Fantasy Forecaster updated Sunday, Sept. 11 at 3:40 p.m. ET.
On tap: The league championships in ESPN standard leagues are here, Week 23 representing the first of two weeks that decide the title. That's right, we have only two more "weeks" in the fantasy season; weeks being in quotation marks because the Week 24 finale extends 10 days.
Unfortunately, fantasy owners seeking said titles won't have an easy time navigating the final 17 days. With major league races looking mostly anticlimactic -- only the American League East and AL West division races, out of the eight playoff races, have a margin slimmer than 6 1/2 games entering play on Sept. 9 -- teams are constantly shuffling rotations and shutting down young starters.
For example, Jordan Zimmermann has already been shut down for the season, Mike Leake will make his final start of 2011 on Monday, and Michael Pineda won't start this week (he has one more turn scheduled on Sept. 21). That's significant, as Pineda and Zimmerman were top-40 starters on our Player Rater, while Leake ranks 54th, driven by a 3.60 second-half ERA. Meanwhile, among veteran starters, Jake Peavy has been shut down for the season, Josh Beckett (ankle) and Erik Bedard (knee) might not even pitch this week, and the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees are still toying with six-man rotations.
Now consider the hitting side: Brennan Boesch (thumb) and Andre Ethier (knee) have been ruled out for the season. Chase Utley (concussion) won't play until at least the Philadelphia Phillies' next homestand, which begins on Wednesday. Rickie Weeks (ankle), who was due to be activated from the disabled list on Sept. 9, won't return to the Milwaukee Brewers' starting lineup for a few more days.
As such, the best word to describe your strategy during these critical weeks should be "fluid"; things are going to change on a day-to-day basis, so don't take anything for granted, especially if your lineups lock for the week on Monday.
Reminder: In fantasy leagues with weekly deadlines -- as well as Monday's deadline in daily formats -- the first game of Week 23 begins at 7:05 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 1:10 p.m. ET, Friday 2:20 p.m. ET, Saturday 1:05 p.m. ET, Sunday 1:07 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.
• After a nine-day absence, Matt Harrison is scheduled to return to the mound as the Texas Rangers' two-start pitcher, his matchups favorable in a Tuesday home game versus the Cleveland Indians followed by a Sunday road assignment at Seattle's Safeco Field. Harrison has won both of his career starts at Safeco -- both quality starts during which he had a 1.98 ERA -- and he tossed a quality start against the Indians in their most recent meeting in 2010. But Harrison, despite his additional rest, might not be the Rangers starter most under the spotlight; that might be Colby Lewis, who has been rocked by the Boston Red Sox in two of his past three outings. Forgive Lewis those matchups, though, remembering that he tossed a quality start against these Indians on Aug. 7 (7 1/3 IP, 5 H, 3 ER). He's worth activating. Derek Holland, meanwhile, also warrants a look against the Indians. He struggled against them on Aug. 5 (1 2/3 IP, 5 H, 4 ER), but tossed a five-hit shutout against them on June 4. Keep this in mind: The Indians have baseball's sixth-worst -- and the AL's third-worst -- team OPS since the All-Star break (.690).
• The Los Angeles Dodgers have a dream set of pitching matchups, seven home games, three against the Arizona Diamondbacks and four against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Yes, those Diamondbacks continue their charge to the National League West title, and have been a better road team than in year past, but let's not sweep their history of offensive struggles at Dodger Stadium under the carpet. This team has totaled 25 runs (4.17 per game) with .222/.316/.376 team rates in six games at Dodger Stadium this season, and 58 runs (3.87 per game) with .222/.301/.358 team rates in 15 games there since the beginning of 2010. Chad Billingsley, Tuesday's starter, has a 3.81 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 10.22 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio in nine starts versus the Diamondbacks since the beginning of 2010, while Clayton Kershaw, Wednesday's starter, is 5-2 with a 2.35 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in nine career starts versus the Diamondbacks. And what of their other two-start pitcher -- Billingsley is one -- Ted Lilly? The lefty, who once appeared destined for a disappointing season, has roared back with a 2.49 ERA and 0.97 WHIP in his past seven starts and is well worth starting in all formats.
• Of course, Diamondbacks pitchers also stack up nicely during that series at Dodger Stadium; count on it being a lower-scoring three-game set. Joe Saunders, the team's two-start pitcher, has three consecutive quality starts at Dodger Stadium (2.95 ERA), plus tossed a brilliant, six-hit, one-run complete game on July 26 at Petco Park, where he'll pitch on Sunday. Ian Kennedy, Tuesday's starter, has won all three of his starts versus the Dodgers this season, combining for a 2.70 ERA and 1.00 WHIP. Daniel Hudson, Wednesday's starter, will be making his first career appearance at the venue, but he has won both of his career starts against the Dodgers with a 1.53 ERA and 0.51 WHIP. But it's Josh Collmenter who is the team's most attractive sleeper; he tossed 5 1/3 shutout innings to beat the San Diego Padres on Aug. 26, and will be making this start at spacious Petco.
For more insight into Week 23 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.
• These are desperate times for the Tampa Bay Rays, who entered play on Sept. 9 trailing the rival Red Sox by 6 1/2 games in the wild-card hunt, but the good news for their playoff prospects is that 14 of their final 20 games come against the Yankees and Red Sox, the two teams they trail in their division. The Rays' outlook could entirely have changed by the first pitch of this week depending upon their performance during their Sept. 9-11 series versus the Red Sox at Tropicana Field, but so long as they take at least two of those games there's reason to think they'll enter this week plenty motivated. Three games at hitter-friendly Baltimore's Camden Yards suits them; Ben Zobrist is a .336/.421/.593 hitter in 29 career games there, Evan Longoria has .299/.385/.567 numbers in 31 games, B.J. Upton has .280/.351/.500 numbers in 42 and Johnny Damon has .315/.371/.523 numbers in 111 games. As for the four-game series at Boston, that the Red Sox are dealing with numerous injuries in their rotation improves the Rays' chances.
Damon in particular is the standout: He's a lifetime .369/.414/.431 hitter against scheduled Thursday starter John Lackey, .296/.345/.519 against Saturday starter Jon Lester and .309/.377/.574 against Sunday starter Tim Wakefield.
• Eight games provides a substantial advantage for both the Florida Marlins and Phillies, who both play that many only because they have a Wednesday doubleheader at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park. Remember, this is a week where three teams play only five games apiece: The Minnesota Twins, Blue Jays and Brewers. Let's focus first on the Marlins. There are challenges in their week; they have to tangle with opposing starters like Brandon Beachy (Monday), Cliff Lee (Thursday) and Stephen Strasburg (Friday), but they also get lighter foes in Kyle Kendrick (Thursday) and Chien-Ming Wang (Sunday). This is exploiting quantity pure and simple; it's a smart week to slot in red-hot Marlins like Emilio Bonifacio (.419/.500/.581 in seven September games) and Jose Lopez (.375/.375/.875 in 7). Mike Stanton is expected to be healthy in time for this week, and Mike Cameron might even serve a handy daily option, being that the Marlins are scheduled to face three left-handed starters.
• The Phillies are the other eight-game team, and their lineup has been outstanding since the Hunter Pence trade. Consider that since Aug. 1, no National League team (and only four AL teams) has scored more runs than the Phillies (176), and only two NL squads (plus four AL) have a higher team OPS (.762). Phillies hitters have historically excelled during September; in addition to Carlos Ruiz and Ryan Howard, who were profiled in the Aug. 31 "Hit Parade," Jimmy Rollins (.282/.333/.487 after Sept. 1 from 2006-10) has also historically fared well in the season's final weeks. Rollins might receive limited at-bats initially now that he's back from the disabled list, but in NL-only and deep mixed leagues, his eight-game schedule makes him worth consideration. Pence will also be making a return trip to Houston's Minute Maid Park, where he has .298/.349/.501 lifetime rates.
Weatherproof games: Phillies at Astros (3, Mon-Wed); Yankees at Blue Jays (3, Fri-Sun); Rockies at Brewers (2, Tue-Wed); Yankees at Mariners (3, Mon-Wed); Rangers at Mariners (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 upon a fairly standard Rotisserie scoring system, like ESPN's.
1. Justin Verlander (DET) -- Tue-@CHW (Floyd), Sun-@OAK (Moscoso)
2. Cole Hamels (PHI) -- Tue-@HOU (Happ), Sun-STL (Lohse)
3. Felix Hernandez (SEA) -- Mon-NYY (Hughes), Sun-TEX (Harrison)
4. David Price (TB) -- Tue-@BAL (Simon), Sun-@BOS (Wakefield)
5. Cliff Lee (PHI) -- Thu-FLA, Gm. 1 (Sanchez)
6. Roy Halladay (PHI) -- Wed-@HOU (Norris)
7. Clayton Kershaw (LAD) -- Wed-ARI (Hudson)
8. Jon Lester (BOS) -- Sat-TB (Niemann)
9. Matt Cain (SF) -- Tue-SD (Luebke), Sun-@COL (Rogers)
10. Brandon Beachy (ATL) -- Mon-FLA (Volstad), Sun-NYM (Gee)
11. Tim Lincecum (SF) -- Wed-SD (Latos)
12. Ian Kennedy (ARI) -- Tue-@LAD (Billingsley)
13. CC Sabathia (NYY) -- Sat-@TOR (Alvarez)
14. John Danks (CHW) -- Mon-DET (Porcello), Sat-@KC (Teaford)
15. Mat Latos (SD) -- Wed-@SF (Lincecum)
16. Daniel Hudson (ARI) -- Wed-@LAD (Kershaw)
17. Zack Greinke (MIL) -- Tue-COL (Rogers)
18. Dan Haren (LAA) -- Fri-@BAL (VandenHurk)
19. C.J. Wilson (TEX) -- Fri-@SEA (Beavan)
20. Shaun Marcum (MIL) -- Fri-@CIN (Arroyo)
21. Jered Weaver (LAA) -- Wed-@OAK (Harden)
22. Roy Oswalt (PHI) -- Mon-@HOU (Myers), Sat-STL (Westbrook)
23. Ted Lilly (LAD) -- Mon-ARI (Saunders), Sat-PIT (McDonald)
24. Gio Gonzalez (OAK) -- Mon-LAA (Pineiro), Sat-DET (Porcello)
25. Chris Carpenter (STL) -- Tue-@PIT (Karstens)
26. James Shields (TB) -- Fri-@BOS (TBD)
27. Gavin Floyd (CHW) -- Tue-DET (Verlander), Sun-@KC (Chen)
28. R.A. Dickey (NYM) -- Mon-WAS (Detwiler), Sat-@ATL (Hudson)
29. Johnny Cueto (CIN) -- Wed-CHC (Coleman)
30. Madison Bumgarner (SF) -- Fri-@COL (White)
31. Stephen Strasburg (WAS) -- Sat-FLA (Volstad)
32. Matt Garza (CHC) -- Fri-HOU (Rodriguez)
33. Tim Hudson (ATL) -- Sat-NYM (Dickey)
34. Doug Fister (DET) -- Fri-@OAK (Cahill)
35. Yovani Gallardo (MIL) -- Sun-@CIN (Willis)
36. Wandy Rodriguez (HOU) -- Fri-@CHC (Garza)
37. Justin Masterson (CLE) -- Tue-@TEX (Harrison), Sun-@MIN (Diamond)
38. Javier Vazquez (FLA) -- Fri-@WAS (Lannan)
39. Ervin Santana (LAA) -- Sat-@BAL (Hunter)
40. Ubaldo Jimenez (CLE) -- Sat-@MIN (Swarzak)
41. Aaron Harang (SD) -- Mon-@SF (Surkamp), Sun-ARI (Saunders)
42. Cory Luebke (SD) -- Tue-@SF (Cain)
43. Brandon McCarthy (OAK) -- Thu-DET (Scherzer)
44. Josh Collmenter (ARI) -- Sat-@SD (LeBlanc)
45. Matt Harrison (TEX) -- Tue-CLE (Masterson), Sun-@SEA (Hernandez)
46. Ivan Nova (NYY) -- Wed-@SEA (Vargas)
47. Brett Myers (HOU) -- Mon-PHI (Oswalt), Sun-@CHC (Dempster)
48. Jeremy Hellickson (TB) -- Thu-@BOS (Lackey)
49. Guillermo Moscoso (OAK) -- Tue-LAA (Williams), Sun-DET (Verlander)
50. Anibal Sanchez (FLA) -- Thu-@PHI, Gm. 1 (Lee)
51. Hiroki Kuroda (LAD) -- Fri-PIT (Locke)
52. Chad Billingsley (LAD) -- Tue-ARI (Kennedy), Sun-PIT (Lincoln)
53. Jhoulys Chacin (COL) -- Thu-SF (Vogelsong)
54. Ryan Vogelsong (SF) -- Thu-@COL (Chacin)
55. James McDonald (PIT) -- Sat-@LAD (Lilly)
56. Vance Worley (PHI) -- Fri-STL (Garcia)
57. Homer Bailey (CIN) -- Thu-CHC (Wells)
58. Phil Hughes (NYY) -- Mon-@SEA (Hernandez)
59. Edwin Jackson (STL) -- Wed-@PIT (Morton)
60. Max Scherzer (DET) -- Thu-@OAK (McCarthy)
61. Ryan Dempster (CHC) -- Tue-@CIN (Leake), Sun-HOU (Myers)
62. Alexi Ogando (TEX) -- Sat-@SEA (Vasquez)
63. Ricky Romero (TOR) -- Wed-@BOS (Miller)
64. Randy Wolf (MIL) -- Sat-@CIN (Volquez)
65. Randy Wells (CHC) -- Thu-@CIN (Bailey)
66. Derek Holland (TEX) -- Wed-CLE (Huff)
67. Jaime Garcia (STL) -- Fri-@PHI (Worley)
68. Colby Lewis (TEX) -- Thu-CLE (Gomez)
69. Ricky Nolasco (FLA) -- Wed-@ATL (Delgado)
70. Bruce Chen (KC) -- Tue-MIN (Pavano), Sun-CHW (Floyd)
71. Mike Leake (CIN) -- Tue-CHC (Dempster)
72. Zach Britton (BAL) -- Mon-TB (Niemann), Sun-LAA (Pineiro)
73. Mike Minor (ATL) -- Tue-FLA (Hand)
74. Tim Stauffer (SD) -- Fri-ARI (Miley)
75. Joe Saunders (ARI) -- Mon-@LAD (Lilly), Sun-@SD (Harang)
Two-start options for AL-/NL-only leagues:
Dillon Gee (NYM) -- Tue-WAS (Wang), Sun-@ATL (Beachy)
Brad Hand (FLA) -- Tue-@ATL (Minor), Sun-@WAS (Detwiler)
Jeff Niemann (TB) -- Mon-@BAL (Britton), Sat-@BOS (Lester)
Joel Pineiro (LAA) -- Mon-@OAK (Gonzalez), Sun-@BAL (Britton)
Rick Porcello (DET) -- Mon-@CHW (Danks), Sat-@OAK (Gonzalez)
Tim Wakefield (BOS) -- Tue-TOR (Morrow), Sun-TB (Price)
No-thank-yous, among two-starts:
Ross Detwiler (WAS) -- Mon-@NYM (Dickey), Sun-FLA (Hand)
Brad Lincoln (PIT) -- Mon-STL (Lohse), Sun-@LAD (Billingsley)
Kyle Lohse (STL) -- Mon-@PIT (Lincoln), Sun-@PHI (Hamels)
Rodrigo Lopez (CHC) -- Mon-@CIN (Willis), Sat-HOU (Sosa)
Esmil Rogers (COL) -- Tue-@MIL (Greinke), Sun-SF (Cain)
Eric Surkamp (SF) -- Mon-SD (Harang), Sat-@COL (Pomeranz)
Chris Volstad (FLA) -- Mon-@ATL (Beachy), Sat-@WAS (Strasburg)
Dontrelle Willis (CIN) -- Mon-CHC (Lopez), Sun-MIL (Gallardo)
Mark Buehrle (CHW) -- Wed-DET (Penny)
Chris Capuano (NYM) -- Thu-WAS (Milone)
Luke Hochevar (KC) -- Wed-MIN (Hendriks)
Philip Humber (CHW) -- Thu-@KC (Francis)
Wade Miley (ARI) -- Fri-@SD (Stauffer)
Drew Pomeranz (COL) -- Sat-SF (Surkamp)
Kevin Slowey (MIN) -- Fri-CLE (Carmona)
Jerome Williams (LAA) -- Tue-@OAK (Moscoso)
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.