Theoretically, Bud Selig couldn't ask for a better September plot line than this:
The two best teams in baseball, rampaging down the stretch, neck and neck, playing seven times in 10 days, with first place on the line.
If Bud were an architectural scheduling genius, drawing up his perfect September script, isn't this exactly how he'd do it?
Well, in theory, yes. In real life? Unfortunately uhhh, not quite.
Why? Because there's a flaw in the wild-card playoff system -- a system that the commish loves more than bratwurst itself -- and it has a chance to screw up what should be a sensational September in both leagues.
Luckily, we can fix that for him. We'll get to how in a few paragraphs.
In the American League, baseball's looming crisis is Yankees-Rays. They have the two best records in the sport. They're separated by just 2½ games in the standings. And starting Monday, they'll play each other seven times in the next week and a half.
Too bad, thanks to the current playoff system, they're both all but guaranteed to make the postseason. So essentially, the wild card has transformed this battle from the most compelling race in baseball to the most meaningless. Sad.
In the other league, the season will end with the Giants playing the Padres and the Phillies visiting the Braves in the final weekend. Could be awesome. Or not so awesome. Suppose one of those series involves two teams that know going in they're both advancing? Then we've got the same mess in two leagues.
So the big issue, the unfortunate flaw, in the current system is this: There just isn't enough incentive to finish first.
Yeah, you might get home-field advantage if you win -- and you definitely won't if you're the wild card. But big deal. Under the present formats of the Division Series and LCS, the team without home-field advantage wins half the time (24 of 48 in the Division Series, 14 of 28 in the LCS).
So what's the solution? It's simple.
Add a wild-card team -- just one -- in each league. And it changes everything.
It does more than merely spread the September drama to more towns and cities in this great land by keeping their teams alive in a second wild-card race. It would actually save a race like Yankees-Rays -- because the incentive to finish first would be so much greater.
Now we don't pretend we're the first to think of this ingenious idea, even though we've endorsed it several times over the years. We believe that the Elias Sports Bureau's always-thoughtful Steve Hirdt was the first to propose it. And it tends to bubble to the surface from other people we admire and respect -- most recently Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci -- in seasons like this one.
But we've spent a lot of time this week exploring how an expanded playoff system would work, how it would fit into the schedule and what would need to happen to make it a reality. So here's Rumblings' version of Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Doubling the Wild Card Field but Were Too Confused to Ask:
Why it's a brilliant idea
Let's start by explaining what would happen in October if there were an extra wild-card team in each league -- and by that, just to be clear, we mean the two wild cards per league would be the non-division-leaders with the next two best records, regardless of division.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WILD CARD
After the season, the six division winners would get a break to rest up, heal up and set up their pitching. And those two wild cards? They'd be forced to play each other in the dramatic new Wild Card Round of the postseason, just to survive and move on.
That could be a one-game, loser-go-home, March Madness kind of deal. Or it could be a best-of-three. We'll get to that shortly.
But either way, think about the effect on a race like Yankees-Rays. Who would want to be a wild card and get thrown into the precarious wild-card survivor jungle when you could finish first and avoid all that?
So imagine how different those Yankees-Rays games in September would be played and managed under our system versus the current system. Is there any argument that those games wouldn't have more meaning if a first-round bye were on the line?
And if there's not, let's do this. ASAP. We'd be instantly restoring the luster to one of baseball's most unique and beloved traditions -- The Pennant Race.
"I've always thought a good pennant race was the most dramatic thing in baseball," says Hirdt. "And the best part is, that drama unfolds over six months. It's like reading a real good book for 400 pages, and the last 50 pages are the best. To me, that great finish is what the September payoff is supposed to be all about."
True, we still have a bunch of close races now and, at least in the National League, a fun wild-card battle. But this system has rendered what should be the best race of all meaningless. And "my point," Hirdt says, "is that regular-season drama is at its best when it's between the two best teams, not between the fourth- and fifth-best teams." To which we should all say: Amen.
Best-of-three or one-and-done?
So if baseball were to add that extra wild card, its next big decision is: How would the Wild Card Round work? Not an easy call.
Best-of-five or best-of-seven won't cut it, because then the first-place teams would sit around too long. So our choice is: A) a best-of-three or B) a one-game, win-or-else duel to decide the entire season.
Here are the arguments for each:
One-game "October Madness": Try to picture the drama of kicking off the postseason with a game of this magnitude. One game, with a whole season's work riding on it? It's the same magnetic force field that draws us into the NFL playoffs and the NCAA hoops tournament. And it would get the baseball postseason off to an awesome start.
But that's not the only benefit. If we're trying to add incentive to finish first, well, this ought to do the trick -- because why, as Hirdt asks, would the Yankees or Rays want to "put their playoff spot at risk in a one-game Wild Card Round against a team as good as the White Sox or Red Sox?"
And if the whole season were coming down to that one game, you can bet the teams involved in it would line up their best starter to pitch that game, if that were at all possible. But if they burn their ace in that game, it means they can't bring him back twice in five games in the Division Series. Which makes it tougher to ride one dominant starter to steal a short series, as many a wild-card team has done in the past. And that's just one more reason for any team to go all out to finish first.
Best-of-three: The big case for a best-of-three series is, it just seems more baseball-like. So it's no shock that players and club officials we've surveyed have big objections to having their season decided by one game.
Who wants to go home because of one bad pitch, or one funky hop, or one embarrassing brain cramp? Nobody, of course. And we get that.
Then again, this sport has given us one-game playoffs three seasons in a row to decide divisions or wild-card races, and nobody cried about that. But the argument we've heard to justify that is: That's different, because those games are between two teams that tied in the standings over six months.
If we'd been having two wild-card teams play each other over the last 15 years, on the other hand, six of those duels would have matched teams separated by at least seven wins. And in 2001, one wild-card team, the A's, would have been playing a second wild card, Minnesota, that won 17 fewer games than they did. Yep -- 17.
So would it be fair to a team that won 102 games to get stuck in a one-game playoff against an 85-win team just to salvage its season? We can sure see why the A's wouldn't have thought it was real fair.
From our standpoint, we'd vote for the drama -- and other benefits -- of a one-game playoff. But we'd take either format, as long as it provides the same residual benefits -- most notably, restoring the incentive to finish first.
Who gets home-field advantage?
If this is a one-game playoff, it's easy. The wild card with the best record gets to play at home. And if there's a tie, they'd use the current tiebreaker rules, starting with head-to-head season-series record, to decide that.
But what happens if it's a best-of-three? We've heard two proposals, and we like them both.
Proposal A: Team with the best record gets all three games at home. So if you have a 102-win team playing an 85-win team, at least the top seed gets a major perk.
Proposal B: But realistically, there's almost no chance that clubs would sign off on a format that gave one playoff team zero home games. So this proposal would give the top seed a choice: Play Games 1 and 2 at home? Or take the last two games at home? Just that choice alone would add intrigue. Works for us.
How would it fit into the schedule?
The commissioner has already decreed that, after this year, he never wants to see another World Series run into November. So scheduling an extra round of the postseason is a challenge that isn't easily solved.
That's one more reason to favor a one-game playoff -- because fitting in one extra postseason game per league is no problem. But a best-of-three? That gets trickier.
So it works for every reason to schedule that series with no off days. That takes the least time, and it gives the first-place teams an acceptable amount of days off.
It might force a coast-to-coast trip with no travel day for the two wild cards, but too bad. That's one more inducement to finish first and dodge that potential travel nightmare.
We've also heard a proposal that the Division Series should start the next day. So if you have to go all the way to Game 3 to survive the Wild Card Round, you'd have more travel headaches -- and you'd have to use all five starting pitchers in the postseason, which never happens now. Again, yet one more reason to want to finish first.
But even if we do all that -- start the wild-card round two days after the season, play it with no off days and kick off the Division Series the next day -- it still won't be easy to squeeze in the entire postseason by Halloween unless the season starts in March.
That doesn't mean it can't be done if everyone really wants to do it, obviously. But let's just say Bud would have to send his schedule-makers a lovely Christmas gift if they figure out a way to pull it off.
So what are the odds this happens?
Well, it's too late for this year. And it ain't happening next year. The current labor deal has one more year to run, and this is a change that has to be agreed on by MLB and the players' union.
But in 2012? Far from impossible.
We've heard that the union has been holding informal meetings with players from every team about potential topics in the next labor talks. And not only has this been one of those topics, but it's an idea players appear to be big fans of.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the table, one baseball official says this proposal is "not in Bud's mindset right now." But there are rumblings that his special committee for on-field matters has kicked it around. So it's not out of the question, either.
Nobody we know is in favor of expanding the playoffs beyond this -- and turning this sport into the NHL. But that's precisely the beauty of this idea:
By adding just one team in each league, baseball would still have fewer playoff teams than the other three major pro sports -- and this particular expansion of the postseason would enhance the meaning of the regular season, not dilute it.
It might not be a perfect system. But it would be better than the system we have now. And "the best part," says Hirdt, "would be the September that leads up to it."
Many times in life and sports, more is less. But the more we think about this idea, the more we're convinced: This is not one of those times.
Ready to Rumble
Red eye: Here's what's likely to happen in Cincinnati this winter: The Reds bring back Dusty Baker. But what's likely to happen isn't always the same thing as what will happen.
And if Dusty bolts -- for another job or contract reasons, or both -- we're fascinated by the rampant speculation in St. Louis that the Reds could swoop in and hire Tony La Russa.
"In the end, I think Dusty takes their offer and stays," said one longtime baseball man with connections both to Reds GM Walt Jocketty and Reds CEO Bob Castellini. "But if he doesn't, I could see Tony going there."
And why is that? "That would be Walt's Dream Team, having Tony there," the same baseball man said. "And it would be the owner's Dream Team, having Walt and Tony there."
Castellini, as you may know, was once an investor in the Cardinals. And he's often been portrayed, by those who know him, as a guy who has dreamed of recreating the Cardinals empire in Ohio.
But Castellini is also said to be the member of the Reds' hierarchy who is Baker's biggest supporter. Jocketty, remember, was not the GM when Baker was hired. (He was hired by Castellini and former GM Wayne Krivsky.) And people close to Reds management describe the brass as having been in "a real divide" about Baker going into this season, the final year on his contract.
The question then was whether Baker was the right fit for a young team that was built around its young pitching. But after the way the Reds have played this season, it would even be difficult for Baker's detractors to justify pushing him out for La Russa. Doesn't mean it can't happen, though.
Card games: Meanwhile, other clubs are watching the La Russa/Colby Rasmus soap opera in St. Louis with great interest, just in case it means Rasmus suddenly becomes available in a couple of months.
"Who winds up being gone there?" wondered one AL executive. "Tony or Rasmus?"
Well, it's never that simple, obviously. But suppose the Cardinals did try to move Rasmus this winter, if La Russa returns and they concluded the two couldn't coexist?
"Oh, they could trade him," said the same exec. "But they'd only get 60 or 70 cents on the dollar, because right now teams know you wouldn't get as much as you would if the perception was that you didn't have to move him."
The same executive described Rasmus as "one of the three most important position players on the team." So if the manager no longer wants to commit to playing him regularly, that creates "a nightmare for that front office, because their job is to preserve optimum value for Colby Rasmus in the event they ever do trade him. And right now, they'd have a hard time doing that."
But that doesn't mean their only alternative is to push La Russa out, either, because his footprint is all over their franchise.
"Whether he leaves next year or the year after, or whenever," said the same exec, "you can safely say this: It will be easier for Tony to find a job than it will be for the Cardinals to find the right guy to follow him. Can you imagine being the manager who follows Tony La Russa? That's a guy who's going to have a huge bull's-eye on his back."
Because in the end, there's a 100 percent probability that you're going to find Jeter on Opening Day next year exactly where you find him Oct. 3 this year -- starting at shortstop for the Yankees.
New York Yankees
"Where's he going?" laughed an official of one AL team when Jeter's free agency came up in a recent conversation. "He's going nowhere. He's Derek Jeter. He's a Yankee. And he's going to be a Yankee."
So no matter how big a story Jeter's free agency is made to appear over the next two or three months, remember that: He's going n-o-w-h-e-r-e. And every indication is that he's well aware of that, and the Yankees have already essentially assured him of that.
From what we've heard, the Yankees have made it clear to Jeter's side that they would never do anything to "embarrass" him this winter. He doesn't have to be worried about getting offered any one-year deals at Paul Janish money. He'll be treated like an icon and paid like an icon -- meaning, if the speculation is accurate, somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million a year.
That won't be the A-Rod Contract. But if the Yankees could hand Jorge Posada a four-year deal heading into the season when he turned 37, there's no reason to think Jeter would get less than four years heading into the season when he'll also turn 37.
At some point, the Yankees are going to have to figure out whether Jeter can continue to be their shortstop for the next three/five/50/(pick-a-number) years. But that time won't be this offseason, even though Jeter's free agency will shove that issue onto the big stage.
It's a question that will play into the length of Jeter's next contract, because it has to. But it's not one that Jeter's agent, Casey Close, or the Yankees have any plans to work out at the bargaining table -- because it's a baseball issue, not a bargaining issue.
Not so Gonzo: Not only did the Padres' run for October keep them from putting Adrian Gonzalez on the market this July, but clubs that have spoken with the Padres now believe there's very little chance they'll shop Gonzalez this winter, either.
San Diego Padres
"Even if they miss the playoffs now, coming off a year this successful, it would be difficult for them to move him," said an official of one team that figures to be in the first-base market. "They're still scrapping and clawing, trying to get people back into their park and build back their base. So it would be a precarious decision to endanger that and trade him. I'd really be surprised if they did that now."
What's more likely is that the Padres try to win again with Gonzalez next year -- and deal him in July if they're out of contention.
Morgan is less: While the Nationals rose up to defend Nyjer Morgan last week after that debacle in Florida, don't mistake those words as a vote of confidence in this guy's future. Two scouts whose coverage assignments include the Nationals say they've come away with the impression the team is determined to trade Morgan this winter after a series of aggravating decisions and actions, on-field and off, this season.
Asked what the chances were that the Nationals will keep Morgan, one scout summed it up in one word: "Nonexistent."
Manny-wouldn't: Details of Manny Ramirez's final day as a Dodger are starting to filter through the baseball grapevine, and they're not pretty.
On that bizarre Sunday in Colorado, manager Joe Torre called Manny into his office and told him what the team had in mind if it opted to keep him instead of trading him to the White Sox.
He wasn't going to be an everyday left fielder anymore, because they'd concluded he wasn't physically up to that. But they offered him the chance to pick his own spots, pick the games he thought he was up to playing, and even choose the pitchers he wanted to face.
By then, though, Manny clearly was hell-bent on starting a new life as a DH. So indications are that he balked at that plan, tried to paint the manager as conspiring against him and told Torre he didn't want to play that day, even though he was in the manager's original lineup.
Then, when Torre sent him to the plate to pinch-hit, he got himself bounced after one pitch. And by the time the Dodgers boarded the plane back to L.A., they'd concluded, once and for all, that Manny had to go. Hard to blame them.
We just can't wait for the day, somewhere down the trail, when Manny returns to give the L.A. media that "it was all my fault, I'm a real man to admit it" speech. Cue the violin section.
For what it's Werth: There is no longer any doubt Jayson Werth is in his final days as a Phillie. On a team with nearly $140 million already committed to 16 players next year -- plus a philosophical commitment to keep turning over at least 25 percent of the roster -- Werth isn't going to be a fit.
The Phillies, obviously, are a long ways from making any final decisions on what their lineup will look like without him. But the likely plan is to give hot-shot rookie Domonic Brown most of the playing time in right -- while complementing him with a right-handed-hitting fourth-outfielder type.
Dodge-ball: A funny thing has happened to the Dodgers over the last month or so: Their midseason imports -- Jay Gibbons (.323/.400/.613), Rod Barajas (.286/.390/.686), Ryan Theriot (.281, with a .354 OBP) and Scott Podsednik (.269, with 16 runs scored) -- have all outhit their "core" players: Andre Ethier (.271, but just a .434 SLG), James Loney (.226/.309/.331) and Matt Kemp (.220/.290/.366) since Aug. 1. And Ted Lilly (5-1, 3.18) has been their best pitcher.
The Dodgers have already said they want to bring Lilly back. Also sounds as if they'd like to re-sign Gibbons, Barajas and Podsednik, who are also prospective free agents (though Podsednik holds a mutual option). One option they're unlikely to pick up: Octavio Dotel's $4.5 million club option (or $250,000 buyout).
Someone missing: Can the Twins make a run in October if Justin Morneau doesn't return from lingering concussion issues? A scout who covers the Twins says: "They've done a pretty damned good job without him, but in the postseason, I think it's almost a must that they get him back. Unless it's their destiny or their year, I don't see how they don't struggle against good teams and good pitching if he's not in there. He's such a good hitter."
But Twins GM Bill Smith told Rumblings: "We're still hopeful he'll be back this year, but we're not going to do anything to jeopardize his long-term health, and we're not going to do anything to jeopardize his career. We'd love to have him in the middle of our lineup playing, hopefully, deep into October. But we're not going to take the short-term gain at the expense of his long-term well-being.
"He still has not had a day where he's been symptom-free. So we're not going to accelerate the process until he has those days and the doctor gives us a clear forecast that Justin is OK to play. If we have to wait three weeks to do that or six months to do that, it's a lot easier for me to make that call than it is for Justin. It's easy for me because it's an easy decision. It's a lot harder for a player who's a competitor and a huge part of this team."
The Twins are an amazing 38-18 since Morneau went down. And don't forget, said one GM, "they lost Joe Nathan before they played their first game. You never even hear anybody talk about that."
Open Mike: The most impressive thing about Marlins phenom Mike Stanton isn't his 18 homers or .502 slugging percentage at age 20. It's his drive to be the best player alive.
"This guy wants to get better every day, and he doesn't want to waste any day," Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez told Rumblings. "I can picture him in the morning, when he wakes up, he says, 'Today, I want to be a better player than I was yesterday.'"
Rodriguez then told a story about how Stanton decided earlier this year that he needed to do a better job of recognizing the sliders in the dirt he was waving at.
"So he came up with a drill," the manager said. "He set up the pitching machine to throw sliders at 90 miles an hour, and he set it up to throw all balls. But every eight or 10 pitches, the machine (screws up and) throws a strike, and that's the one he wants to recognize.
"So basically, this guy would spend 10-15 minutes in the cage, taking 60-70-80 pitches -- so he could swing at four. And it was all his idea. Everyone was like, 'What's he doing?' But he came up with that. I never saw that before."
The Rumblings Scouting Bureau
• On Aroldis Chapman: "He's the real deal -- as a reliever. He's not going to help them any time soon as a starter. But if they leave him in that role, I think he'll be their closer in one more year. He has so many arms and legs and moving parts in his delivery, it will always be an issue. But the thing I like is, he came in and he was completely unrattled. He looked like he was throwing a simulated game. So I think they paid out big money for a top-end starter, and they'll get a top-end closer instead."
• On Delmon Young: "How many teams besides the Twins would have had the patience to stay with a guy like that and get rewarded the way they have this year? Last year, I couldn't find one positive with Delmon Young where I'd want to acquire him. Now the guy's going to drive in 100 runs. It's a real tribute to the Twins."
• On Jimmy Rollins: "He just looks like he's throwing at-bats away. Even when he gets into good hitting counts, there are times he'll just put a weak little swing on the ball. I'm seeing a lot of swings where he's working under the ball, and his head is coming off too soon. I'm not sure what's going on. His approach seems to come and go from at-bat to at-bat. You'll see a couple of at-bats where he looks like he used to look, but all the at-bats around that are bad."
• On Logan Morrison: "This guy is going to be a really good baseball player. He really knows the strike zone. He uses the whole field. He really stays in against left-handers. He hits like he's been in the league for five or six years."
Quotes of the Week
"It never ceases to amaze you that the guy is setting records all over the place, and his name is going to be enshrined with the best to ever play the game, yet he acts like your next-door neighbor. Like he'd come and cut the grass for you if you went out on vacation."
From Reds manager Dusty Baker (to the Dayton Daily News' Hal McCoy) on the reaction he got from his baseball buddies after they laid eyes on Aroldis Chapman:
"Calls from all over the country, all over the place. And they all said about the same thing -- dynamite, electric, gasoline. And from my Latino friends, 'Mucho gasolina.'"
Tweets of the Week
This week, we offer two companion tweets from the legendary Astros broadcast-humorist, Jim DeShaies, via our friends at @PumaOneLiners:
Tweet No. 1 (On the apparently historic duel Monday between Astros manager Brad Mills and Cubs manager Mike Quade):
"Unless someone can prove me wrong, I believe this is the first matchup between 2 completely bald managers "
Tweet No. 2 (to continue that profound thought):
"As a member of the fraternity, I never thought we'd climb this mountain."
Headliner of the Week
Finally, this just in from the lunatics at realfakesports.com:
REPORT: BASEBALL'S UNWRITTEN RULES
ACTUALLY WRITTEN DOWN IN 1942
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.