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Friday, September 25, 2009
Who's most motivated for final week?

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 26 Fantasy Forecaster!

So what motivates you?

Money? Status? The hope (while plodding along during your Friday workday) of a fine piece of French toast at the all-you-can-eat Sunday buffet?

Yes, I admit, money might rank up there as a top motivating factor for a professional baseball player, but I'd bet that the desire for a championship ring ranks at least with it, if not higher. And here we are in the final week of the 2009 season -- at least the final regular-season week, which naturally coincides with the final week of our Baseball Challenge -- the last-gasp point for teams hunting for October glory.

I don't know about you, but if I'm aiming to make up the 466 spots and 410 points in the rankings I need to in order to win the daily BBC game (speaking of which, boooooo that I stand zero chance at catching "The Squidpicklers" for first), I want players and teams who are as motivated as me. No players on already-clinched teams who beg their managers for a few days' rest to heal that cracked toenail. No pitchers on teams babying them with innings caps. Certainly no players whose outbursts to the local media have cost them season-ending suspensions.

Well, if you've looked at the standings, surely you realize that the precious few inspiring races mean as little motivation for baseball players as you could ask in the final week of a season. But that doesn't mean it's entirely absent. So today I'm thinking "Top 10 Most Motivated in Baseball" … and while I'm not convinced I'll actually make it to 10, let's start at the top and see how it goes!

1. The Minnesota Twins. A-No. 1 in my book. Among teams currently outside the playoff cutoff, the Twins stand by far the most realistic chance of anyone. Let's count the ways: They're three games back in the division. They play four more games against the Detroit Tigers, the team they're chasing. They finish with the Kansas City Royals and, by the way, they'll either be playing their final game at the Metrodome in that series or else fighting to the wire in order to earn at least one more there during the playoffs. I've already written in my Forecaster that I firmly believe the Twins will win at least two of the four games in Detroit, and I think there's a very real chance they'll be playing meaningful games into the Royals series. Either way, I don't doubt this team offensively, even in spite of Justin Morneau's absence, and even in spite of a pitching staff that doesn't wow me. Joe Mauer, the unquestioned American League MVP in my mind, is about as much of a no-brainer as anyone in the game this week.

2. Atlanta Braves pitchers. They're the reason this team is in the race, and again, I won't bore you with the stats, you can see them in the Forecaster. But this rock-solid rotation of Javier Vazquez, Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson is as deep as anyone's, and this team gets seven home games against so-so offenses like the Florida Marlins and Washington Nationals. There really isn't a safer choice among pitching staffs in the final week.

3. Colorado Rockies hitters. You'll notice I'm not picking the Braves to finish ahead of them in the wild-card race, but the Rockies can't just play dead this week, not with a potentially challenging series at the Los Angeles Dodgers completing their regular-season schedule. The Rockies need to play their regulars and get back into the groove they were in for the better part of three months. If not, they're going to be one-and-done in October.

4. Matt Kemp. As of the morning of Sept. 25, he had 26 home runs, 34 stolen bases and 96 runs scored. It might be a bit of a long shot, especially if the Dodgers clinch early, but there's something to be said for 30/30 status with 100 runs in a season. Kemp must know those plateaus are within his sight, so I doubt he sits much. After all, he has started all but one of the Dodgers' past 33 games.

5. Ken Griffey Jr. Call it a hunch, but if this is truly the final week of his career, you couldn't ask for a much better schedule than six games in front of the home fans, fans he played in front of for 12 years. And five of those games are against somewhat inexperienced right-handed starters.

6. Hideki Matsui. He's a free agent at season's end, and on a team that has Jorge Posada already under contract and that potentially could also bring back Johnny Damon, Matsui doesn't seem to fit into the Yankees' designated-hitter picture for 2010. Chances are this is his swan song in pinstripes, and the veteran does have 28 home runs and 88 RBIs. Coming off a span of two injury-marred seasons in his previous three, Matsui must realize what a 30-homer, 100-RBI campaign might do for his free-agent stock. Despite playing for a team already effectively locked into the No. 1 seed in the American League, Matsui might not want a rest.

7. Carlos Beltran. A few points to make here: One, if the New York Mets are truly going to alter the team chemistry in the clubhouse during the winter, trading Beltran is about as natural a choice as anyone on the roster. If that's the plan, every game he plays in September, and plays successfully, is a plus. Two, Beltran himself has to know he might be on the outs in New York, so he'll want to show he's healthy so he won't enter 2010 facing any questions. Three, the Mets face the lowly Washington Nationals and Houston Astros. Those are hitter-friendly matchups.

And that's about it. Yes, it's a weak year for motivational purposes. But that makes it all the more important for you to be selective with your choices this week!

Tristan's top weekly pitching staffs

1. Atlanta Braves (FLA-3, WAS-4 -- two-start pitchers Jair Jurrjens and Tim Hudson), 7.3 price tag: As I wrote above, motivation, motivation, motivation. Besides, even in the worst-case scenario -- the Rockies run away with the wild card early in the week -- the only way the Braves would ease up during this seven-game week is to shut down Tommy Hanson before his scheduled Thursday start. Even then, Kenshin Kawakami isn't a horrible No. 6 starter for a big league team.

2. Chicago Cubs (PIT-4, ARI-3 -- two-start pitcher Ryan Dempster), 6.5: Don't blame the Cubs' pitching for the team's disappointing 2009; this staff currently ranks second in strikeouts (1,192), fifth in ERA (3.83), sixth in WHIP (1.33) and fifth in BBC points (2,108) for the season. The Cubs are winners of 44 of 74 at Wrigley Field this season and neither of these opponents brings the lumber.

3. Boston Red Sox (TOR-3, CLE-4 -- two-start pitchers possibly Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz), 5.5: I write "possibly" because Beckett might be lined up for Game 2 of the Division Series, so the Red Sox might opt to either skip his scheduled Saturday start or keep him on a strict pitch count; a five-inning outing seems probable. Still, the Red Sox have some questions that need answering in the final week, whether the games matter or not. Can this bullpen turn around its miserable September performance (5.10 ERA)? Will Daisuke Matsuzaka be healthy enough to assume a rotation spot during the playoffs? If not, does this team trust two out of Buchholz, Paul Byrd and Tim Wakefield? It doesn't make sense for the Red Sox to play dead in the final regular-season week, locked in as the wild card or not. A strong finish would do a lot to inspire October confidence.

Tristan's daily matchup tips

Monday, Sept. 28 -- The Philadelphia Phillies and Cole Hamels stand out in a home game; the left-hander is 7-3 with a 3.29 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in 15 starts at Citizens Bank Park this season. The Houston Astros, meanwhile, have averaged 3.2 runs per game with a .673 team OPS in the month of September. … The Texas Rangers have historically routed Ervin Santana, and you never know, this game might yet still matter to the Rangers in the division race. Hank Blalock, Chris Davis, Ian Kinsler and David Murphy all have 1.000-plus career OPS marks versus the righty.

Tuesday, Sept. 29 -- If there's any game I'm firmly putting in the Tigers' column during their four-game series versus the Twins, it's this one, the game pitched by Cy Young candidate Justin Verlander. Not that any specific data says he has a massive matchups edge, but he strikes me as a capable big-game pitcher and this is an effective must-win for the right-hander. … Ricky Romero has been routinely pounded by the Red Sox this season; he's 0-3 with an 8.83 ERA in four starts against them. Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis are a combined 16-for-31 (.516 BA) with four homers off the lefty.

Wednesday, Sept. 30 -- There's some motivation for Felix Hernandez, as the Seattle Mariners' right-hander seems to be mounting a late rally for the AL Cy himself behind a 5-0 record, 1.57 ERA and 0.93 WHIP in his past six starts. You know what they say: Final impressions usually sway the voters most. King Felix is 7-4 with a 2.93 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 13 career starts versus the Oakland Athletics, so I fully expect him to keep up the hot streak. … Eddie Bonine isn't one of the more reliable right-handers in the game, but with Jarrod Washburn ailing, he'll need to make a start in this key series versus the Twins. Advantage: Twins.

Thursday, Oct. 1 -- The one of the four Twins-Tigers games I'm most definitively putting in the Twins' win column is the Thursday contest; that's the one started by team ace Scott Baker. The right-hander is 6-2 with a 3.21 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 13 starts since the All-Star break, and has a 4.32 ERA, 0.96 WHIP in five career starts at Comerica Park. … Something about the idea of Manny Parra, who has issues with his command on occasion, pitching at Coors Field has me thinking the Rockies are in for a heck of an offensive explosion.

Friday, Oct. 2 -- I admit it might change depending on whether this remains the case, but if Adam Wainwright has a legitimate chance at winning his 20th on Friday, then the St. Louis Cardinals are my pick. It's all about building a Cy Young case, and Wainwright, incidentally, has a 2.08 ERA and 1.01 WHIP in 17 career games (10 starts) versus the Milwaukee Brewers. … Again, I've got a hunch the Twins won't have been eliminated by this date, in which case they'll be thrilled to see Lenny DiNardo on the mound facing them Friday. Righty Twins like Orlando Cabrera, Michael Cuddyer and Delmon Young will feast on the left-hander.

Saturday, Oct. 3 -- There's a little motivation for Los Angeles Angels right-hander Ervin Santana, as he's no lock to make the playoff rotation, and this matchup sure presents him a prime opportunity to impress the coaching staff. He's 5-0 with a 1.44 ERA and 0.96 WHIP in eight career games (seven starts) at McAfee Coliseum, including eight brilliant innings to win there on July 16. … The Cardinals -- even with nothing to play for -- routinely get to Dave Bush, their current hitters combining to bat .295 in their careers versus the right-hander. Rick Ankiel and Yadier Molina each have a 1.000-plus OPS against Bush.

Sunday, Oct. 4 -- From out of left field, I'm taking the Cincinnati Reds and Homer Bailey, who sure seems to have turned his career around lately. The Pittsburgh Pirates have to be sick of seeing this guy; he's already 3-0 with a 2.79 ERA and 1.29 WHIP against them this season. … Tough day to call this early, as I'd almost always load up with players who are still fighting for a playoff spot, but the early read has me thinking Toronto Blue Jays (versus Jeremy Guthrie), Minnesota Twins (versus Luke Hochevar) or Chicago Cubs (versus Billy Buckner).

Tristan's BBC weekly-game lineup

Total Segment 2 points: 3,071.
Percentage: 87.7. Overall rank: 3,548th.
Ranking in Fantasy Editorial Group: 128th. Total points for 2009 season: 7,036.
Percentage: 97.5. Overall rank: 1,486th.

C -- Joe Mauer, Twins (@DET-4, KC-3), locked at 4.9 price tag, market price 5.3: If he's not the American League MVP, then I don't know what an MVP is.
1B -- Ryan Howard, Phillies (HOU-4, FLA-3), market 5.8: Though the Phillies might not have much to play for besides playoff seeding, seven home games mostly against right-handed starters qualifies as an exceptional schedule.
2B -- Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox (TOR-3, CLE-4), market 4.4: The Red Sox face more left-handers than right-handers this week and Pedroia isn't the kind of guy who needs many days off.
3B -- Pablo Sandoval, Giants (ARI-3, @SD-3), market 4.2: One more chance to get one of baseball's most underrated hitters into my lineup.
SS -- Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies (MIL-3, @LAD-3), market 5.0: The Rockies have yet to lock down the National League wild card, and Tulowitzki is about as important an offensive cog as they've got on the roster.
LF -- Carl Crawford, Rays (BAL-4, NYY-3), market 4.4: The Orioles' pitching staff is awful and both of these teams have trouble gunning down base stealers.
CF -- Matt Kemp, Dodgers (@PIT-1, @SD-2, COL-3), locked at 5.2, market 5.3: See my note above about his quest for the 30/30 club.
RF -- Michael Cuddyer, Twins (@DET-4, KC-3), market 4.4: To steal the old '80s slogan, win Twins!
DH -- Jason Kubel, Twins (@DET-4, KC-3), market 4.2: Ditto Cuddyer, Michael.
Pitching staff -- Braves (FLA-3, WAS-4), market 7.3.

Tristan's BBC daily-game stats

Total Segment 2 points: 3,849.
Percentage: 99.3. Overall rank: 467th.

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.