The 2011 Major League Baseball season begins Thursday with eight games, the earliest a pair of 1:05 p.m. ET contests, the Atlanta Braves at the Washington Nationals and the Detroit Tigers at the New York Yankees. In ESPN leagues, "Week 1" of the fantasy baseball season runs 11 days; it begins Thursday and ends Sunday, April 10. In leagues with weekly transactions, be sure to set your lineup before the first pitch of the 1:05 p.m. ET Thursday games, because you won't be able to reset it until Monday, April 11.
We'll quickly get to a preview of some compelling division races during the season's opening week: The defending world champion San Francisco Giants visit the Los Angeles Dodgers for four games beginning Thursday; the Philadelphia Phillies visit the Atlanta Braves for three beginning Friday, April 8; and the Boston Red Sox's first homestand of the year begins Friday, April 8 against the New York Yankees. The Red Sox kick off their season on the road with a series against the Texas Rangers beginning Friday, in what could be a preview of an American League playoff series.
Individual pitchers also are in the Week 1 headlines. Brett Myers starts the Houston Astros' opener at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park, marking only the second time he has started a game there since leaving the Phillies following the 2009 season. His opponent? None other than Phillies ace Roy Halladay. Seattle Mariners rookie Michael Pineda makes his big league debut Tuesday with a road start against the slugging Texas Rangers. And fellow Mariners starter Erik Bedard will make his first start since July 25, 2009, when he takes the mound in Texas a day earlier.
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 history (three years' worth as well as past 21 days), opponent and ballpark. Ratings range from 1 to 10, with 10 representing the best possible matchup, statistically speaking, and 1 representing the worst.
• Although their three-game trip to Texas presents challenges, the Seattle Mariners do have a favorable overall set of pitching matchups in Week 1, their other series being a three-game trip to Oakland and a three-game home set versus the Cleveland Indians to end the week. A mark in the Mariners' favor: They picked the right five starters to begin the year. The aforementioned Erik Bedard and Michael Pineda had a combined 1.64 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 7.91 strikeouts per nine innings in their 10 spring appearances. If you're going to be pitching in Texas, aligning the three K guys -- Bedard, Pineda and ace Felix Hernandez -- is the right move, and that leaves beneath-the-radar fantasy picks such as Doug Fister and Jason Vargas to get cozy assignments against the lighter-hitting Athletics and Indians (each pitcher will face each of those teams). Fister, incidentally, is 4-2 with a 2.90 ERA in seven career starts versus the Athletics. Pineda is the only Mariners starter to fear, and that's due merely to the combination of inexperience, matchup and the fact that he's one of only 11 AL pitchers to work just once in Week 1.
• It might have felt like the St. Louis Cardinals were snakebitten during the preseason and therefore should inspire more fear when seeking their favorable fantasy matchups, but despite the loss of Adam Wainwright, there's a lot to like about their Week 1 pitching schedule. Six straight home games to begin their season, three apiece versus the San Diego Padres and Pittsburgh Pirates, is an easy-as-cake schedule, and the week-ending three-game set in San Francisco might be a series wrought with pitchers' duels. This rotation had a surprisingly positive finish to spring training despite the Wainwright news. Nos. 4 and 5 starters Kyle Lohse and Kyle McClellan -- "the Kyles" -- combined for a 1.34 ERA, 0.87 WHIP and 3.88 K's per walk (K/BB) in their 10 spring starts. McClellan is one of the rare one-start pitchers who earns my Week 1 endorsement; he made significant advances in his abilities in 2010, was lights out during the exhibition season (as noted above) and gets a cozy home start to begin the season, battling the Pirates. Lohse, meanwhile, typically is a start-at-home, avoid-on-the-road pitcher, but as good as he looked in March, the San Francisco assignment is one worth a dice roll.
For more insight into Week 1 pitching matchups, see my rankings for every scheduled starter at 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, and provides a matchup rating for the week's games in terms of overall offense, offense versus left- and right-handed pitchers and base stealing. Matchup ratings for each game are listed under the corresponding date.
H: Hitters' matchup rating, which accounts for the opposing starting pitcher's history (three years' worth, as well as past 21 days) as well as ballpark factors. L: Hitters' matchup rating accounting for only 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 to 10, with 10 representing the best possible matchup, statistically speaking, and 1 representing the worst.
• Look to the Los Angeles Angels as Week 1 sleepers, as, in spite of the questions surrounding their offense, they managed .281/.345/.440 (BA/OBP/SLG) spring rates, each of those ranking them in the upper half in the game. Sure, Kendrys Morales is hurting, and Bobby Abreu, Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells aren't getting any younger, but there are still enough useful pieces here to cause damage when the matchups are right. The Angels get the softest set of opening-weekend hitting matchups in the game; they battle the Kansas City Royals' patchwork pitching staff for four on the road. In fact, looking at their projected opponents, only the Tampa Bay Rays' Jeremy Hellickson (Tuesday) and David Price (Wednesday) represent "scary" foes, and at least those are home games for the Halos. Morales fill-in Mark Trumbo was scorching hot during spring training, managing .314/.333/.700 rates in 24 games, and is well worth the pickup and start in all formats. It's also worth riding speedster Peter Bourjos' spring hot streak in Week 1; he managed .385/.492/.596 rates and swiped six bases in 23 contests.
• The Chicago Cubs also reap the benefits of some favorable scheduling. Thanks to a trio of three-game series hosting the Pittsburgh Pirates and Arizona Diamondbacks and visiting the Milwaukee Brewers, they won't face one legitimate "ace" in the opening week. Take your pick: The best projected starter they'll battle is either Ian Kennedy or Randy Wolf. The Cubs also benefit in that they'll face at least three left-handed starters, a positive for a team that historically has been right-handed heavy (Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, Geovany Soto). But here's what fantasy owners should watch: Spring sensation Starlin Castro (.344/.373/.609) has a chance to extend his streak into the regular season with a less-challenging set of matchups, and success from the youngster could mean increased RBI potential from the men slotted behind him in the order.
Weather is always a factor in April, especially in the early stages, since, in addition to rain (and possibly snow in colder climates), cold weather might have an effect in northern cities. Among those colder-weather cities: Chicago, Cleveland, Minneapolis, New York and Philadelphia, all of which have at least one game scheduled on a day when the predicted low is beneath 40 degrees. Rain also could be a problem during the opening weekend in both New York and Philadelphia, as each of the Phillies' first two games has a 50 percent or greater chance of rain, while the Yankees' Saturday contest has a 70 percent chance. Other cities, including Baltimore, Boston and Washington, often see more rain than usual in April.
Weatherproof games: Marlins at Astros (3, Fri 4/8-Sun 4/10); Twins at Blue Jays (3, Fri 4/1-Sun 4/3); Athletics at Blue Jays (3, Tue 4/5-Thu 4/7); Braves at Brewers (4, Mon 4/4-Thu 4/7); Cubs at Brewers (3, Fri 4/8-Sun 4/10); Reds at Diamondbacks (3, Fri 4/8-Sun 4/10); Indians at Mariners (3, Fri 4/8-Sun 4/10); Orioles at Rays (3, Fri 4/1-Sun 4/3); Angels at Rays (2, Tue 4/5-Wed 4/6).
Rankings take into account several factors: the pitcher's raw talent, historical performance 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 on a fairly standard rotisserie scoring system, like ESPN's.
1. Clayton Kershaw (LAD) -- Thu 3/31-SF (Lincecum), Tue 4/5-@COL (Hammel), Sun 4/10-@SD (TBD)
2. Roy Halladay (PHI) -- Fri 4/1-HOU (Myers), Thu 4/7-NYM (Niese)
3. CC Sabathia (NYY) -- Thu 3/31-DET (Verlander), Tue 4/5-MIN (Duensing), Sun 4/10-@BOS (Beckett)
4. Tim Lincecum (SF) -- Thu 3/31-@LAD (Kershaw), Wed 4/6-@SD (Stauffer)
5. Chris Carpenter (STL) -- Thu 3/31-SD (Stauffer), Wed 4/6-PIT (Correia)
6. Felix Hernandez (SEA) -- Fri 4/1-@OAK (Cahill), Wed 4/6-@TEX (Wilson)
7. Josh Johnson (FLA) -- Fri 4/1-NYM (Pelfrey), Thu 4/7-WAS (Hernandez)
8. Ubaldo Jimenez (COL) -- Fri 4/1-ARI (Kennedy), Thu 4/7-@PIT (Maholm)
9. Cliff Lee (PHI) -- Sat 4/2-HOU (Rodriguez), Fri 4/8-@ATL (Hudson)
10. Jon Lester (BOS) -- Fri 4/1-@TEX (Wilson), Thu 4/7-@CLE (Carmona)
11. Yovani Gallardo (MIL) -- Thu 3/31-@CIN (Volquez), Tue 4/5-ATL (Lowe), Sun 4/10-CHC (Wells)
12. Tommy Hanson (ATL) -- Sat 4/2-@WAS (Zimmermann), Thu 4/7-@MIL (Marcum)
13. Jered Weaver (LAA) -- Thu 3/31-@KC (Hochevar), Tue 4/5-TB (Niemann)
14. Matt Cain (SF) -- Sat 4/2-@LAD (Lilly), Sat 4/9-STL (Garcia)
15. Justin Verlander (DET) -- Thu 3/31-@NYY (Sabathia), Wed 4/6-@BAL (Guthrie)
16. David Price (TB) -- Fri 4/1-BAL (Guthrie), Thu 4/7-@CHW (Buehrle)
17. Cole Hamels (PHI) -- Tue 4/5-NYM (Young), Sun 4/10-@ATL (Lowe)
18. Ted Lilly (LAD) -- Sat 4/2-SF (Cain), Fri 4/8-@SD (Richard)
19. Derek Lowe (ATL) -- Thu 3/31-@WAS (Hernandez), Tue 4/5-@MIL (Gallardo), Sun 4/10-PHI (Hamels)
20. Hiroki Kuroda (LAD) -- Sun 4/3-SF (Bumgarner), Sat 4/9-@SD (Harang)
21. Jonathan Sanchez (SF) -- Fri 4/1-@LAD (Billingsley), Fri 4/8-STL (Westbrook)
22. Brett Anderson (OAK) -- Sat 4/2-SEA (Vargas), Fri 4/8-@MIN (Blackburn)
23. Roy Oswalt (PHI) -- Sun 4/3-HOU (Happ), Sat 4/9-@ATL (Jurrjens)
24. Tim Hudson (ATL) -- Sun 4/3-@WAS (Lannan), Fri 4/8-PHI (Lee)
25. Dan Haren (LAA) -- Thu 4/1-@KC (Francis), Wed 4/6-TB (Hellickson)
26. Shaun Marcum (MIL) -- Sat 4/2-@CIN (Wood), Thu 4/7-ATL (Hanson)
27. Jhoulys Chacin (COL) -- Sun 4/3-ARI (Saunders), Sat 4/9-@PIT (Morton)
28. Ryan Dempster (CHC) -- Fri 4/1-PIT (Correia), Wed 4/6-ARI (Kennedy)
29. Jaime Garcia (STL) -- Sun 4/3-SD (Harang), Sat 4/9-@SF (Cain)
30. John Danks (CHW) -- Sun 4/3-@CLE (Masterson), Sat 4/9-TB (Davis)
31. C.J. Wilson (TEX) -- Fri 4/1-BOS (Lester), Wed 4/6-SEA (Hernandez)
32. Carlos Zambrano (CHC) -- Sat 4/2-PIT (Maholm), Fri 4/8-@MIL (Wolf)
33. Chad Billingsley (LAD) -- Fri 4/1-SF (Sanchez), Wed 4/6-@COL (Rogers)
34. Colby Lewis (TEX) -- Sat 4/2-BOS (Lackey), Fri 4/8-@BAL (Tillman)
35. Anibal Sanchez (FLA) -- Tue 4/5-WAS (Marquis), Sun 4/10-@HOU (Norris)
36. Gio Gonzalez (OAK) -- Sun 4/3-SEA (Fister), Sat 4/9-@MIN (Baker)
37. Matt Garza (CHC) -- Sun 4/3-PIT (Ohlendorf), Sat 4/9-@MIL (Narveson)
38. Phil Hughes (NYY) -- Sun 4/3-DET (Scherzer), Fri 4/8-@BOS (Lackey)
39. Max Scherzer (DET) -- Sun 4/3-@NYY (Hughes), Fri 4/8-KC (Davies)
40. Tim Stauffer (SD) -- Thu 3/31-@STL (Carpenter), Wed 4/6-SF (Lincecum)
41. Javier Vazquez (FLA) -- Sun 4/3-NYM (Dickey), Sat 4/9-@HOU (Happ)
42. Trevor Cahill (OAK) -- Fri 4/1-SEA (Hernandez), Thu 4/7-@TOR (Romero)
43. Clay Buchholz (BOS) -- Sun 4/3-@TEX (Harrison), Sat 4/9-NYY (Nova)
44. Wandy Rodriguez (HOU) -- Sat 4/2-@PHI (Lee), Fri 4/8-FLA (Nolasco)
45. Ricky Romero (TOR) -- Fri 4/1-MIN (Pavano), Thu 4/7-OAK (Cahill)
46. Edinson Volquez (CIN) -- Thu 3/31-MIL (Gallardo), Wed 4/6-HOU (Figueroa)
47. Daniel Hudson (ARI) -- Sat 4/2-@COL (De La Rosa), Fri 4/8-CIN (Arroyo)
48. Ricky Nolasco (FLA) -- Sat 4/2-NYM (Niese), Fri 4/8-@HOU (Rodriguez)
49. Francisco Liriano (MIN) -- Sat 4/2-@TOR (Drabek), Thu 4/7-@NYY (Burnett)
50. Jake Westbrook (STL) -- Sat 4/2-SD (Richard), Fri 4/8-@SF (Sanchez)
51. Brian Duensing (MIN) -- Tue 4/5-@NYY (Sabathia), Sun 4/10-OAK (Braden)
52. Madison Bumgarner (SF) -- Sun 4/3-@LAD (Kuroda), Sun 4/10-STL (Lohse)
53. Edwin Jackson (CHW) -- Sat 4/2-@CLE (Carrasco), Fri 4/8-TB (Shields)
54. Erik Bedard (SEA) -- Mon 4/4-@TEX (TBD), Sun 4/10-CLE (Tomlin)
55. Wade Davis (TB) -- Sun 4/3-BAL (Tillman), Sat 4/9-@CHW (Danks)
56. Gavin Floyd (CHW) -- Tue 4/5-@KC (Hochevar), Sun 4/10-TB (Niemann)
57. Travis Wood (CIN) -- Sat 4/2-MIL (Marcum), Thu 4/7-HOU (Myers)
58. Dallas Braden (OAK) -- Tue 4/5-@TOR (Reyes), Sun 4/10-@MIN (Duensing)
59. Jason Vargas (SEA) -- Sat 4/2-@OAK (Anderson), Fri 4/8-CLE (Carrasco)
60. Ervin Santana (LAA) -- Sat 4/2-@KC (Davies), Sat 4/9-TOR (Cecil)
61. James Shields (TB) -- Sat 4/2-BAL (Matusz), Fri 4/8-@CHW (Jackson)
62. John Lackey (BOS) -- Sat 4/2-@TEX (Lewis), Fri 4/8-NYY (Hughes)
63. Chris Young (NYM) -- Tue 4/5-@PHI (Hamels), Sun 4/10-WAS (Marquis)
64. Jair Jurrjens (ATL) -- Mon 4/4-@MIL (Narveson), Sat 4/9-PHI (Oswalt)
65. Jorge De La Rosa (COL) -- Sat 4/2-ARI (Hudson), Fri 4/8-@PIT (Ohlendorf)
66. Randy Wells (CHC) -- Mon 4/4-ARI (Enright), Sun 4/10-@MIL (Gallardo)
67. Randy Wolf (MIL) -- Sun 4/3-@CIN (Arroyo), Fri 4/8-CHC (Zambrano)
68. Jordan Zimmermann (WAS) -- Sat 4/2-ATL (Hanson), Fri 4/8-@NYM (Dickey)
69. Brian Matusz (BAL) -- Sat 4/2-@TB (Shields), Thu 4/7-DET (Penny)
70. Brett Myers (HOU) -- Fri 4/1-@PHI (Halladay), Thu 4/7-@CIN (Wood)
71. Clayton Richard (SD) -- Sat 4/2-@STL (Westbrook), Fri 4/8-LAD (Lilly)
72. J.A. Happ (HOU) -- Sun 4/3-@PHI (Oswalt), Sat 4/9-FLA (Vazquez)
73. Kyle Lohse (STL) -- Mon 4/4-PIT (Morton), Sun 4/10-@SF (Bumgarner)
74. Bronson Arroyo (CIN) -- Sun 4/3-MIL (Wolf), Fri 4/8-@ARI (Hudson)
75. R.A. Dickey (NYM) -- Sun 4/3-@FLA (Vazquez), Fri 4/8-WAS (Zimmermann)
76. Doug Fister (SEA) -- Sun 4/3-@OAK (Gonzalez), Sat 4/9-CLE (Masterson)
77. James McDonald (PIT) -- Tue 4/5-@STL (McClellan), Sun 4/10-COL (Hammel)
78. A.J. Burnett (NYY) -- Sat 4/2-DET (Penny), Thu 4/7-MIN (Liriano)
79. Jason Hammel (COL) -- Tue 4/5-LAD (Kershaw), Sun 4/10-@PIT (McDonald)
80. Brett Cecil (TOR) -- Sun 4/3-MIN (Blackburn), Sat 4/9-@LAA (Santana)
81. Josh Beckett (BOS) -- Tue 4/5-@CLE (Tomlin), Sun 4/10-NYY (Sabathia)
82. Jeff Niemann (TB) -- Tue 4/5-LAA (Weaver), Sun 4/10-@CHW (Floyd)
83. Kyle Drabek (TOR) -- Sat 4/2-MIN (Liriano), Fri 4/8-@LAA (Pineiro)
84. Scott Baker (MIN) -- Mon 4/4-@NYY (Nova), Sat 4/9-OAK (Gonzalez)
85. Mark Buehrle (CHW) -- Fri 4/1-@CLE (Carmona), Thu 4/7-TB (Price)
86. Jeremy Guthrie (BAL) -- Fri 4/1-@TB (Price), Wed 4/6-DET (Verlander)
87. Rick Porcello (DET) -- Mon 4/4-@BAL (Arrieta), Sun 4/10-KC (Hochevar)
88. Justin Masterson (CLE) -- Sun 4/3-CHW (Danks), Sat 4/9-@SEA (Fister)
89. Jeff Francis (KC) -- Thu 4/1-LAA (Haren), Wed 4/6-CHW (Humber)
90. Chris Narveson (MIL) -- Mon 4/4-ATL (Jurrjens), Sat 4/9-CHC (Garza)
91. John Lannan (WAS) -- Sun 4/3-ATL (Hudson), Sat 4/9-@NYM (Capuano)
92. Jeremy Hellickson (TB) -- Wed 4/6-LAA (Haren)
93. Mike Pelfrey (NYM) -- Fri 4/1-@FLA (Johnson), Wed 4/6-@PHI (Blanton)
94. Kyle McClellan (STL) -- Tue 4/5-PIT (McDonald)
95. Ivan Nova (NYY) -- Mon 4/4-MIN (Baker), Sat 4/9-@BOS (Buchholz)
96. Bud Norris (HOU) -- Tue 4/5-@CIN (Leake), Sun 4/10-FLA (Sanchez)
97. Chris Capuano (NYM) -- Sat 4/9-WAS (Lannan)
98. Fausto Carmona (CLE) -- Fri 4/1-CHW (Buehrle), Thu 4/7-BOS (Lester)
99. Daisuke Matsuzaka (BOS) -- Wed 4/6-@CLE (Talbot)
100. Carlos Carrasco (CLE) -- Sat 4/2-CHW (Jackson), Fri 4/8-@SEA (Vargas)
No-thank-yous, among two-starts:
Jake Arrieta (BAL) -- Mon 4/4-DET (Porcello), Sat 4/9-TEX (Harrison)
Nick Blackburn (MIN) -- Sun 4/3-@TOR (Cecil), Fri 4/8-OAK (Anderson)
Barry Enright (ARI) -- Mon 4/4-@CHC (Wells), Sun 4/10-CIN (Leake)
Matt Harrison (TEX) -- Sun 4/3-BOS (Buchholz), Sat 4/9-@BAL (Arrieta)
Luke Hochevar (KC) -- Thu 3/31-LAA (Weaver), Tue 4/5-CHW (Floyd), Sun 4/10-@DET (Porcello)
Scott Kazmir (LAA) -- Sun 4/3-@KC (Chen), Sun 4/10-TOR (Reyes)
Paul Maholm (PIT) -- Sat 4/2-@CHC (Zambrano), Thu 4/7-COL (Jimenez)
Jason Marquis (WAS) -- Tue 4/5-@FLA (Sanchez), Sun 4/10-@NYM (Young)
Charlie Morton (PIT) -- Mon 4/4-@STL (Lohse), Sat 4/9-COL (Chacin)
Ross Ohlendorf (PIT) -- Sun 4/3-@CHC (Garza), Fri 4/8-COL (De La Rosa)
Joe Saunders (ARI) -- Sun 4/3-@COL (Chacin), Sat 4/9-CIN (LeCure)
Chris Tillman (BAL) -- Sun 4/3-@TB (Davis), Fri 4/8-TEX (Lewis)
Josh Tomlin (CLE) -- Tue 4/5-BOS (Beckett), Sun 4/10-@SEA (Bedard)
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.