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'The Nine' for Week 24
The finals in ESPN standard head-to-head leagues are here! Congratulations if you've made it this far, and you'll now battle for two weeks, beginning on Monday, Sept. 17, and ending on Sunday, Sept. 30, for your league's championship. If you're in a custom league, check your league's playoff settings, but most every head-to-head league is now in its playoffs (and probably in or approaching its championship round) and managers in rotisserie leagues are carefully counting categories.
As mentioned last week, clinching scenarios can influence teams' planning, something that will only intensify during Week 24, as teams often rest veterans and heavily used pitchers once they've either locked in their playoff positioning or are eliminated from contention. The Boston Red Sox were the first team to clinch a playoff spot, have a magic number of two to clinch the American League East title and five to clinch the league's top overall seed (entering play on Sept. 17), both of which could happen before Week 24 ends. The Cleveland Indians have clinched the AL Central title but are 11 games back of the Houston Astros for what would be the league's No. 2 playoff seed; the Astros have a magic number of three to lock the Indians into the league's No. 3 playoff seed. Ten teams have been mathematically eliminated from contention: The Baltimore Orioles, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Angels, Miami Marlins, Minnesota Twins, San Diego Padres, Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays. The San Francisco Giants (1) and New York Mets (1) both have elimination numbers of five or less.
Change is the name of the (on-field) game at this time of year, especially on the pitching side. The Atlanta Braves, Royals, Twins, Seattle Mariners and Blue Jays have all announced moves to six-man rotations, though in the Mariners' case, injuries facing James Paxton (illness) and Felix Hernandez (hamstring) cast uncertainty on the team's entire week of rotation assignments. The Indians, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals are contending teams that, at some point this September, either have used spot starters to provide the rest of their rotations extra rest or plan to do so during Week 24. The Angels, Twins, Oakland Athletics, Tampa Bay Rays and Rangers have each used at least two "opener" pitchers this September and are highly likely to continue doing so. Be prepared for shifts to your pitchers' schedules, with Corey Kluber, Miles Mikolas and Blake Snell the most fantasy-relevant (currently projected) two-start pitchers in greatest danger of having their second weekly starts skipped or pushed.
Weather could again wreak havoc on the baseball schedule in Week 24, with rain expected up and down the East Coast at the beginning and the end of the week, threatening games in Baltimore, Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington. Keep close tabs on the weather as the week unfolds. The Arizona Diamondbacks, Reds, Astros and Marlins are the safest on that front, scheduled to play the entirety of their weeks in weather-controlled environments.
Trivia: Can you name the offense that, from Aug. 24 to Sept. 16 (a three-plus-week active span), led the majors in runs per game (5.80) and was second in weighted on-base average (.363)? Say hello to the Rays, still a dark-horse contender for the AL's second wild-card spot, and a team that has a large number of players widely available for the taking in ESPN leagues. The Rays have the week's most favorable hitting schedule, thanks to their trips to Texas' Globe Life Park and Toronto's Rogers Centre, a pair of ballparks that are much more hitting-friendly than their home ballpark, to face Rangers and Blue Jays pitching staffs that rank 28th (4.97) and 29th (5.03) in ERA for the season. If the Rays are to rally in the playoff race, this is the week for them to do it, and fantasy managers should hop aboard the bandwagon by adding Willy Adames (available in nearly 85 percent of ESPN leagues), Kevin Kiermaier (available in more than 75 percent), Mallex Smith (available in more than 45 percent) and Joey Wendle (available in more than 55 percent). Red-hot Ji-Man Choi (available in nearly 95 percent), a .333/.424/.679 hitter in his past 25 games, also warrants a look, but be forewarned that he hasn't yet started a game for Tampa Bay against a left-handed starting pitcher and the team is scheduled to face three in Week 24.
Don't sleep on the noncontenders -- spoilers! -- who often provide sneaky-good fantasy value this time of year. The Tigers and Blue Jays are two such squads, teams that face extremely favorable hitting schedules and are constituted mainly of players widely available in ESPN leagues. Niko Goodrum (available in more than 90 percent) is a .265/.359/.412 hitter with a pair of stolen bases since Sept. 1 (and through Sept. 13), assuming he can recover quickly from a leg contusion. Teoscar Hernandez (available in more than 85 percent) is a .259/.310/.556 hitter since Sept. 1. Rowdy Tellez (available in more than 95 percent) is a .409/.435/.864 hitter in eight games since his recall.
Shining the spotlight on closer situations, the Diamondbacks' worst-in-baseball-in-September (by virtue of an 8.25 ERA) bullpen could put them in a huge hole in a pair of critical home series against the Cubs and Rockies. Yoshihisa Hirano and Brad Ziegler are their desperate plays for saves -- and it's a virtual coin flip between them -- if you must pick from their bullpen, but it's a situation to avoid when possible and is a factor if wins from Diamondbacks starters matter to your standings. The visiting Cubs are the team that could have saves widely available on the waiver wire coupled with a sneaky-good schedule for the position, as Jesse Chavez (available in more than 90 percent of ESPN leagues), Carl Edwards Jr. (available in more than 90 percent) and Justin Wilson (available in more than 99 percent) are all candidates to replace injured Pedro Strop (hamstring), with my preference for adding them in that order. Brandon Morrow (DL: biceps) could be activated sometime during the week and might be a ninth-inning factor by Week 25, though he probably won't be back soon enough to help this week.
Their matchup grades might not scream "top starts!" but the Mets have another weekly schedule well worthy of your attention, especially since they've averaged a fourth-in-the-majors 5.42 runs per game in September (through Sept. 13) and will be facing a pair of pitching staffs in the Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Nationals that don't have a single left-handed starter in their rotations and have a combined seven lefty relievers totaling 237 1/3 innings pitched in the majors this season on their rosters. Brandon Nimmo (available in roughly 70 percent of ESPN leagues), a .276/.408/.531 hitter against righties this season, and Jeff McNeil (available in nearly 80 percent), a .341/.391/.496 hitter against righties, should both be active in all formats for Week 24.
Here are some hitters with favorable righty/lefty matchups to consider: Johan Camargo (available in more than 50 percent), a .274/.361/.449 hitter against right-handers this season, whose Braves are scheduled to face six righty starters; Curtis Granderson (available in nearly 98 percent), a .260/.362/.473 hitter against right-handers this season, whose Milwaukee Brewers are scheduled to face nothing but righty starters; Ryan O'Hearn (available in roughly 90 percent), a .356/.466/.836 hitter against right-handers this season, whose Royals are scheduled to face at least four righty starters; Hunter Renfroe (available in more than 50 percent), a .260/.324/.496 hitter against left-handers this season, and Franmil Reyes (available in roughly 75 percent), a .340/.417/.660 hitter against lefties, whose Padres are scheduled to face four left-handed starters.