- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Year No. 16 of the ever-popular interleague-play era kicks off this weekend. And you'll be shocked to learn that, once again, the 2012 interleague schedule makes less sense than Snooki. For instance:
• In the NL East, the Braves have to play the Yankees six times. But how many times will the Marlins and Phillies play the Yankees? Zero, of course.
• In the AL Central, the Tigers will play half of their 18 interleague games against the Pirates and Rockies. Want to guess how many games the White Sox will play against the Pirates and Rockies? Right you are. That would be none.
• And in the NL Central, the Reds will play nine of their 15 interleague games against the two best teams in the AL Central -- the Indians and Tigers. But the Brewers, naturally, won't play any games against those two teams.
For a decade and a half now, players, managers and general managers have been grumbling about bizarre, illogical interleague schedule glitches like these. And for a decade and a half, those complaints just sailed on out into space like a lost satellite.
Coming right up in 2013, those critics will be delighted to know, nearly everything about interleague play is about to change. And that has to be a good thing. Doesn't it?
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The impetus for that change will be baseball's most dramatic realignment in history -- a realignment that will break this sport into two leagues with an odd number of teams (15) in each. And that means, for the rest of time -- or at least until some future commissioner has a brighter idea -- that interleague play will no longer be just a three-week subplot in the season.
Starting next year, from Opening Day onward, it's about to become an every-day occurrence. Literally. And that, frankly, has made a lot of people in the sport way more nervous about what's coming than they ought to be.
"I think everyone has questions," Astros manager Brad Mills said this week, "just because it's new and we don't know exactly how it's going to work. We know it means interleague play has to get sprinkled through the season. But everyone's waiting to see how it's going to be sprinkled."
Well, the schedule isn't 100 percent done yet. But our Rumblings detectives have uncovered many of the tentative details for next year's interleague schedule. So here's what you're likely to see:
The Age of Symmetry
Let's start with the important part:
Now that both leagues are the same size and all six divisions have the same number of teams (five), every team in a division will finally be playing virtually the same interleague schedule as all the other teams in its division.
Unfortunately, we still have to toss in that word, "virtually." But whatever, it'll beat the current madness, anyway.
How will this work? It's very NFL-like, actually. Each division will be lined up against a designated division in the other league on a rotating basis -- and everybody plays everybody.
The tentative plan, for example, is for the AL West to be matched up with the NL Central next year. So all five teams in the AL West would then play all five teams in the NL Central. Period.
No more mixing, matching, picking or choosing, based on TV ratings, marketing strategies or random dart-board throwing. Everybody plays everybody. What a concept.
But that doesn't mean every team plays an "identical" schedule, either. We'll get into why that is momentarily.
As we reported in our last Rumblings, the most likely plan is for each team to play 20 interleague games a year -- a slight increase from the current system. This season, 20 of the 30 clubs will play 18 interleague games apiece, with the other 10 (all NL teams) playing 15 each. From now on, though, at least every team will play the same number of interleague games. About time.
But how will they parcel out those 20 games? Here's where this gets slightly complicated. We'll again use AL West versus NL Central as an example.
• Each AL West team would play a three-game series against four of the five NL Central teams next year. That comes to 12 games.
• But each team would also play a fifth NL Central team four times -- possibly in a four-game series, possibly home-and-home in a couple of two-game series. That slight variation in each schedule brings the interleague total to 16 games.
• So where would the other four games come from? From "rivalries." Where else? Each team will almost certainly play four "rivalry" games per season, down from the current six. But those would be the only interleague matchups that teams in the same division wouldn't have in common. Again, it isn't perfect. But it's an upgrade over the current absurdity.
Every day is interleague day
You don't need a Ph.D. in scheduling sciences to know that if there's an odd number of teams in each league, there has to be an interleague game pretty much every day of the season. No avoiding that.
But in a sport that insists on playing with two different sets of rules, that raises a potentially biggggg problem that no other sport faces:
Imagine the Red Sox, for instance, being scheduled to finish their season on the road in two National League cities, with no DH allowed. Think David Ortiz might have a few thoughts on that nightmare?
So the schedule architects have set out to design a schedule in which, over the last five weeks of the season, there would be no more than one interleague series at a time -- and no team would have to play more than one interleague series on the road down the stretch. The same concept would be applied in April.
In theory, then, no team would be unduly punished by having to start or finish its season by playing a bunch of games under the other league's rules. The computers are still working through the details. But that seems like the only fair way to go.
We've gotten used to having all our interleague games played at the same time in two different scheduling "blocks" -- one in May, the other in June. That, obviously, will no longer be possible.
But if interleague games are going to be kept to a minimum in April and September, that means most of the interleague series will still be held between May and August. And it appears there will still be one, and possibly two "blocks" in which everyone (or just about everyone) is playing interleague games at the same time.
Those blocks just won't last for up to 2½ weeks anymore. A week is more like it. One possibility, in fact, is a version of "Rivalry Week" that would work this way:
Since there will now be four "rivalry" games instead of six, those rivalry series wouldn't be held on weekends anymore. Instead, "Rivalry Week" could feature, say, the Yankees and Mets playing Monday and Tuesday at Citi Field, then Wednesday and Thursday at Yankee Stadium. Sounds like fun to us.
Now are there glitches still remaining in this system? There are. No doubt.
Ten of the 30 teams don't have a true "rival," for one thing. So there's still no avoiding the random match-making that will keep bringing us the magic of Padres-Mariners and Tigers-Pirates every darned year, whether we want it or not.
And we still won't have a schedule in which every team in a division plays an identical schedule to all the other teams in its division -- again, because no one has the courage to kill those interleague rivalry games. (Repeat after us: ka-ching, ka-ching.)
But in the big picture, this is still the most equitable interleague schedule ever devised. It's got rhyme. It's got reason. It's got balance. It's got sanity. So compared to the interleague nuttiness we've learned to tolerate, it's a huge step in the right direction.
Ready to Rumble
• With every closer who flops or gets hurt this season, another set of eyes turns toward Houston, where Brett Myers has thrived in his second stint in a job he admits he has learned to love. ("I've never been the type of guy," Myers told Rumblings, "who likes to sit around and wait four days for my next outing.")
What Myers is trying to ignore, though, is all the rumors about where the Astros might be interested in trading him in a month or two.
"I don't necessarily look at people saying 'Oh, you're gonna get traded here' or 'You're gonna get traded there,'" he said. "That's not weighing on my mind at all. I'm not looking to get traded. It's not my decision. I don't have any no-trade clause or anything like that. It's out of my hands. All I can do is go out there and perform. And if something like that happens, it happens. But hopefully, it won't happen, because that means we're playing good baseball."
One thing Myers didn't mention: His contract pays him an extra $500,000 every time he's traded.
• No storyline all season has been more exaggerated than the Phillies' supposed attempts to explore dealing their two biggest potential free agents, Cole Hamels and Shane Victorino. An official of one team that looked into that alleged availability described Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. as having "zero" interest in trading either of those players and said: "They'd have to be really out of it to trade anybody. And that's not going to happen."
• A scout who saw Chien-Ming Wang's last rehab start reports: "He's ready now." But the Nationals are clearly stalling in reactivating Wang until they can figure out how he fits into their staff. They continue to kick around all sorts of options, from having Wang replace Ross Detwiler to even giving him a temporary tryout in the back of the bullpen, where Henry Rodriguez has scuffled lately. One source who passed through Syracuse tells Rumblings the Nationals also have had feelers from other clubs about Wang. But that's one option they don't seem interested in exploring.
• One team to watch out for in July, if it can hang in the race, is the Giants. An official of one club who spoke with them says the Giants are already sending signals they're in the market for "a legit corner-outfield bopper." But finding one could be another story. Carlos Quentin anyone? How 'bout Alfonso Soriano? Locating sellers with "legit" bats to trade looks as though it will be a major challenge before this trading deadline.
• The first draft under the new labor rules is now just a couple of weeks away. And if there are clubs out there that have come up with creative tricks to circumvent the new signings cap, they're hiding it well. "I don't see any way to beat this system," says one longtime scouting director. "I know a lot of people have put in a lot of time trying to come up with ways to beat the system. I don't see one."
So the same club official predicts we've seen the end of high-ceiling high school kids sliding into the late rounds because of signability: "We used to let high school kids like that ride a little and maybe overpay them in the fourth, fifth or sixth rounds. Now you'll have to take them in the second or third round because that's the only way you'll have the [slot] money to sign them."
• One more draft note: As Keith Law has been chronicling, the Astros continue to send mixed signals about their plans for the No. 1 pick to the teams that draft behind them. But increasingly, those clubs believe they're leaning toward taking Stanford right-hander Mark Appel.
"We just don't know what Houston's going to do," said an executive of one of the teams the Astros have left hanging. "One day you hear one guy. The next day you hear somebody else. But our read is that [GM Jeff Luhnow] is going to want somebody that's fairly close to the big leagues. And I'm betting that's Appel over [LSU right-hander Kevin] Gausman. Gausman has the better arm, but Appel is a little more polished at this point. You don't want to miss with that pick, and he's the safer bet."
• Fun as it has been to watch Bryce Harper do his thing these last couple of weeks, has anyone outside of the 714 area code noticed that Mike Trout has been by far the better of the two mega-phenoms? At last look, Trout was outhitting Harper by nearly 100 points in batting average and 180 points in OPS. And that's no statistical illusion.
"I've always said I'll take Trout over Harper, because I think he controls the game better and he controls himself better," one NL executive said. "I just like Trout's rhythm as a player better. It just seems like it happens easier. He doesn't have to exert the same effort or energy to make it happen. I love the way Harper plays. He's like a power guy with a Pete Rose mindset. But Trout has the ability to slow the game down more than Harper does -- or at least he does right now."
• No event in baseball had more people buzzing this week than the Angels' firing of their longtime hitting coach, Mickey Hatcher. It wasn't a move specifically aimed at Albert Pujols. But Albert sure did keep coming up in the conversation.
"If you think you need a new hitting coach to help your $254 million investment, maybe you've got the wrong investment," quipped an exec of one team.
"Albert doesn't even have a hitting coach," said an NL Central exec. "Doesn't want one. Doesn't need one. He's his hitting coach."
"One thing I'm sure of," said another exec who has known Angels manager Mike Scioscia for years. "No way this was Mike's idea. No way."
• Meanwhile, the Cardinals continue to prove there's life after Pujols, Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan. But it's no accident that the one guy they decided they couldn't survive without was Yadier Molina.
After it became clear that Duncan wasn't going to return as pitching coach, the Cardinals worked aggressively to sign Molina to a five-year, $75-million extension -- the second-biggest deal for any catcher in history, behind only Joe Mauer's eight-year, $184 million deal with the Twins.
Duncan's loss "entered into our thinking in doing the extension," GM John Mozeliak told Rumblings. "With the fact that Dunc was gone, it was a subtle way of still keeping that same presence on our staff. Yadi is a special guy, a guy we knew we had to find a way to keep. All I can tell you is, when that deal got announced, there were a lot of happy people in that locker room."
• Finally, the Astros can't stop chuckling every time they think about the sight of their favorite 5-foot-5 mini-mite, Jose Altuve, coming to the plate recently to face 6-foot-11 Mets reliever Jon Rauch. If we go by listed heights, it's the biggest height disparity between any pitcher and hitter in baseball history.
"We were saying, 'How 'bout if Rauch has to cover first or something?'" chuckled Astros manager Brad Mills. "It might be embarrassing running down there. I mean, he might come up to his crotch."
Well, luckily for Altuve -- but unluckily for YouTube fans -- it never came to that. Altuve lined out to the first baseman. But stay tuned for the rematch. Those two teams meet again in New York, Aug. 24-26.
Tweets of the Week
• Uh-oh. The ghost of George Steinbrenner (@Ghost_of_Stein) is still weighing in on the hot-button baseball issues that have never ceased to get him worked up. So naturally, the awarding of the 2013 All-Star Game to the Mets appears to have aroused the Boss' ire:
Citi Field granted 2013 Allstar Game only after Wilpons promised not to trade any players mid game to cover expenses. #Mets
— George Steinbrenner (@Ghost_of_Stein) May 15, 2012
• And speaking of ghosts, the legendary 19th-century workhorse, @OldHossRadbourn, is still tweeting away himself, a mere 115 years after his departure from Planet Earth:
I remember when A. Lincoln signed the Revenue Act in 1861, thus empowering the government to set much of the seditious South afire.
— Old Hoss Radbourn (@OldHossRadbourn) May 9, 2012
Late Nighter of the Week
This just in from Jay Leno:
"The judge in the Roger Clemens baseball steroid trial -- he's told both the lawyers, 'Pick up the pace because jurors are getting bored.' Forget the trial. Put this guy in charge of Major League Baseball."
3hAdam Lewis, Special to ESPN.com