Commentary

Moment of truth

Upstart Indians, Pirates face key series to maintain place in pennant race

Updated: August 7, 2011, 10:27 AM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Fantasy Forecaster updated Sunday, Aug. 7 at 10:27 a.m. ET.

On tap: There is, perhaps, no more important a week for the 2011 surprise-story Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates. These two hovering-around-.500 (Indians 54-54, Pirates 54-55, as of Friday, Aug. 5) squads get a crack at the leading team in their respective divisions, with the Indians hosting the Detroit Tigers in a three-game series Tuesday to Thursday, and the Pirates traveling to Milwaukee to face the Brewers from Friday to Sunday.

Fantasy Forecaster

In the Indians' case, a Monday off-day provides them some much-needed rest; they'll have their two best starters (in this columnist's estimation), Justin Masterson and newly acquired Ubaldo Jimenez, lined up to start the first two games of the series, though they'll have to tangle with Tigers ace Justin Verlander. Perhaps there is some fight left in these Indians, who typically play better at home (29-24) than on the road (25-30), but a two-wins-out-of-three performance needs to be their minimum demand. However, considering they have dropped 10 of their past 15 home games since July 4, that might be the best they do.

The Pirates, meanwhile, will throw the recently unpredictable Kevin Correia and Charlie Morton in two of their three games at Milwaukee, and will be tested by right-handers Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum during the trip. Something to think about: Including Friday starter Chris Narveson, the three Brewers starters in the series have never lost to the Pirates in their careers (6-0 record), and have a 3.53 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in eight games (seven starts) combined against them. Toss in a three-game, week-opening trip to San Francisco, and odds are this week might signal the unfortunate end of the Pirates' 2011 playoff run.

One thing's for sure: Motivation will be high for these two squads, if you put stock into such things in your fantasy leagues.

Reminder: For those of you in weekly transaction leagues, the first game of Week 18 begins Monday at 7:00 p.m. ET. Here are this week's other scheduled first pitches by day: Tuesday 7:05 p.m. ET, Wednesday 3:10 p.m. ET, Thursday 12:10 p.m. ET, Friday 7:05 p.m. ET, Saturday 1:07 p.m. ET, Sunday 1:05 p.m. ET.

Quick click by section, if you're seeking advice in a specific area:
Projected starting pitchers | Pitching strategies
Team advantages | Hitting strategies
Weather report | Week 18 pitcher rankings

Projected starting pitchers

The chart below lists each of the 30 MLB teams' schedules and projected starting pitchers, and provides a matchup rating for each day's starter. Pitchers scheduled to start twice this week are in gray/beige boxes.

Tristan's pitching strategies

• The two American League East dynamos, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, who were coincidentally tied for the division lead entering play on Friday, Aug. 5, have rotation questions entering Week 18. Both could opt for six-man rotations; the Red Sox have been trying to ease newly acquired Erik Bedard into their rotation by holding "sixth man" Andrew Miller back as an emergency long reliever, while the Yankees have both Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova pitching too well, and A.J. Burnett earning too much, to remove from theirs.

In the Red Sox's case, Miller is tentatively scheduled to be skipped as the team goes with five starters this week, but Bedard will start Tuesday Minnesota's Target Field, and the team's matchups as a whole are favorable across the board even if the team does go six deep. Look at who's lined up for the weekend series at Seattle's Safeco Field: John Lackey (2.78 ERA, 1.22 WHIP in 15 starts) and Josh Beckett (1.86 ERA, 1.29 WHIP in three starts) and Tim Wakefield (3.20 ERA in seven games, four starts). As for the Minnesota series, Bedard's respectable Red Sox debut was encouraging, and he did throw six shutout innings at Target Field to win on May 25. Start him, as well as two-start pitcher Wakefield, who has back-to-back quality starts as he quests for his 200th career win, in AL-only and deep mixed leagues.

The Yankees, meanwhile, haven't yet announced their plans for Burnett, Hughes or Nova, but their rotation is in the midst of a hot spell. In their past 20 games, Yankees starters have 12 wins, 14 quality starts, a 3.25 ERA, 1.26 WHIP and 8.79 K's-per-nine ratio, and that's including the four non-quality starts by Burnett. Hughes, who has back-to-back quality starts, is scheduled for Tuesday and might get two starts if the Yankees don't go to six men, so consider him in AL-only and deep mixed formats. CC Sabathia is an obvious must-start, Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia should be activated across the board as well and, in the event Nova gets slotted in, the motivation of him having to retain his rotation spot makes him a strong choice compared to Hughes.

• It's the Texas Rangers, however, who have the AL's best pitching matchups, and that's in spite of the opposing Oakland Athletics, who host the Rangers for three games Friday-Sunday, boasting .304/.374/.466 rates since the All-Star break (major league-best .839 OPS). In 20 games combined -- 10 versus each -- against the Athletics and Seattle Mariners, who travel to Texas for three games to open the week, this season, Rangers pitchers have 14 wins, 16 quality starts (including a perfect 10-for-10 against the Mariners), a 2.51 ERA and 1.06 WHIP. Activate all your Rangers starters, especially Derek Holland, who shut out the Mariners in their last meeting (July 14), and Colby Lewis, who has four straight quality starts at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and a 4-1 record and 2.53 ERA in seven career starts there.

• As with their division rivals, the Pirates, the Cincinnati Reds face a make-or-break week of their own, with seven soft matchups at home against the looking-to-next-year Colorado Rockies (four games) and last-place San Diego Padres (three). These are can-win, must-win games, and that the Rockies (.666) and Padres (.668) rank 23rd and 22nd respectively in team OPS on the road helps ease the concern about Great American Ball Park's hitting-friendly confines. What Reds starters just did against the light-hitting Houston Astros -- Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey and Dontrelle Willis turning in consecutive quality starts -- shows the kind of matchups upside evident this week. Two-start pitcher Bailey, who has three quality starts in his past four tries, is the staff's sleeper pick of the week.

Also favorable: Arizona Diamondbacks, Kansas City Royals, Toronto Blue Jays, Philadelphia Phillies, San Francisco Giants
Unfavorable: Rockies, Los Angeles Angels, Athletics, Mariners

For more insight into Week 18 pitching matchups, see my rankings for the top 75 starting pitchers, as well as every two-start pitcher, at column's end.

Team advantages

The chart below lists each of the 30 teams' total number of scheduled games, home games and games versus right- and left-handed pitchers, and provides a matchup rating for the week's games in terms of overall offense, offense for left- and right-handed hitters and base stealing. Matchup ratings for each individual game are listed under the corresponding date.

Tristan's hitting strategies

• Wow, it's a week where Chicago White Sox hitters are viable fantasy options! Believe it, because if there's any time you could possibly want to use them, it's a week like this, where the team's seven scheduled opponents are: Jeremy Guthrie, an Orioles spot starter, Tommy Hunter, Chris Tillman, Bruce Chen, Luke Hochevar and Jeff Francis. That sextetcombined, since July 1, has a 41.4 percent quality-start rate, a 5.89 ERA and 1.58 WHIP, and all seven games will be played in hitter-friendly venues (Baltimore's Camden Yards for four, Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field for three). Let's make some best-defenses of White Sox hitters, admitting some of this is reaching and therefore this is a matter of sleeper/value seeking: Paul Konerko is a must-start on pace for a .307-37-112 season. Juan Pierre is batting .314 with 11 runs scored in 17 games since the All-Star break. Carlos Quentin has .297-4-15 numbers in 17 contests during that time. A.J. Pierzynski is a .333 hitter in his past seven games. Alex Rios is a .297 hitter in 49 career games at Camden Yards. About the only players impossible to make cases for are Gordon Beckham and Adam Dunn.

• Tough it's not as not as stark a contrast this season as seasons past, the Diamondbacks' home/road hitting split (in terms of OPS) remains +.069, the 10th-greatest differential in the majors. Diamondbacks hitters have historically been more productive at Chase Field, hardly surprising considering the hitter-friendly confines of the venue. Justin Upton is a beast at home; his .355/.434/.640 "triple-slash" rates in home games rank second, fifth and third among hitters with 150-plus plate appearances, so count on him leading your charge in head-to-head matchups. But digging deeper: Gerardo Parra is a .316/.403/.462 hitter in 41 home games; Willie Bloomquist is a .299 hitter in 30; and both Miguel Montero and Chris Young have .800-plus home OPS. Rookie Paul Goldschmidt, who has a home run in his first three big league starts, should also find life at Chase appealing.

• Another reason to favor the Brewers during that weekend Pirates series: The Pirates' three scheduled starters, Paul Maholm, Correia and Morton, have had their share of struggles historically against individual Brewers hitters. Ryan Braun, the Brewers' most lethal bat, is a combined 22-for-61 (.361 AVG) with four homers, 18 RBIs and nine walks against the trio. Obviously you'd start him in any format, sure, but digging deeper, Casey McGehee is 12-for-31 (.387 AVG) with two homers and six walks, and against Maholm specifically, Jerry Hairston Jr. is 5-for-15 (.333 AVG) with two homers and Corey Hart is 14-for-41 (.341 AVG) with three homers. Couple that with those starters' recent inconsistency and you've got a favorable set of hitting matchups for the team. Don't overlook that in the week-opening series at St. Louis, the scheduled opponents are Edwin Jackson -- pounded by the Brewers in Milwaukee on Aug. 3 -- the struggling Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook. McGehee just took Jackson deep three times, so he's a most attractive Brewers pick.

Also favorable: Indians, Reds, Giants, Rangers
Unfavorable: Florida Marlins, Los Angeles Dodgers, Athletics, Pirates, Mariners

Weather report

Weatherproof games: Athletics at Blue Jays (3, Tue-Thu); Angels at Blue Jays (3, Fri-Sun); Pirates at Brewers (3, Fri-Sun); Astros at Diamondbacks (4, Mon-Thu); Mets at Diamondbacks (3, Fri-Sun); Red Sox at Mariners (3, Fri-Sun); Royals at Rays (4, Mon-Thu).

Tristan's Week 18 pitcher rankings: Top 75

Rankings take into account several factors: The pitcher's raw talent, historical and recent performance; number of starts; strength of opponent(s); and ballpark factors. Be aware that different leagues might emphasize different pitching statistics that could change these rankings slightly. These are based upon a fairly standard Rotisserie scoring system, like ESPN's.

1. Roy Halladay (PHI) -- Mon-@LAD (Kuroda), Sun-WAS (Wang)
2. Justin Verlander (DET) -- Thu-@CLE (Carrasco)
3. Dan Haren (LAA) -- Tue-@NYY (Hughes), Sun-@TOR (Cecil)
4. CC Sabathia (NYY) -- Fri-TB (Cobb)
5. Daniel Hudson (ARI) -- Mon-HOU (Rodriguez), Sat-NYM (Pelfrey)
6. Tim Lincecum (SF) -- Sat-@FLA (Vazquez)
7. Matt Garza (CHC) -- Mon-WAS (Wang), Sun-@ATL (Lowe)
8. Clayton Kershaw (LAD) -- Sat-HOU (Rodriguez)
9. Zack Greinke (MIL) -- Sat-PIT (Correia)
10. Cole Hamels (PHI) -- Fri-WAS (Hernandez)
11. Josh Beckett (BOS) -- Sat-@SEA (Hernandez)
12. Cliff Lee (PHI) -- Tue-@LAD (Lilly)
13. Jon Lester (BOS) -- Wed-@MIN (Blackburn)
14. Shaun Marcum (MIL) -- Tue-@STL (Jackson), Sun-PIT (Morton)
15. Felix Hernandez (SEA) -- Sat-BOS (Beckett)
16. Hiroki Kuroda (LAD) -- Mon-PHI (Halladay), Sun-HOU (Lyles)
17. Johnny Cueto (CIN) -- Thu-COL (Chacin)
18. Justin Masterson (CLE) -- Tue-DET (Fister), Sun-MIN (Baker)
19. Jered Weaver (LAA) -- Sat-@TOR (TBD)
20. Ryan Vogelsong (SF) -- Mon-PIT (Morton), Sun-@FLA (Hand)
21. Ian Kennedy (ARI) -- Fri-NYM (Gee)
22. Matt Cain (SF) -- Fri-@FLA (Nolasco)
23. Wandy Rodriguez (HOU) -- Mon-@ARI (Hudson), Sat-@LAD (Kershaw)
24. Ricky Romero (TOR) -- Fri-LAA (Santana)
25. Tommy Hanson (ATL) -- Fri-CHC (Zambrano)
26. Tim Hudson (ATL) -- Wed-@FLA (Sanchez)
27. Jeremy Hellickson (TB) -- Mon-KC (Hochevar), Sun-@NYY (Hughes)
28. Madison Bumgarner (SF) -- Tue-PIT (McDonald)
29. Alexi Ogando (TEX) -- Tue-SEA (Pineda)
30. Chris Carpenter (STL) -- Fri-COL (Cook)
31. Doug Fister (DET) -- Tue-@CLE (Masterson), Sun-@BAL (TBD)
32. C.J. Wilson (TEX) -- Fri-@OAK (McCarthy)
33. Yovani Gallardo (MIL) -- Thu-@STL (Westbrook)
34. Ervin Santana (LAA) -- Fri-@TOR (Romero)
35. Tim Stauffer (SD) -- Mon-@NYM (Pelfrey), Sat-@CIN (Bailey)
36. Jaime Garcia (STL) -- Sat-COL (Hammel)
37. David Price (TB) -- Sat-@NYY (Garcia)
38. Matt Harrison (TEX) -- Mon-SEA (Furbush), Sun-@OAK (Harden)
39. John Danks (CHW) -- Mon-@BAL (Guthrie), Sun-KC (Francis)
40. Mat Latos (SD) -- Fri-@CIN (Arroyo)
41. Derek Holland (TEX) -- Wed-SEA (Vargas)
42. Brandon Beachy (ATL) -- Tue-@FLA (Hensley)
43. Colby Lewis (TEX) -- Sat-@OAK (Cahill)
44. Jeff Niemann (TB) -- Thu-KC (Duffy)
45. Brandon Morrow (TOR) -- Thu-OAK (Moscoso)
46. Max Scherzer (DET) -- Fri-@BAL (Simon)
47. Ubaldo Jimenez (CLE) -- Wed-DET (Porcello)
48. Phil Hughes (NYY) -- Tue-LAA (Haren), Sun-TB (Hellickson)
49. Bartolo Colon (NYY) -- Thu-LAA (Chatwood)
50. Scott Baker (MIN) -- Mon-BOS (Wakefield), Sun-@CLE (Masterson)
51. Anibal Sanchez (FLA) -- Wed-ATL (Hudson)
52. Roy Oswalt (PHI) -- Sat-WAS (Lannan)
53. Ricky Nolasco (FLA) -- Fri-SF (Cain)
54. Jonathan Sanchez (SF) -- Wed-PIT (Karstens)
55. Jhoulys Chacin (COL) -- Thu-@CIN (Cueto)
56. Vance Worley (PHI) -- Wed-@LAD (Billingsley)
57. Chad Billingsley (LAD) -- Wed-PHI (Worley)
58. Jonathon Niese (NYM) -- Thu-SD (Luebke)
59. Brett Cecil (TOR) -- Tue-OAK (Harden), Sun-LAA (Haren)
60. Ted Lilly (LAD) -- Tue-PHI (Lee)
61. Javier Vazquez (FLA) -- Sat-SF (Lincecum)
62. R.A. Dickey (NYM) -- Wed-SD (Harang)
63. Ryan Dempster (CHC) -- Wed-WAS (Zimmermann)
64. Homer Bailey (CIN) -- Mon-COL (Hammel), Sat-SD (Stauffer)
65. James Shields (TB) -- Tue-KC (Francis)
66. Gavin Floyd (CHW) -- Tue-@BAL (TBD)
67. Mike Pelfrey (NYM) -- Mon-SD (Stauffer), Sat-@ARI (Hudson)
68. John Lackey (BOS) -- Fri-@SEA (Beavan)
69. Freddy Garcia (NYY) -- Sat-TB (Price)
70. James McDonald (PIT) -- Tue-@SF (Bumgarner)
71. Tim Wakefield (BOS) -- Mon-@MIN (Baker), Sun-@SEA (Furbush)
72. Mike Leake (CIN) -- Wed-COL (Reynolds)
73. Philip Humber (CHW) -- Wed-@BAL (Hunter)
74. Erik Bedard (BOS) -- Tue-@MIN (Liriano)
75. Cory Luebke (SD) -- Thu-@NYM (Niese)

Two-start options for AL-/NL-only leagues:
Jeff Francis (KC) -- Tue-@TB (Shields), Sun-@CHW (Danks)
Jeremy Guthrie (BAL) -- Mon-CHW (Danks), Sat-DET (Penny)
Rich Harden (OAK) -- Tue-@TOR (Cecil), Sun-TEX (Harrison)
Luke Hochevar (KC) -- Mon-@TB (Hellickson), Sat-@CHW (Peavy)
Edwin Jackson (STL) -- Tue-MIL (Marcum), Sun-COL (Rogers)
Jason Marquis (ARI) -- Tue-HOU (Lyles), Sun-NYM (Capuano)
Dontrelle Willis (CIN) -- Tue-COL (Rogers), Sun-SD (TBD)

No-thank-yous, among two-starts:
Chris Capuano (NYM) -- Tue-SD (TBD), Sun-@ARI (Marquis)
Charlie Furbush (SEA) -- Mon-@TEX (Harrison), Sun-BOS (Wakefield)
Jason Hammel (COL) -- Mon-@CIN (Bailey), Sat-@STL (Garcia)
Brad Hand (FLA) -- Mon-ATL (Lowe), Sun-SF (Vogelsong)
Derek Lowe (ATL) -- Mon-@FLA (Hand), Sun-CHC (Garza)
Jordan Lyles (HOU) -- Tue-@ARI (Marquis), Sun-@LAD (Kuroda)
Charlie Morton (PIT) -- Mon-@SF (Vogelsong), Sun-@MIL (Marcum)
Esmil Rogers (COL) -- Tue-@CIN (Willis), Sun-@STL (Jackson)
Chien-Ming Wang (WAS) -- Mon-@CHC (Garza), Sun-@PHI (Halladay)

One-start sleepers:
Bronson Arroyo (CIN) -- Fri-SD (Latos)
Josh Collmenter (ARI) -- Wed-HOU (TBD)
Aaron Harang (SD) -- Wed-@NYM (Dickey)
Brandon McCarthy (OAK) -- Fri-TEX (Wilson)
Chris Narveson (MIL) -- Fri-PIT (Maholm)
Bud Norris (HOU) -- Fri-@LAD (Eovaldi)
Felipe Paulino (KC) -- Wed-@TB (Davis)
Rick Porcello (DET) -- Wed-@CLE (Jimenez)
Joe Saunders (ARI) -- Thu-HOU (Myers)
Josh Tomlin (CLE) -- Sat-MIN (Duensing)

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, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.

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