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Fantasy baseball - Pitching pickups for the stretch run

Sean Manaea is close to making his 2019 debut after recovering from shoulder surgery. AP Photo/Ben Margot

This is it!

September serves as a lot of things in the baseball world: The traditional playoffs in head-to-head leagues, which begin on Monday, Sept. 2, in standard ESPN leagues; the expansion of real-life rosters to a maximum of 40 players; the "stretch run," as we baseball fans call it; and the conclusion of the regular season and, with it, the fantasy baseball season.

It's your last chance to make that final push in your league, but it's also a peculiar month with contenders often resting players once they clinch playoff positioning and non-contenders testing potential 2020 roster pieces.

If you've been utilizing a streaming-starters strategy, surely you can use some additional help identifying individual pitchers with a good volume of favorable matchups.

As we've done in past months, this column provides you some recommendations for September pickups whose schedules look the most favorable. This schedule analysis uses the same formulas that craft the weekly Forecaster, in order to unearth pitchers who might be able to provide you 3-5 solid outings.

Reynaldo Lopez, Chicago White Sox: Not that the White Sox as a team have the most favorable remaining schedule on the pitching side -- that distinction belongs to the next team on this list -- but Lopez individually is in perhaps the most favorable situation for fantasy amongst those available in at least 80 percent of ESPN leagues. His White Sox have easily a top-five September schedule, with seven games against the Detroit Tigers and three apiece against the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Mariners, and while it also includes seven games against the Cleveland Indians, they're now without Jose Ramirez and Lopez is 2-for-2 in quality starts against them this season besides.

Lopez has a 2.82 ERA and 22.6 percent strikeout rate in nine starts since the All-Star break, and he has an outside chance at four of his likely five September starts going KC, @SEA, @DET, DET -- he'd merely need to be moved up by a day in the rotation before Sept. 10 in order for that to happen. Either way, he's likely to finish the season with a pair of starts against the Tigers, who against right-handers have the majors worst wOBA (.286) and strikeout rate (26.9 percent).

Zac Gallen and Mike Leake, Arizona Diamondbacks: The Diamondbacks' September is indeed the most favorable on the pitching side, thanks in large part to their playing nine of their final 26 games against the San Diego Padres plus another three against the Miami Marlins, not to mention 16 of those 26 at Chase Field, which has leaned neutral-to-pitching-friendly in the nearly two seasons since the team installed a humidor.

Gallen, available in more than 70 percent of ESPN leagues, is the clear standout from this rotation, though there's a chance that he might not be afforded a full slate of September starts having thrown 147 2/3 combined innings between the majors and minors, 14 1/3 more than he had in 2018 and matching his 2017 pro-career high in the category. Use him for so long as he's allowed to remain out there -- the Diamondbacks are still a fringe wild-card contender, after all -- and regard Leake, the quintessential streaming candidate, as well as possibly Alex Young options as you look to maximize your playoff-matchup allocated starts.

Framber Valdez, Houston Astros: Like the Diamondbacks, the Astros have options to fill out their rotation, but there's no individual who has a clearer immediate path to a permanent role than Valdez. He's filling in for the injured Aaron Sanchez, he pitched well in his first fill-in assignment on Sunday (6 IP, 1 ER, 8 K's, win), and he's not in much danger of an innings cap, having totaled 100 1/3 frames between the majors and minors after 140 in 2018. The Astros' September includes six games against the Mariners, three against the Royals and two against the Texas Rangers.

Considering the team could lock up a playoff spot by the third week of September and potentially a top-two playoff seed only days after that, rest for the team's veteran starters might become part of the final-month strategy. In that case, Valdez will be asked to do a lot of filling in. Digging deeper, it's possible that Sanchez could still return in time to make a couple of September starts, or the team might ask Collin McHugh to fill in, in which case either of the two would warrant consideration.

Mitch Keller and Steven Brault, Pittsburgh Pirates: The Pirates have the majors' third most-favorable schedule on the pitching side, driven by 15 of their final 26 games coming at pitching-friendly PNC Park. Like some of the names listed above, Keller might not get a full slate of September starts, but the Pirates do want to grant him an extended audition for their 2020 rotation and he does have a reasonable 131 innings combined between the majors and minors, compared to 142 1/3 in 2018. Brault, meanwhile, has a 3.86 ERA and 3.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in five starts since his return to the Pirates' rotation, and he should capitalize upon a good number of Pirates games against teams that hit right-handers better than left-handers.

Sean Manaea and Homer Bailey, Oakland Athletics: Manaea has been electric in his rehabilitation stint for Triple-A Las Vegas of late -- and bear in mind that's in the Pacific Coast League, the minors' most hitting-friendly league -- totaling 28 strikeouts compared to four walks in his past three turns alone, and it's probably not far off that the Athletics will consider a six-man rotation or simply removing an incumbent in order to accommodate him. Whatever the arrangement, the Athletics have a great September pitching schedule -- outside of their big four-game series at Houston Sept. 9-12 -- with three games apiece against the Tigers, Royals and Mariners, as well as six against the Rangers.

Would you believe that the Athletics are tied for the majors' most quality starts since the All-Star break (25), or that Homer Bailey is a top-50 starter on our Player Rater during the past 30 days? This is a rotation to take a lot more seriously than it has been, and a lot of Athletics pitchers remain widely available.