- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Here's a prediction you can take to the bank, to the windows at Vegas and to your friendly neighborhood psychics convention:
"Floating" realignment isn't ever going to happen. Ever.
But if that's the kind of thing Bud Selig's special committee for on-field matters is kicking around for more than 30 seconds, it tells us something. And what it tells us is this:
This committee, if not this entire sport, is obsessed with the Yankees and Red Sox.
So here, in reality, is the problem these guys are actually trying to solve:
What do you do to "fix" a system that allows the Yankees and Red Sox to make the playoffs, seemingly, every darned year?
That's a question many people in baseball's inner sanctum are ruminating on these days. And they're ruminating on it even though Bud Selig told us this week that "we have more competitive balance now than we've ever had before."
Believe it or not, the commish is probably right about that. But there's always a catch, and you know what it is. Try to convince the frustrated citizens of Baltimore, Tampa and Toronto that competitive balance has never been better. Good luck on that.
So today, let's address a fascinating idea that we hear also has been floated by that committee (and other people):
Is it time to split up the Yankees and Red Sox? Is it time to move them to divisions all their own?
Hey, you want to give those other AL East teams a shot at the wild card? That's one way around that Yankees-Red Sox logjam, right? Divide and conquer.
Think about it. The pros are obvious. Maybe the Yankees and Red Sox would still make the playoffs every year. But
(A) They might both have to win their divisions to do it, for a change.
And (B) even if they did, they would still leave the playoff door open, thanks to the miracle of wild cards, to all the other teams in their respective divisions. Which sure isn't happening now.
So it's an idea worth thinking about, anyway. But it's a funny thing. We can't seem to find anyone who likes it, outside of a few desperate folks in Baltimore, the Tampa Bay area and the lovely province of Ontario.
We ran it past Red Sox manager Terry Francona last week, for instance. He had to admit it was tempting.
"I'd like to take Tampa and split them up, too," he said, with a laugh.
But after he had swirled the concept around his brain cells for a little while, he had a thought people never seem to consider anymore when they contemplate the state of the AL East.
"You know," Francona said, "I'm not smart enough to have the answers. I do know that when people have ideas, I think they forget that about every 10 years, things change. Ten years ago, Cleveland sold out every game. Now it's hard for people to even remember that. Now, we're selling out [every game]. We're good. The Yankees are good. Tampa's good. These things are kind of cyclical. That's just the way the game is. I think people who are living through it now don't realize that it hasn't always been this way."
And whaddaya know, he's right. The wild-card system has been around for 15 seasons. In the first eight seasons, only twice did both AL East juggernauts make the postseason. Yeah, you read that right. Only twice.
It would be embarrassing to make rules around the Red Sox and Yankees and then turn around in maybe seven, eight or nine years and find that the Mets, Cubs and Phillies are like the Yankees and Red Sox are now. Then would we have to make rules for those teams, too?
”-- An anonymous general manager
But since 2003, it has happened in five of the past seven years. So before we start blowing up divisions and rivalries, are we sure that's a big enough sample size?
"I know it seems like the Yankees and Red Sox have been dominant for a long time, but they've really only been dominant since '03," said one GM who has been a high-ranking executive in both leagues. "That's just a seven-year period. Now maybe their financial advantages are so great that they'll always do that. But if you look back historically, you find that things even out."
To be honest, it can sometimes take a long, long time before those things do even out. You can ask all those NL East teams that kept finishing behind the Braves for a decade. But let's still acknowledge the point and move on to the next big issue -- the sheer impracticality of splitting up these behemoths.
"I don't see how it can happen politically," said an official of one club, "because I don't think there are any other teams that want the Red Sox or Yankees moving into their division. You wouldn't send them to the National League. And if you moved one of them to the [AL] Central, which of those teams would volunteer to move to the East?
"I don't see Jerry Reinsdorf letting the White Sox move. I don't see the Tigers going back. I'm sure Kansas City and Minnesota wouldn't want to be in the East. And good luck getting Cleveland to move back. So I don't think there's any logical candidate. I just don't see it."
We guess there are people who would ask, "Why can't you send one of them to the National League?" But that's not happening.
Since the Yankees set up shop in New York in 1903, there has never been a season when these two clubs weren't in the same league and, since 1969, the same division. And any baseball official who has ever seen that Yankees-Red Sox cash register ringing would rather start all World Series games at 3 a.m. than blow up this rivalry for good.
We know people in Kansas, South Dakota and Orange County all overdosed on Yankees-Red Sox ESPN games about 20 years ago. But if you've ever tried to buy a ticket to one of those games, or perused the TV ratings, we wouldn't need to spend 10 seconds explaining to you why this is one break-up that's really, really hard to do.
So if baseball is determined to "fix" its Yankees-Red Sox "problem," it's going to have to find some other way: Add a second wild-card team. balance the schedule. rein in payroll disparity.
Whatever. It's all on the table. But it isn't going to happen via realignment -- radical or otherwise.
There's a larger question at work here, however. And it's a question this sport is going to have to think long and hard about:
Isn't it insane to mess with the fabric of your entire sport because you can't figure out what to do about two of the most successful franchises on Earth?
"Do we really want to make rules around two teams?" asked the GM quoted earlier. "When you think about it, how bad would that look for the sport if we had to admit, 'We can't control what they do, so we have to change our rules?'
"To me," he said, "it would be embarrassing to make rules around the Red Sox and Yankees and then turn around in maybe seven, eight or nine years and find that the Mets, Cubs and Phillies are like the Yankees and Red Sox are now. Then would we have to make rules for those teams, too?"
It's an excellent point. In fact, it's the central point. We're fine with just about any sensible idea that improves the competitive balance of 21st-century baseball. But as we consider those ideas, we should always remember that nothing is forever.
Not even the "never-ending" omnipotence of the Yankees and Red Sox.
Ready to rumble
Start me up: Now that Josh Beckett is officially off the 2010-11 free-agent market, the shelves aren't exactly overloaded with dominating starters. So we asked one GM to rank the top five starters most likely to get a multiyear contract next winter. (Bear in mind that we have no idea how to assess what the health prospects of Brandon Webb, Ben Sheets, Rich Harden, etc., will look like by then.)
• 1. Cliff Lee: "To be honest, I'd like to make Lee No. 1 through 3 on this list, but I don't think that's what you have in mind."
• 2. Javier Vazquez: "An easy No. 2."
• 3. Jorge De La Rosa: "He's been pretty good since [the Rockies] straightened him out. If you're comparing left-handers, it's him and [Ted] Lilly, and he's got better stuff than Lilly."
• 4. Aaron Harang ($12.75 million team option or $2 million buyout): "I don't know exactly what to make of him, but I like the competitiveness. I'd take a chance on him on a short [i.e., two-year] deal."
• 5. Ted Lilly: "Some health issues, but I like him a lot. If he's healthy, he could be [No.] 3, 4 or 5 on the list. The last three guys are kind of in a bunch."
Runners-up: The toughest omission was Bronson Arroyo. Andy Pettitte is now going year-to-year. Then there's Kevin Millwood (who turns 36 in December), who "is getting up there." The two most intriguing names whose clubs hold options on them were Jeff Francis and Chris Young, neither of whom is likely to be on the market if healthy. And if Jon Garland, Brad Penny, Vicente Padilla and Carl Pavano were only one-year guys this past winter, what would make us believe they'd be multiyear guys next winter? So that's the group. Gentlemen, start your checkbooks.
Feel a draft? Ten months after Bryce Harper showed up on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16, we're getting the mounting sense that clubs at the top of this June's draft are almost beginning to look for reasons not to take this guy.
"Don't get me wrong. This kid projects as a starting catcher in the big leagues," said an executive of one of those teams. "But he's not the type of guy you want to pay three times the going rate for -- which is what Scott [Boras] is going to be looking for.
"I'll put it this way," the same exec went on. "With Alex Rodriguez, when you walked in to see him against high school competition, he separated himself. Ken Griffey separated himself. This kid is a good player. But he's not in a class with A-Rod and those guys. Not even close. And with all the hype Scott has generated around him, he's going to walk in the door with a monkey on his back, and it's not going to ever go away."
No one disputes Harper's staggering raw power or arm strength. But the same exec said Harper's crazy numbers at the College of Southern Nevada (.426 average, .521 on-base percentage, 12 homers in 115 at-bats) should be taken with an entire shaker of salt.
"Yeah, he's got great numbers," the exec said. "But to be honest, I've seen better high school pitchers in the top programs than the guys he faced when I saw him. Every weekend, he's basically going against one decent pitcher and three stiffs. So his numbers are a little inflated."
Nevertheless, with no clear alternative, it's going to take some serious guts for the Nationals not to take Harper No. 1, considering all the buzz that has built up around him. But of course, that's exactly what Boras had in mind when he unleashed that buzz.
Bullpen roulette: Kiko Calero allowed 36 hits in 60 innings for the Marlins last year. Mike MacDougal pulled into Washington last year and saved more games (20) after June 15 than Francisco Rodriguez. So where are they now? In Triple-A. Naturally.
It tells you all you need to know about the fickle nature of modern relief pitchers that, even as two dozen teams were desperately hunting for bullpen upgrades late in spring training, nobody would touch either of those two men after they failed to make the Mets and Nationals' staffs, respectively. (MacDougal, for that matter, couldn't make two teams -- the Marlins, who released him, and then the Nationals, who sent him to the minors.)
"With Calero," said an executive of one team that passed, "the medicals are so bad that everybody's wary. It's just hard to count on him staying together [physically] for any length of time at all.
Where's the catch?
The second the Joe Mauer contract was announced, one AL executive's first question was: "What are the Twins going to do with Wilson Ramos?" Well, let's just say that Rochester, N.Y., figures to be a popular place the next few months because that's where the Twins' best catching prospect will be on display between now and the trading deadline."He might be their best prospect, period, and now he's stuck for eight years?" the exec said. "He's the kind of guy they might be willing to move for a closer down the line. And if they do, they'll have a market because there are no catchers out there."
"And with MacDougal, the history and the violent delivery just scare people. He's still got a plus arm. But his whole career, he's had stretches where he's been pretty good. But he's never been able to put it together and keep it together."
"I don't see any way Pujols gives the Cardinals that kind of discount," said an official of one big-market club. "Everything I hear is that he's looking for A-Rod money, and I think he'll get it -- because he'll get it on the open market if the Cardinals don't find a way to do it. But obviously, they will. You don't give Matt Holliday the kind of money they gave him and then turn around and not give Albert Pujols what he wants."
Papi seeds: No one ever said it out loud, but the Red Sox brass was clearly praying that David Ortiz got off to a good start this month -- (A) so he wouldn't have to hear the questions he's already been barraged with, and (B) just so he could keep his own head clear.
Hitting coach Dave Magadan told Rumblings this spring that he thinks one of the biggest reasons for Ortiz's grim start last season was that Big Papi actually started listening to all the well-meaning people who kept offering him advice.
"You know, David's a very popular player, not only with the fans but with other teams," Magadan said. "So other teams would come in and see him struggling, and I'd stand by the cage during BP, and I'd hear the other teams come up to him, and everybody's got advice for him. You know, it just goes to show what kind of person he is, that other people care that much about him. But it can be deadly to a guy who's trying to fight his way out of a slump.
"You know, he listens. And while he tries to shrug it off, you can't help but have some of that stuff stick in the back of your mind. And before you know it, you're trying every single thing. You listen to the other team, the mailman, the cable guy. When he started just focusing on what we were trying to tell him and simplifying things instead of going too much with how he was feeling, that's when he found his swing."
Before we write this man off too fast, remember this: After June 5 last season, Ortiz led the American League in homers (27), tied for the league lead in RBIs (78) and was third in the league in slugging (.557). That's over a period of four months. But we also know the Red Sox need Ortiz to hit. So he's going to be a constant source of focus, whether he enjoys that focus or not.
Hey-Hey-Heyward: It's not going to be legal, for a long time, to write any kind of column without a Jason Heyward item. So here's this week's note on our favorite mega-phenom, via a scout who covered the Braves this spring:
"It was just kind of amazing to watch a young power-hitting prospect show such good plate discipline," the scout said. "I never saw him go out of the strike zone. I mean never. And what was even more impressive was that I never saw him chase outside the zone with two strikes, when the pitchers were trying to test him a little bit. He doesn't get overanxious in those situations. It's very, very impressive for a young hitter."
Are aces wild? So far, Roy Halladay's new teammates in Philadelphia have only one complaint about him: He's a little too professional. Quiet. Laid-back. Businesslike. That'll never work in that clubhouse.
Toward the end of spring training, as we were working on a piece about who would win the World Series if it were decided "American Idol"-style, we asked Jimmy Rollins what Simon Cowell would think of Halladay. The shortstop shook his head dejectedly.
"He'd think [the ace] was talented, but he's not a rock star," Rollins said. "Know what I'm saying? He can do everything good. He just doesn't have that persona of a rock star. They'd have to bring him along a little bit, which we're working on here also."
In other words, they've been trying to lure Halladay out of his shell slightly, only to find that "well, Roy is Roy," Rollins said, almost sadly. "We've been trying to tell him, 'You can't do that here. You've got to let it fly a little bit.'"
So far, not so good, it appears. But then again, it's early.
"We're trying to figure him out a little bit," Rollins said. "I'm sure he's trying to do the same. But we're like, 'Once you become a rock star, then you'll really be good.'"
Poor Roy Halladay. He thought he had baseball figured out. Then he decided he wanted to get traded to Philadelphia. Uh, careful what you wish for.
The Rumblings Scouting Bureau
Once again, we check in with America's greatest scouting minds:
• On Aroldis Chapman (Reds): "They were kidding themselves if they seriously thought this guy was ready for the fifth spot in a big league rotation. He's got way too much development that needs to be done on his delivery. I saw real signs of immaturity on the mound. And you know, it's easy to get enamored by all the 100s and 98s on the gun. But guys were fouling off the 98s. They weren't swinging through it."
• On Sean Rodriguez (Rays): "This guy is a gritty player. He's got some power. And the thing I like best is, he hits good fastballs. They may have something there."
• On Jose Contreras (Phillies): "I don't know how he'll adjust to being in the bullpen full-time, but his stuff is fine -- and he's got a lot of it. He's got the best stuff for a 38-year-old I've seen. He's above-average with virtually every pitch."
• On Rich Harden (Rangers): "I think he's going to be a work in progress. He's throwing from a lower arm slot, and any time a guy's adjusting his slot, it's an issue. I know they just felt, for his long-term health, he had to start throwing from a lower slot. But when I saw him this spring, I didn't see a lot of command. A lot of stuff in the middle of the plate, and not much ability to move the ball around."
• On Michael Stanton (Marlins): "This kid is the right-handed Jason Heyward. He's a tick below [Heyward] talentwise, but he's the real deal. The first time I saw him, he was 18 years old in A-ball, and he hit five balls in four days, and they're all still going."
Stat of the week
This just in, from our scout friends -- the highest radar-gun readings from spring training:
100-plus mph: Aroldis Chapman (Reds)
97: Billy Wagner (Braves), Matt Thornton (White Sox), Matt Lindstrom (Astros), Carlos Marmol (Cubs), Jenrry Mejia (Mets), Jason Motte (Cardinals), Bobby Parnell (Mets), Felipe Paulino (Astros), Romulo Sanchez (Yankees), Jose Ceda (Marlins), Rafael Dolis (Cubs), Sergio Santos (White Sox)
Quotes of the week
• From an anonymous GM, on the kind of pitchers on the trading block in the final days of spring training:
"It's like a garage sale, with one wheel off the roller skate."
• From Bob Costas, to Jimmy Fallon, on Barack Obama's first-pitch shot put in Washington this week:
"I was in St. Louis last year at the All-Star Game when he threw out the first pitch, and it's kind of like the same thing: 48 miles per hour and way outside the strike zone. But the sad part was, immediately afterward, the Mets signed him as their third starter."
• From Nationals president Stan Kasten, on the less-than-glowing preseason predictions about his team:
"I predict that every prediction will be wrong."
But wait. What if he's right?
Tweet of the week
From our favorite tweeter and "Late Show" quip-writing genius, @EricStangel, a couple of weeks back:
"MLB: Spring training Mets home renamed Digital Domain Park. Better than the old name - Lenny Dykstra Investments Field"
Headliner of the week
METS PLACE SIX PLAYERS ON ABLED LIST
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
A realignment plan that would split up the Yankees and Red Sox -- sounds crazy, right? It sure does, and it also screams of being rather shortsighted.