Stretch-run schedules for hitters

Maximizing your volume of at-bats and quality of remaining matchups are critical in planning your hitting strategy for the final weeks of the fantasy season.

At this stage of the season, at-bats, at-bats and at-bats are what count. Where and against whom they come is paramount.

Generally speaking, owners formulating their starting lineup should load up on the most-skilled batsmen first. You don't need my advice to know that Ryan Braun, Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols belong in your lineup every single remaining day of the 2012 season. But as every at-bat counts, and it's nearly impossible to fill every hitting slot with a productive bat, maximizing matchups is the way to go in the lower tiers.

Let's look at all 30 teams' remaining schedules, attempting to provide an edge to those seeking hidden nuggets to fill those back-end lineup spots.

As with Tuesday's 60 Feet, 6 Inches column, which analyzed schedules from a pitching perspective, today's Hit Parade focuses on the most hitter-friendly schedules. I've collected per-game data in the five primary rotisserie categories (batting average, home runs, RBIs, stolen bases and runs scored) for all 30 teams broken down by home or road games and for each remaining team game assumed that the opponent would perform at its average number to date. Totaling these stats provides each team's expected numbers in each category for the remainder of the season, assuming that every hitter performs at a league-average level and that the opponent performs at exactly the rates it has so far in 2012.

Strength-of-schedule charts

Here are some of the schedule highlights:

American League Central teams: At this stage of the season, teams are playing the majority of their games within the division, and the AL Central is the only division that doesn't have a team among the majors' top five in terms of team ERA. The Detroit Tigers have the division lead, but they rank 14th with a 3.94 ERA, and three of the five teams in the division rank among the 10 worst in team ERA. In fairness, the National League Central also has three in the bottom 10. But that's a six-team division, and its other three teams rank in the top 10 in the category. In the AL Central, we might as well adopt the saying, "Verlander, Sale and pray for hail."

These are the remaining schedules for the five AL Central squads, their out-of-division games in bold:

Chicago White Sox: @BAL-2, @DET-3, MIN-3, KC-3, DET-4, @MIN-3, @KC-3, @LAA-3, CLE-3, TB-4, @CLE-3
Cleveland Indians: OAK-2, TEX-3, @DET-3, @MIN-4, @TEX-3, DET-3, MIN-3, @KC-3, @CHW-3, KC-3, CHW-3
Detroit Tigers: @KC-2, CHW-3, CLE-3, @LAA-3, @CHW-4, @CLE-3, OAK-3, MIN-3, KC-4, @MIN-3, @KC-3
Kansas City Royals: DET-2, MIN-3, TEX-4, @CHW-3, @MIN-3, LAA-3, CHW-3, CLE-3, @DET-4, @CLE-3, DET-3
Minnesota Twins: SEA-2, @KC-3, @CHW-3, CLE-4, KC-3, CHW-3, @CLE-3, @DET-3, NYY-3, DET-3, @TOR-3

That's 38 of the remaining 168 games on AL Central teams' schedules that will be played outside the division, and after this week, the Indians will play just one more series outside the division the rest of the season. The Royals have a particularly advantageous schedule, playing 21 of their final 34 games at home, including both interdivision series.

From a pure hitting perspective -- batting average, home runs, RBIs, runs scored -- Royals hitters such as Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez and even Eric Hosmer and Alcides Escobar shouldn't be underestimated in the coming weeks. But it's the Royals' No. 1 ranking in stolen bases that is most interesting. This team is ninth for the year in steals (100), second since the All-Star break (45) and first in the month of August (32). Intradivision games mean plenty of matchups against poor-armed opposing catchers such as Alex Avila, A.J. Pierzynski, Carlos Santana and Lou Marson, each of whom has allowed at least 50 steals, with the group giving up 227 total this season. Oh, and if you're of the mind that Joe Mauer is a top-shelf catcher in this department, think again; he has allowed 48 steals in 54 chances over 62 games. Suddenly, a part-timer such as Jarrod Dyson or a so-so bat with wheels, such as Lorenzo Cain, becomes all the more interesting.

This isn't to say that all AL Central hitters instantly become more valuable commodities than more talented players from other divisions. It just means that in direct comparison of similarly valued hitters, go with the one getting to face a healthy chunk of Indians', Royals' and Twins' pitching the rest of the way. A prime example: Santana and Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann might be similarly valued on our Player Rater (2012 to-date value), and their perceived values going forward are similar, but Santana's remaining schedule is considerably more favorable. As such, he is ranked higher.

Chicago Cubs: Coors Field games are at a premium, particularly for teams outside the NL West, and the Cubs are the only nondivision team that has a series yet to play there (Sept. 25-27). In addition, the Cubs' schedule gets softer once they get through the next nine days, after these upcoming San Francisco Giants and Washington Nationals series. After that point, the Cubs play seven games against the struggling Pittsburgh Pirates and six against the awful Houston Astros, not to mention a three-game series at hitter-friendly Chase Field directly after the Coors Series.

Just because the Cubs have been noncontenders all year doesn't mean you should completely discard them in fantasy. Batting average is likely to present a problem for most of them, with Starlin Castro probably the most reliable in the category -- and he's hitting only .245 in August. But from a counting-numbers perspective, Anthony Rizzo, Alfonso Soriano and David DeJesus should find a place in your lineup.

Here's another curious Cubs candidate: Brett Jackson, who through 21 games of his big league career is shaping up as a three-true-outcomes player, with 62.5 percent of his plate appearances resulting in a home run (5 percent), walk (15 percent) or strikeout (42.5 percent). Owning him means stomaching his poor batting average, but with a schedule such as this, he might be a sneaky source of homers and runs looking forward.

Toronto Blue Jays: The fantasy community is still within 24 hours of absorbing the impact of Tuesday's news that Jose Bautista will miss the remainder of the season following wrist surgery. As such, it's easy for some of us to dismissively turn our heads from the Blue Jays' offense as a whole. The team has, after all, managed 3.55 runs per game and .227/.281/.371 triple-slash rates in the 38 games since Bautista was first lost to the injury, substantially worse than its 4.97 runs per game and .253/.320/.432 rates in the first 90 games of the year.

In their favor, however, 20 of the Blue Jays' final 34 games will be played at the Rogers Centre, 11th in runs scored and 10th in home runs on our Park Factor page this season. Their two out-of-division series are against the Seattle Mariners, which have a 4.48 road ERA this season (23rd in the majors), and the Twins, which have the second-worst ERA overall (4.84). Of Toronto's 28 intradivision games, 13 will be played against the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox, which have 4.66 and 4.85 starters' ERAs that rank 23rd and 26th, respectively.

Granted, the Blue Jays started only two players with a batting average higher than .250 on Tuesday, painting this as more of an AL-only/deep-mixed discussion. Still, players such as Rajai Davis, Colby Rasmus, Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind, their top four hitters in the lineup for that game, warrant discussion in most formats. In AL-only leagues, Moises Sierra and David Cooper could be factors. J.P. Arencibia, who has a chance of returning in mid-September, might warrant a look once healthy.

What of the poor remaining schedules? The following three teams, all of which have many household names on their rosters, face uphill climbs.

Los Angeles Dodgers: In no way is this a signal to bench Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez or Adrian Gonzalez. From a sheer talent perspective, the Dodgers have players in their retooled lineup that warrant a place on any fantasy team's roster. What the Dodgers' schedule should do is keep your expectations for the bunch in check, important considering the increased attention the team has received as a result of acquisitions in recent weeks. Be aware that this team has averaged 4.48 runs per game with .263/.325/.397 triple-slash rates in the month of August; it averaged 3.90 runs with .249/.317/.366 rates through the season's first four months.

If you're in an ESPN head-to-head league, consider that the Dodgers' schedule during the championship matchup (Sept. 17-Oct. 3) includes three-game series at Washington, Cincinnati and San Diego as well as a home series against pitching-rich division rival Giants. It means you shouldn't get cute in the coming weeks, expecting automatic counting-number boosts from such players as the Ellises (A.J. Ellis, Mark Ellis) or Luis Cruz. It also means you should be even more mindful of daily matchups with regard to Andre Ethier, who struggles against lefties, or Shane Victorino, a so-so batting average performer rich in stolen base potential who isn't as attractive when his team faces strong-armed catchers such as the St. Louis Cardinals' Yadier Molina (Sept. 13-16).

Boston Red Sox: In their defense, they'll be fortunate to avoid Mariners ace Felix Hernandez during their upcoming Sept. 3-5 series, who should miss it by exactly one day based on a four days' rest pattern. But between what's remaining on the Red Sox's roster and their schedule outside of that one series, this isn't an offense that should generate nearly the excitement that it does. Point out that the Red Sox have averaged 5.08 runs per game, fourth-most in the game, and batted .282/.326/.437 in the month of August. I'll point out that the Red Sox did that facing a lot of bad Indians, Royals and Twins pitching as well as Los Angeles Angels' and Texas Rangers' staffs that were in the midst of pitching funks.

The Red Sox are without Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Will Middlebrooks for the remainder of the year and are likely without David Ortiz as well. James Loney, Mike Aviles and Scott Podsednik, meanwhile, won't inspire anywhere near as much fear in upcoming Orioles (6 games remaining), New York Yankees (6) or Tampa Bay Rays (6) matchups, nor should fantasy owners assume that just because they're Red Sox, they're subject to a counting-numbers bump.

Pedro Ciriaco is the sneakiest Red Sox hitter, practically assured everyday at-bats through season's end and armed with the knowledge that he is auditioning for a 2013 role. Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia warrant a place in any fantasy lineup, but if you're of the mind that Ciriaco, Cody Ross or Jarrod Saltalamacchia will lead the way -- or even approach top-five status at his position -- you're setting yourself up for September disappointment.

Top 125 Hitters

Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 125 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.

Atlanta Braves: The NL East is not a fun place to be. Both the Philadelphia Phillies' and Washington Nationals' rotations are deep and talented, ranking seventh (3.51) and fifth (3.44) in team ERA since the All-Star break. The New York Mets have a legitimate Cy Young candidate in R.A. Dickey. The Braves will face these three teams a total of 15 times in their final 32 contests.

This team has already shown signs of struggles against competitive pitching in its past 22 games, averaging 4.18 runs but batting .231/.307/.390 during that span. In addition, Brian McCann is attempting to play through a shoulder injury, batting .194 without an extra-base hit in 20 games in August, while Dan Uggla's bad season seems to get worse, as he is hitting .202/.323/.405 with 27 K's in 84 at-bats this month. Don't be surprised if consistency is not the friend of any Braves hitter the remainder of the year, and that includes Jason Heyward, whose penchant for strikeouts sets him up for potential bad weeks here or there.

Three up

Todd Frazier, Cincinnati Reds: We're nearing decision time, as Joey Votto's anticipated activation from the disabled list arrives Saturday, and with it the difficult call as to what the Reds will do with Frazier. As I've maintained for weeks, the Reds cannot afford to sit a hitter this productive, meaning third base is likely in Frazier's immediate future. He is a leading contender for NL Rookie of the Year honors, batting .314/.366/.533 with nine home runs and 33 RBIs in 44 games since the All-Star break, the homers and RBIs ranking him among the top 20 in baseball during that span. Frazier has a mere nine-point split in OPS between righties and lefties and is actually a better hitter in road games (.312/.375/.590) than at home (.277/.333/.518). There's every reason to believe he'll continue to rack up at-bats and perform at a productive level.

Aaron Hill, Arizona Diamondbacks: He is in the midst of an outrageous hot streak -- hardly something new to him -- batting .311/.363/.676 with seven home runs and 14 RBIs in 19 games the past three weeks, propelling his season batting average to .296, which would represent a career high. In Hill's defense, he hasn't batted beneath .260 in a single month all year, and his .260/.321/.360 May was the only one that could be measured poor by fantasy standards. Hill really has only one weakness: He is a .265/.332/.435 hitter in road games, with his .324/.367/.572 rates at Chase Field making him a clearly superior starter at home. The Diamondbacks play 15 of their final 32 games at home, so make sure you have him in every lineup for each of them.

Chase Utley, Phillies: The Phillies are another team that shouldn't be so casually discarded, not with productive veterans such as Utley and Ryan Howard edging ever closer to their past form by the day. Utley is a .272/.393/.489 hitter with four homers, 12 RBIs, three stolen bases and 14 runs scored in August, stats that would put him in the .260-20-75-20 range over a full year, which would challenge for top-five status at second base. More importantly, Utley is a .324 hitter in his past 10 games, eight of those at Citizens Bank Park. Don't lean on the injuries that have plagued him the past two seasons; lean on the fact that he is healthy and performing within range of his pre-injury form.

Three down

Mark Teixeira, Yankees: He's out through at least the weekend with a Grade 1 strain of his left calf suffered Monday, and it's unclear exactly when he'll return, considering the Yankees won't place him on the disabled list with the Sept. 1 40-man roster expansion only three days away. The Yankees have a three-game lead in the AL East race, so they don't have a pressing need to rush the slugger back, especially not with Steve Pearce on the roster and Casey McGehee eligible to return once rosters expand. An injury such as this might lead to additional rest for Teixeira down the stretch, even following his healthy return, particularly if the Yankees wrap up a playoff spot.

Mark Trumbo, Angels: With his strikeout tendencies, Trumbo should never have been expected to bat .300-plus over the course of a 162-game season, but his struggles in August have reached the other extreme. He is a .198 hitter with three home runs and 39 K's in 96 at-bats this month. He has slipped into more bad habits in the process, chasing nonstrikes 39 percent of the time, up from 36 percent through July, and swinging at noncompetitive pitches (defined as offerings that are thrown at least 18 inches away from the center of the strike zone) 20 percent of the time, up from 16 percent. Though two seasons is hardly a sizable enough sample to make this kind of judgment, it's a disturbing trend that he has done this late in the year in back-to-back seasons. In 2011, he batted .253 with 10 homers and 41 K's in 186 at-bats over 49 games after Aug. 1, with his chase rate at 43 percent and noncompetitive swing rate at 24 percent.

Rickie Weeks, Milwaukee Brewers: He is a notoriously streaky player due to his penchant for strikeouts, and such players tend to be frustrating, especially in head-to-head leagues, during the critical playoff weeks. Weeks is a .185 hitter with only one extra-base hit, a double, and 13 K's in 54 at-bats in his past 14 contests. Here's what's even more frustrating: Formerly a useful source of steals -- swiping at least nine bags in each of his healthy seasons -- he has only two steals in his past 51 games dating to July 1.

New position eligibility

The following players have become eligible at new positions -- 10 games to qualify at a new spot -- in ESPN standard leagues during the past week: Pedro Ciriaco (3B), Adeiny Hechavarria (3B), Ben Zobrist (SS).

Nearing new position eligibility

The following players are within two games of earning new position eligibility: Jeff Baker (8 games played at 2B), Yuniesky Betancourt (8 games at 3B), Steve Clevenger (9 games at 1B), Jason Donald (8 games at 3B, 8 games at SS), Jacob Elmore (9 games at SS), Yan Gomes (8 games at 3B), Elliot Johnson (9 games at 2B), Munenori Kawasaki (8 games at 2B), Jayson Nix (8 games at 2B), Adam Rosales (8 games at 2B), Drew Sutton (8 games at 2B), Chad Tracy (9 games at 1B), Mark Trumbo (8 games at 3B), Justin Turner (8 games at SS), Omar Vizquel (9 games at SS), Brett Wallace (8 games at 3B).