BEST MATCHUP (opponents with best combined BP Hit List rankings): Minnesota Twins (3rd) @ Baltimore Orioles (5th)

Here’s a list:

6.1: Mark Kotsay, Oakland
6.7: Tadahito Iguchi, Chicago
8.5: Carl Crawford, Tampa Bay
8.7: Ramon Hernandez, San Diego
10.2: Pat Burrell, Philadelphia

These five players have the lowest VORPs among players who lead their teams. This leads me to something I said in my last column about which I received some push-back. I stated that I still felt the Twins were the team to beat in the American League Central. I stand by that statement, though I must confess that the way I justified it certainly opened me up to be queried. I pointed out that that, by and large, the White Sox batting order is not impressing. The inclusion of a White Sox player on the list above illustrates that. Therefore, I stated, when the Chicago pitchers come back down to earth, the team will be ripe for a fall. Of course, I failed to take into account the strong possibility that flat-lining Pale Hose positioners will also rise up to find their levels.

That was a mistake, but not enough of one to back me off my feeling that the road to the division title goes through Minnesota. The Twins are basically retracing its steps from the three previous seasons. They have won between 90 and 94 games and are on pace to win in the nineties again. The Sox, on the other hand, are the ones playing out of their element. Not that this precludes them from success and not that they won’t necessarily overcome Minnesota, but the burden of proof is on the upstarts.

BIGGEST MISMATCHUP (opponents with greatest difference in BP Hit List rankings): Chicago White Sox (1st) @ Tampa Bay Devil Rays (28th)

Now, White Sox fans, if you really want to refute me, take a look at this list:

25-7: 1998 Yankees (114-48), 1st
24-8: 2002 Red Sox (93-69) 2nd, no playoffs
24-8: 1993 Phillies (97-65) 1st
24-8: 1990 Reds (91-71) 1st
23-9: 2003 Yankees (101-61), 1st
23-9: 2003 Giants (100-61), 1st
23-9: 2001 Mariners (116-46), 1st
23-9: 2001 Twins (85-77), 2nd, no playoffs
23-9: 1999 Indians (97-65), 1st
23-9: 1997 Braves (101-61), 1st
23-9: 1995 Phillies (69-75), 3rd

These are the 11 teams that, over the past 15 seasons, either surpassed, matched or came within a game of the White Sox 2005 record of 24-8. Righteous group of ballclubs, no? Pretty much. Eight of the 11 won their division. Only one really tanked and only two played under .500 after their hot 32-game start. The average team won 74 of their remaining 130 games. If the White Sox were to do this, they’d win 98 games. That sounds like enough to bag the division, doesn’t it? Just to be fair, though, let’s toss the ’98 Yankees and ’01 Mariners out of this list because they posted the two best records of the expansion era. Let’s say the White Sox play as well as the remaining nine teams did after their initial 32 games. They would go 70-60 and win 94 on the season. That doesn’t look too outrageous, does it? Now, 94 victories might not be enough to oust the Twins this year, but it’s enough to make it awfully interesting.

BIGGEST NATIONAL LEAGUE MISMATCHUP (opponents with greatest difference in BP Hit List rankings): Atlanta Braves (4th) @ Colorado Rockies (29th)

There are a lot worse ways to start a run at the Rookie of the Year award. Clint Barmes is leading three separate classes with his 20.2 VORP: shortstops, rookies and Rockies. It won’t stay this way, but it is so strange to see Todd Helton not leading Colorado offensively. The last time Helton took a back seat to any teammate was 1999, his sophomore year. In the past two years he’s more than doubled his next-best comrade.

A lot of words have been expended on how the Rockies could one day rise above playing at altitude and become a successful team. Knowing that they could never quite reign in the number of runs they allowed, the soundest suggestion always seemed to be to bring some good hitters to town and just guys whose numbers looked good because of where they were. In spite of all that’s been written about playing at altitude, it may surprise some to know that the Rockies have never led the majors in scoring. They finished second in 1997, 2000 and 2001 and third in 1999. Even at their peak it was never enough to get much over .500. Now, though, they are continuing to surrender runs as if they play on Cloud Nine while scoring like a bunch of flatlanders. Never have they fallen to the offensive depths they have this year. Heading into last night’s victory over the Braves, they were 22nd in the majors in runs scored. Their previous low rankings were 12th in 2002 and 11th last year.

In the past, the team could at least be counted on to chuck runs at the great gushers of scoring their opponents were doing at their expense but not in 2005. If they don’t start scoring soon, my preseason prediction of 67 wins is going to look like nothing short of grandiose philanthropy.

MATCHUP OF THE BIGGEST SURPRISES SO FAR: Washington Nationals (9th) @ Arizona Diamondbacks (18th)

It was only two years ago that both these teams finished over .500, so should we be all that surprised that they’re both right back there? Well, sure, as disaster was predicted for both in 2005 by most.

How are the Nats doing it? For one thing, they’re getting offensive support on a broader front than most teams. Apart from Cristian Guzman and whoever is trucking around in left field, DC position players have showed up this year. They currently have five positioners in double VORP figures: Brad Wilkerson, Vinny Castilla, Jose Guillen, Jose Vidro and Nick Johnson were all there through Sunday night. The only other team close is the Mets with four. The Yankees, Twins, Tigers, Reds and Orioles have three each.

The Nats get Tony Armas, Jr. back tonight. He’s making his first start of the year and is bound to be an improvement over Zach Day. It’s too bad that Brandon Webb isn’t facing John Patterson in this series. They currently represent the extremes in ground ball-fly ball ratios among qualifying pitchers. Webb is at 4.36:1 while Patterson is at .69:1. That’s what you call a spread.

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