First place in the vaunted American League East will be on the line when the Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays meet this weekend in a four-game series highlighting franchises at the low end of the spending scale. With numerous big-money franchises struggling to contend and vacillating between buying and selling at the approaching trade deadline, the surprising Orioles and Rays are winning games with young players. Fantasy baseball managers have surely noticed.
A combined 11 Orioles and Rays hitters are rostered in more than 50% of ESPN standard leagues, but fantasy managers may have questions about staying power for some of them. For example, for the Orioles, 1B Ryan Mountcastle recently returned from a bout with vertigo, but he has not hit well. Managers are impatient. Readily available veterans 1B Ryan O'Hearn and OF Aaron Hicks have filled in. 2B/OF Adam Frazier is Baltimore's third-best points league hitter over the past 30 days, yet he is sparsely rostered. Speedy SS Jorge Mateo is barely playing with SS Jordan Westburg promoted and hitting better. Ultimately, six Orioles hitters show up on ESPN's most added/dropped list, three on each side. Value is changing!
Meanwhile, Rays 2B Brandon Lowe and OF Josh Lowe -- they are not related and, in fact, pronounce their last names differently -- are both close to falling below the 50% roster threshold, and this may be an important weekend for them for fantasy evaluation. Brandon Lowe (rhymes with "now") missed a month with back pain, but he homered on Tuesday. Josh Lowe (rhymes with "know") also struggles versus left-handed pitching, and he has only two home runs and two steals over the past month. OF Luke Raley appears to be underrated. The Orioles are scheduled to start four right-handed pitchers. Many Rays, including Lowe ... and Lowe, should thrive.
On the mound, the signature matchup is on Saturday when Orioles rookie RHP Grayson Rodriguez faces Rays LHP Shane McClanahan. Rodriguez recently returned from an eight-week stint back in Triple-A and allowed four runs to the Dodgers. He has a 7.33 ERA in 11 big-league starts and does not come recommended versus the homer-happy Rays, though his future remains bright. McClanahan recently came off the IL and pitched well at Texas. He is 11-1 and an AL Cy Young contender. In addition, Rays RHP Zach Eflin should start Friday, and he comes off his worst outing of the season, permitting five runs to the lowly Kansas City Royals. Another rough one and reactive fantasy managers will, of course, react.
Other key weekend series
It's a potential World Series matchup when the Los Angeles Dodgers face the Texas Rangers, and Los Angeles will trust rookie RHPs Bobby Miller and Emmet Sheehan in the latter two of those games. Miller left his most recent outing due to knee soreness. Sheehan has walked seven hitters over his last two starts. Both youngsters could be back in the minors soon, with LHP Clayton Kershaw and others on the mend from injury. Expect many runs to be scored in this series.
Speaking of high-scoring expectations, the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks and Cincinnati Reds face off, with exciting young lineups leading the way. Arizona comes off a high-scoring series in Atlanta, with deep fantasy leaguers watching rookie OF Dominic Canzone closely. Canzone posted a 1.065 OPS at Triple-A Reno, but he needs to hit right away for Arizona in order to stay promoted. The Reds are enjoying the Christian Encarnacion-Strand debut, but again, with myriad lineup options, the Reds may find it tough to play everyone and appease fantasy managers.
Time is running out for the beleaguered New York Mets to stick around in the NL's wild-card race, and with the MLB trade deadline less than two weeks away, this is a big series at Fenway Park against the Boston Red Sox. Resurgent and healthy LHP James Paxton gets the Friday night nod against rookie All-Star Kodai Senga in the highlight pitching matchup. ESPN televises the Sunday Night Game, with the Mets scheduled to rely on struggling RHP Carlos Carrasco. He has one win since May.
Other weekend pitchers to watch
MLB unicorn Shohei Ohtani takes the mound on Friday night against the Pittsburgh Pirates and, with all the trade talk, well, everyone is watching Ohtani. (I am skeptical he gets traded.) Most fantasy managers forced to choose whether to utilize Ohtani as a hitter or pitcher in weekly formats choose the former option, as he leads the league in home runs. As a pitcher, though, Ohtani has struggled recently with a blister and cracked fingernail, and he has permitted 10 runs over his last two outings. The Pirates do not feature a top offense so, if Ohtani struggles again, it would be more meaningful.
Chicago White Sox RHP Lance Lynn, an obvious trade candidate for an underachieving club, faces the Minnesota Twins on Friday night. Fantasy managers seemed content to ignore Lynn this season, but then he struck out 16 Mariners on June 18 and, two outings ago he whiffed 11 Blue Jays over seven near-perfect innings. Lynn has a 6.06 ERA (though it is 4.50 over the last 30 days), but he sure misses bats, and this is a tradeoff fantasy managers must consider. Again, Lynn could be on another team soon.
It was dispiriting to watch Toronto Blue Jays RHP Alek Manoah struggle Tuesday against the San Diego Padres, as he walked five with nary a strikeout in three messy, wild innings. Those who trusted Manoah, an AL Cy Young contender from 2022, after his month-long minor league reset and strong return outing against the Detroit Tigers may re-think relying on him Sunday at Seattle. Manoah should not be in active fantasy lineups until he looks consistently like last season's version.
White Sox RHP Liam Hendriks (elbow) and Diamondbacks RHP Merrill Kelly (calf) should both perform in rehab assignments this weekend, making each a candidate to return to active lineups next week. Hendriks retains top-10 closer potential and could earn saves for a contender soon, if traded. Kelly is the No. 25 starting pitcher on the full-season Player Rater, much to the surprise of many, so his value is quite clear.
Weekend hitters to watch
Red Sox manager Alex Cora already balances four full-time outfielders with lefty hitting Jarren Duran and right-handed Adam Duvall splitting time, though Duvall could be dealt soon. 3B Rafael Devers is battling a calf injury. Potential 2B Trevor Story (elbow) starts his rehab assignment this weekend and could make his big-league season debut soon. There's a lot going on with the Sox, and they face a struggling Mets staff.
The Braves certainly do not struggle to score runs. Keep an eye on longtime minor leaguer Forrest Wall as he may get a chance to handle left-field duties with Eddie Rosario (hamstring) compromised. Wall, 27, stole 45 bases for Triple-A Gwinnett. All-Star SS Orlando Arcia has slumped over the past month, and fantasy managers may move on. Vaughn Grissom is hitting .320 at Triple-A.
Houston Astros OF Yordan Alvarez (oblique) started his rehab assignment and could return to the big club for its weekend series in Oakland. Perhaps we get an update on injured 2B Jose Altuve (oblique), with his own rehab assignment pending. OF Chas McCormick is one of the most-added hitters in ESPN leagues and for good reason. SS Jeremy Pena is in a major slump.
Washington Nationals SS CJ Abrams is among the most-added players, as he piles on the hits, runs and stolen bases since being installed as the leadoff hitter. OF Lane Thomas hits second. Both have become valuable fantasy options for an otherwise overlooked offense.