, ace Rich Harden, extend further than the five common letters in their last names. Here's an updated version of the tale-of-the-tape that I ran last year:
James Richard Harden
Daniel John Haren
Central Arizona Junior College
Sea: 38th '99; Oak: 17th '00
StL: 2nd Round '01
7/21/03 - A's
6/3/03 - Cards
63 GS, 68G, 3.60/8.14/3.76
53 GS, 62 G, 4.13/6.38/2.47
19 GS, 2.53/8.51/3.02
34 GS, 3.73/6.76/2.20
While Harden is universally recognized as a potential Cy Young candidate, Haren is poised for a breakout season of his own. Haren's 2005 was already better than either of Mark Mulder's last two seasons. Mulder, you'll recall, was the Big Three ace whom the A's sent to St. Louis for Haren, reliever Kiko Calero, and now-20-year-old catching-cum-first base prospect Daric Barton. It's Harden and Haren whom I expect to lead the A's to an easy AL West crown this year. Certainly you have to like the chances of any team that lists Barry Zito as its third-best starter.
Opposing Haren tonight will be the Yankees' 2005 rookie sensation Chien-Ming Wang. Wang, now 26, remains an extreme, and extremely effective, ground ball pitcher. Last year Wang ranked third in the majors in groundball-to-flyball ratio among pitchers with more than 100 innings, trailing only Brandon Webb and ex-Yankee Jake Westbrook, but ranking ahead of the aptly named Derek Lowe. The problem with all of that is that Wang has to work in front of the Yankees' extremely porous infield defense. Thus far, in just two games, we've seen Alex Rodriguez make some outstanding plays at third base and the three men to his left compensate by booting, whiffing and otherwise failing to catch up with balls hit or thrown in their direction. My confidence in Joe Torre has already been spoiled, but if the Yankee skipper knows what's good for his team, he'll compensate by DHing Giambi in Wang's starts and giving the more agile Andy Phillips those starts at first base. Though I'm a proponent of playing Giambi in the field because of the boost it gives his bat, the offensive upgrade achieved by benching Bernie in favor of Phillips should compensate for any lost production from Giambi, who should be able to produce from the DH spot if he's only required to do so once every five days.
Failing that, there's always the hope that Wang will improve his strikeout rate this year. In his rookie season, Wang struck out just 3.64 men per nine innings, a severe drop from his career minor league rate of 7.06 K/9. In 74 1/3 career triple-A innings between 2004 and 2005, Wang struck out 6.78 men per nine and in 15 1/3 innings this spring he struck out 5.87 men per nine innings. Given that history, it seems fair to expect Wang to increase his strikeout rate to something in the mid-fives this year. As dominating as Chien-Ming can be in terms of keeping his opponents from getting the ball in the air, he'll need to help himself more often this year if he expects to improve on his freshman campaign.
Finally, while we're on the topic of pitchers who made their pinstriped debuts in 2005, Will Carroll's latest Under The Knife column contains some unsurprising speculation about Carl Pavano's that is nonetheless startling to see in print. Quothe Carroll:
Carl Pavano is headed to [back expert] Dr. [Robert] Watkins for a check of his problematic back. There have been whispers from some in Yankee camp that Pavano will likely need surgery, almost certainly season-ending and perhaps career-ending. . . . Pavano's contract is insured for backs.
Pavano is owed $30.9 million for the remaining three years of his contract (2006-2008) and the buyout on his 2009 option, though I'm not sure exactly how much of that is recoupable via the insurance should Pavano never throw another major league pitch.