Best American League Matchup (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings) : Cleveland Indians (10th) @ Detroit Tigers (1st)

No more kiddy table dining for the Tigers. For the next two-plus weeks, they’ll be at the big folks’ table where they’ll have to use the right utensils and won’t be able to get away with misbehavior like giving opponents six-run first-inning leads. After this Indians series, they draw the Yankees, Red Sox, White Sox and Blue Jays. That’s a 16-game run wherein they will meet every American League team currently at or over .500 save for Texas. To my mind, playing them to a standstill (8-8) will be good enough. Doing only that will put them at 41-22; an excellent record. Anything beyond that I would view as gravy. At the end of their plus-.500 opponent trial they get a seven-game respite against the Rays and Cubs.

Best National League Matchup (opponents with best combined Prospectus Hit List rankings) : St. Louis Cardinals (4th) @ San Diego Padres (15th)

Generally, a player who comes to the plate has about a one-in-eight chance of returning there as a scoring baserunner. That was about the average last year: about 12 percent. Then there’s Yadier Molina. So far this year, he’s come up to bat 139 times and scored just five times. That’s about 3.7 percent–an incredibly low percentage. Consider that among batting title qualifiers in 2005, the lowest percentage was around 9 percent by David Bell of the Phillies with a handful of players like Jack Wilson, Bernie Williams, Neifi Perez and Scott Hatteberg clocking in around 10 percent.

Molina has mostly batted seventh this year, which usually doesn’t put one in the best slot to get pushed around the bases–although Aaron Miles (.322/.432/.402) has been pretty decent batting in the eight hole in more than half of the team’s games. The Cards as a team are .296/.392/.406 as eighth-place hitters. Molina is also not the fastest man on the planet and, of course, hasn’t been on a base a great deal, currently sporting an OBP of .232. It’s been announced that Gary Bennett is going to be the catcher when Jeff Suppan and Jason Marquis start so we probably won’t find out just how few runs a player can score when qualifying for a batting title.

The Padres are currently ranked 29th when it comes to snaring opposing base stealers, catching just 11 percent. Last year the Mets were ranked 29th, just barely ahead of Oakland. Yes, Mike Piazza was in both places, but the Padres ranked just 26th last year. Interestingly, the team with the best record in this department is Baltimore where last year’s Padres catcher, Ramon Hernandez, is now plying his trade. Of course, we might want to ask just how important this all is considering it only happens about once a game, unless you’re poor Matt LeCroy.

Biggest Mismatchup (opponents with greatest difference in Prospectus Hit List rankings) : Kansas City Royals (30th) @ New York Yankees (2nd)

At the 14-game mark, we compared where the Royals stood as opposed to the worst teams of the expansion era. Now, 31 games later, they’ve showed they belong with a heavier crowd. It’s time to haul out the big names: the all-time style leaders in losing. Looking at all the sub-.300 clubs since 1901, these are the teams that had the worse marks after 45 games:

9-36: 1904 Washington (A)
9-36: 1932 Boston (A)
10-35: 2006 Kansas City (A)
10-35: 2003 Detroit (A)
10-35: 1928 Philadelphia (N)
11-34: 1952 Pittsburgh (N)
11-34: 1945 Philadelphia (N)

All the other less-than-30 percenters won at least 12 of their first 45 games, with three teams winning as many as 16.

What sort of stigma is becoming attached to losing to the Royals? Can you imagine the wrathful rap Yankee owner George Steinbrenner will lay on his pinstriped chattel if they lose even one of the three games to Kansas City this weekend? I’m reminded of a passage from The Great American Novel by Philip Roth wherein the protagonist team, the hapless Ruppert Mundys, travel to play one of the better teams in the Patriot League, the Aceldama Butchers:

“Lose to this mess of misfits,” the Butcher manager, Round Ron Spam, had warned his team when the Mundys–fresh from their disasters in Kakoola–came to town to open their first four-game series of the year, “and it is worse than a loss. It is a disgrace. And it will cost you fifty bucks apiece. And I don’t want just victory either–I want carnage.”

Substitute Round Ron Spam with Steinbrenner, Kakoola with Detroit and fifty bucks with $5,000 and it’s exactly the same–although I don’t think the union would sit still for punishment fines based on failure to stomp the league doormat.

I would never say that Major League Baseball is only as good as its weakest link. History has shown that not to be the case. If baseball survived Philadelphia baseball of the ’30s and ’40s then it can withstand anything. However, franchises that get so bad they turn stadiums into ghost towns on game night don’t help all that much either. (Unless, that is, you can come up with a formula proving that the extra wins powerful teams get over Kansas City and Florida do more for the overall bottom line than would elevating those teams to mere mediocrity.) So, what if a team like the Yankees–for the good of baseball–offered the services of their general manager to the Royals? While it’s more likely that owner David Glass will replace incumbent Allard Baird with someone from the Jim Bowden class, having a first-class operator like Brian Cashman ride into town on a white horse would sure help matters.

Of course, Cashman would have to be up for the challenge and would have to have autonomy. Steinbrenner’s meddling can be corrected with money, Glass’s cannot. We know that what the Royals really need is new ownership, but, short of that, it would be interesting to see their fellow franchise owners step in and try to help them avoid another run of ineffective general managership.

Closest American League Matchup (opponents closest to one another in the Prospectus Hit List rankings) : Baltimore Orioles (23rd) @ Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (25th)

When you hire the most storied coach of his era, you expect extreme results. That’s just what the Orioles have gotten in the earliest stages of the Leo Mazzone regime: extreme results. For instance, the O’s have the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio in the major leagues and are battling with the Kansas City Royals as to which team will allow the most baserunners. The O’s were fairly promiscuous with the walks before Mazzone showed up but now they have become downright nymphomaniacal on the subject, leading the majors with 214. Although it must be said that any staff that includes the performance of Daniel Cabrera (39 BB in 41 1/3 IP) is going to skew low.

I am not suggesting that Mazzone is at fault. Is any coach ever really at fault? Does any coach ever really deserve copious amounts of credit? Moreover, are coaches the least-scrutinized subculture in all of baseball? Who are these guys and how do they get hired? What are Ron Guidry and Don Mattingly‘s credentials to be pitching and hitting advisors to the most expensive roster in baseballdom other than the fact they were once standouts for that team? Big league coaches should have their titles changed to Adjusters or Tweakers. What they are not is miracle workers. Mazzone is the closest thing we have seen to fit that description and he has, so far, been unable to get the Baltimore staff going in the right direction.

Meanwhile, the Angels are shaping up to be the biggest disappointment of 2006. A win total in the high 80s was about the consensus and it looks as though they’ll struggle all year to make .500. The nice thing about being an Angels fan these days is that even if they don’t make it back to the hunt this year, we can almost guarantee they won’t finish under .500 in 2007. There is enough talent in the system and enough desire by the owner to use his resources to ensure it won’t happen twice in a row. The last time Angels fans had to endure back-to-back losing seasons was over a decade ago and they won’t have to revisit that anytime soon.

Closest National League Matchup (opponents closest to one another in the Prospectus Hit List rankings) : Colorado Rockies (12th) @ San Francisco Giants (17th)

Here’s one wish that the National League West stays tight all year and we have ourselves a top drawer five-team race. One of the five is bound to fade and gaps are sure to open beyond the miniscule 3.5 games that separate them. Perhaps, though, we are on our way to the most compressed divisional race ever. Here are the most compressed races ever, excluding the shortened seasons of 1981, 1994 and 1995. The number shows how many games out of first the last-place team finished.

GB: Year Division (winner; last place)
9.0: 2005 National League East (1st: Atlanta; 5th: Washington)
10.0: 1987 American League West (1st: Minnesota, 7th: Texas and California)
11.5: 1973 National League East (1st: New York Mets; 6th; Philadelphia)
14.0: 1991 American League West (1st: Minnesota; 7th: California)
14.0: 1997 National League West (1st: San Francisco; 4th: San Diego)
14.0: 1998 American League West (1st: Texas; 4th: Oakland)
14.5: 1984 American League West (1st: Kansas City; 7th: Texas)
15.0: 1996 National League Central (1st: St. Louis; 5th: Pittsburgh)
15.0: 2005 National League West (1st: San Diego; 5th: Colorado)

With eight triples, Steve Finley is already tied for the second-most triples ever struck by a 41-year old. Hall of Famer Sam Rice smote eight in 1931 with the Senators. The record is held by another Cooperstown denizen, Honus Wagner with 17 in 1915. (Wagner had the advantage of spending half his time in Forbes Field, one of the great triples parks of all time.) With more than two-thirds of the season to go, Finley has a decent shot at Wagner’s record but an even better shot at his own personal high of 13, set 13 and 14 years ago when he was in his prime. None of the other single-season age 40-plus triples leaders have had their career best so late in life, although Jake Daubert plugged 22 when he was 38 and nine two years later at 40.