On tap: The National League Central race takes center stage this week, as the second-place St. Louis Cardinals get their final crack this season at the first-place Cincinnati Reds, who lead them by four games in the standings, with three games at Busch Stadium through Sunday. In case you've forgotten, the last time these teams battled, they engaged in a brawl Aug. 10 that earned Reds right-hander Johnny Cueto a seven-game suspension, both managers two-game bans and fines for all three. Comments by Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips, who at the time said he "really hates" the Cardinals, only increased the tension.
Two NL West squads face challenging weeks, with the wild-card-leading San Francisco Giants hosting the rival Colorado Rockies, whom they lead in the standings by four games, then hitting the road to battle the Los Angeles Dodgers, whom they lead by five. The Dodgers, who are desperately clinging to playoff hopes, host the playoff-hopeful Philadelphia Phillies before their three weekend home games against the Giants.
The American League also has a pair of series with playoff implications: Chicago White Sox at Boston Red Sox, a battle of two teams currently outside the playoff picture but also within 5½ games of a spot; and Texas Rangers at Minnesota Twins, in what currently would be a battle for the AL's No. 2 playoff seed. That Rangers-Twins series might be under the fantasy microscope: The Rangers could have second baseman Ian Kinsler back in time for that series.
The chart below lists each of the 30 MLB teams' schedules and projected starting pitchers, and provides a matchup rating for each day's starter. Pitchers scheduled to start twice this week are in color-coded boxes.
P: The starting pitcher's matchup rating, which accounts for past history (three years' worth as well as past 21 days), opponent and ballpark. Ratings range from 1-10, with 10 representing the best possible matchup, statistically speaking, and 1 representing the worst.
• Ah, the famous Oakland-Seattle road trip, and this week, it's the Los Angeles Angels who reap the rewards of a pair of three-game series at Seattle's Safeco Field and Oakland's Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, their series in that order. Since the beginning of July, five teams have made stops at both Oakland and Seattle within the same Monday-to-Sunday week, and here are those teams' pitching statistics in those weeks: 32 games, 17 wins, 21 quality starts, 7 saves, 2.91 ERA, 1.23 WHIP. Not to suggest the Angels' staff is as deep as that of the Red Sox (July 19-25) or Yankees (July 5-11) at the time those teams faced this schedule, but Angels pitchers do have 18 quality starts, a 4.06 ERA and 1.38 WHIP in 37 games since the All-Star break, which isn't terrible. Besides fifth starter Trevor Bell, who traditionally gets skipped as off days permit, Ervin Santana (3 wins, but a 6.44 ERA and 1.60 WHIP in five August starts) is the only real weak link in the rotation. Even Santana is 5-1 with a 1.89 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in 10 career games (eight starts) at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.
• Don't hand the Angels an offensive advantage, however, as the opposing Seattle Mariners stack up just as nicely on the mound in that series, then the M's get the benefit of a four-game home series versus the light-hitting Cleveland Indians. Since the All-Star break, the Angels have averaged 4.35 runs per game and the Indians 3.62, both of those ranking in the bottom half in baseball. The Mariners are also a much better staff in home games (3.21 ERA) than on the road (4.64), with Doug Fister (3.12 home ERA) and Jason Vargas (2.23) two surprising Safeco standouts.
• The Arizona Diamondbacks might have innings-cap worries with some of their youngsters -- Barry Enright and Ian Kennedy to name two -- but we're not quite up to the point where manager Kirk Gibson is terribly concerned about that. They play six home games against teams ranked in the bottom 10 in the majors in OPS, the San Diego Padres (.705, 23rd) and Houston Astros (.663, 29th). Yes, Chase Field is a hitter-friendly environment, but you might be surprised by some of their "Chase standouts": Enright has three wins, a 2.65 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in six home starts, Kennedy has a 3.96 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in 12 home starts, red-hot Daniel Hudson has a 1.66 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 23 K's in 21 2/3 innings there so far and closer candidate Juan Gutierrez has a 3.96 ERA and 0.96 WHIP at home.
• Remember back in the day, when anytime the New York Mets traveled south to battle their division rivals, the Atlanta Braves, on the road, they routinely lost? Things might look a lot like the late 1990s when the Braves host the Mets for four games at Turner Field to begin the week, especially considering the Mets rank dead last in baseball in both runs scored (115) and team OPS (.620) since the All-Star break. It's advantage Braves this week, especially if you account for the fact that the Braves' current five starters are a combined 9-2 with a 3.43 ERA and 1.29 WHIP in 17 career starts at Florida's Sun Life Stadium, where they'll spend their weekend.
For more insight into Week 21 pitching matchups, see my rankings for every scheduled starter at column's end.
The chart below lists each of the 30 teams' total number of scheduled games, home games and games versus right- and left-handed pitchers, and provides a matchup rating for the week's games in terms of overall offense, offense versus left- and right-handed pitchers and base stealing. Matchup ratings for each individual game are listed under the corresponding date.
H: Hitters' matchup rating, which accounts for the opposing starting pitcher's past history (three years' worth as well as past 21 days) as well as ballpark factors. L: Hitters' matchup rating accounting only for left-handed hitters. R: Hitters' matchup rating accounting for only right-handed hitters. S: Base stealing matchup rating, which accounts for the opponent's catchers' ability to gun down opposing base stealers. Ratings range from 1-10, with 10 representing the best possible matchup, statistically speaking, and 1 representing the worst.
• The Tampa Bay Rays stack up nicely this week on the hitting side, not only because they'll make a three-game stop at Baltimore's Camden Yards, where they have .272/.351/.478 (AVG/OBP/SLG) team rates as well as 10 home runs in six games this season, but also because one of the three Toronto Blue Jays pitchers they'll face to begin the week is Shaun Marcum, who has two losses and an 8.03 ERA in his two turns against the Rays this year. There are some nuggets, among Rays, that could be scooped off waiver wires in shallow mixed formats: John Jaso (.314/.419/.471 rates in August), Jason Bartlett (.291/.341/.392) and Sean Rodriguez (.280/.357/.460), to name three. B.J. Upton has also picked up the pace, with .276/.357/.517 rates and eight steals in 24 August contests.
• You'll have to dig deeper from their offense, especially now that Derrek Lee is gone, but the Chicago Cubs usually stack up nicely in weeks played entirely at Wrigley Field. That's true particularly when they face as many left-handed starters as they do this week -- they'll see three in six games -- as they have a team OPS 82 points greater against lefties (.793) than righties (.711). Starlin Castro (.342/.408/.471 rates at Wrigley), Blake DeWitt (.316/.381/.474) and Aramis Ramirez (.280/.330/.519) have standout numbers at Wrigley this season, and Xavier Nady, who has starts in nine of the Cubs' past 10 games, could be an under-the-radar sleeper in deeper formats.
• The Milwaukee Brewers, disappointing as they have been this season, actually have baseball's fifth-best team OPS in August (.765), not to mention promising .283/.345/.420 rates in the month. They make stops at both Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park and Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park, both of which are hitting-friendly venues, and will face three Reds starters coming off miserable outings (Travis Wood, Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto). Brewers hitters have combined to bat .296/.354/.460 in eight games at Great American Ball Park between this and last season, and Corey Hart (.323/.382/.548), in particular, is a standout there.
Now, let's take a look at some Week 21 sleepers:
Wilson Betemit, 1B/3B, Kansas City Royals: We'll keep endorsing him in the hopes it'll stick. Remember that he was a .412 hitter (14-for-34) with four home runs in the Royals' most recent 10-game homestand, and the Royals are back home again this week. For the season, he's a .395/.478/.671 hitter at home.
Russell Branyan, 1B, Mariners: The Mariners face nothing but right-handed starters in their seven games, which suits Branyan well, because he has hit 16 of his 20 homers against righties and has .256/.354/.529 rates against them this season. Safeco Field games also don't seem to bother him; he has averaged one homer per 14.1 at-bats there for his career.
Alex Gonzalez, SS, Braves: He'll return to Florida's Sun Life Stadium, where he hit 40 home runs during his first eight big-league seasons, for a weekend three-game series, but the primary reason to use Gonzalez this week is his hot bat of late. He's a .287/.354/.517 hitter in 24 games in August.
Chase Headley, 3B/OF, Padres: He's a .302/.378/.500 hitter in 24 games in the month of August, putting him back on the fantasy map. The three games at Arizona's Chase Field provide him an advantage; he's a .301/.348/.386 hitter in 21 career games there.
Felix Pie, OF, Baltimore Orioles: He only continues to hit, with .348/.352/.494 numbers in 24 games in August, and six home games, five versus right-handers, suits him well. He's a .324/.337/.451 hitter at Camden Yards, and .315/.329/.462 versus right-handers, this season.
Austin Kearns, OF, New York Yankees: The Yankees remain a tad nicked up, and don't overlook that Kearns is a .298/.389/.489 hitter in his first 16 games with his new team. A week played entirely at Yankee Stadium favors him and his teammates, and keep in mind that the Yankees have started him in each of their past nine games versus a left-handed starter.
This week's forecast is surprisingly clear, with the most notable threats of rain coming at the northern and southern extremes of the country. Tigers-Twins from Monday-Wednesday faces an elevated chance of rain (40 percent on Monday, 30 Tuesday), while Nationals-Marlins those same days has a 40 percent chance of rain across the board. While it's true that it frequently rains in South Florida throughout the summer, albeit in short enough spurts not to wash out baseball games, this is the time of year when the Marlins are indeed at most risk for postponements.
Weatherproof games: Cardinals at Astros (3, Mon-Wed); Padres at Diamondbacks (3, Mon-Wed); Astros at Diamondbacks (3, Fri-Sun); Angels at Mariners (3, Mon-Wed); Indians at Mariners (4, Thu-Sun); Blue Jays at Rays (3, Mon-Wed).
Rankings take into account several factors: The pitcher's raw talent, historical and recent performance; number of starts; strength of opponent(s); and ballpark factors. Be aware that different leagues might emphasize different pitching statistics that could change these rankings slightly. These are based upon a fairly standard Rotisserie scoring system, like ESPN's.
1. Felix Hernandez (SEA) -- Mon-LAA (Haren), Sat-CLE (Talbot)
2. Roy Halladay (PHI) -- Mon-@LAD (Kuroda), Sat-MIL (Bush)
3. C.J. Wilson (TEX) -- Mon-@KC (Davies), Sun-@MIN (Duensing)
4. Dan Haren (LAA) -- Mon-@SEA (Hernandez), Sun-@OAK (Mazzaro)
5. Jair Jurrjens (ATL) -- Mon-NYM (Misch), Sat-@FLA (Johnson)
6. CC Sabathia (NYY) -- Thu-OAK (Braden)
7. Adam Wainwright (STL) -- Sat-CIN (Volquez)
8. Chris Carpenter (STL) -- Tue-@HOU (Rodriguez)
9. Tommy Hanson (ATL) -- Wed-NYM (Pelfrey)
10. Mat Latos (SD) -- Wed-@ARI (Enright)
11. Clayton Kershaw (LAD) -- Wed-PHI (Oswalt)
12. Jon Lester (BOS) -- Wed-@BAL (Arrieta)
13. Tim Hudson (ATL) -- Thu-NYM (Santana)
14. Roy Oswalt (PHI) -- Wed-@LAD (Kershaw)
15. Clay Buchholz (BOS) -- Thu-@BAL (Bergesen)
16. Hiroki Kuroda (LAD) -- Mon-PHI (Halladay), Sun-SF (Sanchez)
17. Ted Lilly (LAD) -- Sat-SF (Cain)
18. Jaime Garcia (STL) -- Wed-@HOU (Figueroa)
19. Brian Duensing (MIN) -- Tue-DET (Galarraga), Sun-TEX (Wilson)
20. Ryan Dempster (CHC) -- Tue-PIT (Karstens)
21. Johan Santana (NYM) -- Thu-@ATL (Hudson)
22. Jered Weaver (LAA) -- Wed-@SEA (Vargas)
23. Trevor Cahill (OAK) -- Mon-@NYY (Moseley), Sat-LAA (Santana)
24. Daniel Hudson (ARI) -- Fri-HOU (Myers)
25. Matt Cain (SF) -- Sat-@LAD (Lilly)
26. Francisco Liriano (MIN) -- Wed-DET (Scherzer)
27. Edwin Jackson (CHW) -- Tue-@CLE (Masterson)
28. Tim Lincecum (SF) -- Wed-COL (Jimenez)
29. Josh Johnson (FLA) -- Sat-ATL (Jurrjens)
30. Ubaldo Jimenez (COL) -- Wed-@SF (Lincecum)
31. Matt Garza (TB) -- Fri-@BAL (Millwood)
32. Jonathon Niese (NYM) -- Tue-@ATL (Minor), Sun-@CHC (Zambrano)
33. Colby Lewis (TEX) -- Sat-@MIN (Pavano)
34. David Price (TB) -- Wed-TOR (Marcum)
35. Justin Verlander (DET) -- Thu-@MIN (Baker)
36. Cole Hamels (PHI) -- Fri-MIL (Parra)
37. Max Scherzer (DET) -- Wed-@MIN (Liriano)
38. Chad Billingsley (LAD) -- Fri-SF (Zito)
39. Phil Hughes (NYY) -- Tue-OAK (Mazzaro), Sun-TOR (Cecil)
40. Cliff Lee (TEX) -- Tue-@KC (O'Sullivan)
41. Anibal Sanchez (FLA) -- Tue-WAS (Zimmermann)
42. Gio Gonzalez (OAK) -- Fri-LAA (Kazmir)
43. Zack Greinke (KC) -- Fri-DET (Bonderman)
44. Mike Minor (ATL) -- Tue-NYM (Niese), Sun-@FLA (Sanabia)
45. Jason Hammel (COL) -- Fri-@SD (Garland)
46. Jorge De La Rosa (COL) -- Mon-@SF (Sanchez), Sat-@SD (Richard)
47. Doug Fister (SEA) -- Fri-CLE (Carmona)
48. Brandon Morrow (TOR) -- Fri-@NYY (Nova)
49. Rich Harden (TEX) -- Fri-@MIN (Blackburn)
50. Carlos Zambrano (CHC) -- Mon-PIT (Maholm), Sun-NYM (Niese)
51. A.J. Burnett (NYY) -- Wed-OAK (Anderson)
52. Wandy Rodriguez (HOU) -- Tue-STL (Carpenter)
53. Jonathan Sanchez (SF) -- Mon-COL (De La Rosa), Sun-@LAD (Kuroda)
54. Josh Beckett (BOS) -- Tue-@BAL (Matusz), Sun-CHW (Buehrle)
55. Ricky Nolasco (FLA) -- Fri-ATL (Lowe)
56. John Danks (CHW) -- Fri-@BOS (Lackey)
57. Rick Porcello (DET) -- Sat-@KC (Chen)
58. Jake Westbrook (STL) -- Mon-@HOU (Happ), Sun-CIN (Wood)
59. Brett Anderson (OAK) -- Wed-@NYY (Burnett)
60. Yovani Gallardo (MIL) -- Tue-@CIN (Bailey)
61. Brett Myers (HOU) -- Fri-@ARI (Hudson)
62. Jhoulys Chacin (COL) -- Thu-PHI (Blanton)
63. Clayton Richard (SD) -- Sat-COL (De La Rosa)
64. Ervin Santana (LAA) -- Sat-@OAK (Cahill)
65. Scott Baker (MIN) -- Thu-DET (Verlander)
66. Travis Wood (CIN) -- Mon-MIL (Wolf), Sun-@STL (Westbrook)
67. Shaun Marcum (TOR) -- Wed-@TB (Price)
68. Jon Garland (SD) -- Fri-COL (Hammel)
69. J.A. Happ (HOU) -- Mon-STL (Westbrook), Sun-@ARI (Saunders)
70. Bud Norris (HOU) -- Sat-@ARI (Lopez)
71. Ricky Romero (TOR) -- Tue-@TB (Niemann)
72. John Lackey (BOS) -- Fri-CHW (Danks)
73. Brett Cecil (TOR) -- Mon-@TB (Davis), Sun-@NYY (Hughes)
74. Fausto Carmona (CLE) -- Fri-@SEA (Fister)
75. Ian Kennedy (ARI) -- Tue-SD (Correia)
Two-start pitchers for deep leagues:
Mark Buehrle (CHW) -- Mon-@CLE (Talbot), Sun-@BOS (Beckett)
Wade Davis (TB) -- Mon-TOR (Cecil), Sun-@BAL (Matusz)
Armando Galarraga (DET) -- Tue-@MIN (Duensing), Sun-@KC (Davies)
Wade LeBlanc (SD) -- Mon-@ARI (Saunders), Sun-COL (Rogers)
David Pauley (SEA) -- Tue-LAA (Bell), Sun-CLE (Masterson)
Joe Saunders (ARI) -- Mon-SD (LeBlanc), Sun-HOU (Happ)
Randy Wolf (MIL) -- Mon-@CIN (Wood), Sun-@PHI (Kendrick)
Barry Enright (ARI) -- Wed-SD (Latos)
Jeanmar Gomez (CLE) -- Thu-@SEA (French)
Tom Gorzelanny (CHC) -- Wed-PIT (McDonald)
Livan Hernandez (WAS) -- Fri-@PIT (Duke)
Tommy Hunter (TEX) -- Wed-@KC (Bullington)
Scott Kazmir (LAA) -- Fri-@OAK (Gonzalez)
Kyle Lohse (STL) -- Fri-CIN (Arroyo)
Jason Vargas (SEA) -- Wed-LAA (Weaver)
Chris Volstad (FLA) -- Wed-WAS (Olsen)
Jordan Zimmermann (WAS) -- Tue-@FLA (Sanchez)
No-thank-yous, among two-start pitchers:
Kyle Davies (KC) -- Mon-TEX (Wilson), Sun-DET (Galarraga)
Kyle Kendrick (PHI) -- Tue-@LAD (Monasterios), Sun-MIL (Wolf)
Paul Maholm (PIT) -- Mon-@CHC (Zambrano), Sun-WAS (Marquis)
Jason Marquis (WAS) -- Mon-@FLA (Sanabia), Sun-@PIT (Maholm)
Justin Masterson (CLE) -- Tue-CHW (Jackson), Sun-@SEA (Pauley)
Brian Matusz (BAL) -- Tue-BOS (Beckett), Sun-TB (Davis)
Vin Mazzaro (OAK) -- Tue-@NYY (Hughes), Sun-LAA (Haren)
Pat Misch (NYM) -- Mon-@ATL (Jurrjens), Sat-@CHC (Coleman)
Dustin Moseley (NYY) -- Mon-OAK (Cahill), Sat-TOR (Rzepczynski)
Esmil Rogers (COL) -- Tue-@SF (Bumgarner), Sun-@SD (LeBlanc)
Alex Sanabia (FLA) -- Mon-WAS (Marquis), Sun-ATL (Minor)
Mitch Talbot (CLE) -- Mon-CHW (Buehrle), Sat-@SEA (Hernandez)
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, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.