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'The Nine' for Week 25
So it's come to this: The final week of the 2018 major league baseball regular season, and with it, the conclusion of the traditional fantasy baseball season. In ESPN leagues, Week 25 represents the second of the two-week finals in head-to-head leagues, and the season concludes with the games on Sunday, Sept. 30, regardless of any necessary makeup or tiebreaker games afterward to decide playoff spots. In other words, the Miami Marlins at Pittsburgh Pirates makeup game, currently scheduled for Monday, Oct. 1 (but almost assuredly to be canceled if the Pirates are eliminated from postseason contention beforehand), will not count in ESPN games. If you play offsite, check your league's rules to determine what games count as well as whether any additional games would be part of Week 25 or their own, separate scoring period. Incidentally, the pitchers who would be on turn for that Marlins-Pirates game would be Jeff Brigham and Ivan Nova.
Motivation is a huge factor during the season's final week, as you want players on teams still fighting for playoff spots, since their teams are the most likely to play their "A" lineups right up until the end. Teams are notorious for shuffling rotations in the final week, especially playoff-bound teams lining up postseason rotations, shutting down heavily worked pitchers and giving regular hitters rest (especially the day after clinching playoff spots and/or seeding). Unfortunately, only the National League seems likely to have a large number of motivated teams entering the final week. Four of the NL's five playoff spots remain up for grabs with contenders within 2.5 games of one another (entering play on Sept. 24), while only the American League West race (4.5-game gap between the Houston Astros and Oakland Athletics) and race for home-field advantage for the wild-card game (1.5-game gap between the New York Yankees and Athletics) are within five games. Looking at the current playoff standings, these are my rankings of "most motivated" teams during Week 25: Colorado Rockies, St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, Athletics, Los Angeles Dodgers, Yankees, Chicago Cubs, Tampa Bay Rays. Conversely, these teams have absolutely nothing to play for, whether locked into a specific playoff seed or eliminated from contention entirely: Cleveland Indians (AL's No. 3 seed); Arizona Diamondbacks, Baltimore Orioles, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Angels, Marlins, Minnesota Twins, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, Pirates, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, Toronto Blue Jays and Washington Nationals (all eliminated).
Two-start pitchers hardly dwindle into extinction during Week 25, but the ability to project their identities is never tougher. Using 2017 data to illustrate, only 31 pitchers started twice in the season-ending week, but only 24 of the 38 who were projected to work twice at the week's start actually made both starts, with six of my top-10-ranked starters only going once. Brace for change in Sept. 28-30 weekend rotations, especially based upon playoff scenarios. Some things to consider: The Diamondbacks might skip Robbie Ray on Sept. 30 now that they've been eliminated from postseason contention. The Braves are using a six-man rotation and skipped Sean Newcomb during the Sept. 21-23 weekend, hinting that anything goes for their Week 25 rotation, especially during the Sept. 28-30 weekend series. The Cubs, Astros, Dodgers and Yankees seem likely to avoid any of their front-of-the-rotation starters on Sept. 30 (and possibly not on Sept. 29, either). The Indians tentatively plan to start Trevor Bauer on Sept. 30 as a way to build up his pitch count, but they could scratch him should they feel comfortable with his playoff role and/or workload before then. If the Cardinals' playoff fate is uncertain entering Sept. 30, they'll pitch Jack Flaherty. They might hold him back for the wild card game or shut him down entirely (if eliminated from contention) otherwise.
The Rockies not only rank among the week's most-motivated teams, they also have some of the best hitting matchups, thanks to a seven-game home stand at Coors Field in which they're probably not going to face Aaron Nola (he's lined up to face the Braves on Sept. 23 and 28) or Max Scherzer. The Rockies' disadvantage, unfortunately, is having their two most struggling starters lined up for two starts -- Jon Gray and Tyler Anderson -- but that could always shift. As the Rockies are scheduled to face nothing but right-handed starters -- the opposing Phillies and Nationals currently don't have a left-hander in their rotations -- David Dahl (available in more than 85 percent of ESPN leagues), a .308/.358/.545 career hitter against righties who has started each of the team's past 10 games against a righty starter, is well worth a pickup.
The Phillies, now playing merely for pride, enjoy that hitting-friendly four-game series at Coors as well as three back home against a Braves pitching staff that has struggled to the tune of a 4.40 ERA and 1.46 WHIP in September (through Sept. 20) and might be throwing its "B" rotation. Offense will presumably be the Phillies' best final-week fantasy offering, and the team is scheduled to face either five or six right-handed starters (pending the Braves' schedule). Carlos Santana, who has made eight starts at third base in the team's past 14 games and is a .222/.357/.401 hitter against righties this season, is a clear start, and Roman Quinn (available in more than 95 percent of ESPN leagues), who has started six of the team's past seven games in center field, is well worth a pickup for his speed.
One could make the case that the Phillies have the toughest on-field Week 25 schedule -- they face opponents who are a combined 29 games over .500 -- but it's the Cardinals whose schedule is the worst from an overall fantasy perspective. They have to face the Brewers and Cubs, teams they're fighting for both the Central title and wild card, have to face nothing but above-average-graded starting pitching and must tangle with two well-above-average offenses. There is really no soft spot in the Cardinals' final-week schedule, outside of the chance that the Cubs clinch the Central in advance of their Sept. 28-30 weekend series and rest their regulars. Tread carefully with your marginal fantasy starters from the Cardinals.
Though eliminated from postseason contention, the Twins have one of the AL's sneaky-good Week 25 schedules. They face a pair of bottom-half pitching staffs in the Tigers (4.52 ERA, 22nd) and White Sox (4.73 ERA, 25th), will play the entire week at home and have performed significantly better in home games (4.70 runs per game, .332 wOBA) than road (4.21, .306). What's more, the Twins have a good number of players who are widely available in ESPN leagues and who should be relatively safe in terms of playing time: Willians Astudillo (available in roughly 85 percent of ESPN leagues), who has been playing more while Mitch Garver has been sidelined; Tyler Austin (available in more than 98 percent), a .250/.304/.533 hitter in 26 games since his trade from the Yankees; Jake Cave (available in nearly 95 percent), who has slugged .433 in September; and Jorge Polanco (available in roughly 90 percent), a .319/.355/.486 hitter in 17 games in September.
Seasonal milestones can also serve a motivating factor for individual players, so here are others who might be making that extra push in Week 25: Max Scherzer is 10 strikeouts away from 300 and has an outside chance at being lined up to make two starts. Luis Severino needs two wins for 20, and he's currently aligned for two starts. Mookie Betts is two stolen bases away from 30 for the season and Trevor Story is four steals away, at which point both would join Jose Ramirez as the season's only 30/30 men. Freddie Freeman, the major-league leader with 184 hits, is 16 away from 200.
Among the week's best matchups plays considering games against lefty or righty starters: Nick Hundley (available in more than 95 percent of ESPN leagues), a .286/.330/.514 hitter against left-handers this season, whose Giants are scheduled to face five lefty starters; Jason Kipnis (available in more than 75 percent), a .309/.388/.647 hitter in his past 20 games, whose Indians are scheduled to face nothing but righty starters; Daniel Palka (available in more than 85 percent), who has .286 isolated power against right-handers this season, whose White Sox are scheduled to face nothing but righty starters; Franmil Reyes (available in roughly 75 percent), a .358/.434/.657 hitter against right-handers this season, whose Padres are scheduled to face four lefty starters; Ben Zobrist (available in roughly 45 percent), a .305/.388/.470 hitter against right-handers this season, whose Cubs are scheduled to face nothing but righty starters.