Happ faces tough challenge


Along with a doubleheader in Detroit, Friday's games are packed with No. 1 and 2 starters, with 12 starters ranking in the top 40 of starting pitchers on ESPN's player rater. One of those 12 is J.A. Happ, surprisingly enough, who has been a revelation, and owners are catching on: His ownership has jumped 12.5 percent in the past week. He'll be looking for his eighth win, facing off against Joel Pineiro, who is ranked 25th out of starting pitchers.

Two such starters, however, will be missing: Jason Marquis (29th) and Erik Bedard (37th); both had their starts pushed back. Bedard will simply start a day later, primarily to set him up for a division matchup against the Rangers later in the month. Marquis, on the other hand, is dealing with a blister and won't start again until Tuesday.

For starters

Starting pitcher rankings for July 24, 2009

Rk.: The author's ranking of that pitcher for that day only. T: Pitcher throws left-handed or right-handed. W-L: Pitcher's win-loss record. ERA: Pitcher's earned run average. WHIP: Pitcher's average number of walks plus hits surrendered per inning. K/9: Pitcher's average number of strikeouts per nine innings. OPSA: Pitcher's on-base plus slugging percentage surrendered to opponents. OPS: Pitcher's opponent's composite team on-base plus slugging percentage. CT%: Pitcher's opponent's success rate putting the ball in play (versus striking out).

Selected notes: After he allowed four runs or more in seven of his first 11 starts, Francisco Liriano's performance has stabilized recently, as he's allowed more than three earned runs just once in his past seven outings. Much of that might be a by-product of the schedule, though. The only above-average offense Liriano has faced in that span was the Yankees, a start in which he allowed six runs, although only three were earned. The Angels are leading the majors in OPS and runs scored this month, which would normally raise a red flag, but many of their top performers on the month -- Torii Hunter, Vladimir Guerrero and Juan Rivera -- are currently injured. That still leaves the likes of Bobby Abreu and Kendry Morales, but Liriano has the benefit of the platoon advantage in those matchups, turning what looked like a tough start into a rather favorable one. … With virtually all of the Mets' productive players on the disabled list, it's little surprise that they have scored the fewest runs in baseball this month, and the news doesn't get better, as Gary Sheffield may be the newest victim. That makes them a perfect team to spot-start against. Daniel Murphy is hitting third, and Jeff Francoeur is hitting fifth; if Mike Hampton can't go six or seven strong innings against such a decrepit lineup, he should be ashamed of himself. … We've seen a minor league stint do wonders for a couple of pitchers this season -- Ricky Nolasco and Jose Contreras immediately come to mind -- and Manny Parra has looked like a different pitcher in his two starts since being back. He's struck out 13 batters in 13 innings, but just as impressive are the four walks and two extra-base hits allowed. However, you can't just forget the 13 awful starts, and he's running into the Braves just as they're hitting better than they have all season; their .843 OPS in July ranks second in the majors. It's best to take a wait-and-see approach unless you're dying for K's. … Don't look now, but J.A. Happ has six consecutive quality starts. Even more impressive is that he's gone at least seven innings in five of them, including a complete-game shutout against the Blue Jays. Backed by one of the top offenses in the league, that's a recipe for some cheap wins. Believe it or not, no team in baseball is worse against left-handers than the Cardinals, making Happ a must-start. … Mat Latos, one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, lived up to expectations in his first career start, limiting the Rockies to two runs on three hits in four innings, striking out four along the way. The Padres are being very careful with their future stud, keeping him on a strict pitch count, so it's unlikely he'll have significant value in shallow leagues this season. But for a talent who pitches half of his games in Petco Park -- or when facing mediocre offenses, like the Nationals -- you can consider him the fantasy equivalent of a valuable swingman, and it's always better to start a valuable pitcher for four innings than a mediocre one for five or six. … What a difference a defense makes! Scott Feldman has gone from a 5.29 ERA and 1.43 WHIP last season to a 3.87 and 1.16 mark this year. Since he pitches to contact, a great defense behind him has allowed him to become a fine innings eater, as he has five straight quality starts. He's not very sexy, but he gets the job done, at least against the weak offenses in the league; his opponent Friday, the Royals, sure applies.

Now batting

Hitters' count

Placido Polanco, 2B, Tigers: He's hitting .357 off Jose Contreras in 42 at-bats, and although he's lacking power (zero home runs), he's hit Contreras well enough that he has rarely had to take a walk (just one), giving that average a little extra value.
Jim Thome, DH, White Sox: Seven of Thome's 10 hits off Justin Verlander have left the park, so it's easy to forgive the .263 batting average in 38 at-bats when he's slugging a home run in nearly 20 percent of his at-bats.
Carlos Lee, OF, Astros: Although Johan Santana has struck Lee out eight times, Lee has crushed him when he's made contact, going 10-for-32 (.313) with three doubles and three home runs.
Mark Reynolds, 1B/3B, Diamondbacks: He's only stepped into the batter's box against left-handers for 62 at-bats, but he's slugged five home runs when given the opportunity. Zach Duke is not only a lefty, but a lefty Reynolds has had prior success against, with three extra-base hits -- including a long ball -- in five at-bats.
Mike Napoli, C, Angels: Four of Napoli's 12 home runs have come against left-handers, and for the season he's hitting .417 in 60 at-bats against them. Francisco Liriano has allowed right-handers to slug .494 against him, with righties also responsible for all but one of the 15 home runs Liriano has allowed, so Napoli is a good bet for a strong performance Friday.
Michael Cuddyer, OF, Twins: John Lackey has allowed three home runs in 14 at-bats to Cuddyer, and with that many gopher balls in such a small number of at-bats, you'll want to play the odds and ensure that Cuddyer's in your lineup.
Mark DeRosa, 2B/3B/OF, Cardinals: DeRosa is 5-for-11 his past three games, with three homers -- great news, considering that wrist ailments tend to sap power. It wouldn't be surprising to see him keep up the barrage against the Phillies' J.A. Happ, who has the misfortune of being left-handed; DeRosa is hitting .324 with seven home runs and a .691 slugging percentage in 68 at-bats against lefties this season.
David DeJesus, OF, Royals: He's 25-for-70 (.357) in July so far, and he's also been particularly successful against Scott Feldman, going 5-for-5 with four walks and a home run in his career.

Pitchers' count

Brandon Inge, C/3B, Tigers: He's just 12-for-53 (.226) in his lifetime against Jose Contreras, with only three extra-base hits. This season he's mustered one hit in five at-bats against Contreras, and his .243 average against right-handers in general means you should leave him on your bench for the day since he's facing two right-handers in the double-header.
Paul Konerko, 1B, White Sox: With strikeouts in one-third of his at-bats versus Justin Verlander, Konerko has earned his .133 average. He's mustered four hits in 30 at-bats, all of which have been singles.
Alfonso Soriano, OF, Cubs: Soriano is hitting .321 in July, but you may want to think twice about keeping him active Friday, as he's just 6-for-25 (.240) against Aaron Harang, striking out five times.
Alex Rios, OF, Blue Jays: Only once has Rios hit anything that has gone for more than a single against Matt Garza. He's 3-for-18 (.167) overall.
Carlos Pena, 1B, Rays: Pena may be slugging .556 versus right-handers this year, but in 49 career at-bats against Roy Halladay he's slugging a mere .449. Considering he also has more strikeouts (15) than hits (13), it seems unlikely Pena will be able to display his usual proficiency against righties.
Josh Hamilton, OF, Rangers: Zack Greinke must be about the last pitcher Hamilton ever wants to see, as he's hitless against the righty in 10 career at-bats, striking out exactly half the time.
Brad Hawpe, OF, Rockies: Hawpe has had enough patience to work an obscene 11 walks versus Matt Cain, but as far as the actual hitting goes, he's just 2-for-20 with seven strikeouts. It's worth noting that Hawpe isn't the only Rockie who has trouble against Cain, as Clint Barmes is 0-for-10 with two strikeouts.
• Kendry Morales, 1B, Angels: No matter how hot Morales gets, remember to sit him against left-handers. The Angels usually do, as he has played only 33 games and amassed 64 at-bats versus lefties this season. He's just a .226 hitter against southpaws in his career, so it's a weakness his owners will have to live with, 20-game hitting streak or not.

If you're hardcore

Ryan Spilborghs, OF, Rockies: Now that manager Jim Tracy has rewarded Seth Smith with the everyday job in left field, there's no guarantee Ryan Spilborghs will start Friday, but it's worth the risk anyway; Spilborghs has hit two home runs off Matt Cain this season, the only two dingers he's launched against right-handers all year. It also helps that Smith is 0-for-5 against Cain in his career, and that Cain has limited left-handers to a .213 average in 235 at-bats this season. Most managers tend to look at such situational stats, and Smith has started every game since the All-Star break, so an off day could be forthcoming.
Matt Diaz, OF, Braves: He's hitting .358 against left-handers this season -- only slightly higher than his .333 career average against lefties -- and has formed a platoon with Ryan Church in right field in recent weeks. Diaz doesn't offer much power or speed, but as long as you take the time to spot-start him, his ability to hit for average has value in deep leagues.
Ian Stewart, 2B/3B, Rockies: Stewart might be hitting only .273 in July, but a whopping 10 of his 14 hits have gone for extra bases, including three home runs. In fact, since June, more than 60 percent of his hits have been of the extra-base variety. The only thing holding him back has been his performance at Coors Field, of all places -- a .191 average in 110 at-bats -- but what can only be explained as bad luck is reversing, as he's hitting .305 with seven extra-base hits in 36 at-bats this month.
Randy Winn, OF, Giants: Winn has gone 7-for-15 in his past three games to up his July average to .323, and against right-handers in general Winn is batting a respectable .310 with eight steals in 274 at-bats. That will play, especially on the road. He's hitting 80 points better away from AT&T Park.
Garrett Jones, OF, Pirates: With seven home runs in his past nine games, there's really no hotter hitter in baseball right now. On the month he has nine home runs and three stolen bases with a .313 average, and a 12-7 strikeout-to-walk rate isn't bad either. There's no telling how long he can keep it up, but a favorable matchup against Yusmeiro Petit -- who has allowed more than two home runs per nine innings in his brief career -- could mean another otherworldly performance is in the cards.


Injury list: Out

Jason Giambi, 1B, Athletics (15-day DL, quad)
Ramon Hernandez, C/1B, Reds (15-day DL, knee)

Injury list: Day-to-day

Lance Berkman, 1B, Astros (calf; available to pinch-hit)
Joe Crede, 3B, Twins (shoulder): Athletes often aren't the best sources, even when it comes to describing their own injuries, but Crede's description doesn't paint a rosy picture, as he says he experienced "numbness" and "a lot of throbbing." A trip to Dr. Lewis Yocum's office Thursday in Los Angeles will tell more.
Jose Guillen, OF, Royals (leg): Guillen was pulled Wednesday after complaining of a sudden pain in his right leg in the second inning. A diagnosis will be available later in the day.
Franklin Gutierrez, OF, Mariners (knee/elbow): If Gutierrez is able to take batting practice, there's a good chance he could return Friday.
Felipe Lopez, 2B, Brewers (hamstring; available to pinch-hit)
Manny Ramirez, OF, Dodgers (hand; available to pinch-hit): Appearing as a pinch-hitter with the bases juiced on Wednesday, Manny took the first pitch he saw out of the park. He's considered probable for the weekend series versus the Marlins that opens Friday.
Edgar Renteria, SS, Giants (elbow)
• Juan Rivera, OF, Angels (leg; available to pinch-hit): Rivera missed his fourth consecutive game Wednesday, and manager Mike Scioscia said that "it might be a couple more days" before he's ready to return.
Aaron Rowand, OF, Giants (forearm)
• Gary Sheffield, OF, Mets (hamstring): Sheffield hasn't played since last Friday, and might be in danger of landing on the disabled list. Bart Hubbuch of the New York Post reported that if his injury doesn't improve by Friday, the Mets may lose their fifth regular to the DL.

Weather concerns

• Nearly a third of the day's games are weatherproof: Rays-Blue Jays, Braves-Brewers, Mets-Astros, Pirates-Diamondbacks and Indians-Mariners.
• In Chicago, the Reds-Cubs affair risks a few isolated storms (30 percent chance). Farther east, Philadelphia (Cardinals-Phillies) and New York (Oakland-Yankees) also share a 30 percent chance of rain.

Adam Madison is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com.