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Friday, September 18, 2009
Strategies change as season comes to end

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

For even more statistics and advice to help you set your Baseball Challenge lineup, check out Tristan's Week 25 Fantasy Forecaster.

It's a little hard to believe, but as of Monday, only two more weeks remain in the 2009 baseball season.

As such, it's crunch time in the Baseball Challenge … though unlike "crunch time" at the conclusion of Segment 1, right before the All-Star break, your strategy as Segment 2 wraps up needs to be different. Think of it like this: Baseball is in an entirely different state in July as it is in late September. Races are often decided. Rosters are expanded. Rookies are playing more. It's a whole different landscape.

Here are some things you'd be wise to keep in mind:

Prices? Phooey! The strategy I advised near the end of Segment 1 stands for the conclusion of Segment 2, and that's not to base the bulk of your lineup decisions on locking in cheap salaries. In the weekly game, there are two more lineups to set; all those cheap prices do is ensure you can lock in more top-shelf talent. But at this time of year, is top-shelf talent guaranteed to produce top-shelf BBC points? I'd argue no, as many of the elite players play for elite teams, teams that often have already had their playoff fates decided. A good example: Who really believes Albert Pujols won't get a single day's rest once the St. Louis Cardinals inevitably lock up the National League Central crown? I know I don't.

Quantity, quantity, quantity. I'm usually not a proponent of maximizing your games, but it's actually a key angle in September. As teams either clinch playoff spots or get eliminated from contention, they tend to either rest regulars, give rookies and youngsters added playing time, or both. Think it's wise to gamble on the team that has five games in a given week, or six road games, instead of the one with seven or six at home? Do yourself a favor; take one game out of each of those schedules and then see how comfortable you are with your players' point potential. Now take out two. The team with fewer (or less desirable) games becomes entirely unattractive a heck of a lot quicker.

Be motivated. This goes somewhat hand in hand with the previous point, that teams still in the playoff race are the ones most attractive in BBC play. Unfortunately, this is a year with fewer compelling races than usual, so that means keeping constant tabs on teams with chances to rattle off a winning streak to narrow the gaps. The Atlanta Braves are one such example; they've won seven in a row and face a full week of winnable games. The Los Angeles Angels have three home games versus the New York Yankees that could determine home-field advantage in the American League. And the Colorado Rockies sure want to win as many as they can in a six-game week at home, knowing they still aren't guaranteed a wild card and might actually have an outside chance at the division.

Tristan's top weekly pitching staffs

1. Los Angeles Dodgers (@WAS-3, @PIT-3 -- two-start pitcher Hiroki Kuroda), 7.9 price tag: This one is a no-brainer for the top spot in spite of their high price, as the Dodgers boast the National League's best ERA (2.62) and WHIP (1.11) in the month of September, and face a pair of offenses that rank 17th (.721) and 30th (.638) in terms of team OPS in the month. If there's any downside to picking the Dodgers right now, incredibly, it's the performance of their ace, Chad Billingsley. He's 3-6 with a 5.34 ERA and 1.52 WHIP in 11 starts since the All-Star break, but at least they picked the right matchup for him this week. He'll pitch Wednesday versus the Washington Nationals and inexperienced lefty Ross Detwiler.

2. Los Angeles Angels (NYY-3, OAK-3 -- two-start pitcher Joe Saunders), 5.0: I wrote a couple of weeks back that I doubted I'd pick another American League pitching staff the remainder of the year, but I'll make an exception this week. Yes, picking a week that includes three games versus the Yankees offense might seem like BBC suicide, but be aware that since 2005, the Angels have won 17 of 22 meetings in Los Angeles, averaging an acceptable 10.1 BBC points per game. The Angels have the motivation of a division race, making a statement that they can hang with the big boys, continuing their annual domination of the Yankees and making a run at the American League's top record. I'll take that chance.

3. Atlanta Braves (@NYM-3, @WAS-3 -- two-start pitcher Derek Lowe), 7.3: This staff is one of the primary reasons the Braves have won seven consecutive games and rallied back to 4½ games in the wild-card race, as they rank second in baseball in terms of ERA since the All-Star break (3.21). During that time, they have owned both the Mets and Nationals, winning 10 of 12 games and posting a 2.52 ERA and 1.32 WHIP in them. Lowe is the one risk factor with these matchups; he has a blister that knocked him from his most recent start after two innings.

4. Philadelphia Phillies (@FLA-3, @MIL-4 -- two-start pitcher Joe Blanton), 6.0: What's most appealing about this set of matchups is that both of these opponents strikes out a decent share. The Florida Marlins have whiffed 1,124 times, fifth most in baseball, and the Milwaukee Brewers 1,105, sixth most, and Blanton himself has 15 K's in 13 2/3 innings in his two starts versus the Marlins this season alone. As a staff, in spite of the issues at closer, the Phillies are winners of 24 of their past 36 games, during which time they have a 3.13 ERA and 1.18 WHIP.

Tristan's daily matchup tips

Monday, Sept. 21 -- It's a weak day for starters, actually, with the Braves and Derek Lowe at the New York Mets my preferred choice, so long as the right-hander is healthy. If he's not, I'll take Wandy Rodriguez and the Houston Astros at home versus the St. Louis Cardinals; he's 8-2 with a 1.58 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in 14 starts at Minute Maid Park this year. … With Gavin Floyd unable to pitch, the Chicago White Sox will be forced to pick a spot starter to face the Minnesota Twins. Sounds like a good day to load up on Twins, who have a .788 team OPS in their home games.

Tuesday, Sept. 22 -- Doubleheaders mean double the point potential, so I'll go with the Phillies behind what's likely to be Joe Blanton and Cole Hamels at the Florida Marlins. Even if it's Jamie Moyer pitching Game 2 over Hamels, that's fine; Moyer is 8-0 with a 1.37 ERA and 0.85 WHIP in eight career starts at Dolphin Stadium. … Doubleheader days are natural picks for hitters, too, and if I'm picking the Phillies as my pitching choice, then I'm picking them as my hitting choice, too. Something to think about: Ryan Howard is a combined 11-for-29 (.379 BA) with three doubles, three home runs and six walks in his career versus the Marlins' two scheduled starters, Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez.

Wednesday, Sept. 23 -- These are must-win games for the Rockies, and Jason Marquis appears to be a trustworthy BBC option at this point. He's 10-5 with a 3.42 ERA and 1.35 WHIP in 19 career games (18 starts) at Coors Field, and 2-1 with a 2.49 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in three starts versus the Padres this season. … The Toronto Blue Jays should light up Baltimore Orioles right-hander Jeremy Guthrie in a home game. Vernon Wells, for example, is a lifetime .438 hitter (7-for-16) with one double and three home runs versus Guthrie.

Thursday, Sept. 24 -- Road warrior Scott Feldman of the Texas Rangers has a major-league-high 12 road wins this season, so a matchup at Oakland shouldn't scare him in the slightest. He has a 2.58 road ERA, and the Athletics don't boast much of an offense. Among sleepers, the Reds' Homer Bailey might warrant a look; he's 2-0 with a 2.70 ERA and 1.35 WHIP in two career starts versus the Pirates. … Clayton Richard has been woefully inconsistent since coming to the San Diego Padres, and an assignment at Coors Field isn't an especially easy one for him. One standout: Chris Iannetta, who has a .984 OPS versus left-handers this season.

Friday, Sept. 25 -- The mismatch of the day is clearly the Toronto Blue Jays and Roy Halladay versus the Mariners and Doug Fister. Halladay has a 2.76 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 14 career games (12 starts) against the Mariners, and he's 9-6 with a 3.12 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in 17 starts at home this season. … Daisuke Matsuzaka has had a host of problems with the Yankees, with a 6.35 ERA and 1.56 WHIP in six career starts against them, and the Bronx Bombers continue to dominate in their home games. Derek Jeter has two home runs in 12 career at-bats against the right-hander.

Saturday, Sept. 26 -- The Angels and John Lackey versus the Athletics is about as automatic as it gets. The right-hander, after all, is 16-4 with a 2.54 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in 28 career starts against the A's. … I'm big on the Indians this week, especially Saturday, when they battle the Orioles' Jason Berken in a home game. It's a good day to pick up some dirt-cheap sleepers, like Asdrubal Cabrera and Travis Hafner, to surround your other highly priced superstars.

Sunday, Sept. 27 -- On a day when several starters stand out, I'll pick the Houston Astros and Wandy Rodriguez in a home game against the light-hitting Cincinnati Reds. The left-hander is 8-2 with a 1.58 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in 14 starts at home this season and has a 1.12 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in four starts versus the Reds this year. … Livan Hernandez takes on the red-hot Braves lineup, one that features three regulars with at least a 1.000 career OPS versus the right-hander. Chipper Jones has the most notable numbers, with a .373 batting average and 1.087 OPS.

Tristan's BBC weekly-game lineup

Total Segment 2 points: 2,757
Percentage: 81.7. Overall rank: 5,194th
Ranking in Fantasy Editorial Group: 149th Total points for 2009 season: 6,722
Percentage: 96.9. Overall rank: 1,892nd

C -- Joe Mauer, Twins (@CHW-3, @KC-3), locked at 4.9 price tag, market price 5.2: He has a 1.468 OPS in three games at U.S. Cellular Field this year.
1B -- Adrian Gonzalez, Padres (@PIT-1, @COL-3, @ARI-3), market 5.5: His OPS in road games is 151 points higher than it is at home this season.
2B -- Aaron Hill, Blue Jays (BAL-3, SEA-4), market 5.0: I'm big on Blue Jays this week; Hill has an .832 OPS in his home games this season.
3B -- Alex Rodriguez, Yankees (@LAA-3, BOS-3), market 5.2: Call this a hunch; I just think he steps up facing these two playoff-bound opponents, right when the games matter least for the Yankees.
SS -- Hanley Ramirez, Marlins (PHI-3, NYM-3), locked at 5.1, market 5.3: He has 48 total bases in 24 games combined versus these teams this season.
LF -- Matt Holliday, Cardinals (@HOU-3, @COL-3), locked at 4.4, market 5.8: It's his first trip back to Coors Field since he was traded by the Rockies last winter; he has a 1.068 career OPS at that ballpark.
CF -- Matt Kemp, Dodgers (@WAS-3, @PIT-3), market 5.2: He has a .924 road OPS and both of these staffs have 5-plus ERAs in September.
RF -- Shin-Soo Choo, Indians (DET-3, BAL-3), market 4.1: The Indians play six home games, all versus right-handed starters, and Choo's OPS at home is .803, his OPS versus right-handers .895, this season.
DH -- Adam Lind, Blue Jays (BAL-3, TOR-4), locked at 4.6, market 4.9: Again, I'm big on Blue Jays, especially Lind, a .308 hitter with six homers, 27 RBIs and a .959 OPS in his past 24 games.
Pitching staff -- Phillies (@FLA-3, @MIL-4), market 6.0.

Tristan's BBC daily-game stats

Total Segment 2 points: 3,526
Percentage: 99.4 Overall rank: 425th

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here.