Commentary

Finishing off the first half

Updated: July 5, 2009, 10:12 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Fantasy Forecaster updated Sunday 7:00 p.m.

Fantasy Forecaster
On tap: Baseball's traditional "first half" comes to a close at the conclusion of Week 14, as this is the final week before the three-day All-Star break July 13-15. The break often means shuffling of rotations during the preceding weekend, or starters occasionally being called upon for an inning or two of relief Saturday or Sunday. But the big stories of the week are the anticipated returns of Josh Hamilton, Aramis Ramirez and Erik Bedard from the disabled list. Hamilton and Ramirez might return to their respective lineups on Monday, with Bedard returning to the Mariners' rotation on Tuesday, giving him a two-start week.

The Astros and Nationals will resume their May 5 game that was suspended with the score 10-10 in the 10th inning, picking up that game in Houston on Thursday with the Nationals still the home team. They'll then play the first of their four-game series with the Astros as the home team. Also, the Cardinals and Cubs will polish off the season's first half with a day-night doubleheader in Chicago on Sunday. Game 2 will be on "Sunday Night Baseball."

Quick click by section, if you're seeking advice in a specific area:
Team advantages | Weather report | Load up: Hitters
Sleeper hitters | Load up: Stolen bases | Load up: Pitchers
Projected starters | Two-start rankings | One-start bargains

Team advantages

The chart below lists each of the 30 MLB teams' number of games scheduled ("Gm"), home games ("Hm"), games versus right- and left-handed pitchers ("vs. RHP" and "vs. LHP") and games at either hitter- or pitcher-friendly ballparks.

* Note: Some teams' totals versus right- and left-handed pitchers exclude games against teams with unclear starters. They include: Cubs (Sunday, STL, Game 2) and Twins (Thursday, NYY).

Weather report

The month of July isn't a time of a high probability of postponements; Baltimore is the only city that, since 2001, has seen more than 1 percent of its scheduled games washed out by rain. Fortunately the Orioles begin the week in Seattle, but Boston is one city to watch, with a 40 percent chance of rain both Wednesday and Thursday. Otherwise, predictably, the forecast is pretty clear this week.

Weatherproof games: Pirates at Astros (3, Mon-Wed); Nationals at Astros (4, Thu-Sun); Cardinals at Brewers (3, Tue-Thu); Dodgers at Brewers (3, Fri-Sun); Padres at Diamondbacks (3, Mon-Wed); Marlins at Diamondbacks (4, Thu-Sun); Orioles at Mariners (3, Mon-Wed); Rangers at Mariners (4, Thu-Sun); Blue Jays at Rays (3, Tue-Thu); Athletics at Rays (3, Fri-Sun); Yankees at Twins (3, Tue-Thu); White Sox at Twins (3, Fri-Sun).

Load up: Hitters

The teams listed below have the most favorable overall hitting matchups, accounting for recent performance, strength of opponents and ballpark factors.

Astros (PIT-3, WAS-4): It's all about the matchups, as neither the Pirates nor Nationals have experienced much in the way of pitching success in road games this season. Pittsburgh is 14-26 with a 4.98 ERA and 1.51 WHIP and Washington is 9-29 with a 5.91 ERA and 1.77 WHIP, both of those staffs ranking among the game's bottom 10 in road winning percentage, ERA and WHIP. Carlos Lee (.319 BA, .897 OPS at home), Hunter Pence (.313/.930) and Miguel Tejada (.361/.919) have all performed noticeably better at home than on the road, and even Geoff Blum is a low-level sleeper at Minute Maid Park, where he's a .301 hitter in 31 games this season.

Giants (FLA-3, SD-4): To think, this offense, which was one of the game's worst in 2008, has actually improved its performance to a level of respectability, and more, to the point of being matchup-worthy at times. Week 14 presents one of those times, as the Marlins have a so-so 4.59 team ERA in their past 20 games, while the Padres, in spite of inspired pitching performances from Kevin Correia and Chad Gaudin of late, sport a bloated 5.88 team ERA on the road. Your sleeper: Nate Schierholtz, who has batted .441 (15-for-34) with two homers in his past nine games.

Tigers (KC-3, CLE-3): The Tigers might be returning home from a rough road trip to Houston and Oakland, but it shouldn't be forgotten that they swept a six-game homestand before that, during which they batted .332 with 13 home runs and a .992 OPS against two talented pitching staffs (Brewers and Cubs). As a team the Tigers have an .808 OPS at home, eighth-best in baseball, and their premier slugger, Miguel Cabrera, is a .412 hitter with a 1.176 OPS at Comerica Park. Something to think about: Brandon Inge has batted .333 with an .867 OPS in six games against the Royals and .300 with an .891 OPS in six games against the Indians this season.

White Sox (CLE-3, @MIN-3): Cleveland's rotation -- outside of ace Cliff Lee -- has been in complete disarray all season, and that the White Sox are slated to face three left-handed starters this week plays very much in their favor. They're seventh in the majors in team OPS against that side (.813), not to mention they rate one of the hotter offenses in the game, batting .290 with 29 home runs and 101 runs scored in their past 17 games. In fact, in the White Sox's recent three-game series at Cleveland, in which they faced two of the three starters they will see again this week (Carl Pavano and Jeremy Sowers), they batted .359 and totaled 23 runs.

Tristan's sleeper hitters

Jason Bartlett, SS, Rays: .371 BA, .961 OPS in 25 home games in 2009; .368 BA, 1.004 OPS versus left-handers in 2009
Russell Branyan, 1B/3B, Mariners: .314 BA, 1.110 OPS in 30 home games in 2009; .310 BA, 1.029 OPS versus right-handers in 2009
Adam Dunn, OF, Nationals: .300 BA, 7 HRs, 1.035 OPS in 22 career games at Coors Field; .262 BA, 1.004 OPS versus right-handers in 2009
Brad Hawpe, OF, Rockies: .352 BA, 1.053 OPS versus right-handers in 2009; .404 BA, 1.165 OPS at Coors Field in 2009
Todd Helton, 1B, Rockies: .318 BA, 1.010 OPS versus right-handers in 2009; .312 BA, .920 OPS at Coors Field in 2009
Adam LaRoche, 1B, Pirates: .359 BA, 1.098 OPS in 25 career games at Citizens Bank Park; .337 BA, .981 OPS in 28 games since June 1
Brian McCann, C, Braves: .368 BA, 1.069 OPS in 10 career games at Coors Field; .340 BA, 1.007 OPS versus right-handers in 2009
Nolan Reimold, OF, Orioles: .340 BA, 1.001 OPS versus left-handers in 2009; .297 BA, .895 OPS in his past 24 games
Ben Zobrist, 2B/SS/OF, Rays: .280 BA, 1.079 OPS in 35 home games in 2009; .348 BA, 1.192 OPS versus left-handers in 2009

Load up: Stolen bases

Favorable matchups listed below are selected based upon opponents' catchers allowing a high rate of steals attempts and/or having low caught-stealing percentages.

Astros (PIT-3, WAS-4): The Astros might not have swiped a single base and were caught stealing twice during their two-game trip to Washington May 4-5, but things are very different for the Nationals today than they were back then. Since Jesus Flores' last appearance in a game the Nationals have surrendered 39 steals in 51 chances in 48 games (76.5 percent success rate, 1.06 average attempts per game). Michael Bourn is Houston's most obvious speedster, but Kazuo Matsui (6 steals) is finally healthy and capable of better performance and Lance Berkman (5) and Hunter Pence (8) can each swipe a bag when the matchups play in their favor.

Mariners (BAL-3, TEX-4): These Mariners showed what they can do when battling weak-armed catchers in stealing five bases in three games against the Yankees this past week, three of them alone amassed by Ichiro Suzuki in one game. With Adrian Beltre out, Seattle needs to manufacture runs more than before, which helps explain why players like Franklin Gutierrez (2 stolen bases in his past 6 games) and Jose Lopez (2 steals in his past 3) have been taking more chances on the basepaths. Plus, neither of these opponents has been especially skilled at gunning down opposing baserunners.

Rockies (WAS-3, ATL-4): Again, the Nationals shape up as an easy team to run against, and the Braves' Brian McCann qualifies as that, too, having caught only 22.6 percent of opposing base stealers and allowed 0.73 attempted steals per game for his career. The Rockies under Jim Tracy have actually been more apt to run than under Clint Hurdle, averaging 1.06 attempts per game under Tracy compared with 0.98 under Hurdle, and remember that Hurdle number is skewed a bit by that absurd April 28 game against the Padres in which Dexter Fowler swiped five bags. Fowler remains this team's most lethal threat on the basepaths, but Troy Tulowitzki has been red hot in the category, too, with seven steals in his past 21 games.

Angels (TEX-3, NYY-3): Picking matchups versus the Yankees and aging catcher Jorge Posada is a no-brainer, but it's the Texas matchups that help make this week so favorable for the Angels. As a team they've swiped seven bases in six meetings this year, and Chone Figgins has been a one-man wrecking crew versus Texas, with 11 stolen bases in 18 games against them in the past calendar year. Bobby Abreu and Torii Hunter are also in double digits in steals for the season and Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis are more than capable of swiping a bag.

Load up: Pitchers

The teams listed below have the most favorable overall pitching matchups, accounting for recent performance, strength of opponents and ballpark factors.

Cubs (ATL-3, STL-4): The Cubs' staff continues to chug along in spite of a lack of offensive support, with a 2.97 ERA and 1.31 ERA in its past 33 games. But with the anticipated return of Aramis Ramirez and the team scheduled to play entirely at home this week, Cubs starters should stand a better chance for wins than at any point in the past month. Keep in mind the Cubs have won 77 of 116 home games with a 3.81 ERA and 1.28 WHIP between this and last season, those ratios exceptional if you account for the hitting-friendly nature of Wrigley Field. This season alone Ted Lilly is 4-1 with a 1.85 ERA and 0.88 WHIP in seven starts at Wrigley, and Ryan Dempster is 18-4 with a 3.18 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in 27 starts there between this and last season.

Red Sox (OAK-3, KC-4): Though the memory of that 11-10 Orioles comeback this past Tuesday might remains fresh in your mind, you need to put it aside for now, because Boston's schedule is about as favorable for pitchers as anyone's in baseball in Week 14. Since June 1 this staff has won 19 of 27 games with a 3.47 ERA and 1.22 WHIP, and be aware that the Red Sox's current five starters are 17-4 with a 3.72 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in 28 starts at Fenway Park this season. Oakland and Kansas City, incidentally, rank 30th and 29th in team OPS on the road, at .653 and .655.

Giants (FLA-3, SD-4): The Giants match up nicely both hitting- and pitching-wise this week, as the Marlins have a sub-.700 team OPS in road games and the Padres, well, they rank 29th in terms of overall OPS for the season (.693). Incidentally, San Francisco limited San Diego to 10 runs on 37 hits in 43 2/3 innings in their past five meetings, the Padres batting .227 in those games. This staff has been in large part the reason the Giants have remained in the thick of the National League pennant race, and with a 24-12 record and 3.24 ERA at home, they should keep up their good work.

Rays (TOR-3, OAK-3): Maybe David Price has yet to realize his full potential, but interestingly, this staff seemed to turn things around right about the time he made his 2009 debut. Since that game on May 25, Tampa Bay pitching has combined for a 3.40 ERA and 1.21 WHIP, holding opposing hitters to a .231 average. So what made the difference? Might it be the stellar pitching of new closer J.P. Howell, who has four wins, five saves, a 0.00 ERA and a .121 batting average allowed in 17 appearances since that day? Or how about the healthy return of Scott Kazmir, who tossed five innings of two-run, four-hit baseball in his first start back from the disabled list this past Monday? Whatever the reason, the Rays always play well at home, and one of these two opponents, the Athletics, has the game's worst road OPS (.653).

Projected starting pitchers

Note: The Yankees might promote Sergio Mitre to take Chien-Ming Wang's turn in the rotation on Thursday. Kyle Lohse is a candidate to start one of the two doubleheader games for the Cardinals on Sunday.

The chart below lists each of the 30 MLB teams' schedules and projected starting pitchers. Those pitchers scheduled to pitch twice this week are color-coded.

Rankings: Tristan's two-starts

Recommended cut-off point for elite one-starts: No. 20 (Baker)
Recommended cut-off point for "under-50" bargains: No. 28 (Bergesen)

Five must-starts: Josh Beckett, Matt Cain, Yovani Gallardo, CC Sabathia, Javier Vazquez.

6. Josh Johnson (FLA) -- Tue-@SF (Zito), Sun-@ARI (Davis)
7. James Shields (TB) -- Tue-TOR (Mills), Sun-OAK (Anderson)
8. Kevin Millwood (TEX) -- Mon-@LAA (Weaver), Sat-@SEA (Washburn)
9. Jered Weaver (LAA) -- Mon-TEX (Millwood), Sat-NYY (Pettitte)
10. Adam Wainwright (STL) -- Tue-@MIL (Gallardo), Sun-@CHC, Game 1 (Wells)
11. Mark Buehrle (CHW) -- Tue-CLE (Sowers), Sun-@MIN (Baker)
12. Clayton Kershaw (LAD) -- Tue-@NYM (Pelfrey), Sun-@MIL (Gallardo)
13. Ryan Dempster (CHC) -- Tue-ATL (Vazquez), Sun-STL, Game 2 (TBD): 18-4, 3.18 ERA, 1.25 WHIP in 27 home starts 2008-09
14. Johnny Cueto (CIN) -- Mon-@PHI (Hamels), Sat-@NYM (Santana)
15. Kevin Correia (SD) -- Tue-@ARI (Davis), Sun-@SF (Zito)
16. John Lackey (LAA) -- Tue-TEX (Padilla), Sun-NYY (Sabathia)
17. Aaron Harang (CIN) -- Tue-@PHI (Happ), Sun-@NYM (Pelfrey)
18. Jair Jurrjens (ATL) -- Mon-@CHC (Wells), Sat-@COL (Marquis): 3-1, 2.93 ERA, 1.34 WHIP in four career starts at Coors Field
19. Cole Hamels (PHI) -- Mon-CIN (Cueto), Sat-PIT (Ohlendorf): 4-0, 1.25 ERA, 0.94 WHIP in five career starts versus Reds
20. Scott Baker (MIN) -- Tue-NYY (Sabathia), Sun-CHW (Buehrle): 2-0, 1.50 ERA, 0.75 WHIP in two career starts versus Yankees
21. John Smoltz (BOS) -- Mon-OAK (Anderson), Sat-KC (Meche)
22. Mike Pelfrey (NYM) -- Tue-LAD (Kershaw), Sun-CIN (Harang)
23. Jason Marquis (COL) -- Mon-WAS (Stammen), Sat-ATL (Jurrjens)
24. Vicente Padilla (TEX) -- Tue-@LAA (Lackey), Sun-@SEA (Bedard)
25. Doug Davis (ARI) -- Tue-SD (Correia), Sun-FLA (Johnson): 9-3, 2.82 ERA, 1.22 WHIP in 15 career starts versus Padres
26. Jarrod Washburn (SEA) -- Mon-BAL (Bergesen), Sat-TEX (Millwood)
27. Jason Hammel (COL) -- Tue-WAS (Zimmermann), Sun-ATL (Vazquez)
28. Brad Bergesen (BAL) -- Mon-@SEA (Washburn), Sun-TOR (Mills): 1-0, 1.20 ERA, 0.87 WHIP in two career starts versus Mariners
29. Andy Pettitte (NYY) -- Mon-TOR (Romero), Sat-@LAA (Weaver)
30. Ricky Romero (TOR) -- Mon-@NYY (Pettitte), Sat-@BAL (Hill)
31. Randy Wells (CHC) -- Mon-ATL (Jurrjens), Sun-STL, Game 1 (Wainwright): 7 IP, 2 H's, 1 ER, 4 K's versus Braves 6/2/09
32. Jon Garland (ARI) -- Mon-SD (Silva), Sat-FLA (West): 2-2, 2.51 ERA, 1.12 WHIP in four career starts versus Padres
33. J.A. Happ (PHI) -- Tue-CIN (Harang), Sun-PIT (Vasquez)
34. Erik Bedard (SEA) -- Tue-BAL (Guthrie), Sun-TEX (Padilla)
35. Barry Zito (SF) -- Tue-FLA (Johnson), Sun-SD (Correia): 3-0, 3.22 ERA, 1.30 WHIP in four career starts versus Marlins
36. Armando Galarraga (DET) -- Mon-KC (Meche), Sun-CLE (Sowers): 2-0, 1.80 ERA, 1.05 WHIP in three career starts versus Royals
37. Jordan Zimmermann (WAS) -- Tue-@COL (Hammel), Sun-@HOU (Hampton)
38. Gil Meche (KC) -- Mon-@DET (Galarraga), Sat-@BOS (Smoltz)
39. Brian Moehler (HOU) -- Mon-PIT (Vasquez), Sun-WAS (Zimmermann)
40. Sean West (FLA) -- Mon-@SF (Cain), Sat-@ARI (Garland): Win, 8 IP, 2 H's, 0 ER, 6 K's versus Giants 6/8/09

Seven "no thank yous": Brett Anderson, Bruce Chen, Brad Mills, Walter Silva, Jeremy Sowers, Craig Stammen, Virgil Vasquez.

Tristan's one-start bargains

The 50-to-90 group (owned in 50 to 90 percent of ESPN.com leagues)

John Danks (CHW) -- Thu-CLE (Pavano): 1.91 ERA, 0.88 WHIP in his past four starts
Randy Johnson (SF) -- Fri-SD (Banks): 3.24 ERA, 0.92 WHIP in four starts versus Padres in 2008
Rick Porcello (DET) -- Sat-CLE (Ohka): Win, 5 IP, 5 H's, 1 ER, 5 K's versus Indians 5/10/09
Wandy Rodriguez (HOU) -- Wed-PIT (Morton): 2.60 ERA, 1.15 WHIP in eight home starts in 2009

The under-50 group (available in at least 50 percent of ESPN.com leagues)

Nick Blackburn (MIN) -- Sat-CHW (Richard): 2.08 ERA, 1.08 WHIP in two starts versus White Sox in 2009
Jeremy Guthrie (BAL) -- Tue-@SEA (Bedard): 2-1, 2.38 ERA, 1.01 WHIP in three career starts at Safeco Field
Ubaldo Jimenez (COL) -- Fri-ATL (Lowe): 14-9, 3.52 ERA, 1.29 WHIP in 32 career home games (31 starts)
John Lannan (WAS) -- Thu-@HOU (Paulino): 2-0, 3.27 ERA in two career starts at Minute Maid Park
Andrew Miller (FLA) -- Thu-@ARI (Petit): 2.29 ERA, 1.02 WHIP in three career starts versus Diamondbacks
Brad Penny (BOS) -- Thu-KC (Hochevar): 1.99 ERA, 1.28 WHIP in his past four starts
Tim Wakefield (BOS) -- Wed-OAK (Cahill): 6-0, 3.55 ERA, 1.29 WHIP in seven home starts in 2009

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here.

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