Fantasy baseball weekend watch: London calling for NL Central rivals

All eyes are on the Chicago Cubs-St. Louis Cardinals series at London Stadium this weekend, as the teams play a two-game set there on Saturday (1:10 p.m. ET, nationally broadcast) and Sunday (10 a.m. ET, on ESPN), the first time Major League Baseball has played in London since 2019.

As was the case with April's San Francisco Giants-San Diego Padres in Mexico City, the venue's dimensions and playing surface are the storyline for fantasy baseball, since international play often involves stadiums that weren't traditionally intended for baseball. Those Giants-Padres games were extremely high scoring, as were the New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox games in London in 2019, when the teams combined for 50 runs, 65 hits and 10 home runs in their two games there.

Should we expect as much offense from these notorious National League Central rivals, and what other weekend storylines should fantasy managers watch? Tristan H. Cockcroft and Eric Karabell offer their advice for the weekend ahead.

Cockcroft: One of the things that frustrates me most about the data-collection process in my fantasy baseball writing is how difficult it can be sometimes to obtain up-to-the-moment information on ballpark measurements, especially changes to them. London Stadium's specs were no different, as when I published last Friday's Forecaster, I was under the impression that the venue would play somewhat similarly to its 2019 layout, only to learn hours later that there have been marked changes to those measurements.

You can read a full rundown of what's changed here, but the upshot is that the outfield dimensions should still lean clearly hitter-friendly, as the distance specifically to center field, even with its increase, will remain shorter than in any of the 30 current MLB ballparks. Additionally, what has been reported as a 10,000-square-feet reduction in foul territory still means that London Stadium's playable area will remain larger than all but Oakland Coliseum.

I've since made the necessary adjustments to London Stadium's park factors that fuel our Forecaster and Daily Notes projections, which were minimal and keep the park a hitting-friendly environment, significantly more so than if these games had been played at St. Louis' Busch Stadium (the Cardinals are the listed home team in London), albeit probably not close to the extent of in those Yankees-Red Sox games. It will likely remain a HR-friendly venue that does inflate run scoring and I've got it increasing home runs by 16% and runs by 4-5% compared to a neutral park. With its symmetrical dimensions, it's equally beneficial to both righty and lefty hitters.

This means bad news for all of the pitchers assigned to work in that series -- Justin Steele and Marcus Stroman for the Cubs, Adam Wainwright and Jack Flaherty for the Cardinals -- meaning it's best to avoid them wherever possible. Stroman is the one of the four whose skill set best minimizes fly ball damage, making him the most viable pitching play of the series, but neither team has a stellar bullpen, meaning this probably isn't the series from which to seek saves.

Start all your Cubs and Cardinals hitters, especially those you would have otherwise, and this could be a "get them on Sunday" situation where, if the park looks like the bandbox that it did in 2019 during the Saturday game, then everyone in the Sunday starting lineup is worth the pickup for your head-to-head matchup. Just bear in mind that if you're in an NFBC setup, losing the Friday game from these two teams where the other 28 are scheduled to play all three days is a slight disadvantage.

Most importantly: dark malt vinegar only on my fish and chips, please.

Karabell: Eh. I'm still partial to cheesesteaks. Do they serve good ones over there?

Cubs OF/2B Christopher Morel is the most-added player in ESPN standard leagues, and a must-add for the potential fireworks in London this weekend. I don't think people realize that Morel already has hit 24 home runs this season, mainly because 11 of them came at Triple-A. He slugged .730 there in 134 PA, and is slugging .634 in the majors in 134 PA. Symmetry. The power sure looks real. You won't find many middle infielders doing better there. For the Cardinals, I want to see who gets the saves. It's hard to believe that RHP Jordan Hicks suddenly became the closer. Will it last?

Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, we get the much-anticipated rematch of the "cheater" World Series, when the trash-can-banging Houston Astros upended the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017. These clubs have met since then, of course, but it is always fun when it happens in L.A. Neither team is in first place. How strange! I will be watching Dodgers rookie RHP Emmet Sheehan on Friday night, for he permitted nary a hit in his big league debut last week, but still is not guaranteed any starts after this one, while Hunter Brown versus Tony Gonsolin on Sunday Night Baseball should be a treat as well.

These lineups look so different than they did even a few weeks ago, as the Astros miss OF Yordan Alvarez (oblique) and the Dodgers don't have 3B Max Muncy (hamstring), though he might return this weekend. Fantasy managers need to be intrigued by Astros C Yainer Diaz, as he has homered four times in the past week and handles regular playing time, mostly as the DH. On the Dodgers side, we loved OF James Outman in April, but in 40 games since May 1, he's hitting .180 with a high strikeout rate. Outman might not be long for a big league role.

Cockcroft: A British cheesesteak? Um, I'll get back to you on that. Although, they might have a cheesesteak-flavored tea, considering how many different flavors there are.

Are you at all concerned about the Dodgers' increasingly coy attempts to keep their rotation plans from us? They've already called upon Michael Grove, Gavin Stone, Bobby Miller and now Sheehan to plug rotation holes, and used three "openers" in their past 11 games -- including Brusdar Graterol for a bullpen game on Wednesday when manager Dave Roberts had previously named Grove as his starter.

I want to be all-in on Sheehan, but they've got off days bookending this series, Julio Urias potentially ready for next week, and Miller, Tony Gonsolin and Clayton Kershaw also available to work on regular rest. I'm a little distrustful of the Dodgers' pitching plans right now -- and it looks like many of us are, considering how little it cost to add Sheehan this week in the office league.

From a viewing standpoint, I'm looking forward to the Atlanta Braves-Cincinnati Reds showdown of FIRST PLACE TEAMS! at Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park. The Braves' rainout on Wednesday means Spencer Strider has been pushed back into next week's Minnesota Twins series, aligning AJ Smith-Shawver and Jared Shuster into the first two games of the Reds series, while the Reds will bring "interesting, yet working back to full strength" Graham Ashcraft off the IL to make one of the starts but otherwise not have any of their best arms scheduled.

This could be a hitting showcase on both sides and the Forecaster largely concurs, though it does grade Reds left-handed hitters with "1" ratings because of Smith-Shawver's reverse split and Shuster starting. Jonathan India (35 points, tied with Will Benson for the team lead) has been the Reds' top scorer during their 11-game winning streak, but there have been four Braves who have been better during that time span: Ronald Acuna Jr. (52), Eddie Rosario (50), Michael Harris II (44) and Ozzie Albies (39). Rosario stands out, as the Reds are scheduled to throw three righty starters.

Karabell: I think the Reds are going to win their division if they can get even a little bit of pitching, but I anxiously check their daily lineups just to see how they fit everyone in. It is astounding how much young talent manager David Bell has at his disposal, and more is on the way. Elly De La Cruz is amazing. Spencer Steer and Matt McLain keep hitting. Even TJ Friedl and Jake Fraley look like stars. Veteran Joey Votto returned to the lineup this week and, of course, he hit right away. I am intrigued by the depth here and want to see if everyone can continue to produce.

Each night there are starting pitchers I keep an eye on for my deeper leagues, and this weekend has no shortage of such options. On Friday, Twins RHP Kenta Maeda returns to face the lowly Tigers after missing eight weeks because of a triceps strain. Ignore Maeda's ugly numbers, for he was somehow allowed to permit 10 earned runs to the Yankees -- while likely hurt -- in his most recent outing, but he threw well on rehab. Maeda is annually underrated, at least when healthy.

On Saturday (and speaking of lack of durability), we have to invest in Red Sox LHP James Paxton at the White Sox, right? Paxton boasts three consecutive quality starts, with 24 strikeouts in those 19⅓ innings. He looks great.

Moving to Sunday, Marlins rookie Eury Perez hosts the sputtering Pirates, and I can't fathom why Perez remains available in more than half of ESPN's standard leagues. The 1.54 ERA over eight big league starts should be enough. Perez has not permitted an earned run in four of his past five outings, all against better lineups than Pittsburgh. This is a legit Rookie of the Year candidate.

Tristan, any other starting pitchers you're watching closely this weekend?

Cockcroft: Probably the Toronto Blue Jays starters, since the opposing Oakland Athletics, who heated up at almost the precise moments those Reds did, have run arctic-level cold since. Chris Bassitt, Jose Berrios and Yusei Kikuchi can certainly use these soft matchups after a brutal recent schedule stretch, and Bassitt in particular (who has had a 6.06 ERA in his past six starts) should rebound in a big way. For those who believe in it -- I do only minimally -- revenge factor!

Finally, look at the Los Angeles Angels (at Coors), Tampa Bay Rays (versus Kansas City Royals, including Jordan Lyles, whose team is winless in his 15 starts this season, on Saturday) and San Diego Padres (versus Washington Nationals) have by far the best Forecaster-graded hitting matchups. The Rays and Padres have outstanding pitching matchups and you know to avoid Angels pitching at Coors.

A trio of underrated players stand out accordingly. For the Angels, Brandon Drury (66.0% available in ESPN leagues) has moved up to the cleanup spot while Anthony Rendon has been hurt, from which he has batting .324 with three home runs in his nine starts there already. Isaac Paredes (39.1%) frequently bats fifth for the Rays, makes consistent contact, and has nine home runs in his past 30 games. Finally, from the Padres, Michael Wacha (32.6%) has an active streak of three quality starts (plus eight in his past nine turns) and both his low-spin fastball and changeup are performing about as effectively this year as they have in any of his nine big league seasons.