Two of fantasy baseball's better pitchers from 2008 and the first half of 2009 return to the mound Wednesday, as the Angels welcome back Joe Saunders and the Red Sox activate Tim Wakefield from the disabled list. You might remember Saunders as an out-of-nowhere star of 2008, a winner of 17 games with a 3.41 ERA, while Wakefield rode an 11-3 record and a 4.31 ERA to a spot on the All-Star team and a distinction as one of the first half's most surprising stories. But does either pitcher warrant activating in his first start back? They both will be facing American League Central contenders at home, Saunders the Tigers and Wakefield the White Sox.
Meanwhile, rookie Derek Holland, one of the bigger stories of the second half, gets one of his toughest tests yet, a road start at Yankee Stadium. It's also a critical game for his Rangers; they need wins to hang in the AL wild-card race.
Starting pitcher rankings for Aug. 26, 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: Rich Harden is 3-1 with a 1.64 ERA, 0.77 WHIP, 55 strikeouts in 44 innings and a .136 batting average allowed in seven starts since the All-Star break, a hot streak that commenced with a win versus these same Nationals. Harden went six innings and allowed only an unearned run on three hits against them July 16. He's about as hot as any pitcher in the game and a definite must-start. Josh Johnson has never lost to the Mets in eight career starts; he's 6-0 with a 2.05 ERA and 1.04 WHIP versus them overall. Although I admit I'm a tad concerned about his wearing down in the season's final weeks, it's hard to play against that trend or his 6-1 record, 2.09 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 12 home starts this season. Johnson might not have a lot of stellar outings remaining, but I'll bet this is one. The Diamondbacks have had a whole host of problems hitting Jonathan Sanchez, batting .133 with a .627 OPS in his three games (two starts) against them this season. He's also 4-2 with a 2.90 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 60 strikeouts in 49 2/3 innings and a .161 batting average allowed in eight starts since (and including) his July 10 no-hitter, and it's a home game for the Giants. Expect continued greatness. About the only pitchers who don't warrant must-start status when facing the Padres are so-so spot starters, poor-performing No. 5 starters or pitchers in the midst of dreadful funks. No matter how you feel about Kenshin Kawakami, he doesn't qualify as any of those three, especially not at home, where he has a 3.38 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 11 starts. Joel Pineiro is 5-0 with a 3.04 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in seven starts since the All-Star break, and 5-4 with a 2.41 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in 10 starts at home this season. Plus, he defeated the Astros behind 6 2/3 innings of two-run, eight-hit baseball April 10. Still not a believer? Randy Wolf has been one of the primary reasons the Dodgers have so successfully navigated through their recent barrage of pitching injuries, winning each of his past three starts behind a 1.99 ERA. He has tossed quality starts in both of his turns versus the Rockies this season, and while each was played at Dodger Stadium, Coors Field shouldn't present him with a far greater challenge. Only avoid Wolf if you're facing a starts/innings crunch. Derek Holland is a very curious case Wednesday, perhaps the biggest wild card among scheduled starters this day. Those who remember his previous start versus the Yankees, on May 27 at Texas, might fear something like the six runs (five earned) on 10 hits, two of them home runs, in five innings. But Holland is a different pitcher today, the owner of a 4-1 record, 1.85 ERA and 0.91 WHIP in his past five starts. That the Yankees sport baseball's best team OPS versus left-handers (.865) and have won seven of their past eight games versus lefty starters has me leaning toward a "no" with the rookie, but there are worse choices for Wednesday. Tim Wakefield might be coming off a solid rehabilitation start for Triple-A Pawtucket, allowing one earned run on two hits in 5 2/3 innings this past Friday, but I'd advise keeping him reserved for evaluation purposes for now. He has missed six weeks of action, so he's bound to be a tad rusty, and will be facing a White Sox offense that has averaged 5.2 runs per game with an .801 team OPS and 81 home runs in its past 58 contests. No matter how you feel about Nick Blackburn's matchups appeal in general, right now he's not the kind of pitcher you can trust. Typically great at home, the right-hander hasn't had a quality start at the Metrodome since July 5, compiling a miserable 9.17 ERA in his four home starts since then.
• Chone Figgins, 3B, Angels: He's a lifetime .538 hitter (7-for-13) with one double and one triple versus Edwin Jackson; amazingly, his success against the right-hander has been entirely with the bat and not on the base paths. Figgins was caught stealing in his only career try versus Jackson (on June 6).
• Magglio Ordonez, OF, Tigers: Here's a rare time for Ordonez to stand out. He's 7-for-19 (.368 BA) with one double and one homer in his career against Joe Saunders.
• Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers: A heads-up, especially to those of you in the daily Baseball Challenge. Cabrera is 3-for-8 with one double and four walks in his career versus Saunders. He's also scorching hot in August, batting .376 with six homers, 23 RBIs and a 1.107 OPS in 22 games.
• Adam LaRoche, 1B, Braves: He's a perfect 5-for-5 in his career versus Tim Stauffer, including two doubles. Not that it should come as any surprise, because two of those hits came Aug. 4, and since LaRoche's trade to Atlanta four days earlier, he's a .406 hitter with a 1.239 OPS in 20 games.
• Derek Jeter, SS, Yankees: One of the Yankees' two most successful hitters versus Derek Holland in their past meetings is Jeter; he's 4-for-4 with one double against the left-hander. He's also a .434 hitter with a 1.099 OPS versus lefties this year.
• Hideki Matsui, OF, Yankees: He's on a homer binge recently, with seven in his past nine games, which makes his two home runs in four career at-bats versus Holland seem all the more relevant to the matchup.
• Marlon Byrd, OF, Rangers: He's 5-for-10 in his career versus Andy Pettitte, one of those hits a triple and another a home run.
• Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pirates: He already is 2-for-3 with one double and one home run in his brief career versus Cole Hamels, and is killing left-handers to the tune of a .313 batting average and .947 OPS this season.
• Vernon Wells, OF, Blue Jays: He's a lifetime .364 hitter (12-for-33) with four doubles and three home runs versus Scott Kazmir.
• Aaron Hill, 2B, Blue Jays: He's a lifetime .333 hitter (10-for-30) with two doubles, one triple and one home run versus Kazmir.
• J.D. Drew, OF, Red Sox: He has a fair share of success versus Gavin Floyd, going 2-for-7 with one triple, one home run and three walks in his career.
• A.J. Pierzynski, C, White Sox: One of the key questions in evaluating Tim Wakefield's matchup is: How effective will his knuckleball be? Always pick the hitters with the track record against the knuckler; Pierzynski represents Chicago's best, with his .292 career batting average and .804 OPS against Wakefield.
• Dan Uggla, 2B, Marlins: He's 7-for-21 (.333 BA) with four doubles and eight RBIs in his career versus Mike Pelfrey.
• Jeff Francoeur, OF, Mets: If he's able to play Wednesday, the matchup suits him; he's 7-for-19 (.368 BA) in his career versus Josh Johnson.
• Joey Votto, 1B, Reds: He's a lifetime .333 hitter (5-for-15) with one double and two home runs versus Braden Looper.
• Nyjer Morgan, OF, Nationals: He's the only Nationals hitter with even a shred of success versus Rich Harden. Morgan is 4-for-7 in his career against the right-hander, also stealing a base in his only chance against him.
• Jason Kubel, OF, Twins: He's 4-for-7 in his career versus Jeremy Guthrie, and all four hits went for extra bases (one double, three home runs). Also, Kubel has dominated at home (.324 BA, .924 OPS in 2009) and versus righties (.329, .995).
• Mark DeRosa, 1B/2B/3B/OF, Cardinals: He's a lifetime .440 hitter (11-for-25) with four doubles and one home run versus Roy Oswalt.
• Carlos Lee, OF, Astros: He's 11-for-26 (.423 BA) with three doubles and two home runs in his career against Joel Pineiro.
• Lance Berkman, 1B, Astros: The Astros' two best sluggers have great track records against Pineiro. Shocking huh? Berkman is a lifetime .357 hitter (5-for-14) with two doubles and two home runs versus the right-hander.
• Bengie Molina, C, Giants: A whole host of Giants hitters have historically clobbered Doug Davis. Molina stands out most; he's 17-for-44 (.386 BA) with four home runs and 11 RBIs in his career versus the left-hander.
• Edgar Renteria, SS, Giants: If it's not Molina whose career numbers versus Davis most impress you, surely Renteria's will. He's 8-for-16 (.500 BA) with one double and two home runs against the left-hander.
• Freddy Sanchez, 2B, Giants: He's 17-for-37 (.459 BA) with five doubles and one home run in his career against Davis.
• Bobby Abreu, OF, Angels: He and Edwin Jackson are familiar with each other from their days as AL East foes, and it has been all Jackson in past meetings. Abreu is a lifetime .179 hitter (5-for-28) versus the right-hander.
• Howie Kendrick, 2B, Angels: He's 1-for-13 (.077 BA) in his career versus Jackson, without an extra-base hit.
• Johnny Damon, OF, Yankees: One of the subtle signs of the aging process with Damon is that he can't hit lefties effectively, with a .799 OPS against that side this season after .710 in 2008. He's already hitless in four at-bats versus Derek Holland, and three of those were ugly strikeouts.
• Hank Blalock, 1B/3B, Rangers: He's 2-for-11 (.182 BA) in his career versus Andy Pettitte,although both of those hits were doubles.
• Ryan Howard, 1B, Phillies: Paul Maholm is vicious against left-handed batters, limiting them to a .203 batting average and .554 OPS in his career, and holding them to less than a .550 OPS both this and last season. For that reason, it's no shock that Howard is 2-for-14 with five strikeouts in his career against the southpaw.
• Jim Thome, DH, White Sox: If the aforementioned Pierzynski is the White Sox's best knuckleball hitter, Thome must be the worst, as he's a .154 hitter with a .609 OPS in his career versus Tim Wakefield. He also has been battling a heel injury, so he might not be especially sharp in this game.
• Hanley Ramirez, SS, Marlins: Wow, not too many pitchers have "Han-Ram's" number, but Mike Pelfrey sure does. Pelfrey has limited Ramirez to a 4-for-23 (.174 BA) career performance, albeit with one home run.
• Brandon Phillips, 2B, Reds: Amazingly, he can't even touch Braden Looper. Phillips has one measly hit in 16 career at-bats versus the right-hander.
• Cristian Guzman, SS, Nationals: Now we get into the portion of Daily Notes that demonstrates Rich Harden's career mastery of Nationals hitters. Exhibit A: Guzman is hitless in eight career at-bats versus the right-hander.
• Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Nationals: He's Exhibit B, thanks to his 0-for-6 career performance versus Harden, including five strikeouts.
• Adam Dunn, 1B/OF, Nationals: And he's Exhibit C, as he's hitless in five career at-bats versus Harden, four of those strikeouts.
• Orlando Cabrera, SS, Twins: He's 1-for-10 (.100 BA) in his career versus Jeremy Guthrie, including two strikeouts.
• Yadier Molina, C, Cardinals: He's 3-for-16 (.188 BA) in his career versus Roy Oswalt, all three of those hits singles.
• Todd Helton, 1B, Rockies: Although generally a strong fantasy choice in his home games, Helton faces an unattractive matchup versus Randy Wolf. He's 5-for-25 (.200 BA) with six strikeouts in his career against the left-hander.
• Mark Reynolds, 1B/3B, Diamondbacks: It's bad enough he has been dealing with the flu lately, but now he has to tangle with Jonathan Sanchez, who has struck him out 10 times in 16 career at-bats. Reynolds has three hits against the lefty (.188 BA).
If you're hardcore
• Gary Matthews Jr., OF, Angels: The Angels haven't been playing him much since Torii Hunter returned from the DL, giving him only three starts in their past nine games, but they might consider slotting Matthews in there versus Edwin Jackson, against whom he's 6-for-10 with two walks in his career.
• Marcus Thames, OF, Tigers: He's one of the primary reasons Joe Saunders is a shaky fantasy option versus Detroit. Thames is 4-for-12 (.333 BA) in his career against the left-hander, and two of those hits were home runs.
• Will Venable, OF, Padres: He was a perfect 3-for-3 versus Kenshin Kawakami in their Aug. 3 meeting and has been red hot in his past 23 games, batting .355 with six homers, 19 RBIs and a 1.088 OPS during that span.
• Ivan Rodriguez, C, Rangers: The concern here is that Derek Holland's strongest outings came with Taylor Teagarden catching, so Texas might not want to risk switching up catchers. If they do, though, they'll do so noticing "Pudge's" lifetime .372 batting average (16-for-43) and two home runs versus Andy Pettitte.
• Fernando Tatis, 1B/3B/OF, Mets: One of the few Mets with a strong track record versus Josh Johnson, Tatis is 5-for-9 (.556 BA) with one home run in his career against the right-hander.
• Juan Pierre, OF, Dodgers: Might Joe Torre consider giving Pierre a spot start Wednesday? He should, considering Pierre is a lifetime .459 hitter (17-for-37) with two doubles and two triples versus Josh Fogg.
Injury list: Out
• Aaron Cook, SP, Rockies (shoulder, 15-day DL): His injury apparently isn't a season-ender, but he'll miss a few starts. Josh Fogg will step in for him.
• Chris Dickerson, OF, Reds (ankle, 15-day DL)
• Edwin Encarnacion, 3B, Blue Jays (hamstring, 15-day DL)
• Ryan Hanigan, C, Reds (concussion, 15-day DL): With the Reds' top two catchers now on the DL, Corky Miller and Craig Tatum will share time behind the plate.
• Adam Jones, OF, Orioles (back): The Baltimore Sun reported Tuesday that Jones is likely out until at least Thursday.
Injury list: Day-to-day
• Alfredo Aceves, RP, Yankees (back): He continues to complain of back trouble, which perhaps explains his 8.47 ERA in his past eight appearances.
• Garret Anderson, OF, Braves (back): He was hoping to play Tuesday but might more realistically return Wednesday.
• Kyle Blanks, 1B/OF, Padres (heel)
• Sean Burnett, RP, Nationals (thumb)
• Ryan Church, OF, Braves (back)
• Carl Crawford, OF, Rays (back)
• Joe Crede, 3B, Twins (ankle)
• Rajai Davis, OF, Athletics (thumb): He's available to pinch run, and it's good news for him on the stolen-base front that the injury wasn't to his legs.
• Stephen Drew, SS, Diamondbacks (personal): He is away attending to a family emergency but should be back within the next couple of days.
• Elijah Dukes, OF, Nationals (thumb)
• Dexter Fowler, OF, Rockies (knee): After fouling a ball off his knee Monday, Fowler might need a few days' rest.
• Jeff Francoeur, OF, Mets (thumb): Although the Mets say he's day-to-day, he has a torn ligament in his thumb that might cost him a few more days.
• Carlos Gonzalez, OF, Rockies (hand): He is supposedly out a few more days but pinch hit Monday and was forced to bunt due to stitches in his hand.
• Nick Johnson, 1B, Marlins (hamstring)
• James Loney, 1B, Dodgers (flu-like symptoms)
• Martin Prado, 1B/2B/3B, Braves (headaches)
• Mark Reynolds, 1B/3B, Diamondbacks (flu-like symptoms)
• Freddy Sanchez, 2B, Giants (shoulder): Might be a candidate for the DL if he's unable to return in the next few days.
• Pablo Sandoval, 1B/3B, Giants (calf)
• Joe Saunders, SP, Angels (shoulder, 15-day DL): He'll be activated to start Wednesday after tossing a successful simulated game Friday.
• Ichiro Suzuki, OF, Mariners (calf): Manager Don Wakamatsu is optimistic Suzuki will be able to return Wednesday.
• Four Wednesday games are weatherproof: Rays-Blue Jays, Reds-Brewers, Orioles-Twins and Athletics-Mariners.
• Rain seems most problematic in Kansas City and Chicago, cities that see a 50 percent chance of precipitation. Indians-Royals is one of two day games, so the teams might be able to wait out the rain, although it doesn't appear likely to diminish at night (still 50 percent). Nationals-Cubs might be threatened by showers and thunderstorms, a continued problem throughout their series.
• There is a 20 percent chance of rain in Denver (Dodgers-Rockies), Miami (Mets-Marlins) and New York (Rangers-Yankees), although none of those forecasts looks especially problematic. Florida's is the roughest, but the Marlins have come to expect occasional brief, torrential downpours this time of year.
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.