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'The Nine' for Week 21
Two key dates on the baseball calendar arrive late in Week 21: Aug. 31 (Friday) is the deadline for teams to set postseason rosters, which is an effective "second trade deadline" -- you might remember Justin Verlander's trade to the Houston Astros last season occurring on Aug. 31, as a prime example. Sept. 1 (Saturday) is the date that active rosters expand from a 25- to 40-man limit, which means the activation of DL'ed players and promotion of many prospects and "Quadruple-A" players as roster reinforcements. In short, change is a little more common than usual at this seasonal stage, as teams either add players or tweak around the roster rules. The St. Louis Cardinals, for example, demoted Daniel Poncedeleon to Triple-A Memphis on Aug. 22, knowing that he'll be eligible for recall when the team next needs a fifth starter on Sept. 1, which had the ancillary benefit of giving Jack Flaherty a projected two-start week. Among players who have reportedly cleared waivers and could be trade candidates: Starlin Castro, C.J. Cron, Gio Gonzalez, Adam Jones, Andrew McCutchen, Justin Smoak, Matt Wieters and Ryan Zimmerman.
The New York Yankees have by far the week's most favorable matchups, which is more relevant for them in this compared to a typical week. Injuries to Aaron Judge (DL: wrist), Didi Gregorius (DL: heel) and Gary Sanchez (DL: groin) have created opportunities for players like Austin Romine (available in more than 90 percent of ESPN leagues) and Neil Walker (available in more than 95 percent), and while Gregorius and Sanchez could be ready to rejoin the team by the Aug. 30-Sept. 2 weekend, there should still be enough at-bats for Romine and Walker to warrant using them in mixed leagues. Walker, incidentally, has started 14 of the Yankees' past 16 games, batting .245/.333/.510 with four home runs and 11 RBIs in them.
Sticking with the American League East, the Baltimore Orioles, baseball's worst team, has an extremely favorable set of hitting matchups of their own that warrant your attention. While the Orioles have averaged a below-average 3.90 runs per game in August (22nd in baseball), they've gotten respectable-to-good contributions from two widely available hitters: Jonathan Villar (available in more than 85 percent of ESPN leagues) is one of 20 players with at least three home runs and three steals in the month of August, and Trey Mancini (available in nearly 70 percent) is a .293/.320/.478 hitter with five homers and 13 RBIs in his past 23 games.
Their fellow AL East combatants, the Toronto Blue Jays, however, have a great hitting schedule but run into a positional problem: Three of their six games will be played at Miami's Marlins Park, so scorching-hot Kendrys Morales (available in roughly 75 percent of ESPN leagues), the team's usual designated hitter who has batted .294/.387/.520 with seven homers and 18 RBIs in 30 games since the All-Star break, will tangle with Justin Smoak for at-bats at first base during those contests. Morales' superior recent stats might earn him the majority of those starts, and his performance coupled with the team's outstanding matchups on paper, makes him well worth keeping in (or adding to) your lineup. Among other Blue Jays to consider: Kevin Pillar (available in nearly 75 percent), a .313/.328/.531 hitter in 18 games since the All-Star break; and Danny Jansen (available in more than 90 percent), who has shown similarly strong contact skills in his brief time in the majors to the minors.
Speaking of DH implications in the interleague games -- first addressing the AL -- the Tampa Bay Rays play a short schedule of only five games, and will have to squeeze Jake Bauers and C.J. Cron into first base now that Tommy Pham is back and manning left field. Neither is a recommended option with the Rays facing the tough pitching of the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians. The Seattle Mariners still haven't played Nelson Cruz even one inning in the field this season, so they might relegate him to pinch-hitting duty for their two games (out of six for the week) at San Diego's Petco Park. Cruz's production is still too good to sit, however.
Three National League teams visit AL venues, all of them for two-game, week-opening series, giving those squads two games' worth of the DH. The Miami Marlins are the only one who play a five-game week, and they lack star power in fantasy terms that should benefit from the additional at-bats. It's the other two teams that gain a noticeable advantage: The Colorado Rockies can use the DH to grant additional at-bats to players like Ryan McMahon and Pat Valaika, while the Los Angeles Dodgers should have an easier time squeezing in Joc Pederson and Chris Taylor, players who have had a harder time finding space in the lineup since the Manny Machado and Brian Dozier acquisitions.
It's a critical week for the Oakland Athletics to gain some ground in the AL West race, as the team faces the two teams also in playoff contention around them, the Astros (three road games to begin the week) and Mariners (four home games to conclude it). The Athletics' hitting matchups are at least league-average despite what might be perceived as a tough schedule, and it's mainly because the Mariners' rotation has seemed to collapse recently (5.96 ERA in August). The Athletics have also been much less matchups-driven on offense this season than usual, with seven "regulars" out of their nine starting spots, so the close split between opposing right- and left-handed starters isn't of great concern outside of their left- and center-field positions (Mark Canha, Ramon Laureano, Nick Martini and Chad Pinder have been sharing there). Marcus Semien (available in roughly 50 percent of ESPN leagues) is a player to start, having played every inning of each of the Athletics' past 47 games at shortstop while batting .306/.371/.437 with seven stolen bases and 29 runs scored.
If the Cardinals are to make some headway in the NL wild-card race, this is the week to do it. They play six home games, three apiece against the division-rival Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds, teams that rank among the majors' bottom 10 in terms of runs per game in August (3.40, 28th; and 3.71, 24th). The Cardinals are scheduled to face five right-handed starting pitchers during Week 21, which is obviously great news for Matt Carpenter, but also for Kolten Wong (available in more than 97 percent of ESPN leagues), whose career OPS is 90 points higher against righties than lefties. Recently acquired Matt Adams (available in more than 75 percent) could also sneak in a few starts, and his .264/.345/.538 rates against righties this season make him an attractive NL-only option. It's Harrison Bader, however, who warrants the spotlight in fantasy: He's still available in nearly 60 percent of ESPN leagues and is a .319/.385/.551 hitter with three homers and three steals in 21 games in August.
For those seeking righty/lefty matchups advantages for Week 21, consider: Adam Eaton (available in roughly one-third of ESPN leagues), a .310/.393/.426 hitter against right-handed pitchers, whose Washington Nationals are scheduled to face six righty starters; Adam Frazier (available in more than 98 percent of leagues), a .271/.346/.435 hitter against right-handed pitchers, whose Pittsburgh Pirates are scheduled to face six righty starters; Ian Happ (available in nearly 70 percent), a .248/.379/.442 hitter against right-handed pitchers, and Ben Zobrist (available in nearly 45 percent), a .311/.403/.496 hitter against righties, whose Chicago Cubs are scheduled to face six righty starters; and Ketel Marte (available in nearly 75 percent), a .300/.379/.553 hitter against left-handed pitchers, and Steven Souza Jr. (available in more than 85 percent), a .302/.362/.547 hitter against lefties, whose Arizona Diamondbacks are scheduled to face four lefty starters.