Eric Mack
Wednesday March 30th, 2011

Planning your fantasy pitching staff usually is about loading up on two-start pitchers with favorable matchups. But Bud Selig, commissioner of baseball and former Brewers owner, has something new for us with the early Thursday start to the baseball season:

Three-start pitchers!

Brewers ace Yovani Gallardo is one out of the gate, slated to start Thursday, March 31, Tuesday, April 5 and Sunday, April 10 -- if your head-to-head points league considers March 31-April 10 its first scoring period, as many Yahoo! leagues do. Most Rotisserie leagues allow roster changes this coming Monday, but some head-to-head leagues lock this Thursday for the rare 11-day, 10-game extended scoring period to start to the season.

It should make for one heck of an opening week of scoring for some lucky aces.

Selig couldn't have been thinking about Gallardo here, but we all should be. He is this writer's sleeper pick for NL Cy Young. A 3-0 start to the season could conveniently make him a wire-to-wire favorite.

The baseball season traditionally starts in Cincy and it will with an intriguing storyline of the defending NL Central champion Reds playing host to the trendy 2011 pick in the division, the Brewers. Prince Fielder is in a contract year, the Brewers significantly bolstered their rotation with the addition of the underrated Shaun Marcum and understated Zack Greinke (when he returns from the DL after his rib heals) and this first three-game series can set an interesting tone in that race.

Gallardo, specifically, could set a dominant tone for fantasy owners out of the gate.

CC Sabathia, NYY -- Sabathia starts Thursday, but the Yankees have a five-man rotation, unlike the Brewers. The Yankees likely want to move Sabathia up ahead of their No. 5 next Tuesday, though, so he can slot in the following Sunday at the Red Sox. Failing that, the Yankees would be starting their three back-end starters at Boston. That wouldn't be a great way to start the season against the World Series favorites. Sabathia is notoriously a slow starter, but three-start week or not, you have to run that ace out there in Week 1. Don't get cute, because it could get ugly (for you).

Jered Weaver, LAA -- Right now, Weaver is not slated to start thrice because the Angels are hopeful Joel Pineiro (shoulder) can be ready to start Friday, April 8 vs. the Blue Jays. The Angels have off days Monday, April 4 and Thursday, April 6, though, so the Angels could stick with a four-man rotation until the first time they need a No. 5 starter, April 12 vs. Cleveland. Weaver is a must-start fantasy ace regardless.

Chris Carpenter, STL -- The Cardinals usually try to keep their front-line guys to every fifth day come hell or high water. Carpenter can do it even if the Cardinals do need a No. 5 starter in their second series vs. Pittsburgh early next week. No. 5 starter Kyle McClellan could just as easily pitch Wednesday instead of Tuesday, though.

Clayton Kershaw, LAD -- The kid gloves are officially off the 23-year-old prodigy. Kershaw went from restricted young lefty last season to full-blown ace in Year 3. The Dodgers have off-days Monday, April 4, and Thursday, April 7, but they are taking advantage of those by sticking with a four-man rotation early on. It makes sense with Jon Garland (oblique) and Vicente Padilla (elbow) on the 15-day DL. The first time the Dodgers need a No. 5 starter will be April 12 at San Francisco. John Ely could be recalled from the minors to take that turn.

Derek Lowe, ATL -- The Braves might slot Lowe every fifth day out of the gate, which would put him on the Thursday-Tuesday-Sunday track, despite the Braves having this Friday off. The questionable status of Jair Jurrjens (side) makes it probable the Braves will open keep Lowe on regular rest.

Luke Hochevar, KC -- The Royals have left Vin Mazzaro back in spring camp to open the season with a four-man rotation. That slots Hochevar vs. the Angels (Thursday), vs. the White Sox (Tuesday, April 5) and at Detroit (Sunday, April 10). His spring wasn't intriguing enough to consider him a true mixed-league option, even with the three starts. He allowed a .358 batting-average against this spring and had a 5.68 ERA. If you are a gambler and just want to load up on starts, though, he is pretty sure to get three of team, albeit pitching for the lowly Royals against a trio of contending teams.

The other starters slated to pitch on this first Thursday ...

• Justin Verlander, Edinson Volquez and Livan Hernandez are not true candidates to start three times, since their teams have Friday, April 1 and Tuesday, April 5 as off-days on the schedule. Those teams also figure to open with five-man rotations anyway.

• The Padres can start with a four-man rotation, but Tim Stauffer won't be a three-start pitcher because of off-days Friday, Tuesday and Thursday. Aaron Harang is tentatively slated to start the home opener April 5 at this point. Stauffer could be used on regular rest if the Padres decide to sit Harang after his poor final spring outing.

• As for the Giants and ace Tim Lincecum, the schedule allows them to go with a four-man rotation, but they likely only do that if Madison Bumgarner's spring struggles force the Giants to hold him out until the first time a No. 5 starter is necessary, April 12 vs. the Dodgers. Nothing has been decided to that end yet.

Atlanta Braves at Washington Nationals Chicago Cubs vs. Pittsburgh Pirates Chicago White Sox at Cleveland Indians L.A. Angels of Anaheim at Kansas City Royals Philadelphia Phillies vs. Houston Astros St. Louis Cardinals vs. San Diego Padres Tampa Bay Rays vs. Baltimore Orioles

If you want to exploit some matchups, look to the worst teams in baseball, of course. The Orioles, Royals, Indians, Mariners, Nationals, Astros, Pirates and Diamondbacks are pretty sure to be sub-.500 clubs. The Padres could be, too.

Most of these teams are facing strong front-end rotations while throwing low-end fantasy starters back at them for the most part. It should be a good week for your Phillies, Rays, Cubs and Cardinals starters especially.

Note: Considering just the less-than-obvious fantasy arms, a player in BOLD is a matchup to exploit and a player in italics is a matchup to avoid.

Thursday, March 31 DET@NYY: Justin Verlander @ CC Sabathia ATL@WAS: Derek Lowe @ Livan Hernandez MIL@CIN: Yovani Gallardo @ Edinson Volquez LAA@KC: Jered Weaver @ Luke Hochevar SD@STL: Tim Stauffer @ Chris Carpenter SF@LAD: Tim Lincecum @ Clayton Kershaw

Matchup to exploit: Lowe gets the Nationals and is available in almost one-third of fantasy leagues. He is not your normal Opening-Day starter because he is not his team's ace by fantasy rankings. He also figures to be one of those rare three-start gems (see above). Regardless, if you're just considering this weekend solely, you have to have Lowe active.

Matchup to avoid: Stauffer had a great spring, but going against the Cardinals and Carpenter isn't a great way to unveil his coming out party. Let him prove effective in the early going before trusting him against Albert Pujols and an opposing ace.

Friday, April 1 HOU@PHI: Brett Myers @ Roy Halladay PIT@CHC: Kevin Correia @ Ryan Dempster CHW@CLE: Mark Buehrle @ Fausto Carmona BOS@TEX: Jon Lester @ C.J. Wilson ARI@COL: Ian Kennedy @ Ubaldo Jimenez MIN@TOR: Carl Pavano @ Ricky Romero NYM@FLA: Mike Pelfrey @ Josh Johnson BAL@TB: Jeremy Guthrie @ David Price LAA@KC: Dan Haren @ Jeff Francis SEA@OAK: Felix Hernandez @ Trevor Cahill SF@LAD: Jonathan Sanchez @ Chad Billingsley

Matchup to exploit: This looks blatantly obvious, but Dempster against the Pirates wasn't a sure thing a season ago. He went 0-3 with a ghastly 6.88 ERA against them. This is where you should conveniently stress: "It's a new year!"

Matchup to avoid: Pelfrey is a 15-game winner, but he is awful against the Marlins, going 1-6 with a 5.32 ERA in his career. He is a pitcher that relies heavily on his fastball and the Marlins are historically a young, aggressive fastball-hitting team. The one thing working in Pelfrey's favor is the Mets' strange history on opening days. They are one of the best in baseball, historically, on that day. The problem is they are historically one of the worst teams in baseball history otherwise. Also, the Marlins' Johnson is a Mets-killer, going 7-1 with a 2.74 ERA in his career against them.

Saturday, April 2 CHW@CLE: Edwin Jackson @ Carlos Carrasco PIT@CHC: Paul Maholm @ Carlos Zambrano ATL@WAS: Tommy Hanson @ Jordan Zimmermann MIN@TOR: Francisco Liriano @ Kyle Drabek LAA@KC: Ervin Santana @ Kyle Davies DET@NYY: Brad Penny @ A.J. Burnett SD@STL: Clayton Richard @ Jake Westbrook SF@LAD: Matt Cain @ Ted Lilly HOU@PHI: Wandy Rodriguez @ Cliff Lee MIL@CIN: Shaun Marcum @ Travis Wood NYM@FLA: Jonathon Niese @ Ricky Nolasco BAL@TB: Brian Matusz @ James Shields BOS@TEX: John Lackey @ Colby Lewis ARI@COL: Daniel Hudson @ Jorge De La Rosa SEA@OAK: Jason Vargas @ Brett Anderson

Matchup to exploit:There are a couple here with the White Sox's Jackson (2-0 3.14 ERA against the Indians last season), and Westbrook against the Padres. Westbrook tossed eight shutout innings against the contending Padres last season. They are significantly weaker this season minus Adrian Gonzalez. Zambrano should also get off to a much better start this season than last, when he allowed Jason Heyward's first-inning slam en route to a mess of a first half.

Matchup to avoid: Niese is like Pelfrey, a train wreck against the Marlins. He was 1-4 with a 6.49 ERA against the Marlins a season ago. You don't want to be taking your chance on him in mixed leagues this week.

Sunday, April 3 DET@NYY: Max Scherzer @ Phil Hughes CHW@CLE: John Danks @ Justin Masterson MIN@TOR: Nick Blackburn @ Brett Cecil MIL@CIN: Randy Wolf @ Bronson Arroyo NYM@FLA: R.A. Dickey @ Javier Vazquez HOU@PHI: J.A. Happ @ Roy Oswalt ATL@WAS: Tim Hudson @ John Lannan BAL@TB: Jake Arrieta @ Jeff Niemann BOS@TEX: Clay Buchholz @ Derek Holland LAA@KC: Scott Kazmir @ Bruce Chen SD@STL: Dustin Moseley @ Jaime Garcia PIT@CHC: Ross Ohlendorf @ Matt Garza ARI@COL: Joe Saunders @ Jhoulys Chacin SEA@OAK: Doug Fister @ Gio Gonzalez SF@LAD: Barry Zito @ Hiroki Kuroda

Matchup to exploit: Hudson and Niemann draw bottom-feeders and are sure starts, but Kuroda might be the best of the sleeper plays. He had one start against the Giants a year ago, a quality one, and is solid against them in his career (3.56).

Matchup to avoid: Happ left his last spring start with a sore oblique. He could miss his start, which could be good news. Making his start against Oswalt in Philly at something less than 100 percent is a recipe for disaster.

There used to be 26 week-ending Sundays in the fantasy baseball calendar. There are still that many, but if your league counts the extended March 31-April 10 as the first scoring period, there is going to be a brief three-game period in Fantasy Week 26 (Sept. 26-28) for you.

That could be your league's scheduled clincher for the World Series in head-to-head leagues. The advice here is to move it up to the full Fantasy Week 25 (Sept. 18-25). You don't want your league title decided by a short week where many aces might not even pitch.

Now, let's play ball!

Eric Mack writes fantasy for SI.com. You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice on Twitter @EricMackFantasy. Hit him up. He honestly has nothing better to do with his free time.

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