Forecaster: Sept. 3-9

Updated: September 2, 2012, 12:26 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Fantasy Forecaster updated Sunday, Sept. 2 at 12:26 p.m. ET.

On tap: Baseball's final month (plus three days) is here, and with it comes the heat of the pennant races and expanded, 40-man rosters granting noncontenders opportunities to audition youngsters and the playoffs in ESPN standard leagues. This, fantasy's Week 21, kicks off the first of a two-week playoffs semifinal, a matchup that concludes at the end of Week 22 on Sunday, Sept. 16.

Fantasy Forecaster

The wild-card races, as well as both the American League East and National League West division races, could come into clearer focus this week, with many matchups either pitting such contenders head-to-head or providing a trailing team a soft schedule that might afford it an opportunity to gain ground. Some examples of the former: The New York Yankees hit the road for seven games, battling the Tampa Bay Rays (three games) and the Baltimore Orioles (four games) in series that will have plenty to say about the AL East race while also impacting the wild-card hunt. The Los Angeles Angels, meanwhile, play a three-game road series at the Oakland Athletics before hosting the Detroit Tigers for three, all three of those teams separated by no more than 3.5 games (through Aug. 30) in the wild-card race.

Some examples of the latter: The Pittsburgh Pirates, a half-game behind in the NL wild-card race (through Aug. 30), play a pair of three-game home series versus the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, teams that have won a combined 27 percent of their games since the All-Star break. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves, who have a three-game lead (through Aug. 30) on their wild-card competition, not to mention sit 5.5 games back in the NL East, host the Colorado Rockies for four games before heading to Citi Field to battle the New York Mets for three. Those foes have won a combined 39 percent of their games since the break.

We'll probably also welcome back four notable fantasy hitters, two playing their first full weeks since activation, Lance Berkman and Joey Votto, and two most likely being activated before week's completion, Alex Rodriguez and Troy Tulowitzki. Unfortunately, Votto is the only one who, at publishing time, warrants instant activation in all formats. He'll recapture his starting job in time for Week 21, and the Cincinnati Reds' schedule for hitters only gets softer the deeper we get into the week. Here's the skinny on the others, as of publishing time: Berkman might work his way back in a bench role, so put him on the sit-and-track list; Rodriguez will be only three days into his rehabilitation assignment as of Monday; and Tulowitzki is a week into his uber-conservative rehab stint, his return date unclear.

ESPN leagues: Week 21

The playoffs have arrived in ESPN's standard leagues, with this the first week of playoffs Round 1. As mentioned above, this first round extends for 14 days, concluding with the final game of fantasy's Week 22 on Sunday, Sept. 16. This week, No. 1 seeds will take on No. 4 seeds in one semifinal, with the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds battling in the other. Winners of these two-week matchups will battle for their leagues' championships in Weeks 23-24 of the fantasy season.

Labor Day is a full Monday in which 13 of the 15 scheduled games are day games, so make sure to set your lineups before heading out to your holiday BBQ. There are eight games beginning in the 1 p.m. ET hour, with two games beginning at 1:05 p.m. ET: Cleveland Indians at Tigers and Cubs at Washington Nationals. Here are the scheduled start times of the first games each day:

Quick click by section, if you're seeking advice in a specific area:
Probable starting pitchers | Week 21 pitcher rankings | Pitching notes
Streamer's delight | Hitting ratings | Hitting notes

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 at least twice this week are in gold/beige boxes.

Tristan's Week 21 pitcher rankings: Top 75

1. Johnny Cueto (CIN) -- Mon-PHI (Cloyd), Sun-HOU (TBD)
2. Clayton Kershaw (LAD) -- Tue-SD (Stults)
3. CC Sabathia (NYY) -- Mon-@TB (Shields), Sat-@BAL (Saunders)
4. Felix Hernandez (SEA) -- Fri-OAK (Griffin)
5. Matt Cain (SF) -- Sat-LAD (Capuano)
6. Adam Wainwright (STL) -- Wed-NYM (Dickey)
7. Kris Medlen (ATL) -- Mon-COL (Chatwood), Sat-@NYM (Hefner)
8. Madison Bumgarner (SF) -- Wed-ARI (Cahill)
9. James Shields (TB) -- Mon-NYY (Sabathia), Sun-TEX (Harrison)
10. David Price (TB) -- Sat-TEX (Darvish)
11. Edwin Jackson (WAS) -- Tue-CHC (Rusin), Sun-MIA (Turner)
12. Justin Verlander (DET) -- Sat-@LAA (Weaver)
13. Yu Darvish (TEX) -- Mon-@KC (Chen), Sat-@TB (Price)
14. Gio Gonzalez (WAS) -- Wed-CHC (Volstad)
15. Roy Halladay (PHI) -- Wed-@CIN (Leake)
16. Hiroki Kuroda (NYY) -- Wed-@TB (Moore)
17. Mat Latos (CIN) -- Tue-PHI (Kendrick)
18. Cliff Lee (PHI) -- Fri-COL (Francis)
19. Matt Harrison (TEX) -- Tue-@KC (Guthrie), Sun-@TB (Shields)
20. Wade Miley (ARI) -- Sat-@SD (Kelly)
21. Cole Hamels (PHI) -- Sat-COL (Chatwood)
22. Clay Buchholz (BOS) -- Mon-@SEA (Vargas), Sun-TOR (Happ)
23. Jeff Samardzija (CHC) -- Mon-@WAS (Detwiler), Sat-@PIT (McDonald)
24. C.J. Wilson (LAA) -- Mon-@OAK (Milone), Sun-DET (Sanchez)
25. Jered Weaver (LAA) -- Sat-DET (Verlander)
26. Shaun Marcum (MIL) -- Tue-@MIA (Turner), Sun-@STL (Kelly)
27. Stephen Strasburg (WAS) -- Fri-MIA (Buehrle)
28. Brett Anderson (OAK) -- Sat-@SEA (Iwakuma)
29. Zack Greinke (LAA) -- Tue-@OAK (Parker)
30. R.A. Dickey (NYM) -- Wed-@STL (Wainwright)
31. Tommy Milone (OAK) -- Mon-LAA (Wilson), Sun-@SEA (Vargas)
32. Chris Sale (CHW) -- Sat-KC (Mendoza)
33. Jon Lester (BOS) -- Tue-@SEA (Beavan)
34. Yovani Gallardo (MIL) -- Fri-@STL (Lohse)
35. Tim Hudson (ATL) -- Thu-COL (Chacin)
36. Mike Fiers (MIL) -- Mon-@MIA (Nolasco), Sat-@STL (Westbrook)
37. Tommy Hanson (ATL) -- Tue-COL (Pomeranz), Sun-@NYM (Young)
38. Ross Detwiler (WAS) -- Mon-CHC (Samardzija), Sat-MIA (Nolasco)
39. Anibal Sanchez (DET) -- Mon-CLE (Kluber), Sun-@LAA (Wilson)
40. Jordan Zimmermann (WAS) -- Thu-CHC (Germano)
41. Kyle Lohse (STL) -- Fri-MIL (Gallardo)
42. Jaime Garcia (STL) -- Tue-NYM (Harvey)
43. Jake Peavy (CHW) -- Wed-MIN (Walters)
44. Matt Moore (TB) -- Wed-NYY (Kuroda)
45. Hisashi Iwakuma (SEA) -- Sat-OAK (Anderson)
46. Doug Fister (DET) -- Wed-CLE (Jimenez)
47. Josh Johnson (MIA) -- Thu-MIL (Estrada)
48. Jason Vargas (SEA) -- Mon-BOS (Buchholz), Sun-OAK (Milone)
49. Patrick Corbin (ARI) -- Mon-@SF (Zito), Sun-@SD (Werner)
50. Brandon Morrow (TOR) -- Wed-BAL (Gonzalez)
51. James McDonald (PIT) -- Sat-CHC (Samardzija)
52. Tim Lincecum (SF) -- Fri-LAD (Beckett)
53. Wandy Rodriguez (PIT) -- Tue-HOU (Lyles)
54. Matt Harvey (NYM) -- Tue-@STL (Garcia)
55. Jonathon Niese (NYM) -- Fri-ATL (Maholm)
56. Ryan Dempster (TEX) -- Wed-@KC (TBD)
57. Jarrod Parker (OAK) -- Tue-LAA (Greinke)
58. Ryan Vogelsong (SF) -- Tue-ARI (Kennedy)
59. Ian Kennedy (ARI) -- Tue-@SF (Vogelsong)
60. Jeremy Hellickson (TB) -- Fri-TEX (Holland)
61. Max Scherzer (DET) -- Fri-@LAA (Santana)
62. Derek Holland (TEX) -- Fri-@TB (Hellickson)
63. Brandon McCarthy (OAK) -- Wed-LAA (Haren)
64. Francisco Liriano (CHW) -- Fri-KC (Hochevar)
65. Paul Maholm (ATL) -- Fri-@NYM (Niese)
66. Phil Hughes (NYY) -- Fri-@BAL (Tillman)
67. Mike Minor (ATL) -- Wed-COL (White)
68. Bronson Arroyo (CIN) -- Sat-HOU (Norris)
69. Tyler Skaggs (ARI) -- Fri-@SD (Volquez)
70. Ervin Santana (LAA) -- Fri-DET (Scherzer)
71. Marco Estrada (MIL) -- Thu-@MIA (Johnson)
72. Mark Buehrle (MIA) -- Fri-@WAS (Strasburg)
73. A.J. Burnett (PIT) -- Fri-CHC (Wood)
74. Homer Bailey (CIN) -- Fri-HOU (Harrell)
75. Josh Beckett (LAD) -- Fri-@SF (Lincecum)

Two-start options for AL-/NL-only leagues:
Zach Britton (BAL) -- Tue-@TOR (Villanueva), Sun-NYY (Garcia)
Bruce Chen (KC) -- Mon-TEX (Darvish), Sun-@CHW (TBD)
Freddy Garcia (NYY) -- Tue-@TB (Cobb), Sun-@BAL (Britton)
J.A. Happ (TOR) -- Mon-BAL (Saunders), Sun-@BOS (Buchholz)
Ricky Nolasco (MIA) -- Mon-MIL (Fiers), Sat-@WAS (Detwiler)
Jacob Turner (MIA) -- Tue-MIL (Marcum), Sun-@WAS (Jackson)
Andrew Werner (SD) -- Mon-@LAD (Blanton), Sun-ARI (Corbin)
Barry Zito (SF) -- Mon-ARI (Corbin), Sun-LAD (Blanton)

No-thank-yous, among two-start pitchers:
Joe Blanton (LAD) -- Mon-SD (Werner), Sun-@SF (Zito)
Tyler Chatwood (COL) -- Mon-@ATL (Medlen), Sat-@PHI (Hamels)
Tyler Cloyd (PHI) -- Mon-@CIN (Cueto), Sun-COL (Pomeranz)
Joe Kelly (STL) -- Mon-NYM (McHugh), Sun-MIL (Marcum)
Corey Kluber (CLE) -- Mon-@DET (Sanchez), Sun-@MIN (Vasquez)
Jeff Locke (PIT) -- Mon-HOU (TBD), Sun-CHC (Rusin)
Drew Pomeranz (COL) -- Tue-@ATL (Hanson), Sun-@PHI (Cloyd)
Chris Rusin (CHC) -- Tue-@WAS (Jackson), Sun-@PIT (Locke)
Joe Saunders (BAL) -- Mon-@TOR (Happ), Sat-NYY (Sabathia)

Pitching notes

• Friday will more than likely be the day that Stephen Strasburg clears the 160-inning threshold, meaning that beginning with that start, each and every start he makes might be his last of 2012. As is, Nationals manager Davey Johnson said on Aug. 30 that Strasburg will make only two or three more starts. In other words, enjoy Strasburg's contributions now, especially in what's a fantastic week of matchups for Nationals pitching; they're my Baseball Challenge pick for Week 21. They'll first host a Cubs team batting a major league-worst .190 AVG/.259 OBP/.301 SLG and scoring a major league-worst 2.63 runs per game on the road since the All-Star break. Then they get a Miami Marlins team that has batted .252/.316/.457 and averaged 3.53 runs over 15 games against the Nationals this season. Among other recommended BBC pitching staffs: Pirates (HOU-3, CHC-3), Reds (PHI-3, HOU-3), Los Angeles Dodgers (SD-3, @SF-3), Seattle Mariners (BOS-3, OAK-3).

There are no games scheduled at Colorado's Coors Field, No. 1 in runs scored on our Park Factor page and home to the Rockies, baseball's No. 1 team in terms of runs scored per game and OPS in home games.

The following visiting pitchers are scheduled to pitch at San Diego's Petco Park, No. 27 in runs scored on our Park Factor page and home to the San Diego Padres, No. 28 in terms runs scored per game and No. 29 OPS in home games:
Tyler Skaggs (Friday): Has never pitched at Petco. Start. Length of outing is a concern, but he has the talent to excel facing this matchup.
Wade Miley (Saturday): 2 career GS at Petco, 4.05 ERA, 1.05 WHIP. Start. He continues to excel, with three consecutive quality starts.
Patrick Corbin (Sunday): Has never pitched at Petco. Sit. He's serving up too many home runs and struggled in his last game against the Padres.

The following visiting pitchers are scheduled to pitch at Seattle's Safeco Field, No. 30 in runs scored on our Park Factor page and home to the Mariners, baseball's worst team in terms of runs scored per game and OPS in home games.
Clay Buchholz (Monday): 2 career GS at Safeco, 2.92 ERA, 1.30 WHIP. Start. Forgive him his past two outings; they were against the Los Angeles Angels. This is a far softer matchup for Buchholz.
Jon Lester (Tuesday): 6 career GS at Safeco, 2 QS, 4.42 ERA, 1.27 WHIP. Start. He had a 3.59 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in six starts in August.
Aaron Cook (Wednesday): Threw a 2-hit shutout in only career GS at Safeco on June 29. Start, but only if you can stomach his lack of strikeouts.
A.J. Griffin (Friday): Has never pitched at Safeco. Start, in AL-only leagues. He had a solid first outing back from the DL.
Brett Anderson (Saturday): 6 career GS at Safeco, 5 QS, 1.15 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 8.77 K/9. Start. He's a no-brainer right now.
Tommy Milone (Sunday): 2 career GS at Safeco, 2.77 ERA, 1.00 WHIP. Start. Current Mariners are batting .278/.316/.352 lifetime against him.

• Continue to exploit Astros matchups on the pitching side, as five of their six opponents are available as free agents in at least 30 percent of ESPN leagues and four are available in at least 70 percent. Among the week's highlights: Homer Bailey (Friday) is a perfect 5-for-5 in quality starts with four wins, a 1.03 ERA and 1.03 WHIP against the Astros since the beginning of 2011; and Bronson Arroyo (Saturday) is 8-for-9 in quality starts with seven wins, a 2.32 ERA and 0.94 WHIP against the Astros since the beginning of 2009.

CC Sabathia has back-to-back quality starts in which he has 17 strikeouts compared to one walk combined, and he'll need to keep up that pace in a pair of critical road starts against divisional contenders Tampa Bay and Baltimore. During his Yankees career, Sabathia is 4-for-7 in quality starts with a 4.03 ERA and 1.39 WHIP at Tampa's Tropicana Field and 7-for-9 with seven wins, a 2.74 ERA and 1.25 WHIP at Baltimore's Camden Yards. Challenging as those matchups might be, he's enough up to the task to start in fantasy.

• Though A.J. Burnett has failed to record a quality start in any of his past four appearances, two of which were against the Padres, his continued dominance of the Cubs makes him a bounce-back candidate this week. He has never lost to the Cubs in seven career starts, is 2-0 with 14 strikeouts in 14 1/3 shutout innings against them this season, and current Cubs combined have .173/.244/.187 career rates and only one extra-base hit, a double, in 82 plate appearances against him.

• What, exactly, is it about Daisuke Matsuzaka and the Toronto Blue Jays? He's 7-1 with seven quality starts, a 3.33 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in 13 career starts against them. In addition, current Blue Jays combined have .184/.220/.264 lifetime rates and a 27.5 percent strikeout rate against him.

Yovani Gallardo might be riding a six-start winning streak, each of those a quality start and his ERA 1.90 and K's-per-nine ratio 9.28 during it, but if there's one matchup that has historically flummoxed him, it's the St. Louis Cardinals. He is 1-9 with only four quality starts in 13 career games against them, his 7.07 ERA his highest against any opponent he has faced multiple times. Granted, former Cardinal Albert Pujols had a lot to do with that -- he has lifetime .483/.556/.966 rates against Gallardo -- but current Cardinals are still .301/.394/.583 combined hitters, averaging one home run per 15.6 at-bats against him. I like to set my lineups trusting that a pitcher with near-elite skills riding a hot streak can remain hot, but if you're facing a resources crunch (innings/starts limit), it'd be understandable if you prefer to avoid him.

Streamer's delight

Among streaming starter -- something I define as single-start options in daily leagues among pitchers owned in 25 percent of ESPN leagues or fewer -- options for Week 21, here are my picks by day:

Monday, Sept. 3: Ricky Nolasco versus Milwaukee Brewers
Tuesday, Sept. 4: Rick Porcello versus Cleveland Indians
Wednesday, Sept. 5: Aaron Cook at Seattle Mariners
Thursday, Sept. 6: Marco Estrada at Miami Marlins
Friday, Sept. 7: Francisco Liriano versus Kansas City Royals
Saturday, Sept. 8: Bronson Arroyo versus Houston Astros
Sunday, Sept. 9: Patrick Corbin at San Diego Padres

Past picks
Friday, Aug. 24: Patrick Corbin -- 4 IP, 9 H, 4 ER, 1 BB, 2 K
Saturday, Aug. 25: Jose Quintana -- 5 2/3 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 4 BB, 4 K
Sunday, Aug. 26: Lucas Harrell -- QS, 7 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 7 K
Monday, Aug. 27: Bronson Arroyo -- W, QS, 6 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 3 K
Tuesday, August 28: Hisashi Iwakuma -- W, QS, 6 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 4 BB, 4 K
Wednesday, Aug. 29: Barry Zito -- 2 1/3 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 0 BB, 1 K
Thursday, Aug. 30: Jeremy Guthrie -- W, QS, 7 1/3 IP, 10 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 3 K

Week's total: 7 GS, 3 W (42.9%), 4 QS (57.1%), 38 1/3 IP, 39 H, 14 ER, 12 BB, 24 K, 3.27 ERA, 1.33 WHIP
Season total: 135 GS, 60 W (44.4%), 72 QS (53.3%), 816 1/3 IP, 783 H, 346 ER, 262 BB, 601 K, 3.81 ERA, 1.28 WHIP

Hitting ratings

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.

Hitting notes

• One of the ways in which the Braves' schedule stands out is on the hitting side, being that they'll face mediocre Rockies pitching for four games at home before missing R.A. Dickey -- assuming he remains on his start-every-fifth-game pattern -- in the three-game set at Citi Field. Seven games, five against right-handed starters, is an especially attractive week for Freddie Freeman, a .290/.358/.481 career hitter against righties (.292/.364/.518 this season) and .295/.338/.508 in 15 career games at Citi Field. He's also 3-for-5 with two home runs in his career against Jhoulys Chacin, Thursday's opponent, and even if the Mets somehow slide Dickey into that series, Freeman is 9-for-18 with four doubles and a homer against the knuckleballer. Incidentally, the weekend will represent the final series in New York of Chipper Jones' career, and considering his history against the division-rival Mets, he'll surely be motivated to go out on a high note.

• Returning home, to homer-friendly U.S. Cellular Field, should help two struggling Chicago White Sox return to form: A.J. Pierzynski, hitless in his past six games (17 at-bats total), is a .317/.377/.645 hitter at The Cell this season, his 15 homers there second on the team. Dewayne Wise, 3-for-20 (.150 AVG) in his past five games, is a .387 hitter (12-for-31) with one home run in seven games there this season, and a .281 hitter with 10 stolen bases in 93 career games there. Pierzynski is an automatic start in all formats, while Wise warrants AL-only attention. Kevin Youkilis also gets a boost in games at U.S. Cellular; he's a .351/.490/.730 hitter with eight home runs and 25 RBIs in 22 home games for the White Sox.

• How many of you have noticed how productive the Orioles' bats have been against Yankees pitching this season? As a team the Orioles have averaged 4.73 runs per game with .290/.348/.470 triple-slash rates in 11 contests against their division rivals. Pay particular attention to J.J. Hardy, available in 14.5 percent of ESPN leagues; he is a .288/.324/.621 hitter with five homers in 18 career games at Toronto's Rogers Centre and a .314/.340/.608 hitter with four homers in 11 games against the Yankees this season. Chris Davis also appears to be trending back toward "hot," right as a homestand arrives, as he's hitting .346 (9-for-26) with five homers in his past seven games. He's a .269/.324/.527 hitter with a team-high 15 home runs at Camden Yards this season, so get him back into your lineup.

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