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Friday, June 3, 2011
Let's play 154!

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

By our count -- and it took a LOT of counting -- you can find 158 big leaguers hanging out on somebody's disabled list.

And amazingly, that counts only Rich Harden ONCE.

We know there are many, many people out there who think injuries are just one of baseball's modern-day facts of life, right up there with bad bullpens, arbitration and, of course, spitting.

But one general manager we know disagrees. He thinks there IS an answer. It's just not one anybody wants to entertain:

Shorten the schedule.

The season's too long. Guys can't handle it. In fact, you'd be amazed how many of these DLs are just teams covering for guys who can't handle it. ... They need mental breaks to regroup.

-- An unnamed MLB general manager

"The season's too long. Guys can't handle it," said this GM, who decided he didn't want his name attached publicly to this analysis. "In fact, you'd be amazed how many of these DLs are just teams covering for guys who can't handle it.

"This isn't just about guys not being able to handle it physically. Guys can't handle it mentally. They need mental breaks to regroup."

There are lots of reasons this GM believes that the schedule is deep-frying more players mentally than ever these days, from amped-up media pressure to never-ending Twitter chatter to scheduling that can be downright inhumane.

Then there's this:

Greenies. Or lack thereof.

Nobody in the sport wants to admit that, either, naturally. But for decades, what got players through the grind was the ability to pop stimulants that helped them play those day games after night games or their 15th game in a row in their third different time zone.

Now those stimulants are illegal -- as they should be. But you should also know this: Banning them is having just as powerful an effect on everyday players as steroid testing. Maybe, in some ways, even more powerful.

So here's how this GM would change the game if he were the king of baseball:

Each team gets one day off a week

Once upon a time in baseball, every team played a Sunday doubleheader -- then took Monday off. It's time, the GM says, to reintroduce that weekly day off.

"Every Monday or Thursday should be a day off," he said. "Most teams aren't selling many tickets on those days, anyway."

Shorten the season to 154 games

Under the current schedule, teams get only 20 or 21 days off in six months. And that includes the All-Star break. To put that in perspective, if you work a normal job, you've probably taken about that many days off just since April 1. So if this sport really wants to protect its players, that number probably "needs to be doubled," the GM said.

But if that's unworkable, baseball could add at least 10 days off to the schedule and still have no trouble paring the season to the once-traditional 154 games. How? Here are two ideas:

National Doubleheader Day

Once or twice a year -- maybe more if this idea catches on -- every team in baseball would play a doubleheader. Not a day-nighter, either. Too grueling. This would be an old-fashioned doubleheader -- two games back-to-back.

Yeah, it would mean teams would lose a home date, which would cost them dollars. But if that's an issue, they could charge a few bucks extra for including the second game, remind themselves they'd have three extra hours to sell hot dogs and T-shirts and "market it," the GM said. "Sell it to a sponsor. Call it Doubleheader Sunday."

International Week

Our GM also would add breathing room to the schedule by starting the season earlier -- with a week in March he'd call International Week. Take six or eight teams and send them off in late March to Japan, Taiwan, Mexico, Venezuela or some other foreign destination. That would leave plenty of flexibility to have all the other teams play their opening-week March games in warm-weather sites or domes.

If baseball was willing to try all this, he said, "I'll tell you exactly what would happen. The quality of play would go up, and the amount of injuries would go down."

His changes wouldn't stop there. He also thinks it's time to ease the burden on players by increasing roster sizes -- finally -- to 26 or 27 players per team.

"It doesn't make any sense to me anymore -- 25-man rosters," he said. "Why is a 25-man roster still appropriate to play this game without greenies?"

Now, we all know why owners would object to bigger rosters. One word: $$$$$$. But that knee-jerk reaction would be sooooo short-sighted, the GM said.

"It costs you, anyway, because you're DL-ing guys [who break down]," he said. "I'd like somebody to do a study. How many DLs would it save you? Or do a trade-off and put a limit [on rosters] in September -- say you could only go to 30 instead of 40."

Clearly, though, that magic word -- $$$$$$ -- wouldn't just hang over the roster-size debate. It would infiltrate this entire debate. All of it. But by thinking outside the box, baseball might find solutions to every one of the arguments against these ideas.

Replace those missing games, and the dollars they generate, with special events like Doubleheader Sunday that could be sold and sponsored. Smooth out revenue inequities by tweaking the Central Fund payouts or by tapping the Commissioner's Discretionary Fund. And try to remember that dollars also would be saved here -- by having less empty money sitting on every team's disabled list.

"If we did this," our GM said, "it wouldn't just benefit players. It would be good for the whole industry."

And if it's good for the whole industry, then obviously … uh … this can't ever possibly happen. Makes way too much sense.

Ready to Rumble

• It's always fascinating to pick apart the forces that drive unlikely teams into first place. But in the case of those rampaging Arizona Diamondbacks, we shouldn't just be perusing the moves that got them to the top of the NL West. We should also remember the biggest move they didn't make.

Between the November GM meetings and the December winter meetings, the Diamondbacks' new GM, Kevin Towers, listened to a bunch of enticing offers on Justin Upton -- including "a couple of deals with American League teams that could have made a lot of sense," said team president Derrick Hall.

One of those packages was a deal with Boston that could have involved the likes of Daniel Bard, Jacoby Ellsbury and more. And at one point or another, Towers told Rumblings this past winter, two dozen teams expressed interest in the former No. 1 pick in the country. But finally, a couple of days into the winter meetings, Towers, manager Kirk Gibson and the brain trust reviewed the offers and decided, "We're not going to do this. Let's keep this guy."

Six months later, Upton leads his team in home runs (11) and slugging percentage (.498). He already has thumped three walk-off hits. He's responsible for three of the 15 longest home runs in baseball this year, according to hittrackeronline.com. And at age 23, he's also a big off-the-field reason this team is acing chemistry class right now.

So let's ask this: Would the Diamondbacks have found themselves in first place on June 1 if they'd traded Upton this past winter?

"Boy, that's tough to say," Hall answered. "There were some very interesting offers. But I would say no. We probably wouldn't be."

• So could there be a connection between that trade buzz and Upton's turnaround from a disappointing season in which he struck out a career-high 152 times and saw his OPS drop by 100 points (to .799)? Absolutely. "It might have been a wake-up call," Hall said, "hearing his name out there in all those rumors."

But there is more to Upton's rebound than that. He has clearly connected with new hitting coach Don Baylor. Like this whole cast, he's been energized by the turbocharged Gibson. And he no longer feels the responsibility to lead this entire roster at an age not much more advanced than the college players waiting around to hear their names called in the draft next week.

Now those leadership burdens are being shared by longtime clubhouse masters like J.J. Putz, Henry Blanco and even Geoff Blum. That's allowed one of the most talented young players in baseball to simply be himself. For the rest of the NL West, that's becoming an increasingly scary thought.

• One more random thought on the Diamondbacks: Does anybody remember another coaching staff that included FOUR men who finished in the top two of an MVP election? This Arizona staff employs two MVPs (Kirk Gibson and Don Baylor) and two runners-up (Alan Trammell and Matt Williams). If you can find another group who can make that claim, tweet it at us (@jaysonst) or email uselessinfodept@yahoo.com. We'll revisit this in Tuesday's Rumblings.

Pirates

• Most of the attention on the Pirates these days is centered on whom they'll take first in the draft. But they have just as important a decision to make next month.

About a third of the way into their season, they're only three games under .500 (26-29) -- just the sixth time their record has been this good (or better) this late since Barry Bonds bolted town 19 years ago.

So do they dangle a potentially attractive veteran arm like Kevin Correia at the trading deadline? Or do they hang on to their current group and make a run at ending their deadly streak of 18 losing seasons?

They're not making any announcements yet, obviously. But increasingly, there are signs they could prioritize a run at .500 over collecting prospects, much like the Brewers did in 2005 after 12 straight losing seasons. And one NL assistant GM tells Rumblings he would do the same thing if he ran the Pirates.

"I know it's important to think long-haul, but part of the long-haul thought process is getting rid of that losing tradition," he said. "And the only thing that can give people in Pittsburgh hope for the future is winning. If you continue losing, it breeds something unmanageable. So I think it's important to take this opportunity to win as many games as you can. And even if you only win 79, I don't think it's a mistake. How far does developing that winning mentality carry you in the future? It's not quantifiable."

• We understand why, in the wake of Buster Posey-mania, people think teams are crazy not to move good-hitting catchers like Posey and Joe Mauer to a position where foul tips and kamikaze baserunners aren't flying at them every night.

But there's a reason that men like Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra and Mike Piazza spent most or all of their careers in shin guards -- because sweet-swinging catchers have a unique value in this sport. So Posey and Mauer WILL catch again. And the Indians have no plans to move Carlos Santana to first base (or anywhere else) full time even though he's already endured a frightening collision. But they will continue to play him at first once or twice a week.

"We understand the injury risks associated with catchers," GM Chris Antonetti told Rumblings in an e-mail. "However, we also appreciate, and have experienced first-hand (with Victor Martinez), the potential competitive advantage of getting exceptional production behind the plate. As we did with Victor, we plan to continue to give Carlos at bats at first base to keep him fresh and to keep his bat in the lineup on days he's not catching."

• You think catchers have it rough now? Loyal reader Trent McCotter passed along this legendary photo of Ty Cobb flying into home plate. How'd you like to gather in a throw from right field and look up to find THIS roaring your way?

• The Red Sox haven't been any more dazzled by Kevin Millwood (2 2/3 IP, 4 ER in his first minor league start) than the Yankees were. So they're still poking around, looking for a veteran starting pitcher they can stash in Triple-A as inventory until the trade market heats up in a few weeks.

• The Orioles are trying to trade Jake Fox after designating him for assignment, and one scout who covers them thinks they'll find a taker. "For an American League team, he fits," the scout said. "He's tough to hide defensively. And that catching thing is not going to work out. But he's a right-handed bat who comes off the bench and can hit a ball over the fence. And he can hit a fastball."

• An NL executive who has seen a lot of Jose Bautista throughout the years says there's a moral to his story for many teams: His whole career before he arrived in Toronto, teams tried to make Bautista into something he's not -- a guy who sprays the ball around to all fields. Only the Blue Jays saw him as a hitter who loves to pull the ball and always hits home runs when he does. "So what you have here," the scout said, "is a case where somebody identified the strength of the player and said, 'Let's work off HIS strength instead of trying to make the player work off what the team wants.' I'd say that's worked out pretty well. You'd think teams would do that more. Wouldn't you?" Eh, yep!

Mike Stanton
Stanton

• Finally, we heard the following prediction this week from a scout who isn't normally prone to volcanic gushing:

Mike Stanton is going to hit 600 home runs. Right, 600.

And how many young hitters has this scout ever said that about? "None," he said, laughing. "He's the only guy. But it's not just me. Ask any manager or coach in the big leagues and say, 'Pick one guy who could hit 600 home runs.' They'll all say Mike Stanton. He's amazing."

Five Astounding Facts of the Week

Carlos Marmol
Marmol

1. There are blown saves (BS), and then there are imploded saves (IS). We're awarding Carlos Marmol an IS for allowing six earned runs in just a third of an inning Tuesday against the Astros. Since the invention of the save rule in 1969, according to baseball-reference.com's fabulous Play Index, only three other closers have earned an IS with a ninth-inning 6-ER, 1/3-IP meltdown (or worse): Houston's Jose Valverde (July 21, 2008 against the Pirates), Detroit's Ugueth Urbina (May 30, 2004 against the Orioles) and Royals great Dan Quisenberry (Sept. 4, 1980 against the Brewers).

2. Until Tim Wakefield (195-173 lifetime) wins five more games, we'll find ourselves in a unique time in baseball history -- because the active leader in wins has yet to win his 200th game. So when was the last time that happened? Believe it or not, loyal reader Eric Lee reports, it was 1879. And there was a better excuse back then -- since it was Season No. 4 in the life of some newfangled invention called "the major leagues."

3. Speaking of wins, Jason Isringhausen just won his first game as a Met since June 8, 1999. In between, 110 different pitchers won a game for the Mets, from Bartolome Fortunato to Alay Soler. And who won the most? Not Johan Santana or Pedro Martinez or even Rick Reed. It was Al Leiter with 75.

Aubrey Huff
Huff

4. Aubrey Huff's three-homer game Thursday in St. Louis was the fifth by a Giant since the opening of AT&T Park (then Pac Bell) in 2000. So what do those five three-homer games have in common? They've all come on the road. Two more incredible facts: (A) Last three-homer game by a Giant in San Francisco? By -- who else?  Barry Bonds, on Aug. 2, 1994, at Candlestick. And (B) anybody remember the only three-homer game by ANYBODY in that ballpark along the shores of McCovey Cove? It was authored by Kevin Elster, of all people, on April 11, 2000. What else was notable about that game? He hit three in (ta-taaa) the first game in the history of the park  and nobody has done it since.

5. Meanwhile, Huff and Colby Rasmus each drove in six runs Thursday. So … it was just the third time in the 2000s when opponents drove in six or more in the same game. And … until this game, we'd had more instances in the 2000s of TEAMMATES knocking in six-plus in the same game than opponents. (See list below.) And … there have been 453 instances in the 2000s when a player drove in at least six runs in a game, but Rasmus was only the second to do it in a game in which his team lost by five runs or more. The other: Gary Sheffield, in a 17-9 loss on Sept. 27, 2005.

6-plus RBIs in the same game (since 2000)

Opponents
Thursday: Aubrey Huff (Giants) and Colby Rasmus (Cardinals)
July 20, 2009: Justin Morneau (Twins) and Matt Holliday (A's)
June 19, 2004: Juan Uribe (White Sox) and Juan Rivera (Expos)

Teammates
Aug. 22, 2007: Ramon Vazquez and Jarrod Saltalamacchia (Rangers)
Sept. 18, 2006: Garrett Atkins and Jeff Baker (Rockies)
April 18, 2005: Alex Rodriguez and Tino Martinez (Yankees)

Tweets of the Week

If you thought Marlins tweet king Logan Morrison (@LoMoMarlins) was going to overlook the two-thumbs-down review of his tweeting by team president David Samson, eh, guess again. His response came in these two tweets:

• Greatest Fear: Walk in2 a room filled w friends & fam & a stranger says "LoMo were all here bc we <3 u & r worried abt ur Twitter addiction"

• That or Spiders ..

Headliner of the Week

Finally, this just in from those tongue-in-cheek parody artistes at The Onion:

GRUESOME HOME-PLATE COLLISION

REAWAKENS NATION'S LOVE AFFAIR

WITH BASEBALL

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