On tap: With the trade deadline firmly in our rearview mirrors -- or at least it will be by the start of the week previewed in this column -- we're now officially into the stretch run of the baseball season. Playoff races are heating up, and some surprising combatants are still in the thick of things; if someone had told you back in March that, come Aug. 1, the Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres would be leading their respective divisions, surely you'd have called that person crazy.
It's good news for the fantasy owners of those teams' players, because it means motivation will remain high and key contributors will be at less risk to sit down the stretch. A common link between the two: Starting-pitching depth, and after four months' time, you need take their pitchers very seriously.
But it's the National League East race that rests under the microscope this week, as each of the top four teams in that division's standings plays at least another one of those four; in the case of the rival New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies, each plays the other as well as another NL East foe. The Mets also get a crack at the division-leading Atlanta Braves with three on the road to open the week; the Phillies visit the Florida Marlins for three similarly.
The Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers will battle in a series with implications on the American League Central race. The teams will open with a Tuesday doubleheader in Detroit before finishing a four-game set there Wednesday and Thursday. The Boston Red Sox will get a crack at narrowing the AL East gap when they visit their long-time rivals, the New York Yankees, on the road during the weekend. Dustin Pedroia has an outside chance of returning for that set, but the conservative play for both the Red Sox and his fantasy owners would be to hold him out until at least the following week.
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 twice this week are in color-coded 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.
• The Oakland-Seattle road-trip combo sure seems like it was a popular one with the schedule-makers this season, as the Texas Rangers become the fourth team since the beginning of July to make stops at both Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and Safeco Field within the same Monday to Sunday week. You're probably already familiar with how light-hitting the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners are -- though the Mariners' .595 team OPS in July might give you an idea -- but here's how the previous three teams to face this schedule fared: .600 winning percentage, .750 quality-start percentage, 2.65 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 7.25 strikeouts per nine. The Rangers' rotation might get a boost with the return of Rich Harden, who is oh-so-familiar with the Coliseum; the ex-Athletic is 19-9 with a 2.91 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 50 career games (48 starts) there. He might yet bump Scott Feldman from the rotation, putting him in line to pitch there again.
• The Kansas City Royals are the Rangers' partner team in making stops in Oakland and Seattle, and maybe, just maybe, that's enough to offer some sleeper appeal for those digging deep. Just to get you thinking: Kyle Davies has a 3.98 ERA in July and a 2.45 ERA in two career starts at the Coliseum. For those of you worried about his recent poor outings, Zack Greinke is 3-0 with a 1.95 ERA and 0.84 WHIP in five career starts at Safeco.
• It's weeks like these that have owners of Toronto Blue Jays pitchers somewhat wary for the remainder of the season, ones played entirely within the division, this week including three at New York's Yankee Stadium and three at home versus the Tampa Bay Rays. Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero, their Monday and Tuesday starters, combined for 13 runs allowed on 16 hits in 8 2/3 innings at Yankee Stadium July 3 and 4, while weekend starters Brett Cecil, Jesse Litsch and Morrow are a combined 9-12 with a 4.81 ERA and 1.38 WHIP in 32 starts versus teams with winning records. Morrow might be the only Blue Jays starter worth considering, and it's primarily a volume (two-start) play.
• A seven-game week played entirely at home versus the Padres and Washington Nationals represents a favorable pitching schedule, and two teams face that this week: The Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers. Neither the Padres (.681 team OPS) nor Nationals (.673) is an especially potent offensive team on the road, a fact that might be surprising in the case of the Padres, who call cavernous Petco Park their home; you'd think they'd be better road hitters, but their .718 Petco OPS says otherwise. Put aside the Dodgers' recent offensive struggles for a second, because their pitching in home games has been great in July; they have a staff 3.12 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 7.34 K's per nine and eight quality starts in 14 games. Their starters' ERA in those contests, in fact, is 3.01.
• As for the Dan Haren-less Diamondbacks, sleeper seekers might be able to pluck a gem or two from the bunch. Ian Kennedy has a 3.53 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in 10 starts at home, plus a 2.70 ERA and 15 K's in 10 innings in two starts versus the Padres. Barry Enright has had back-to-back quality starts and a 2.92 ERA in four turns at home. Newly acquired Joe Saunders, while a risky play in the desert, has six quality starts and a 3.94 ERA in his past 10 appearances.
• The NL East-leading Braves know they need wins versus their division rivals (not to mention playoff contenders of any kind), and they're riding a hot enough stretch on the pitching side to capitalize upon home matchups versus the Mets (three games) and San Francisco Giants (four). Braves pitchers have a 3.11 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 7.95 K's per nine in their past 25 games, and the only one of their current five starters with an ERA higher than 3.71 at Turner Field from 2009 and 2010 is Derek Lowe (4.23).
For more insight into the Week 17 pitching matchups, see my rankings for every scheduled starter at the column's end.
The chart below lists each of the 30 teams' total number of scheduled games, home games and games versus right- and left-handed pitchers. It also provides a matchup rating for the week's games in terms of overall offense, individually for left-handed and right-handed hitters, as well as base stealing. Matchup ratings for each individual game are listed under the corresponding date.
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.
• Road trip or not, the White Sox must be very, very happy to face the Tigers for four games to begin the week, considering their historical mastery of the Tigers' current starting five. Not one pitcher has a career winning record versus the White Sox. They're a combined 11-25 with a 5.10 ERA in 43 career games (41 starts) against Chicago, including 0-3 with a 6.75 ERA in four games so far this year, and the Tigers won't even pitch ace Justin Verlander in the series (meaning he'll extend his streak of not having faced them all season). Add in a three-game series at the Baltimore Orioles, who have baseball's worst team ERA in home games (5.24), and this is a great week to load up on White Sox.
• Those Padres-Nationals home games tilt the balance in favor of both the Diamondbacks and Dodgers hitting-wise, too, as the Nationals are currently smarting from the injury absence of ace (yes, he's deserving of the label "ace") Stephen Strasburg, while the Padres have a team ERA 0.83 higher on the road (3.66) than at home (2.83). So let's start with the Diamondbacks, who with an .812 team OPS at Chase Field have the second-largest OPS differential in favor of home games; their .141 differential trails only the Colorado Rockies' .185. Justin Upton (.838 home OPS, .864 road) is the only Diamondbacks regular with a better road than home OPS; even Miguel Montero, who shares the catching chores, is a more productive hitter at Chase (.814) than on the road (.795).
• The Dodgers, meanwhile, might be struggling, partly due to the absence of slugger Manny Ramirez. They have averaged 2.08 runs per contest with a .551 team OPS in 12 games since he made his last appearance. However, their schedule offers some hope, with seven home games and four versus left-handed starters. Some Dodgers who stand out at home and/or versus lefties: Casey Blake (.807 OPS versus lefties), Andre Ethier (.900 home OPS), Rafael Furcal (.870 home OPS, .800 versus lefties), Matt Kemp (.810 home OPS, .811 versus lefties) and for sleeper-seekers, Jamey Carroll (.294 hitter versus lefties).
• The Rockies might play only two of their six games at Coors Field, but a four-game weekend set at the Pittsburgh Pirates, whose ERA at home is 4.42, sixth-worst in baseball, stacks the deck in their favor nevertheless. If the Rockies have any playoff aspirations, the two home games versus the Giants plus four winnable games at the Pirates are must-win contests. Four of those games will be played versus left-handed starters, which suits Clint Barmes (.843 OPS versus lefties), Carlos Gonzalez (.851), Miguel Olivo (.905) and Ryan Spilborghs (.826) just fine.
Now, let's take a look at some Week 17 sleepers:
Pedro Alvarez, 3B, Pirates: He's a .268/.329/.563 (AVG/OBP/SLG) hitter in 19 games at PNC Park and a .279/.361/.570 hitter in 23 games in the month of July.
Jack Cust, OF, Athletics: He's a .298/.412/.560 hitter in 26 games at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, a .304/.424/.536 hitter versus right-handers and a .323/.449/.726 hitter in 19 games in July.
Hideki Matsui, OF/DH, Los Angeles Angels: He's a .284/.383/.453 hitter versus right-handers this season, a .290/.391/.446 hitter in 51 career games at Baltimore's Camden Yards and has four home runs and a .918 OPS in 11 games since the All-Star break.
Lyle Overbay, 1B, Blue Jays: The rare Blue Jays standout this week, Overbay is a .341/.420/.568 hitter in 12 career games at Yankee Stadium, not to mention a .284/.337/.511 hitter in 23 games in July.
Luke Scott, 1B/OF, Orioles: His most favorable matchups are home games versus right-handed pitchers, as he's a .338/.401/.704 hitter in 42 games at Camden Yards and a .291/.373/.583 hitter versus righties this season. He's also a .333/.383/.762 hitter in 11 games since returning from the DL.
Neil Walker, 2B/3B, Pirates: He's a .354/.388/.510 hitter in 24 games at PNC Park and a .321/.363/.476 hitter in 21 games in the month of July.
The threat of rain typically becomes greater in the month of August, and sure enough, those northeastern cities are the ones with the most significant chances of rainouts, particularly the AL East cities of Baltimore, Boston and New York. Blue Jays-Yankees has a 40 percent chance of rain both Monday and Wednesday; Angels-Orioles has a 40 percent chance Tuesday; and Indians-Red Sox has a 40 percent chance Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. Also keep your eye on the cities of Chicago, Detroit and Pittsburgh, which could battle the elements.
Weatherproof games: Rays at Blue Jays (3, Fri.-Sun.); Astros at Brewers (3, Fri.-Sun.); Nationals at Diamondbacks (4, Mon.-Thu.); Padres at Diamondbacks (3, Fri.-Sun.); Rangers at Mariners (3, Tue.-Thu.); Royals at Mariners (3, Fri.-Sun.); Twins at Rays (4, Mon.-Thu.).
Rankings take into account several factors: The pitcher's raw talent, historical and recent performance, number of starts, strength of opponent(s) and ballpark factors. Be aware that different leagues might emphasize different pitching statistics that could change these rankings slightly. These are based upon a fairly standard rotisserie scoring system, like ESPN's.
1. Roy Halladay (PHI) -- Tue-@FLA (Sanabia), Sun-NYM (Santana)
2. Tim Hudson (ATL) -- Mon-NYM (Santana), Sat-SF (Cain)
3. Hiroki Kuroda (LAD) -- Mon-SD (Richard), Sat-WAS (Hernandez)
4. Colby Lewis (TEX) -- Tue-@SEA (Vargas), Sun-@OAK (Cahill)
5. Johan Santana (NYM) -- Mon-@ATL (Hudson), Sun-@PHI (Halladay)
6. Yovani Gallardo (MIL) -- Mon-@CHC (Lilly), Sun-HOU (Myers)
7. Jaime Garcia (STL) -- Mon-HOU (Myers), Sun-@FLA (Sanabia)
8. Chris Carpenter (STL) -- Wed-HOU (Happ)
9. Clayton Kershaw (LAD) -- Fri-WAS (Lannan)
10. Cliff Lee (TEX) -- Sat-@OAK (Gonzalez)
11. Trevor Cahill (OAK) -- Mon-KC (Bannister), Sun-TEX (Lewis)
12. Felix Hernandez (SEA) -- Fri-KC (Greinke)
13. Jon Lester (BOS) -- Wed-CLE (Masterson)
14. Mat Latos (SD) -- Tue-@LAD (Padilla), Sun-@ARI (Saunders)
15. Josh Johnson (FLA) -- Sat-STL (Wainwright)
16. Tim Lincecum (SF) -- Thu-@ATL (Jurrjens)
17. Adam Wainwright (STL) -- Sat-@FLA (Johnson)
18. David Price (TB) -- Tue-MIN (Duensing), Sun-@TOR (Morrow)
19. Chad Billingsley (LAD) -- Thu-SD (Correia)
20. Vicente Padilla (LAD) -- Tue-SD (Latos), Sun-WAS (Olsen)
21. Carl Pavano (MIN) -- Mon-@TB (Niemann), Sat-@CLE (Carmona)
22. C.J. Wilson (TEX) -- Wed-@SEA (Pauley)
23. Zack Greinke (KC) -- Fri-@SEA (Hernandez)
24. Ubaldo Jimenez (COL) -- Wed-SF (Bumgarner)
25. Cole Hamels (PHI) -- Sat-NYM (Niese)
26. Justin Verlander (DET) -- Fri-LAA (Weaver)
27. John Danks (CHW) -- Thu-@DET (Scherzer)
28. CC Sabathia (NYY) -- Sat-BOS (Lackey)
29. Gavin Floyd (CHW) -- Fri-@BAL (Bergesen)
30. Jair Jurrjens (ATL) -- Thu-SF (Lincecum)
31. Travis Wood (CIN) -- Mon-@PIT (Ohlendorf), Sun-@CHC (Lilly)
32. Ricky Nolasco (FLA) -- Fri-STL (Suppan)
33. Dan Haren (LAA) -- Thu-@BAL (Arrieta)
34. Roy Oswalt (PHI) -- Thu-@FLA (Volstad)
35. Tommy Hanson (ATL) -- Fri-SF (Zito)
36. Daisuke Matsuzaka (BOS) -- Thu-CLE (Westbrook)
37. A.J. Burnett (NYY) -- Mon-TOR (Morrow), Sun-BOS (Beckett)
38. Matt Cain (SF) -- Sat-@ATL (Hudson)
39. Brian Duensing (MIN) -- Tue-@TB (Price), Sun-@CLE (Talbot)
40. Brett Myers (HOU) -- Mon-@STL (Garcia), Sun-@MIL (Gallardo)
41. Derek Lowe (ATL) -- Tue-NYM (Dickey), Sun-SF (Sanchez)
42. Scott Feldman (TEX) -- Fri-@OAK (Anderson)
43. Ervin Santana (LAA) -- Wed-@BAL (Matusz)
44. Francisco Liriano (MIN) -- Fri-@CLE (Tomlin)
45. Johnny Cueto (CIN) -- Wed-@PIT (Karstens)
46. Ted Lilly (CHC) -- Mon-MIL (Gallardo), Sun-CIN (Wood)
47. Max Scherzer (DET) -- Thu-CHW (Danks)
48. Matt Garza (TB) -- Thu-MIN (Slowey)
49. Rick Porcello (DET) -- Tue-CHW, Gm. 2 (Garcia), Sun-LAA (TBD)
50. Jason Vargas (SEA) -- Tue-TEX (Lewis), Sun-KC (Bannister)
51. Javier Vazquez (NYY) -- Fri-BOS (Buchholz)
52. Josh Beckett (BOS) -- Tue-CLE (Talbot), Sun-@NYY (Burnett)
53. Mark Buehrle (CHW) -- Tue-@DET, Gm. 1 (Bonderman), Sun-@BAL (Guthrie)
54. Ryan Dempster (CHC) -- Fri-CIN (Arroyo)
55. Jeff Niemann (TB) -- Mon-MIN (Pavano), Sat-@TOR (Litsch)
56. Jered Weaver (LAA) -- Fri-@DET (Verlander)
57. Jorge De La Rosa (COL) -- Sat-@PIT (Ohlendorf)
58. John Lackey (BOS) -- Mon-CLE (Carmona), Sat-@NYY (Sabathia)
59. Clayton Richard (SD) -- Mon-@LAD (Kuroda), Sat-@ARI (Hudson)
60. Randy Wells (CHC) -- Tue-MIL (Narveson)
61. Brandon Morrow (TOR) -- Mon-@NYY (Burnett), Sun-TB (Price)
62. Joe Saunders (ARI) -- Tue-WAS (Olsen), Sun-SD (Latos)
63. Ian Kennedy (ARI) -- Wed-WAS (Stammen)
64. Randy Wolf (MIL) -- Sat-HOU (Wright)
65. Bronson Arroyo (CIN) -- Fri-@CHC (Dempster)
66. Clay Buchholz (BOS) -- Fri-@NYY (Vazquez)
67. Daniel Hudson (ARI) -- Mon-WAS (Hernandez), Sat-SD (Richard)
68. Barry Zito (SF) -- Fri-@ATL (Hanson)
69. J.A. Happ (HOU) -- Wed-@STL (Carpenter)
70. Brett Anderson (OAK) -- Fri-TEX (Feldman)
71. Kris Medlen (ATL) -- Wed-NYM (Pelfrey)
72. Dallas Braden (OAK) -- Wed-KC (O'Sullivan)
73. Barry Enright (ARI) -- Thu-WAS (Detwiler)
74. Tommy Hunter (TEX) -- Thu-@SEA (Fister)
75. Wandy Rodriguez (HOU) -- Fri-@MIL (Bush)
Two-start pitchers for deep leagues:
Brian Bannister (KC) -- Mon-@OAK (Cahill), Sun-@SEA (Vargas)
Fausto Carmona (CLE) -- Mon-@BOS (Lackey), Sat-MIN (Pavano)
Aaron Cook (COL) -- Tue-SF (Sanchez), Sun-@PIT (Maholm)
Jeremy Guthrie (BAL) -- Tue-LAA (TBD), Sun-CHW (Buehrle)
Paul Maholm (PIT) -- Tue-CIN (Leake), Sun-COL (Cook)
Jonathan Sanchez (SF) -- Tue-@COL (Cook), Sun-@ATL (Lowe)
Dave Bush (MIL) -- Fri-HOU (Rodriguez)
Kyle Davies (KC) -- Tue-@OAK (Mazzaro)
Jeff Francis (COL) -- Thu-@PIT (McCutchen)
Jason Hammel (COL) -- Fri-@PIT (Duke)
Mike Leake (CIN) -- Tue-@PIT (Maholm)
Vin Mazzaro (OAK) -- Tue-KC (Davies)
No-thank-yous, among two-start pitchers:
Jeremy Bonderman (DET) -- Tue-CHW, Gm. 1 (Buehrle), Sat-LAA (TBD)
Livan Hernandez (WAS) -- Mon-@ARI (Hudson), Sat-@LAD (Kuroda)
Ross Ohlendorf (PIT) -- Mon-CIN (Wood), Sat-COL (De La Rosa)
Scott Olsen (WAS) -- Tue-@ARI (Saunders), Sun-@LAD (Padilla)
Alex Sanabia (FLA) -- Tue-PHI (Halladay), Sun-STL (Garcia)
Mitch Talbot (CLE) -- Tue-@BOS (Beckett), Sun-MIN (Duensing)
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, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.