- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Well, it's that time again. Take a deep breath. Here's the magic word for the weekend:
Yes sir, Season No. 15 in the life of interleague play arrives this weekend. And we know exactly what that means:
Time for the complaining to start.
The folks who hate interleague play -- and just for the record, we're not among them -- can't wait to start pointing out the same stuff they jump on every year this time.
Nobody cares about Twins-Diamondbacks. Who wants to watch the Mariners' pitchers hit? It's not fair that the American League teams don't get to use their DH.
OK, so that's all true, actually. But here at Rumblings and Grumblings, we're not going to waste time belaboring the same old same old. We have a more important point to make.
The single greatest problem with interleague play isn't any of that stuff. It's that the schedule is tougher to figure out than Lady Gaga's wardrobe selection.
Look, we know some of this is about marketing -- and manufacturing series like Cubs-Red Sox (soon to be telecast on an ESPN "Sunday Night Baseball" extravaganza near you). Still, we thought teams in the same division were supposed to be playing similar -- though not necessarily identical -- interleague schedules. Well, boy, is that not happening.
It's an issue that seems to grow more out of whack every year. And that's about to become an even greater problem than ever. But before we get to why, check out these 10 Interleague Schedule Quirks That Make No Sense:
• Because they're stuck with life in Subway Series perpetuity, the Mets get to play the Yankees six times. And how many times will all the other NL East teams play the Yankees this season? That would be none.
• It's supposed to be an NL Central-versus-AL East year. But the only AL East teams the Cubs get to play are (lucky them) the Red Sox and Yankees. Meanwhile, the Cardinals play every AL East team EXCEPT the Red Sox and Yankees.
• And guess which three AL East teams the Brewers get to play? Just the three nobody would want to play -- the Rays, Red Sox and Yankees.
• The Yankees could do some grumbling about the interleague schedule themselves. Their good friends the Red Sox play all the NL Central teams except the two that now have winning records, the Reds and Cardinals. The Yankees, on the other hand, will miss the Pirates and Astros -- two teams that are currently a combined 17 games under .500.
• Meanwhile, unlike the rest of their division, the Red Sox and Yankees both mysteriously play one random NL West team. The Red Sox draw the Padres (currently in last place). The Yankees get to play the Rockies (who just dropped out of first place).
• Over in the AL Central, the Tigers are the one team that has no "rival." So for no reason we can discern, they'll play six games against the Mets and Pirates. But the Indians, because they're "fortunate" enough to have a true rival, are the only team in their division that has to match up with the Reds six times.
• Those rivalry games also could be a huge factor in the AL West. The Rangers get six games against the team with the worst record in baseball, Houston. But the A's get matched up against the first-place Giants six times.
• More NL Central issues: The Reds will play 15 games against AL teams that currently have a winning record. That's nine more than the Cardinals.
• Every year this time, we're moved to ask: Is there a more storied, more impassioned natural "rivalry" than Mariners-Padres? And the answer, every year is: Uh, how about ALL of them? Yet those teams will get matched up for the 15th straight season. None of the other clubs in their respective divisions play any games against the Mariners or Padres.
• Finally, here's a glitch that sums up the problem, even though it doesn't figure to wind up determining the fate of the NL East race. If there's supposed to be some level of division-by-division symmetry to this schedule, how do we explain this: The Mets will play 15 interleague games against teams currently .500 or better (plus three against the Angels, who are just a game under .500). The Nationals could play none. How does THAT happen?
These inequities are nothing new, of course. But that doesn't mean they sit well with teams that are stuck with them, either.
"Interleague play is only designed for a few markets -- the natural-rivalry markets," says Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd, whose club will be the only team in the NL West to play the Yankees this year. "I'm talking about L.A.-L.A., San Francisco-Oakland, both Chicago teams, both New York teams. But if you're not in one of those markets, you get what's left over. And that's where the problems start."
He couldn't be more dead-on, obviously. But for years, we've been willing to take a philosophical view of all this. What the heck. NFL teams in the same division play different schedules, and nobody thinks that's some sort of national catastrophe.
But starting next year, depending on developments on the labor front, this can't be a what-the-heck issue anymore. Why? Because Bud Selig keeps predicting this sport is going to have two more playoff teams by 2012. That's why.
And if MLB is going to add a wild-card team in each league, force the two wild cards to play a survivor series against each other just to reach the LDS and reward first-place teams with rest and a chance to set their rotations, that's a game-changing interleague development.
"Right now," O'Dowd says, "the wild-card team doesn't really get penalized. The wild card's chances of winning are virtually the same as everyone else. But if that should change, with an expanded playoff format, the schedule takes on a whole different dimension."
It's not that tough to explain what he means. Suppose Texas and Oakland are both playoff teams next year. But suppose the Rangers go 5-1 against the Astros in interleague play while the A's go 2-4 against the Giants -- and then the Rangers win the AL West by two games.
Think about the impact. The A's would probably get sentenced to a precarious wild-card duel with the AL East runner-up, while the Rangers get to line up their division series rotation. Biggggggg difference.
So talk is mounting within the sport that if the rewards for finishing first are that significant, something has to be done about the interleague schedule.
"Don't get me wrong," says Cubs GM Jim Hendry. "Part of it is, it's very exciting to play the Yankees and Red Sox. If you want to be good, you should want to play the best teams. We played those two teams in Wrigley a few years back, and it was great. It's good for the game in a lot of ways. But I think this is a problem that has to be looked at again as we move into expanding the playoff format."
The trouble is, there's no good answer -- not without pulling the plug on those interleague-rivalry games. And there's no chance of that, because "you have to have the rivalry games," says one industry source. "That's the whole purpose of interleague play."
So how should baseball deal with this? Ideally, you would want every team in each division to play exactly the same interleague opponents. But in a sport in which all six divisions aren't even the same size, that's not as simple as it sounds.
Lots of alternatives are being kicked around. But one of them -- proposed to us by two different sources -- is fascinating, because it would radically alter the whole interleague concept.
For one thing, it would drastically cut the number of interleague games per team -- possibly to just two series per year, plus a rivalry series or two in select cases.
And which interleague games would remain? Matchups based solely on the previous year's record.
So the National League team with the best record the year before would play six games, home and home, against the team with the best record in the American League. Then the second-ranked teams would play and so on, down to No. 14 playing No. 14. The two remaining NL teams would be stuck playing each other.
Or, says one of the sources, you could do this another way.
"You could give each team the option," he said. "They could choose to play their natural rival. Or they could choose to play the team with the closest record in the other league. That way, if the Mets ended up getting beat out by the Phillies because the Mets chose to play the Yankees, they'd have no one to blame but themselves."
We're not sure it's the perfect solution. But it's something to think about. And clearly, we've reached the stage where it's time to do some deep outside-the-box thinking -- because this sport is on the verge of a major postseason change. And if that happens, there's only one way to go: Interleague play needs to change right along with it.
Ready to Rumble
• There are no indications the Yankees have given any serious thought to releasing Jorge Posada any time soon. But if they ever did, you can mark this down: He WOULD get another job. Fast. When we asked one scout how long it would take Posada to find a new team if the Yankees cut him loose, we got this answer: "I don't think it would be 24 hours."
"What I see," the scout said, "is a guy who has gone from being involved in every pitch to inertia, and has had trouble adjusting to it. Look, he's obviously aging, and that's part of it. But I see a guy who still has the ability to hit a fastball. He's cheating like hell at times, but most of them do."
• But there's a potentially deeper issue growing out of the Posada mess, and it's been raised to us this week by players and officials of other big-budget clubs.
The Yankees clearly had their reasons for handling Posada-gate and, before that, the Derek Jeter negotiations, the way they did. But from afar, other players are scratching their heads over what they see as rough treatment of two icons. And it's hard not to wonder if that could cause future free agents to go the Cliff Lee route -- and turn down the Yankees' mega-millions to play someplace less combustible.
"Don't you think," mused one of those skeptics, "that CC [Sabathia] might be rethinking that opt-out right now, and thinking, 'If they can do that to Jeter and Posada, they can do it to me'?"
• Is it too late for us Rumblers and Grumblers to be the 10,000th on our block to weigh in on that hug between Albert Pujols and Cubs GM Jim Hendry? When Pujols signs his deal next winter, it's not going to be about hugs. It's going to be about dollars. Period. And one more thing: Hendry says he and owner Tom Ricketts haven't spent three seconds discussing their plans for next year.
"I haven't talked to them about next year at all," Hendry said. "And why would I? We're not worried about next year. We're worried about getting back on track this year."
• If the Cubs don't get back on track, one potential trade target we've heard people speculating about is Aramis Ramirez. But you can wipe him off your list right now.
First off, Ramirez has complete veto power over any trade. Second, if he gets traded, it vests his $16 million option for next year, but still gives him the right to opt out of his contract in search of a multiyear deal. So any team interested in trading for him would, essentially, have to pay him long-term free-agent-market dollars to get him to stick around, plus give the Cubs a significant prospect or two. Chances of that happening? None, we'd say.
• One more take on Pujols' troubles, from a scout who has seen him several times: "I don't see any diminishment in his skills. All the things he does well, he still does them well. What he's doing is, he's really chasing breaking balls out of the strike zone. He's not hitting the breaking ball on the screws the way he always has, and the sliders he used to spit on, he's now chasing, and leaking to the front side, and rolling over. I've seen him do this in the past, and it lasts two or three days. Just now, it's lasting two or three weeks."
• When Brad Lidge went down this spring with shoulder issues, the Phillies raised eyebrows by choosing Jose Contreras over Ryan Madson as Lidge's replacement. Not even two months later, Madson (7-for-7 in saves, with a 0.00 ERA, since Contreras joined Lidge on the disabled list) looks as if he could wind up as the Phillies' long-term closer after Lidge disappears down a free-agent exit ramp this winter.
But that's not exactly automatic, because Madson can also be a free agent this winter. And unlike two years ago, when he became the rare Scott Boras client to sign an extension that gave away two free-agent years, he seems ready to test the market this time around. And if he does, he'll find teams interested in him as a closer.
"I think he can close. I always have," said an executive of one NL rival. "But now, he looks different on the mound to me. Other years I've seen him pitch the ninth inning, I've seen signs of anxiousness. Now, even when he gets in trouble, I don't see that. He looks different, comfortable. If the Phillies don't sign him, I could see him ending up someplace like Texas. Plug him into the back and put [Neftali] Feliz back in the rotation."
Heard a great description of Madson's disappearing changeup from Carlos Gonzalez, who whiffed against him Wednesday with the tying run on second: "The ball never gets to the plate. When you go to swing, the ball just stops."
• If you're looking ahead, the closer market could be as deep as any position on the board next winter. Potential options besides Madson and Lidge*: Heath Bell, Jonathan Papelbon, Francisco Rodriguez*, Frank Francisco, Joe Nathan*, Francisco Cordero*, Jonathan Broxton, Jose Valverde*, Matt Capps, Kyle Farnsworth* and Ryan Franklin. (* -- Have option years on their contracts)
• Name this pitcher: Nine starts into his season, he's still undefeated. He has a better strikeout ratio (8.3 per nine innings) than Josh Beckett, CC Sabathia or David Price. And opposing cleanup hitters still don't have an extra-base hit against him all season.
So who is he? He's Detroit's Max Scherzer (6-0, 2.81). And how good is he? "His stuff at times," says one scout, "is the equal of [Justin] Verlander's." Considering that we've often thought there might be nobody in baseball whose stuff is the equal of Verlander's, that says Verlander-Scherzer would be a 1-2 combo no team would want to face in October if the Tigers get there.
• After becoming the first team in history to lose six relievers who appeared in at least 55 games apiece, the Rays' all-new bullpen has the lowest opponent OPS (.619) in the American League. But one scout says: "I'm not buying into it. What I think is, their rotation [second in the AL in innings per start] is hiding that bullpen well."
But the same scout says this about pitching coach Jim Hickey: "I don't know how well-known he is, but that guy could manage. That's how much he knows about the game. He's a big reason those young pitchers have all developed at the major league level."
Five Astounding Facts of the Week
1. After Neftali Feliz picked two pinch runners off first base in one inning Wednesday, loyal reader Tom Wilson wondered how rare that is. With the help of baseball-reference.com's fabulous Play Index and Eric Seidman, of FanGraphs and BrotherlyGlove.com fame, we determined that since the dawn of the modern save rule in 1973, Feliz is the first reliever ever to pick off two pinch runners in one game.
2. Ah, but Feliz is NOT the first reliever to pick off two runners in one inning. Steve Colyer (May 1, 2007), Turk Wendell (May 16, 2000), Dennis Cook (May 22, 1998) and Tom House (July 16, 1976) also did it. But nobody can top the legendary 10th inning by the Orioles' Tippy Martinez on Aug. 24, 1983, when he picked off THREE Blue Jays in one inning, with infielder Lenn Sakata catching for the only time in his career. We can safely predict that's a record that will never be broken, by Neftali Feliz or anyone else.
3. Mariano Rivera blew his third save of the year May 18. The only other time in his career he'd ever done that came in the first month he spent closing -- in April 1997. In between, he saved a mere 574 games.
4. That trusty Astros bullpen is up to 11 blown saves -- and six saves. If these guys keep this up, they're a threat to become just the second relief crew since the dawn of the modern save rule to have five more blown saves than saves. The only other was a team that didn't even have a closer -- Skip Lockwood's 1974 Angels. That team had 17 blown saves, just 12 saves and nobody on the roster with more than three saves.
5. Finally, from the legendary Bill Chuck: Tiger Woods is about to drop out of the top 10 in the PGA rankings for the first time since April 6, 1997. Since then, the Pirates are 982-1,320 -- which, by our calculations, leaves them a lot more over par than Tiger.
Injury of the Week
Padres bullpen catcher Justin Hatcher needed two shots of penicillin last weekend -- after getting bit by a squirrel in the bullpen at Coors Field.
Tweets of the Week
• From "Late Show" genius and Hall of Fame Twitter quipster @EricStangel, as the Jorge Posada bulletins were flying in Saturday night:
BREAKING: Jorge Posada also refuses to dance during Cotton Eye Joe. Will address matter in post game press conference
• And now, the latest from Nyjer Morgan's fictitious alter-ego, @Tony_Plush, on how life on the disabled list was tempering the joy of the Brewers' visit to Los Angeles this week:
While typically inspired by the nonstop hustle of the Sunset Strip, Plush told Coach Roenicke he felt as broken down as an '80s hair band.
Headliner of the Week
Finally, this just in from the comedians at sportspickle.com:
U.S. FORCES TAKE CONTROL OF OSAMA BIN LADEN'S FANTASY BASEBALL TEAM
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 now available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter: @jaysonst
2dKevin Van Valkenburg