BEST MATCHUP (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings): Baltimore Orioles (5th) @ Chicago White Sox (1st)

When a team’s keystone combo is first and third in the majors in VORP, the rest should be easy. Second baseman Brian Roberts (29) and shortstop Miguel Tejada (22.9) are the stanchions upon which the Orioles’ early success is constructed. Consider that only one other team even has both of their keystoners in double figures (Jeff Kent and Cesar Izturis of the Dodgers at 21.3 and 11.0 respectively). With Javy Lopez currently posting the best VORP among big league catchers, it seems that the Orioles have the hard parts covered. It’s at the corners where they’ve been weakest, save for third base.

The left-field combo of Larry Bigbie (24 games), B.J. Surhoff (seven games) and David Newhan (two games) has been especially non-productive. Combined, they’ve got a line of .236/.258/.341. They shouldn’t feel so all alone, though. Have you noticed that no American League left fielders have struggled mightily so far this year? What follows is a list of the 17 position/league classes. In each, the VORP for the top five current players has been averaged:

20.1: First Basemen, National League
16.0: Left Fielders, National League
14.5: Third Basemen, National League
14.2: Shortstops, American League
13.7: Right Fielders, American League
13.3: Second Basemen, National League
13.1: Designated Hitters, American League
12.9: Center Fielders, National League
12.5: Second Basemen, American League
12.0: Shortstops, National League
12.0: Right Fielders, National League
11.8: First Basemen, American League
11.7: Catchers, American League
10.6: Third Basemen, American League
 8.9: Center Fielders, American League
 7.8: Catchers, National League
 6.4: Left Fielders, American League

As we can see, the AL number-sevens, led by Manny Ramirez at just 9.3, are bringing up the rear. Conversely, left field in the NL is perhaps the deepest position right now, with eight players in double figures in VORP. (It would be interesting to see if this disparity between American and National League left fielders is usually the case. Instinctively, we would assume that it is, since a number of players who might be playing left field in the National League are assigned designated-hitting duties in the American.) There were 85 players counted in this study (five at 17 positions) and the two lowest-ranked are AL left fielders, Rondell White of Detroit (4.9) and Randy Winn of Seattle (4.6).

Understand that this list can be susceptible to undue influence from a single player. An extreme drop-off after the first or second player can skew a position. As it happens, this is really only the case with American League second basemen. Brian Roberts’ VORP is more than twice as high as the next player’s, Alfonso Soriano. American League center fielders, outside of Johnny Damon, are not markedly better than their comrades in left.

WORST MATCHUP (opponents with worst combined Prospectus Hit List rankings, provided both are in the lower half): Tampa Bay Devil Rays (28th) @ Kansas City Royals (30th)

You work hard all week and come Friday night you head to the ballpark for some entertainment only to see…this. I have long maintained that once you get inside the stadium you’re still seeing big league baseball and there will always be something to hold your interest, regardless of the quality of the teams. (Who knows, maybe you’ll see something you’ve never seen before.) The important thing to do when watching these two teams is somehow convince your brain that you’re watching the game in a vacuum. If you can somehow take in the proceedings without benefit of context, you’ll have a great time. If you allow the weight of their current, past and future hopelessness to enter your mind, you may end up at the first aid station asking if there’s a psychologist handy.

The Rays’ rise out of last place in 2004 may well be followed up by an overly reflexive payback. With Baltimore and Toronto getting out of the gate well and the Yankees slowly climbing back over .500, Tampa Bay could end up as the only team in the division below the break-even point. If this occurs, they will likely end up deeper in last place than at any time in their history. In 1998, they finished 16 games behind Baltimore. If they finish in the 61-65-win area and everyone else is over .500, that ’98 margin will be topped.

THIRD-BIGGEST MISMATCHUP (opponents with the third-greatest difference in the Prospectus Hit List rankings): Boston Red Sox (8th) @ Seattle Mariners (21st)

Almost diametrically opposed to their standings in the Prospectus Hit List are the Mariners’ and Red Sox’s rankings in Defensive Efficiency. Seattle is sixth overall (.7135) while Boston is 26th at .6852.

I had the privilege of catching Felix Hernandez at the Dell Diamond in Round Rock, Texas last night. (By “catching” I mean visually–I think you knew that.) It was free Rolex night, too, which is never a good idea because the first time something goes against the home team, down come thousands of Rolexes onto the field. Anyway, Hernandez, the greatly-anticipated Mariners mound savior, is as advertised–the real deal. After whiffing more than a batter per inning last year, it would seem that he has been finding Triple-A more challenging, as he’d struck out a more modest 31 batters in 36 frames this year. Then you look at his birth year and think that something doesn’t seem right. Are guys born in 1986 really in the professional ranks already? And in Triple-A, no less?

It’s not just the strikeouts and mid-90s fastball, either. Hernandez had the Express completely off balance for seven innings. Weak grounders, broken bats, that knee-buckling curve–it didn’t seem sporting, really. I asked Tacoma Rainiers broadcaster Mike Curto–one of the best, and sharpest announcers in the business–about his work ethic, something people were wondering about a year ago.

“I’ve never noticed a problem; he does his work,” said Curto. “Another thing about him is that he’s thousands of miles from home surrounded by guys five, six, seven years older than he is and he’s dealing with it very well. Remember that he is the center of attention on this team and he’s got very limited English skills.” Curto pointed out that he was struggling with his control (three or four walks in each of his last five starts). That was not in evidence last night, though, as he walked just one and hit a batter.

CLOSEST MATCHUP (opponents closest to one another in the Prospectus Hit List rankings): Atlanta Braves (4th) @ Los Angeles Dodgers (7th)

I bitched pretty loud about the Dodgers’ signing of Derek Lowe this past off-season. I’m very conservative with my own money and I often let that trait get in the way of judging the transactions of baseball teams. I could wrap my head around the concept that Dodger Stadium and a good defense would help Lowe rise above his disastrous 2004 seasons. What I couldn’t figure is why it should cost $36 million and four years of contract ink to find this out. In spite of Lowe’s nice start, I’m still not convinced this was the way to go. Maybe I should just relax, though–it isn’t my money…

Hee Seop Choi has now taken out two possible future Hall of Famers. In 2003, it was Mark Prior. This year, it’s Scott Rolen, who will miss up to six weeks after colliding with Choi. Regardless, the Cardinals are still poised to run away with the divisional title.

Rolen’s injury has given an opportunity for Scott Seabol to get out of the One-Game Career Club. In my Feb. 11 column, I discussed Seabol and a number of other players who had one-game careers and what their chances were of changing that situation. In that piece, Clay Davenport liked Seabol’s chances and sure enough, he got into yesterday’s loss to the Dodgers, leaving the company of Eddie Gaedel and Moonlight Graham forever.

Thank you for reading

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