Commentary

The great realignment debate

Special guest Buster Olney joins the discussion about pros and cons of realigning MLB

Updated: June 17, 2011, 4:09 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Here at Rumblings and Grumblings, we've always believed in realignment -- every time we drove through a pothole we didn't see coming. But baseball realignment? Eh, we're not so sure about that.

Fortunately our friend, Buster Olney, doesn't share our reservations. So today, we've done something unprecedented:

We've swung open the doors of World Rumblings and Grumblings headquarters and invited the one, the only Buster to join us for a riveting back-and-forth look at the merits (or lack thereof) of baseball realignment.

*****

Jayson Stark

• STARK: Hey Buster, I'm sure you've always wanted to be a Rumbler and a Grumbler. So here's your chance. Our mission today is to break down the pros and cons of realignment in our favorite sport. I'm not as big a proponent of this idea as you are. So I'll let you start the debate. Tell me what you like best about it.

Buster Olney

• OLNEY: I'll parrot the biggest concern about the current system, from my conversations with players: It's not fair. A team from the AL West has a 1 in 4 shot of making the playoffs while a team from the NL Central has a 1 in 6 shot. Your hopes for the postseason depend a lot on what division you're playing in. Can you imagine when we were kids that you played a game of Monopoly and favorable rules applied to your sibling and not to you? You'd flip the board. And a lot of players want the current system altered to make the playing field level.

Jayson Stark

• STARK: I agree with every word of that. The problem is how to fix it. I know you've talked a lot about that proposal to just blow up the divisions and go with two 15-team leagues. But I can't imagine Bud Selig ever, ever, ever signing off on a plan like that. Bud loves the division races and the unbalanced schedules. So I can't envision what the players would have to offer him to convince him it's a good idea to go from six division races and the wild-card scrambles to a system in which teams would just be fighting for the No. 5 seed. I'm not big on that, either, to be honest. The last thing I ever want baseball to turn into is the NHL.

Buster Olney

• OLNEY: Personally, I'd go for blowing up the divisions and having six teams make the playoffs -- and give the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds a first-round bye in the playoffs, with seeds No. 3 through 6 playing a best-of-three first round. That would reward the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in a big way for a strong regular season without having them wait too long to start their postseasons. But to be clear, that's not what the players and management are talking about. And the unbalanced schedule is a major part of the inequity; look at the ridiculous mountain the Rays have to climb in the next two months, with 20 of their 38 games against Boston and New York. I'm surprised executives from the Orioles, Blue Jays and Rays haven't held a sit-in at the Park Avenue offices to demand change; the current system, for them, is kind of a joke.

Jayson Stark

• STARK: Remember, Bud loves the divisions. And he loves the unbalanced schedule. So that would never fly. I think there are ways to tweak the schedule without wiping out the divisions and some of those division rivalries. Plus, the extra wild card would really help the other teams in the AL East because they could build their teams to win 89 games instead of 95, which is the number they need to shoot for now to outwin the Yankees and Red Sox.

Besides, the biggest schedule inequity that has to be addressed in this labor deal is the interleague schedule. It makes no sense that the only AL East teams the Cubs play are the Yankees and Red Sox -- but they're the only AL East teams the Cardinals don't play.

Buster Olney

• OLNEY: And for sure, no change is going to happen unless Bud is on board with it; we've seen that with the whole issue of instant replay. I agree with you about the inequities within interleague play. I can't tell you how many conversations I've had with Mets folks through the years about how they've been graced with the responsibility of having to face the Yankees six times every year.

Look, personally, I like the idea that the Reds and Cardinals have a very heated rivalry played out repeatedly over the course of a summer, but if the players' greatest concern in pushing for realignment is over the question of fairness, presumably, that should come, in part, through more of a balanced schedule. There are a lot of sticking points in this discussion, not the least of which is what team would have to shift to the American League.

I spoke with Jim Crane, the incoming Astros owner, a few weeks ago, and he spoke of how he followed the Cardinals as a kid and learned so much listening to guys such as Ken Boyer talk when Crane worked as a caddy at a local country club. I just don't know how excited he would be about changing leagues; you don't invest hundreds of millions of dollars and not get what you want. Who are the best candidates, in your eyes, for switching leagues?

Jayson Stark

• STARK: I think there's only one candidate to switch -- the Astros. Three reasons: 1) It's those mandatory interleague rivalry games between the Astros and Rangers that guarantee the interleague schedules are all out of whack. 2) If you move a team from any other NL division to the AL, it means you have to start shifting around clubs in other divisions, too, to balance it out. 3) Every existing owner has the right to veto a move, and almost certainly would block it. So the only place baseball has leverage is in Houston, where it can make moving a condition of the purchase. That isn't too fair to Jim Crane, but that's the deal.

Now let me ask you about another part of realignment I think would be extremely controversial: playing interleague games every day of the season. I want you to imagine the insanity in Boston if the Red Sox were a game out of the final playoff spot and had to finish their season in Atlanta, meaning Big Papi couldn't play because they'd be using NL rules. I've got a headache just thinking about how many hours we'd spend on ESPN yelling about that. Isn't that a huge problem?

Buster Olney

• OLNEY: I hear you on that; one high-ranked executive told me last weekend he doesn't think the realignment can take place unless the designated hitter issue was resolved, one way or the others, and all 30 teams played under the same rules. But you can't eliminate the DH -- speaking of David Ortiz, can you imagine the fallout if he and other DHs such as Billy Butler were told, "We're eliminating your position?"

Look, no matter what solution they negotiate, there's going to be screaming -- about the DH or about summer-long interleague play or about the inequity of the divisions or the ridiculous competitive mountain that the Rays, Orioles and Blue Jays face.

But the Kardashians might be the first to tell Selig all press is good press. Realignment would generate attention, for sure.

Jayson Stark

• STARK: I hear Bud never misses an episode of "Keeping Up with the Kardashians." So that might just get this done. But if not, I think they might have to look for other ways to do this. How about actually increasing the number of interleague games to, say, 24, so you have a better shot of teams in the same division playing similar schedules? Isn't that a lot less complicated than realignment -- the Kardashian Factor notwithstanding?

Buster Olney

• OLNEY: So if you used that and had a three-division, five-team structure in each league -- and kept Bud's unbalanced schedule -- you'd be talking about, what, 76 in-division games, 24 interleague games and 62 games in-league, out-of-division? Six or seven games versus non-division teams in your league?

Jayson Stark

• STARK: Not quite. If they went to six divisions of five teams each, you wouldn't need more interleague games to even out the schedules. Fifteen or 18 works fine, because every team in a division would play one interleague series against every team in a division in the other league.

What I'm asking: Suppose you didn't realign. Couldn't you balance out the schedule in other ways?

How about this: You'd play the other teams in your division, say, 12 times each instead of 18. That's 48 games. Then you'd play 24 interleague games. That would leave you eight or nine games against each of the other teams in your league. That's not nearly as lopsided as the schedule is now. Right? I don't know if those exact numbers make sense. The schedule geniuses could figure out the specifics. What I'm really asking is the fundamental question here: Why is realignment the only solution?

Buster Olney

• OLNEY: And this takes us full circle: Realignment is the only thing that solves the inequities between divisions. The bottom line is that a player in the NL Central has significantly less of an opportunity to play in the postseason than a player in the AL West. You can only fix that by creating a level playing field with the divisions.

Jayson Stark

• STARK: Now that I agree with. I just worry that unleashes a lot of ripple effects baseball has to deal with before it makes this happen, starting with the DH. It's crazy enough to play the championship of the sport with two sets of rules. But now, by my calculations, 16 to 18 teams are going to be playing September games -- many of them season-defining baseball games -- in which one team has to play with different rules. That's insane.

I'm not sure the Kardashian sisters care. But if this is about fairness, the rest of us ought to care. If we're going to fix what's wrong with the sport, let's fix it all. That's my feeling. But you and I can only raise the red flags. The rest is up to people with actual power. And for some reason, those are the people who never listen to us. What's up with that, anyway?

So thanks for visiting World Rumblings and Grumblings headquarters to thrash this around, Buster. You're welcome to rumble or grumble here anytime.

Ready to rumble

Before we shift the conversation away from realignment, three sources who have been briefed on the labor talks all say there's no chance -- we repeat, none -- that realignment (if it happens at all) will lead to dissolving the divisions and moving to two division-less leagues of 15 teams each.

"That just makes no sense," one of those sources said. "You lose so much. It turns three or four races per league into one. … I think everyone agrees that eliminating the divisions is a silly idea."

• Here's some advice: Believe all mid-June trade rumors at your own peril. One name, for instance, that's being bantered about heavily all of a sudden on the rumor circuit is Cubs starter Ryan Dempster. But one NL executive who spoke with Cubs GM Jim Hendry came away with the impression there was no likely scenario in which Hendry would be interested in moving Dempster, who holds a player option for next year at $14 million and has 10-and-5 veto power over any trade.

• And here's another rising Rumor Central star who isn't likely to be going anywhere: Padres setup whiz Mike Adams. Clubs that have spoken to the Padres report the only bullpen arms they seem genuinely interested in dealing are their two impending free agents, Heath Bell and Chad Qualls. Period. Adams still works cheap, looms as the likely closer after Bell departs and would leave them with virtually no bullpen depth for next year if they traded him. So the only way they're likely to deal him, one exec reports, is if they get a "home run" in return.

Reyes

• A baseball man who speaks regularly with Giants GM Brian Sabean says that under normal circumstances, he would have a hard time envisioning Sabean trading for Jose Reyes, assuming he's even made available. Why? "I don't know that Jose Reyes is his type of guy because he plays when he wants to. Or that's the perception from the outside, anyway. And nobody hates players like that more than [Sabean] does."

But the same source says this might be a year in which Sabean "might do something like that that would have been against his principles in the past." One reason is that Reyes is an incredibly motivated player these days, with his free-agent payday approaching. The other? "Winning the World Series can really liberate you," the source said. "In the past, that would have been a long shot. But winning gives you the freedom to take chances to do something you haven't done before."

• Meanwhile, the Mets spent the week doing what they've done all year for Terry Collins: playing their tails off, scrambling back to .500 and pulling to within 3.5 games in the wild-card standings -- before their bizarre walk-off loss in Atlanta on Thursday. And if they keep this up for another few weeks, they won't be selling off anybody.

"You have to remember something," said one exec who's a longtime friend of GM Sandy Alderson. "I don't think the mindset [when Alderson took the Mets job] was to come in and rebuild. The mindset was to do whatever it took to sustain a winning situation." So what happens if the Mets are still in any semblance of contention in a month? "I'd say they're buyers," he said.

• Not many folks east of Southern California seem to have noticed, but it's very possible the best player in the National League has not been Reyes. It's been Matt Kemp. And the sabermetrics prove it.

Baseball Prospectus ranks him way above Reyes in VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), 44.3-32.2. Baseball-reference.com places Kemp at No. 1 in Adjusted OPS-Plus and Win Probability Added. And you also can find Kemp at the top of ESPN.com's rankings in Runs Created Per 27 Outs.

Kemp

So the point is he's been great. And one big reason is that his new manager, Don Mattingly, and his coaching staff have finally been able to deliver the message to Kemp that the little things matter in this game.

"I don't know if he thought all those things were important before," Mattingly told Rumblings. "I'm talking about baserunning work, making hard turns, things like that. He's worked hard on his defense. That part of the game matters to him, too. Our job was to let him know that all those things are important.

"He's been everything we've asked him to be, from the first day of spring training on. He's been a leader, too. He's that guy on the bench now who's saying, 'C'mon. We need more runs.' And it's every day. He plays every day. And he wants to play every day."

But you can't coach a player who doesn't want to be coached, and you can't reach a player who doesn't want to be reached. So what triggered this turnaround in Kemp's willingness to take these steps? "I just think," Mattingly said, "he knew there was more there."

• Here's another update on the column we wrote earlier this month saying it was time for baseball to go back to a 154-game schedule and give players at least one day off every week of the season:

A source says Selig's special committee on on-field matters gave "serious consideration" to cutting the schedule but owners balked at losing two to four home dates a year. One possibility that's still on the table: playing more scheduled doubleheaders, to provide more off days and to allow the regular season to end earlier, with expanded playoffs on the horizon.

• The Braves are outpitching just about every team in baseball -- including the Phillies. But the Braves continue to worry about an offense that ranks 12th in the National League and 22nd in the big leagues in runs scored per game. So they're aggressively positioning themselves to deal for an outfield bat as soon as they can find a team ready to open its sell-off shop for business. They've checked in on Josh Willingham and Hunter Pence. And an exec of one team reports: "They want a right-handed bat. But at this point, I think they'd take any bat."

Kazmir

• Before you start emailing your GM to beg him to sign the just-released Scott Kazmir, here's how bad this guy has been over the last two years, between the major leagues and minors: 164 1/3 innings, 141 runs (7.45 ERA) and 294 baserunners (1.79 WHIP). But he's left-handed. He's breathing. And he's 27 years old. So he will find work. But one scout who has seen a lot of him says somebody ought to try him in the bullpen, not the rotation.

"He's not going to log innings and give you the quality starts to contribute on a good club," the scout said. "So you might as well try him in the bullpen. With his slot, there's nothing wrong with letting him drop down a little bit, either. But to be honest, I wouldn't recommend him in any role. There's always been more hype there than substance for me. I just don't see enough passion for the game."

• Finally, what's the worst part of interleague play? Those interleague-induced Road Trips From Hell. That's what. So here they come, this year's interleague edition of the Four Road Trips From Hell:

FIRST PRIZE -- Angels: Seattle to New York (Mets) to Florida to Los Angeles back to Anaheim. Round-trip mileage: 8,065 miles. Absurd.

SECOND PRIZE -- Mets: Texas to Detroit to New York (just for three games against the Yankees) to Los Angeles to San Francisco to the All-Star break. Round-trip mileage: 5,918 miles.

THIRD PRIZE -- Padres: Colorado to Minnesota to Boston back to San Diego. Round-trip mileage: 6,480 miles. Time zones along the way: four.

FOURTH PRIZE -- Blue Jays: Cincinnati to Atlanta to St. Louis to Detroit (for a makeup game) back to Toronto. Round-trip mileage through two countries: 2,093 miles.

And what's the reallllllly bad news for all those teams? No frequent-flier miles!

Five astonishing facts (Friday edition)

1. One more reason we love baseball is this: There's no magic formula for greatness. Over the last three days, six pitchers have thrown a shutout. One was the only non-knuckleballing starter in the whole sport whose fastball averages under 85 mph -- Livan Hernandez. Another was one of just two starters in the whole sport whose fastball averages more than 95 mph -- Justin Verlander. So which is harder, throwing as hard as Verlander or as slow as Hernandez?

2. Here's clear proof that $200 million just doesn't buy what it used to: At 32 years, 304 days old, reformed outfielder Brian Gordon made the first start of his big league pitching career Thursday -- for the Yankees. So how many pitchers that old had ever made their first big league start for the Pinstripes? Exactly one, says the Elias Sports Bureau, Jim Bruske. He was 33 years, 355 days old when he started the final game of the 1998 season -- and never started again. For anybody.

3. The amazing Brooks Conrad did it again Thursday. Of his 12 career homers, he has now hit eight of them from the eighth inning on. That's 66.7 percent. So what other player in history has done that? Not a one, according to the Sultan of Swat Stats, SABR home run historian David Vincent. Among all players with at least 12 career homers, no one else is even at 60 percent. And the only four with better than 55 percent are Chris Gwynn (10-of-17, 59 percent), Julio Becquer (7-of-12, 58 percent), Larry Haney (7-of-12, 58 percent) and Don Dillard (8-of-14, 57 percent). Those eight homers from the eighth on are one more than Troy Tulowitzki has hit in his career, by the way (out of 92).

Gee

4. What has Dillon Gee done already that Tom Seaver never did? Start 10 straight games that the Mets won in the same season. That's what. Seaver's longest single-season streak was nine, in 1969 (although he did rip off 15 in a row over two seasons, from August of '69 through May of '70). Next up: If the Mets win the next time Gee starts, he'll match the longest streak of Dwight Gooden's career (11 straight, set July-August 1985). Who knew?

5. Finally, here's a great way to measure the Pirates' long, lonnnggg trek back up to the other side of Mount .500: When they made it to 34-33 Wednesday, it was the first time they'd been over .500 this late in any season since Aug. 13, 1999. So how many Pirates did it take to get them back into the black? Here's how many: In between, they sent 234 different hitters to home plate, from Jack and Craig Wilson to John Wehner and J.J. Furmaniak. And they pointed 143 different pitchers toward the mound, from Kip Wells and Omar Olivares to Dan Serafini and Josias Manzanillo. Quite a journey, when you measure it that way.

Tweet of the week

You can never get enough 19th-century perspective from legendary iron man @OldHossRadbourn, still tweeting away 114 years after his final breath:

Another ball-player arrested for DUI. This is why I always rented a great number of coolies to ferry me around in a luxurious rickshaw.

Late-nighter of the week

From David Letterman:

"I know we've got a lot of baseball fans in the audience tonight, and here's something to keep your eye on. Derek Jeter, the Captain, is six hits away from 3,000 career base hits playing for the Yankees. That's amazing, isn't it? And when he gets 3,000 hits it's a huge deal. Plus, he also gets Kate Hudson."

Headliner of the week

Finally, this just in from the tongue-in-cheek history watchers at RealFakeSports.com:

HIDEKI MATSUI FALLS
TRIPLE, HOME RUN, DOUBLE, SINGLE
SHORT OF CYCLE


Shameless Book Plug Dept.

And lest we forget, it's that time again: Shameless-book-plug time. If you're in the Philadelphia area Saturday and desperately searching for Father's Day gift material, stop by the fabulous Barnes and Noble at the Court @ Oxford Valley in Langhorne, Pa. I'll be there from 2 to 4 p.m., signing copies of the new paperback edition of "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies." It makes a darned fine gift item, research has shown! Here's more info on how to find the store. Seeya there!

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.

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Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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