Fantasy Forecaster updated Sunday, Sept. 4 at 11:23 a.m. ET.
On tap: It's make-or-break time in fantasy leagues, as Labor Day arrives Monday, and counting that day, there are 24 days remaining in the regular season (plus any potential one-game playoffs). This week, Week 22 of the fantasy season, concludes Round 1 of the playoffs in ESPN standard leagues; this is the week our championship combatants will be decided.
Unfortunately, while the stakes are increasing in fantasy, they are noticeably lower in the real game at this stage of September compared to Septembers past. Only two playoff races, entering the games of Sept. 2, had margins of less than 5 1/2 games: the American League East, in which the Boston Red Sox had a half-game lead -- and zero in the loss column -- over the New York Yankees; and the AL West, in which the Texas Rangers had a 3 1/2-game lead over the Los Angeles Angels. But in the case of the AL East, both the Red Sox and Yankees held at least an 8 1/2-game advantage in the wild-card race and were therefore near-locks to make the playoffs. The truth is that only nine teams, on the morning of Sept. 2, were within five games of a playoff spot, and 14 were within eight games. Remember that only eight teams advance to the postseason.
What that means is we might see playoff teams shifting their focus to October (shuffling their rotations and giving their stars additional rest) and rebuilding teams preparing for 2012 (auditioning youngsters and benching on-the-way-out veterans) sooner than in seasons past, and that could have a noticeable effect on our planning even as early as this week.
A key example of the former: The Red Sox have been using Andrew Miller as a way of stretching their rotation six deep to provide their veterans rest and perhaps align for the division series, while the Detroit Tigers have rookie Jacob Turner around to keep their starters fresh. The Yankees, as well, have enough starting-pitching depth that they can run six deep as desired.
A key example of the latter: The Washington Nationals will welcome Stephen Strasburg, who is recovering from September 2010 Tommy John surgery, and rookie Tom Milone into their rotation this week, as they aim to evaluate both pitchers for next year's team. Strasburg has been untouchable in six minor league rehabilitation starts in the past month; he has a 3.54 ERA but also a 0.84 WHIP and 29 strikeouts compared to three walks in 20 1/3 innings (that's 12.84 K's-per-nine and 9.67 K's-per-walk ratios). His arrival has been anticipated for weeks, and he'll make his first major league start this year, and likely one of four or five before season's end, on Tuesday versus the Los Angeles Dodgers. That sets him up for a two-start week, his second turn Sunday versus the Houston Astros.
Reminder: Labor Day brings with it a slew of day games, three during the 1 p.m. ET hour. In fantasy leagues with weekly deadlines -- as well as Monday's deadline in daily formats -- the first game begins at 1:05 p.m. Here are this week's other scheduled first pitches by day: Tuesday 7:05 p.m. ET, Wednesday 12:05 p.m. ET, Thursday 1:05 p.m. ET, Friday 7:05 p.m. ET, Saturday 1:07 p.m. ET, Sunday 1:05 p.m. ET.
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.
P: The starting pitcher's matchup rating, which accounts for past history (three years' worth as well as past 21 days), opponent and ballpark. Ratings range from 1-10, with 10 representing the best possible matchup, statistically speaking, and 1 representing the worst.
" Strasburg, Strasburg, Strasburg. He's the story of Week 22, and it's not a matter of overstating; he absolutely possesses the potential to win fantasy championships on his own. Well, at least on a per-inning basis, he does. Strasburg is one of the few pitchers for whom I'd make the "first start off the DL" exception. His stunning rehabilitation performances boost my confidence in him. The matchups, too, are stacked in his favor, the Dodgers ranking 19th (4.32) and the Astros 27th (3.78) in runs per game since the All-Star break. So that means it's all about his workload, and here are his pitch counts and innings totals in his six rehab starts: 31 pitches and 1 2/3 innings Aug. 7 (Class A Hagerstown), 33 and three Aug. 12 (Class A Potomac), 49 and 1 2/3 on Aug. 17 (Hagerstown), 60 and three Aug. 22 (Hagerstown), 64 and five Aug. 27 (Triple-A Syracuse), and 70 and six Sept. 1 (Double-A Harrisburg). Nationals manager Davey Johnson said he plans to limit Strasburg to a maximum of four innings and/or 60 pitches Tuesday, meaning he might not throw more than a total of nine frames and 135 pitches in the week. He's 43rd in my rankings below, but depending on the format, he could be a top-20 option (no innings cap, NL-only, for example), or he might be a complete nonfactor (leagues with a strict starts cap).
As for Nationals rookie Tom Milone, the left-hander is coming off an outstanding August for Syracuse, going 4-0 with three quality starts, a 1.72 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP in five starts. He's less likely to face the kind of innings/pitches cap that Strasburg will, and while the Astros, whom he'll face Friday, have an OPS 31 points higher versus left-handers (.718) than right-handers (.687), that .718 OPS still ranks the team below the major league average. It's a home game for Milone's major league debut, a smart decision, so take a look in NL-only leagues. In addition, don't overlook the red-hot Ross Detwiler; he has three consecutive quality starts, two of those against the Cincinnati Reds' loaded offense.
" Beware that Red Sox series if you're an owner of any of the Toronto Blue Jays' starters. Ricky Romero might rank as one of fantasy's most reliable starters, plus is riding a seven consecutive quality starts streak, but if there's any matchup he has been unable to handle historically, it's the Red Sox. He is 2-6 with an 8.08 ERA and 2.18 WHIP in 11 career starts against them, and has allowed more runs to them than he has thrown innings in their two meetings this season. Rookie Henderson Alvarez is coming off a career-best outing, but his appeal this week is tempered by that tough-as-nails Monday Red Sox matchup. Brandon Morrow, meanwhile, has allowed 11 earned runs in 10 innings in his past two starts, and is 1-2 with a 13.80 ERA and 2.67 WHIP in four starts against the Red Sox during his Blue Jays career. There isn't a Blue Jays pitcher who can be termed completely safe this week.
" Sleeper-seekers -- and there are always more of these in the critical September weeks -- need to get creative during the season's final month, especially one like this during which rotations have been constantly changing. That's why I'll point you toward the Kansas City Royals and their surprisingly strong set of matchups, reminding that the Royals, believe it or not, have the majors' fifth-best team batting average (.283) and ninth-best team OPS (.757) since the All-Star break, meaning run support is no longer necessarily the problem for their starters that it had been for years. Granted, the opposing Oakland Athletics, who host the Royals for three games to begin the week, are no longer pushovers offensively, but look at what two of the Royals' starters have done since Aug. 1: Bruce Chen is 5-1 with a 3.19 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in six starts, and Luke Hochevar has a 4.35 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in six starts.
Two-start pitcher Felipe Paulino slides into the more questionable class of fantasy starters, being that a back injury currently threatens his status, but that weekend Safeco Field outing makes him worth consideration in AL-only formats.Danny Duffy, meanwhile, is scheduled to make his final start of 2011 at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, where he threw a quality start to win his only career outing on June 14.
" How about a sleeper for NL-only owners to consider? Take a look at San Francisco Giants rookie Eric Surkamp, who returns to the rotation Tuesday after tossing six quality innings to win his big league debut against the Astros on Aug. 27. Surkamp finished his minor league season 11-4 with a 1.94 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 10.31 K's-per-nine ratio between Class A San Jose and Double-A Richmond, and it's a Petco Park start, about as juicy a sleeper matchup as a rookie could ask for.
For more insight into Week 22 pitching matchups, see my rankings for the top 75 starting pitchers, as well as every two-start pitcher, at column's end.
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.
Some of the data used to generate this chart is derived from Baseball Musings' Day-by-day database.
H: Hitters' matchup rating, which accounts for the opposing starting pitcher's past history (three years' worth as well as past 21 days) as well as ballpark factors. L: Hitters' matchup rating accounting only for left-handed hitters. R: Hitters' matchup rating accounting for only right-handed hitters. S: Base stealing matchup rating, which accounts for the opponent's catchers' ability to gun down opposing base stealers. Ratings range from 1-10, with 10 representing the best possible matchup, statistically speaking, and 1 representing the worst.
" The eight-game advantage belongs to the White Sox, Atlanta Braves and New York Mets, but it's the Sox whose set of matchups stands out most significantly on the hitting side. The opposing Minnesota Twins, who begin the week hosting the White Sox for four games, are trying to piece together a rotation through season's end, throwing Anthony Swarzak, Scott Diamond and Liam Hendriks in three of the contests. And the opposing Cleveland Indians, who desperately need victories in their four-game series at Chicago, will throw back-end starters David Huff and Jeanmar Gomez in two of their four. Target Field might have a reputation as a pitching-friendly venue -- earned primarily in 2010 rather than 2011 -- but look at some of the Sox hitters' career numbers there: Alex Rios (.302/.328/.434 BA/OBP/SLG rates in 14 games), Paul Konerko (.368/.429/.632 in 14), Alexei Ramirez (.339/.383/.607 in 14), Juan Pierre (.397/.462/.414, 8 steals in 14) and … get this … Brent Lillibridge (two homers in five at-bats this season).
" Those Arizona Diamondbacks bats have finally awoken again, as a team managing .293/.370/.468 offensive rates and 46 runs during a nine-game winning streak (5.11 runs per game). Those good feelings should carry right into a three-game series at Colorado's Coors Field, then back home to Chase Field for a four-game series against the San Diego Padres. Diamondbacks hitters as a whole have outstanding track records at Coors: Miguel Montero is a .333/.375/.591 hitter in 20 career games there, Aaron Hill .333/.364/.571 in six games and Chris Young .290/.371/.523 in 41 games. In addition, as a team, the Diamondbacks have .284/.356/.481 rates in their five home games against Padres pitching. Hill, incidentally, is a .346/.346/.692 hitter in six career games against the Padres.
" The Cincinnati Reds are the other team that gets the benefit of a Coors Field series, heading there for a three-game weekend series. But it's that week-opening series at Chicago's Wrigley Field that is of greater note, because Reds hitters have historically excelled there. Here are some of their lifetime numbers at Wrigley: Ryan Hanigan is a .357/.355/.500 hitter in 11 games, Joey Votto has nine homers and 22 RBIs in 34 games, Paul Janish is a .316/.447/.474 hitter in 14 games, Drew Stubbs has six homers, 13 RBIs and four stolen bases in 14 games, and Jay Bruce is a .256/.348/.449 hitter in 22 games.
Also favorable: Orioles, Mets, Yankees, Blue Jays
Unfavorable: Philadelphia Phillies, Cardinals, Giants, Rays, Rangers
Weatherproof games: Red Sox at Blue Jays (4, Mon-Thu); Orioles at Blue Jays (3, Fri-Sun); Phillies at Brewers (4, Thu-Sun); Padres at Diamondbacks (4, Thu-Sun); Royals at Mariners (4, Thu-Sun); Rangers at Rays (3, Mon-Wed); Red Sox at Rays (3, Fri-Sun).
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 on a fairly standard rotisserie scoring system, like ESPN's.
1. Cliff Lee (PHI) -- Mon-ATL (Lowe), Sat-@MIL (Wolf)
2. Jon Lester (BOS) -- Tue-@TOR (Perez), Sun-@TB (Shields)
3. Clayton Kershaw (LAD) -- Fri-@SF (Lincecum)
4. Madison Bumgarner (SF) -- Mon-@SD (Stauffer), Sun-LAD (Lilly)
5. Felix Hernandez (SEA) -- Tue-@LAA (Santana)
6. Tim Hudson (ATL) -- Tue-@PHI (Worley), Sun-@STL (Westbrook)
7. Tim Lincecum (SF) -- Fri-LAD (Kershaw)
8. Ted Lilly (LAD) -- Tue-@WAS (Strasburg), Sun-@SF (Bumgarner)
9. Dan Haren (LAA) -- Mon-SEA (Vasquez), Sun-NYY (TBD)
10. CC Sabathia (NYY) -- Fri-@LAA (Weaver)
11. James Shields (TB) -- Mon-TEX (Feldman), Sun-BOS (Lester)
12. Yovani Gallardo (MIL) -- Tue-@STL (Lohse), Sun-PHI (Worley)
13. Roy Halladay (PHI) -- Fri-@MIL (Marcum)
14. Josh Beckett (BOS) -- Mon-@TOR (Alvarez), Sat-@TB (Hellickson)
15. David Price (TB) -- Wed-TEX (Holland)
16. Matt Cain (SF) -- Wed-@SD (Harang)
17. C.J. Wilson (TEX) -- Tue-@TB (Niemann), Sun-OAK (Harden)
18. Matt Garza (CHC) -- Mon-CIN (Willis), Sun-@NYM (Batista)
19. Vance Worley (PHI) -- Tue-ATL (Hudson), Sun-@MIL (Gallardo)
20. Hiroki Kuroda (LAD) -- Mon-@WAS (Lannan), Sat-@SF (Vogelsong)
21. Javier Vazquez (FLA) -- Mon-NYM (Capuano), Sun-@PIT (McDonald)
22. Justin Verlander (DET) -- Wed-@CLE (Masterson)
23. Doug Fister (DET) -- Mon-@CLE (Jimenez), Sun-MIN (Swarzak)
24. Shaun Marcum (MIL) -- Fri-PHI (Halladay)
25. John Danks (CHW) -- Wed-@MIN (Pavano)
26. Daniel Hudson (ARI) -- Fri-SD (Latos)
27. Ian Kennedy (ARI) -- Thu-SD (Luebke)
28. Chris Carpenter (STL) -- Wed-MIL (Greinke)
29. Zack Greinke (MIL) -- Wed-@STL (Carpenter)
30. Gio Gonzalez (OAK) -- Tue-KC (Duffy)
31. Josh Collmenter (ARI) -- Tue-@COL (Hammel), Sun-SD (LeBlanc)
32. Brandon Beachy (ATL) -- Wed-@PHI (Oswalt)
33. Jered Weaver (LAA) -- Fri-NYY (Sabathia)
34. Cole Hamels (PHI) -- Thu-@MIL (Narveson)
35. Derek Lowe (ATL) -- Mon-@PHI (Lee), Sat-@STL (Jackson)
36. Michael Pineda (SEA) -- Sat-KC (Paulino)
37. Gavin Floyd (CHW) -- Thu-CLE (Huff)
38. Ubaldo Jimenez (CLE) -- Mon-DET (Fister), Sat-@CHW (Stewart)
39. Mat Latos (SD) -- Fri-@ARI (Hudson)
40. James McDonald (PIT) -- Mon-HOU (Sosa), Sun-FLA (Vazquez)
41. Ervin Santana (LAA) -- Tue-SEA (Hernandez)
42. Randy Wolf (MIL) -- Mon-@STL (Westbrook), Sat-PHI (Lee)
43. Stephen Strasburg (WAS) -- Tue-LAD (Lilly), Sun-HOU (Sosa)
44. Wandy Rodriguez (HOU) -- Sat-@WAS (Lannan)
45. Chris Capuano (NYM) -- Mon-@FLA (Vazquez), Sat-CHC (Wells)
46. Cory Luebke (SD) -- Thu-@ARI (Kennedy)
47. Ryan Vogelsong (SF) -- Sat-LAD (Kuroda)
48. Johnny Cueto (CIN) -- Wed-@CHC (Dempster)
49. Jeremy Hellickson (TB) -- Sat-BOS (Beckett)
50. Roy Oswalt (PHI) -- Wed-ATL (Beachy)
51. Justin Masterson (CLE) -- Wed-DET (Verlander)
52. Tim Stauffer (SD) -- Mon-SF (Bumgarner), Sat-@ARI (Miley)
53. Colby Lewis (TEX) -- Fri-OAK (McCarthy)
54. Chad Billingsley (LAD) -- Thu-@WAS (Detwiler)
55. Randy Wells (CHC) -- Sat-@NYM (Capuano)
56. Erik Bedard (BOS) -- Thu-@TOR (Romero)
57. R.A. Dickey (NYM) -- Wed-@FLA (Hensley)
58. Bud Norris (HOU) -- Fri-@WAS (Milone)
59. Jeff Niemann (TB) -- Tue-TEX (Wilson)
60. Ivan Nova (NYY) -- Wed-BAL (Britton)
61. Anibal Sanchez (FLA) -- Sat-@PIT (Morton)
62. Max Scherzer (DET) -- Sat-MIN (Slowey)
63. Edwin Jackson (STL) -- Sat-ATL (Lowe)
64. Fausto Carmona (CLE) -- Tue-DET (Porcello), Sun-@CHW (Humber)
65. Bruce Chen (KC) -- Wed-@OAK (Moscoso)
66. Homer Bailey (CIN) -- Fri-@COL (Chacin)
67. Mark Buehrle (CHW) -- Fri-CLE (Gomez)
68. Alexi Ogando (TEX) -- Sat-OAK (Cahill)
69. Rich Harden (OAK) -- Mon-KC (Paulino), Sun-@TEX (Wilson)
70. Brett Myers (HOU) -- Tue-@PIT (Lincoln)
71. Aaron Harang (SD) -- Wed-SF (Cain)
72. Ricky Nolasco (FLA) -- Fri-@PIT (Ohlendorf)
73. Freddy Garcia (NYY) -- Mon-BAL (Matusz), Sat-@LAA (Pineiro)
74. Ricky Romero (TOR) -- Thu-BOS (Bedard)
75. Henry Sosa (HOU) -- Mon-@PIT (McDonald), Sun-@WAS (Strasburg)
Two-start options for AL-/NL-only leagues:
Henderson Alvarez (TOR) -- Mon-BOS (Beckett), Sat-BAL (Matusz)
Miguel Batista (NYM) -- Tue-@FLA (Volstad), Sun-CHC (Garza)
Philip Humber (CHW) -- Mon-@MIN, Gm. 2 (Diamond), Sun-CLE (Carmona)
John Lannan (WAS) -- Mon-LAD (Kuroda), Sat-HOU (Rodriguez)
Felipe Paulino (KC) -- Mon-@OAK (Harden), Sat-@SEA (Pineda)
No-thank-yous, among two-starts:
Tommy Hunter (BAL) -- Tue-@NYY (TBD), Sun-@TOR (Perez)
Wade LeBlanc (SD) -- Tue-SF (Surkamp), Sun-@ARI (Collmenter)
Wade Miley (ARI) -- Mon-@COL (Rogers), Sat-SD (Stauffer)
Luis Perez (TOR) -- Tue-BOS (Lester), Sun-BAL (Hunter)
Brian Matusz (BAL) -- Mon-@NYY (Garcia), Sat-@TOR (Alvarez)
Zach Stewart (CHW) -- Mon-@MIN, Gm. 1 (Swarzak), Sat-CLE (Jimenez)
Anthony Swarzak (MIN) -- Mon-CHW, Gm. 1 (Stewart), Sun-@DET (Fister)
Anthony Vasquez (SEA) -- Mon-@LAA (Haren), Sun-KC (TBD)
Jake Westbrook (STL) -- Mon-MIL (Wolf), Sun-ATL (Hudson)
Dontrelle Willis (CIN) -- Mon-@CHC (Garza), Sun-@COL (Cook)
Ross Detwiler (WAS) -- Thu-LAD (Billingsley)
Dana Eveland (LAD) -- Wed-@WAS (Wang)
Jeff Francis (KC) -- Fri-@SEA (Beavan)
J.A. Happ (HOU) -- Wed-@PIT (Burres)
Luke Hochevar (KC) -- Thu-@SEA (Vargas)
Mike Leake (CIN) -- Tue-@CHC (Lopez)
Tom Milone (WAS) -- Fri-HOU (Norris)
Mike Minor (ATL) -- Thu-@NYM, Gm. 1 (Gee)
Eric Surkamp (SF) -- Tue-@SD (LeBlanc)
Jerome Williams (LAA) -- Wed-SEA (Furbush)
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.