On tap: The 2012 Major League Baseball season begins with a pair of games in Japan, the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners battling at the Tokyo Dome at 6:10 a.m. ET on Wednesday, March 28, and 5:10 a.m. ET, on Thursday, March 29. From there, it'll be another six days before the next "game that counts": The St. Louis Cardinals and newly renamed Miami Marlins will christen the latter's new stadium, Marlins Ballpark, with a Wednesday, April 4, night game (7 p.m. ET). Baseball's traditional "Opening Day" follows on Thursday, April 5, with 12 teams scheduled for their first games of the season, and on Friday, April 6, the final 14 teams will play their 2012 openers.
Among the fantasy-related highlights of baseball's opening week: Stephen Strasburg was tabbed the Washington Nationals' Opening Day starter, pitching Thursday, April 5, at Chicago's Wrigley Field. Juan Nicasio, whose career was threatened by a head injury suffered when he was struck by a batted ball, will make his return start for the Colorado Rockies on Monday, April 9. And Johan Santana, who missed the entire 2011 season, is scheduled to pitch for the New York Mets at some point during the April 5-8 opening series.
ESPN leagues: Roster settings
In ESPN leagues, "Week 1" extends from the first pitch of the Wednesday, March 28, game in Japan, through the Los Angeles Angels at New York Yankees "Sunday Night Baseball" game on April 15. In head-to-head leagues, those 19 days will represent your first matchups of the 2012 season.
Lineup deadlines differ depending upon whether your league allows daily or weekly transactions. In daily leagues, players will lock at their scheduled game times by day, meaning Athletics and Mariners players, for example, will lock at 6:10 a.m. ET on Wednesday, March 28, then 5:10 a.m. ET on Thursday, March 29, and so on.
In weekly leagues, lineups for the entire "Week 1" will lock beginning with the first pitch of that scheduled period: That's 6:10 a.m. ET on Wednesday, March 28. Lineup changes, even for players not on the Athletics or Mariners, will not take effect again until Monday, April 16, in Week 2. Set your lineups now!
In addition, if your league has not yet drafted, be aware that drafts that occur after the start of either Japan game will lock the drafted starting lineups into place retroactively, meaning that if you draft an injured or minor league player into an active roster spot, that player will remain there either through all of "Week 1" in a weekly league, or until the next eligible roster deadline in a daily league. In other words, if you draft Chase Utley as your starting second baseman in a Sunday, April 1, draft, he will remain in that spot through Sunday, April 15, despite the fact that he will likely spend the entirety of "Week 1" on the disabled list, so make sure you take advantage of the option to draft players to your bench.
Japan games: The ratings
Pitching might well be the storyline at the Tokyo Dome these first two days of the 2012 season; as you can see, each of the four pitchers scheduled to start have ratings of "7" or higher, and both of the Opening Day starters -- Felix Hernandez for the Mariners and Brandon McCarthy for the Athletics -- rate a perfect "10." There's no more obvious reason than this: The Mariners averaged a major league-low 3.43 runs per game with a league-worst .640 OPS last season, while the Athletics ranked 10th- and sixth-worst in those categories with 3.98 and .680 numbers.
Some of the data used to generate this chart is derived from Baseball Musings' Day-by-day database.
P: The starting pitcher's matchup rating, which accounts for past history (three years' worth as well as past 21 days), opponent and ballpark. 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.
Be conservative when selecting individual hitters from either team, even from the Athletics, who finished with better team hitting numbers in 2011. After all, Hernandez is 12-4 with a 2.54 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in his career against the Athletics, limiting them to a .617 combined OPS. Vargas, meanwhile, had a 3.86 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in his five starts versus the Athletics in 2011, limiting them to a .634 OPS as a team. The Mariners, meanwhile, have fantasy choices that border upon the obvious: Ichiro Suzuki, Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero; with Mike Carp and Justin Smoak their two most notable sleeper choices for the initial two games.
Full Forecaster pitching charts
Unfortunately, with so few teams having declared their season-opening rotations -- remember that 28 teams won't begin play for at least another week -- it's impossible to fully project pitching matchups and rate starting pitchers accordingly. You can find the full schedule grid at column's end, or by clicking here, though any team with uncertain rotation plans will have scheduled starters listed as "TBD."
The Forecaster will, however, get a thorough Week 1 update, on Tuesday, April 3, once the majority of pitching rotations are known.
Winners and losers: The "volume" plays
Often, it's the teams that play the most in a given week that present the greatest advantage, specifically in terms of hitting and relief pitching. (Remember, homers, RBIs, runs and saves are "counting numbers"; you want games, games, games.) Here are the teams with the most games in "Week 1":
11 games: Mariners (3 home)
10 games: Athletics (7 home -- though 2 in Japan), Texas Rangers (7 home), Chicago Cubs (7 home), Cincinnati Reds (6 home), Los Angeles Dodgers (6 home), Marlins (4 home), Milwaukee Brewers (3 home), Cardinals (3 home), San Diego Padres (7 home), Nationals (4 home)
7 home games: Athletics, Rangers, Cubs, Padres. No team plays more than seven home games during "Week 1."
All 30 teams play at least three home games during "Week 1."
In weekly leagues, it's less advisable to take chances on players who might require a DL stint to begin the regular season. The following players are in greatest danger of missing time at the beginning of "Week 1," those a virtual lock for the DL noted:
A.J. Burnett (eye): Headed for the DL
Chris Carpenter (neck): Headed for the DL
Carl Crawford (wrist)
Stephen Drew (ankle): Headed for the DL
Neftali Feliz (shoulder)
Corey Hart (knee)
Ryan Howard: Headed for the DL
Tim Hudson (back): Headed for the DL
Adam LaRoche (ankle)
Michael Morse (shoulder)
Carlos Quentin (knee): Headed for the DL
Brian Roberts (concussion): On the DL
Drew Storen (elbow)
Chase Utley (knee): Headed for the DL
Ryan Vogelsong (back)
These players, meanwhile, are reportedly healthy enough to make their respective teams' Opening Day rosters: Miguel Cabrera (eye), Allen Craig (knee), Shaun Marcum (shoulder), Logan Morrison (knee), Chris Perez (ribs), Giancarlo Stanton (knee), B.J. Upton (back).
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 multiple times 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.