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August 14, 2013

Sporer Report

September Scheduling

by Paul Sporer

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We have just a month and a half left in the season, so teams have between 40 and 45 games left. As the sand in the hourglass that is the season drains, our ability to gain an edge drains with it. One area I believe remains exploitable, at least for a marginal edge, is scheduling—particularly in September. This can have value in all formats, too. What I did was look at every team’s schedule to find those with the most favorable setups as it relates to pitching so these teams will be facing the weakest offensive teams in high volumes. If you want to take advantage of this you can either trade for the front-liners on these teams or plan to scoop the backend guys as streaming options. I’ve got five teams to target.

ATLANTA BRAVES
Much has been made of their light schedule from the All-Star break on, with Buster Olney the first I can recall jumping on the point. A pair of series against the Cardinals is really the extent of their tough battles throughout the entire second half (“half,” as it were, just being a point of demarcation for the All-Star break, and while it’s never split at 81 games, this year wasn’t even close).

The Braves get a final month featuring five games against the Marlins, three against the Mets, Padres, Cubs, Brewers, and Nats, plus seven with the Phillies. Those are all bottom-half teams in OPS with the Brewers highest at 17th, though they are sinking fast, as their team makeup has changed since the departure of Ryan Braun. They are 20th since the break and just 26th in the short August sample.

Most of the Braves rotation is rostered in most formats with Alex Wood the most likely to be available. Brandon Beachy might come cheapest via trade with a 5.00 ERA in his three starts and his only good outing against the lowly Marlins. As he rounds into form, he should sprint to the finish. There is a chance that a sixth, currently unknown, starter emerges for the Braves, as Julio Teheran sets a new career innings mark in six outs. Even if they let him go, Kris Medlen set an innings record of his own on Tuesday night. One or both could be gassed by Labor Day; thus, Mike Minor, Beachy, and Wood are the primary targets.

DETROIT TIGERS
Despite impressive recent streaks, neither the Royals nor the Indians gained much ground on the Tigers as they matched their two division foes almost win-for-win and then pulled away with a four-game sweep of the Indians in Cleveland. Catching the Tigers was never going to be easy, but a September setup featuring just one problem series—three in Boston—bodes well for the defending AL champions. The four against the Mariners in the middle of the month are more challenging now than they appeared back in April, but it’s a small price to pay for the opportunity to line your fantasy pockets with six against the White Sox and Royals, and three against the Twins and Marlins to close out the season.

All five Tigers starters are rostered in just about every league with Rick Porcello being the only one potentially available, though he hasn’t given up more than three runs in any of his last seven starts, posting a 2.62 ERA in 44 2/3 innings since June 30. So, your route to benefitting here is trade, and they won’t come cheaply. Justin Verlander has risen a bit from the value trough he was in a few weeks ago, but he still doesn’t cost JUSTIN VERLANDER prices, so he is probably your best bet when it comes to acquiring someone to take advantage of this schedule without decimating your roster. In fact, if the schedule holds as-is the rest of the way, then he will get six September starts, dodging that trip to Boston.

NEW YORK METS
Matt Harvey pulls down the bulk of the headlines, but the Mets have become a sneak reservoir of pitching talent this year with Dillon Gee, Zack Wheeler, Jon Niese, and Jenrry Mejia all carrying legitimate upside. Even Jeremy Hefner had a stretch of excellence before falling off after the break. You might not want to jump into week two as they open with trips to Atlanta and Cleveland (though they only rip lefties so Niese is the only to watch out for there), but then they close with four against the Nationals, Marlins, and Brewers, and three against the Giants, Phillies, and Reds. The series in Cincy isn’t prime, but the Reds don’t have a special offense, so it’s not an auto stay-away, either.

Harvey is cost-prohibitive and might not finish the season because of innings, so I would focus my acquisition efforts on Mejia, Gee, Wheeler, and Niese. Mejia has displayed the best skills, but also thrown the smallest sample with just four games under his belt. The Dodgers were his first real test and he held up on Monday night going six strong, allowing two earned with four strikeouts and zero walks. His next big test is two starts away against the Tigers.

Gee, Wheeler, and Niese all have their warts, but that will just make them easier to acquire. By the way, Wheeler threw 149 innings last year and has 126 so far this year, so he shouldn’t be cut short, as his current pace would leave with an increase around 30 innings.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
Outside of four games against the Cardinals, the Pirates have relatively smooth sailing in the final month of what should be a bona fide playoff push. Plus, the Cardinals games are only scary on paper, as they’ve shown an ability to handle the robust offense, holding them under five runs in seven of 11 contests including two shutouts. A three-game trip to Texas after the Cardinals series isn’t exactly inviting, but the Rangers have been below league average at home since June 1, after a hot start that saw them as the league’s most potent team at home.

Beyond those two scare series, the Pirates have seven against the Cubs, six against the Reds, four against the Padres, and three against the Brewers. Of the five starters on the team, Charlie Morton is likely on the waiver wire in most leagues, and I might consider picking him up immediately if you have the spot available, as he closes August with the Diamondbacks and Brewers at home plus a trip to the San Francisco. As an added bonus, he is currently slated to miss the two remaining Cardinals series.

Be careful with Gerrit Cole, as he just eclipsed his 2012 innings total and they may be looking to play with his schedule the rest of the way to conserve some juice for the playoffs (should they make it, of course, though they are definitely looking good for it). That leaves A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, and Jeff Locke. The former pair is at a season low value-wise, having both been pummeled in Coors Field, while Locke makes Houdini look like a hack as an escape artist. I’d rather invest the extra to get Burnett or Liriano than roll the dice on Locke even with the favorable schedule.

CINCINNATI REDS
The Reds open September with a tough slate featuring four against the Cardinals and three against the Dodgers, but it is smooth sailing after that with three against the Cubs, Brewers, Astros, and Mets as well as six against the Pirates. Meanwhile, most of their rotation is good enough that you would even take a chance on them against the Cards and Dodgers. Their two best arms, Mat Latos and Homer Bailey, are the lucky ones who get both if the schedule holds into September.

Despite the bevy of desirable arms, the road from now until September 9 is laced with landmines, which is why they rank last among our teams to potentially take advantage of in the home stretch. In addition to their tough opening in September, they close August with trips to St. Louis and Colorado.

Mike Leake is the unfortunate soul who gets to bookend those series. The upshot is a final stretch that offers him the Cubs, Astros, Mets, and Pirates so those of you in particularly shallow leagues where a guy like Leake could reasonably ride the pine from time-to-time, you might think about acquiring him and weathering the storm for that late-season benefit. I would also look in on Tony Cingrani in spite of his August finish in Colorado, because he closes the season with four starts against three of the top six teams in strikeout percentage against lefties (CHC, HOU, PIT, PIT) including the worst two in Houston and Pittsburgh.

Also check out…

SAN DIEGO PADRES
They get 13 games at home, four in Pittsburgh, and three in San Francisco. That’s 20 games in pitcher-friendly environments. They have a stretch of six from September 10-15 in Philly and Atlanta, so if you are afraid of those, you could just bench your San Diego arm(s) for a week since it runs Tuesday through Sunday. They lack the talent of the other teams by a longshot, which is why they are more of an honorable mention than a full-on endorsement.

Paul Sporer is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Paul's other articles. You can contact Paul by clicking here

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