Friday's action could end up taking a backseat to all of the wheeling and dealing around the majors, since the league's non-waiver trade deadline is Friday. The schedule seems to have obliged; in a majority of the games, teams will throw a pitcher from the back end of the rotation. But it would be foolhardy to overlook even those starters, since that scenario offers us the opportunity to take part in one of our favorite activities: spot-starting.
A number of pitchers owned in fewer than 20 percent of ESPN standard leagues have favorable matchups, so you astute owners -- and you will be one after reading this! -- can take advantage. We'll tell you which players to target and why after we present our rankings, which are sure to have a surprise or two:
Starting pitcher rankings for July 31, 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: Will David Price really be the fourth-best pitcher Friday? He has been pounded in his first 11 starts, and if it weren't for seven unearned runs, his ERA would be pushing 7.00. That said, he has had a brutal schedule. No starter has faced tougher batters; the OPS percentage of Price's opponents is .776, four points higher than the next pitcher. Of course, that doesn't come close to matching the .862 OPS he has actually allowed, but if you adjusted for the quality of opposition, Price's numbers at least wouldn't make you want to gouge your eyes out. Fortunately for Price, the Royals don't exactly scream quality hitting; their team OPS for the season is .708, second-worst in the AL. The big thing going for Price is that he's still striking out more than a batter per inning, something that will stand out Friday since there will be very few strikeout pitchers toeing the mound. Pitchers as good as Price can dominate the weaker teams in the league just on pure stuff. And in terms of win potential, it never hurts when Sidney Ponson is pitching for the other team. Speaking of weak offenses, that could be another theme of the day, as the majority of the top-ranked pitchers have tremendously easy matchups. Aaron Cook is no exception, as his opponent, the Reds, are one of the few teams that possess a worse OPS than the Royals. Meanwhile, Cook hasn't allowed a home run in four consecutive starts and sports the second-best ground-ball percentage (58.4 percent) in the majors. Those numbers virtually guarantee a quality start for Cook, or better. The Brewers actually have an above-average offense, so Chad Gaudin is a riskier proposition. That said, he strikes out a lot of batters and will be pitching in the comfort of Petco Park. Even though his numbers are actually a bit higher at home, it's mostly because of an inflated batting average. It's more important to note that Gaudin has allowed only seven home runs in 100 1/3 innings, and only two at home. Taking away the long ball will be of the utmost importance against a team that has hit the third most home runs in the league. The home run has been the Achilles' heel of Scott Richmond, who has allowed six of them in his past 23 innings. Fortunately, he catches a break Friday by drawing the A's, who are dead last in the AL in home runs hit. Other than the home runs, Richmond has been pitching well in recent weeks, going at least seven innings while allowing three runs or fewer in three consecutive starts. He makes for a great spot start. Only the Nationals and the Padres have a worse slugging percentage at home than the Mets' .396 mark, and they're even worse when it comes to homers, ranking last by six home runs. The soft matchup makes Doug Davis a good option if you need strikeouts on the cheap. The difference between a good and a bad offense can be seen when looking at Chris Volstad's last two starts. He walked four batters and struck out two in both of them, but against the Padres he went seven innings and allowed one run. Against the Dodgers, he wasn't so lucky, instead allowing eight hits and four runs in 5 1/3 innings. Since Volstad's lights-out April, he has posted an ERA over 5.00 in 95.1 innings, so you might want to exercise caution when he faces the Cubs, who have had the majors' seventh-highest OPS (.793) this month. Tommy Hanson has been effective in his rookie season, but not in the way anyone expected. The power pitcher has only 37 strikeouts in 55 innings. That's playing with fire when he faces some of the better offenses in the league, and the Dodgers seem like a particularly poor matchup since they put so many balls in play. The safe thing to do is leave Hanson on your bench.
• J.D. Drew, OF, Red Sox: Drew has six hits in his past 11 at-bats, including three doubles, and a six-game hitting streak overall. If that's not enough to ensure he snaps out of his recent slump, Jeremy Guthrie probably is. Drew is 6-for-18 (.333) with four extra-base hits, including one home run, versus Guthrie.
• Jason Bay, OF, Red Sox: Bay has hit only .213 since June, but relief should come in the form of Guthrie, a pitcher against whom he's 3-for-5 with a double and a home run this season. In his career, he's 5-for-8 with two homers against Guthrie.
• Edwin Encarnacion, 3B, Reds: He has been hitting since his return, with four home runs and 10 extra-base hits in 73 at-bats this month. Encarnacion has hit better in the comfort of Great American Ballpark in his career, and he's 3-for-7 with a home run against Aaron Cook, so don't expect a power outage anytime soon.
• B.J. Upton, OF, Rays: You don't have to look very hard to find players who knock Sidney Ponson around. Nevertheless, Upton's .583 average in 12 career at-bats is impressive. Surprisingly enough, only one of his seven hits has gone for extra bases, but all those singles do have the side effect of giving Upton more chances to steal a base.
• Chone Figgins, 3B, Angels: Figgins sports a .341 average when facing righties this season, one that might even rise, considering his track record versus Nick Blackburn: 3-for-6 with a steal this season, and 7-for-12 overall, with a home run added for good measure.
• Grady Sizemore, OF, Indians: He's 1-for-6 with two strikeouts against Edwin Jackson this season, right in line with his career marks: three hits in 17 at-bats (.176), with just one extra-base hit and four strikeouts.
• Alfonso Soriano, OF, Cubs: Chris Volstad has owned him, leaving Soriano hitless in nine career at-bats while striking him out four times.
• Brandon Phillips, 2B, Reds: Phillips has just one extra-base hit in his past 55 at-bats, and it always has been tough for him to get much lift on Aaron Cook's sinker, as he's yet to net an extra-base hit against the righty in 11 at-bats.
• Russell Branyan, 1B, Mariners: Branyan has struck out in nearly half of his at-bats against Vicente Padilla, fanning eight times in 17 at-bats. Striking out that often doesn't usually portend success, and as you might expect, he's hitting just .118 versus Padilla overall, including an 0-for-2 mark this season.
• Jason Kubel, OF, Twins: I know, it doesn't make sense to bench Kubel, who has the third-best average against right-handers in the AL (.348), against the pitcher formerly known as Ervin Santana. But Kubel is just 2-for-11 (.182) versus Santana, with zero extra-base hits and four strikeouts, and even while Santana was allowing six runs in 3 2/3 innings versus the Twins in his last start, he still managed to make sure Kubel went 0-for-2 with a strikeout.
• Johnny Damon, OF, Yankees: Most lefties hit significantly worse against left-handed pitchers, and Damon is no exception. His slugging percentage is 133 points worse against lefties this season than against right-handers. Meanwhile, Clayton Richard's problem is righties, not lefties; right-handers have hit .306 against him in his brief major league career, but he has limited left-handers to a .643 OPS.
• Adam Lind, OF, Blue Jays: Southpaws are hitting only .186 against Dallas Braden, striking out more than 22 percent of the time. In fact, left-handed hitters have only six extra-base hits in 129 at-bats against him, so chances are that Lind won't contribute much Friday.
If you're hardcore
• Marcus Thames, OF, Tigers: In his typical lefty-mashing way, nine of his 16 hits this season versus left-handers have gone for extra bases, including four home runs. Thames must be licking his chops to face Jeremy Sowers, a pitcher against whom he's 3-for-9, with -- you guessed it -- all three hits being of the extra-base variety, including one home run.
• Nick Johnson, Nationals, 1B: The Pirates' Ross Ohlendorf allows left-handed hitters to bat .321 and slug .522 against him, and we could even see some rare power from Johnson, who has hit one of his six homers this season off Ohlendorf.
• Garret Anderson, OF, Braves: A 3-for-4 performance Wednesday in which he hit two doubles and a home run gave Anderson his third consecutive multihit game, and he's hitting .327 since May 10, making it nearly impossible to leave him out of this space on a regular basis. Jason Schmidt has been rocked since returning from the disabled list, so expect the hits to keep coming for Anderson.
• Billy Butler, 1B, Royals: In 356 career at-bats against left-handers, Butler has hit .331 with 18 home runs, so if anything, his performance this season -- .313 average and six home runs in 115 at-bats against lefties -- has room for improvement. But you'd be hard-pressed to find any owner who wouldn't already be satisfied with that kind of production, which is why he should be a must-start against David Price.
• Jack Cust, OF, Athletics: Lefties have tattooed Scott Richmond to the tune of a .538 slugging percentage; 25 of the 33 extra-base hits he has allowed have been hit by lefties. So matchup-wise, you have to like Cust, whose best skill is his power.
• Gordon Beckham, 3B/SS, White Sox: Beckham just keeps getting better; he's now hitting .391 since the All-Star break and has a three-game multi-hit streak going, and a six-game hitting streak overall. He has a mature 25-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio, too, so his production looks legitimate. He should benefit from a favorable matchup against Sergio Mitre, as Beckham has done some of his best work against lefties: five doubles, two home runs and a .326 average in 46 at-bats.
Injury list: Out
• Aaron Rowand, OF, Giants (forearm; available to pinch-hit)
Injury list: Day-to-day
• Russell Branyan, 1B, Mariners (back): "We've said this the last few days," manager Don Wakamatsu said, "but hopefully [Thursday] he's ready to go." Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice
• Luis Castillo, 2B, Mets (personal): Castillo will miss Thursday's game as his wife is expected to give birth; it's unknown whether he'll make it back in time for Friday's game.
• Scott Hairston, OF, Athletics (quadriceps): Hairston's quad injury isn't considered serious, but we've heard that one before.
• Brandon Inge, C/3B, Tigers (knee)
• Ian Kinsler, 2B, Rangers (hamstring)
• Alexei Ramirez, SS, White Sox (ankle): Ramirez hurt his ankle while attempting to break up a double play in the seventh inning Wednesday. Manager Ozzie Guillen said he's not playing Thursday and should probably be considered doubtful for Friday as well.
• Freddy Sanchez, 2B, Pirates (knee)
• Jim Thome, DH, White Sox (back)
• Shane Victorino, OF, Phillies (knee): Victorino left Wednesday's game with a bruised knee, and he told reporters it is "very, very sore." It sounds as though he'll be out for a couple days; expect newly acquired Ben Francisco to fill in for him.
• The only weatherproof games will be the Royals-Rays and Angels-Twins.
• Rain in Baltimore (Red Sox-Orioles) and Flushing (Diamondbacks-Mets) could pose a serious threat to the contests' wellbeing, as storms are expected throughout the day. Thunderstorms could also crop up in Arlington (40 percent chance) and Atlanta (30 percent).
Adam Madison is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com.