This is it. Crunch time.
We've reached that point in the season when a player's value is only as good as what he can do for you next week, or at least the week after next. The focus here moving forward, then, will be less on skills than on matchups, less on the theoretical future than the one immediately in our sights.
And with that focus, there's one pitcher in particular who stands out above all others.
Nick Lodolo SP
CIN Cincinnati • #40 • Age: 25
I've been hyping up Lodolo's remaining schedule for at least a week now, and if you haven't taken heed, well, you missed out on a doozy Friday -- the best start of his young career, in fact. With it, he's now sporting a 2.80 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 10.5 K/9 in his past nine starts, and if you're thinking you'd like to get in on that, guess what? You're not too late. Lodolo remains available in more than one-third of CBS Sports leagues even with his upcoming matchup against the Pirates. After that, he's in for a two-start week against the Red Sox and the same Brewers team he blew away Friday. Then, it's one final matchup against the Cubs. Pick up Lodolo now, and it's possible you'll keep him in your lineup the rest of the way.
ARI Arizona • #31 • Age: 25
McCarthy is the sort of pickup who may not make sense for everyone given where we are in the season. Sure, he has all the momentum right now, his four-hit game Sunday giving him a .386 (34 for 88) batting average, five home runs and 10 stolen bases in his past 24 games, and with his line-drive tendencies and all-fields approach, I wouldn't put it past him to sustain a .300 batting average the rest of the way. But he faces the Dodgers and Padres pitching staffs this week, followed by the Dodgers and Giants next week, and things don't get much better from there. In five-outfielder leagues, it's not enough to make you think twice, but in three-outfielder leagues, particularly ones that don't prioritize stolen bases, you might not have as much use for McCarthy.
Jon Gray SP
TEX Texas • #22 • Age: 31
When Gray strained his oblique at the start of August, many assumed he wouldn't make it back in time to make a meaningful contribution in Fantasy. How else do you explain him being available in more than 40 percent of CBS Sports leagues for his return Monday? Perhaps he simply got squeezed due to a lack of available IL spots, but the fact is he was on the ascendency prior to the injury, looking like he was ready to live up to the loftiest projections for his career post-Coors Field. He had a 2.65 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 10.7 K/9 in the 11 starts leading up to the one where he got hurt. He may not be full-go fresh off the IL, but with his first four matchups coming against the Marlins, Rays, Guardians and Angels, he's deserving of your attention.
NYM N.Y. Mets • #10 • Age: 34
Maybe a little rest is all Escobar needed. After a minimum IL stint for a strained oblique, he has come back to do all the things that he wasn't for the first 4 1/2 months. To be more specific, he's batting .413 (19 for 46) with five home runs in just 14 games, reclaiming the everyday third base job from the kids who threatened to take it away from him. Of course, he's bound to slow down sooner or later, but he was expected to be a solid contributor at a weak position coming into the year. Why shouldn't those expectations apply again now that he's hot, especially with a favorable slate against the Cubs and Pirates this week and the Brewers and Athletics next week?
Drew Smyly SP
CHC Chi. Cubs • #11 • Age: 33
Smyly's seven-inning gem against the Giants Friday -- one in which he allowed no earned runs on one hit with eight strikeouts on 23 swinging strikes -- may seem like an isolated event, particularly coming off a seven-run disaster the start before. But even counting that disaster start, he has a 2.29 ERA in his past seven with a swinging-strike rate of 14 percent. That's in line with Carlos Rodon's full-season mark. Smyly has gone at least six innings in four of those starts, too, so it's not like the workload is too small to matter. His upcoming matchup against the Mets you might want to skip, but he gets the Marlins and Pirates thereafter.
Elvis Andrus 2B
CHW Chi. White Sox • #1 • Age: 34
What's gotten into Andrus, you ask? Darned if I know. He's been a Fantasy standout before, but it's been a few years -- 2019, to be exact. He's played out of his mind since joining the White Sox, though, and particularly since moving into the leadoff spot. In 12 games there, he's batting .327 (17 for 52) with five homers, one steal and a 1.048 OPS. It's not like he's hitting the ball especially hard or elevating better. In fact, nothing in the underlying metrics has changed for the better, really, which suggests this is nothing more than a blip. But it's a blip you can exploit if you're down a shortstop. Obviously, if someone like Gunnar Henderson is still available, go with him first, but if you have to dig deeper, Andrus has the matchups to come through.
Jose Leclerc RP
TEX Texas • #25 • Age: 29
There are leagues where more reliable alternatives to Leclerc remain available, but in leagues where you have to scrounge for every save, it's becoming increasingly apparent that he's the new favorite for them in Texas. He's responsible for each of the team's past two saves, the latest coming Sunday, and has finished off each of the last four games he's been a part of, the other two being one-run losses. Since returning from Tommy John surgery in mid-June, the 28-year-old has steadily regained the swing-and-miss that made him a late-inning reliever prior to it. The Rangers liked him enough to sign him to a long-term deal back then that includes reasonably priced options for 2023 and 2024, so they may be auditioning him for the closer role next year.
David Villar 3B
SF San Francisco • #32 • Age: 26
In the previous edition of Waiver Wire, I noted that Giants manager Gabe Kapler had resolved to play Villar as much as possible down the stretch, and he's followed through on it so far, starting him in 10 straight games. What I failed to mention is that Villar was on the verge of picking up second base eligibility, which he now has in addition to third base (and first base, not that you'd be as likely to use him there). That sort of versatility makes him especially useful in formats where the hitter pool is stretched thin, such as standard Rotisserie, but of course, it's the production that makes him most worthwhile. His latest home run Saturday gives him four since returning Sept. 2 to go along with the 27 he hit in the minors.