Commentary

Call it a potential October nightmare

Tiebreakers, weather could wreak havoc on baseball's new postseason schedule

Originally Published: September 7, 2012
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

When Bud Selig and his friends brought you a bold new baseball world with two extra wild cards, this is exactly what they envisioned in their September dreams:

Four weeks left in the season. Fifteen teams within five games of a playoff spot. Drama in the standings just about everywhere you look.

That's the good news. … Now here's the bad news.

What they neglected to warn you about was one pesky little detail: The first week of October has a chance to be a train wreck.

Allow us to present to you just one highly plausible scenario -- and all of its potential ripple effects -- just so you understand what we're dealing with.

Roll your clocks and calendars forward to the final day of the season (Wednesday, Oct. 3). Imagine that the Cardinals and Dodgers are tied for the final NL wild-card spot.

This would be an awesome development. It would also present a logistical nightmare for this sport -- and the people who love it.

The Dodgers are scheduled to host a 4:15 p.m. game (7:15 Eastern time) against the Giants that day. The Cardinals are scheduled to host a 7:15 p.m. game (8:15 ET) against the Reds. We're guessing ESPN would be very interested in televising both of them.

[+] EnlargeBud Selig
Patrick McDermott/Getty ImagesBud Selig may have to wait a few extra days to watch postseason games in October if regular-season tiebreaker games need to be played.

Within the sport, there would be rejoicing on one level, over the anticipation of a final night much like the unforgettable finale of the 2011 season. There would also be many, many blood-pressure pills being popped -- as MLB's ace schedule-makers tried to figure out how to jam even one tiebreaker game into an already overcrowded postseason schedule.

The first problem is that a Dodgers-Cardinals tiebreaker showdown on Thursday could be played in Los Angeles, because the Dodgers lead the season series against St. Louis (4 games to 3).

The second problem is that the Braves have positioned themselves to win the No. 1 wild-card slot, meaning they would be in line to host the NL wild-card game that Friday, if they can hang on to that spot.

Now last time we checked, L.A. and Atlanta were located about 2,200 miles -- and several time zones -- apart. And powerful as Bud Selig might be, we're pretty sure there isn't much he can do about fixing that in the next few weeks. Too bad.

So let's just say the Cardinals and Dodgers do indeed finish tied for that second wild-card spot. And let's just say the Cardinals beat the Dodgers in the tiebreaker game to nail down that spot.

Under the current schedule, the Cardinals would theoretically have to play Wednesday night in St. Louis, Thursday night in Los Angeles and Friday sometime-or-other in Atlanta. Well, guess what? That ain't happening.

"Under no circumstances," said one source familiar with these schedule issues, would MLB force the Cardinals to play Wednesday night in St. Louis, then fly to L.A. and get in at 3 or 4 a.m. on Thursday, play a game that night, then jump on another flight to Atlanta, arrive there at 7 or 8 next morning and play the wild-card game that night.

Why not, you ask? Well, for one thing, it's inhumane. For another, MLB and the players' union negotiated rules against madness like this into their March agreement to expand the postseason for this year.

So what would baseball's options be? None of them are good.

They could consider moving up Wednesday's games to noon or 1 p.m. local time. But we have a hunch that ESPN -- not to mention all the affected fans in both cities -- wouldn't be too thrilled about that.

So what is more likely is that the NL wild-card game would get pushed back a day, from that Friday to Saturday. But hang on. That creates another mess.

That's because the NL Division Series involving that wild-card team is supposed to start Sunday. And the winner of the wild-card game gets to host Games 1 and 2. In other words, the Nationals or Reds would find themselves sitting around Saturday, watching that wild-card game, not even sure where they'd be playing the next day.

This very well might be the wildest October in baseball history. But it won't be the prettiest.

Get the picture?

But it's not as if these are the only teams that could be affected. Of the 15 games on the final day of the regular season, eight are scheduled to be day games. But among the teams scheduled to play at night are all these clubs mixed up in close races: the Yankees, Orioles, Rays, Tigers, White Sox and Cardinals -- plus the Dodgers and Giants, who would be playing in the late afternoon in California but in the same time slot as most of those night games back east.

So imagine the chaos if there are other ties to be broken the next day. Or three-way ties. Or weather issues. Hoo boy.

And now keep in mind that the new postseason format was already so jammed into a calendar that wasn't designed to accommodate it (for this year, anyway) that all four of the division series this October will have only one travel day instead of two.

So is it possible that, if there's a three-way tie, a team could have to play five games in five days in five different cities? We're afraid it is. Not likely, but it is.

Is it possible, given the right (or wrong) combination of circumstances, that a team might have to play anywhere from five to seven days in a row in October, with no off days at all? We're afraid it is. Also not likely, but it is.

And here's the other complication fans of this sport had better be prepared for:

We've all grown accustomed to watching most of the biggest, most compelling games of October in prime time. Don't bet on that this year.

The agreement between MLB and the players, according to sources familiar with it, promises that if a team has to play games on back-to-back days in different cities, there will be at least 27 hours between games -- and, ideally, more than that.

So what does that mean?

It means that if there's a tiebreaker game on that Thursday on the West Coast, that game might have to start at 10 or 11 p.m., Eastern time. Sorry.

It means that if there's a tiebreaker game on that Thursday on the East Coast, the winner could have to play the next day on the West Coast, and that game might have to start at 1 p.m. Eastern time -- even if it involves (gasp) the Yankees. Sorry.

It means there could be days, right through the division series, in which there are no games in prime time, because games have to be scheduled in the afternoon or at 11 p.m. Eastern time. Sorry.

It means that even Game 5 of one of the AL Division Series might have to be played in the afternoon -- because Game 1 of the ALCS is scheduled for the next day, and one team or both would have to scramble to get there. Sorry.

"There's the potential for real turmoil," said one source. "And unfortunately, it's possible that turmoil could affect the outcome of a game or a series."

Within the sport, everyone on both sides was warned about that possible turmoil -- and decided to plow ahead with these expanded playoffs anyway. And it was Bud Selig himself who led that charge.

So the commish deserves much of the credit for the potentially riveting finish that appears to be in store for this sport. But nobody has warned the fans about the insanity that ties and/or raindrops could inflict on the first few days of October.

Well, here at World Rumblings and Grumblings Headquarters, we've volunteered for that gig. Our advice is: Just be ready -- for pretty much anything and everything. This very well might be the wildest October in baseball history. But it won't be the prettiest.

And don't say we didn't warn you -- because we just did.

Ready to Rumble

• We've had lots of questions from readers and Twitter followers about how a three-way tie would be decided this October. Well, you won't be shocked to hear it'll be just as crazy as some of the scenarios we've already outlined. But exactly how crazy? Here goes:

Let's say the Yankees, Rays and Orioles all finish with the same record. Their first order of business would be to decide the AL East champ. That would take two days.

If nothing significant changes in the next few weeks, the Rays (who have the best head-to-head record against the other two teams) would get to decide whether they want to play two home games to break that tie or let the other two teams play and face the winner on the road.

Once the division is decided, if the AL East "losers" were tied for the second wild-card spot, they would have to play again to break that tie. So it's possible the Orioles, for instance, might have to play Wednesday in Tampa Bay, Thursday in New York, Friday in Baltimore, Saturday in Oakland/Detroit/Anaheim/Chicago and (depending on game times and logistics) Sunday in Baltimore. Some fun!

• So how will baseball fix these postseason scheduling snafus next year? By adjusting the regular-season schedule, of course, to allow more wiggle room and travel days next October. That wasn't possible this year, since MLB didn't agree to expand the postseason until both the regular-season schedule and LCS/World Series dates were already etched in concrete.

The 2013 postseason schedule hasn't been drawn up yet. But with the regular season now set to end on a Sunday (Sept. 29), it's likely that the early portion of the postseason will look like this:

      Monday (Sept. 30) -- tiebreaker game or games
      Tuesday (Oct. 1) -- tiebreaker game or games
      Wednesday (Oct. 2) -- wild-card Game No. 1
      Thursday (Oct. 3) -- wild-card Game No. 2
      Friday (Oct. 4) -- LDS Nos. 1 & 2 begin
      Saturday (Oct. 5) -- LDS Nos. 3 & 4 begin

That schedule would allow two days for tiebreakers in one league and three days in the other, would bring back two travel days during the division series and would still get the World Series over with before November. Tentative final date of next year's World Series Game 7: Thursday, Oct. 31.

• One more note on the schedule: We're starting to see reports of what teams' regular-season schedules will look like next season. But sources tell Rumblings that at least two variations of the 2013 schedule were rejected and sent back to the schedule wizards for adjustments. Those issues have now been largely addressed. So it's expected that the official schedule will be released in the next week.

The new schedule will work like this for each team:

      20 interleague games
      76 division games (19 versus each opponent)
      66 games (against the other 10 opponents in a club's league)

Finally, each team in a division will play all of the same opponents, except for four interleague "rivalry" games. The only glitch is that teams won't play exactly the same number of games against each opponent. (A club in the AL Central, for instance, would play three games apiece against four NL East teams, and four games against a fifth.) But that was the only way to make the rest of the schedule pieces fit together.

Yankees

• As the Yankees stagger toward the finish line, it isn't only the AL East that's hanging in the balance. It's also the financial future of three of their biggest names -- Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher.

Cano is a Scott Boras client who is a year away from free agency and dreaming those $200 million contract dreams. Granderson, who is also a year away, and Swisher, who hits the market after this season, have been rumored to be looking for nine-figure deals themselves.

So who's worth the big bucks? We asked execs of three teams to weigh in:

Cano: The one AL exec we surveyed had reservations, suggesting now would be a good time for Cano to prove he's a $200 million man. But the two NL execs we spoke to had no reservations. "One of the best players in the American League. Pay him what he's worth," said one. "He's an elite player," said the other. "If those guys are going to get $200 million, he should, too."

Granderson: He has hit just .194/.258/.394 (BA/OBP/SLG), with 59 strikeouts and 31 hits, since the Yankees' free fall began on July 19. And he's now down to .233/.324/.476 for the season. So much as everyone praised Granderson's character and professionalism, no one endorsed handing him a huge deal.

"He's not as good a player as you think he is," said an NL exec. "He hits home runs. Other than that, he's not that good. He makes a lot of mistakes on the bases and in the field. And he chases a lot of pitches out of the zone. He plays hard. So you'd want him on your club in the right [role]. But to put $100 million in his hands and expect him to hit in the middle of your order, I don't see that at all."

Swisher: He'll be a popular commodity in a market without many corner-outfield options -- but not at the rumored Jayson Werth money (seven years, $126 million). The AL exec saw Swisher more as a three-year, $35-40 million kind of guy. And the NL execs weren't much higher. "I like him," said one. "I'd love to have him. But at Jayson Werth money? That ain't gonna happen." The other NL exec's review: "It's these gray-area guys we waste money on. I'd rather give a Cano $200 million than give a guy like Swisher $100 million. At least with Cano, you know you'll get production. Nothing against Nick Swisher. But he's certainly not going to exceed what he's already done."

Nationals

• The heck with Stephen Strasburg. The Nationals have another momentous decision to make in the next few weeks. Within 72 hours after the World Series ends, they have to decide whether to pick up their $10 million 2013 option on the man who has led their team in home runs and OPS, Adam LaRoche. It's a mutual option, so LaRoche could then opt out. But for the club, it's a tricky call.

According to an official of one team that spoke with the Nationals, they've kicked around the idea of hanging on to LaRoche and keeping Bryce Harper in center, or signing Michael Bourn this winter, shifting Harper to a corner and trading Michael Morse. Or they could let LaRoche walk, move Morse to first and play Harper in left or right.

Remember, the best prospect in their system, Anthony Rendon, is a third baseman. So they might only need to fill first base for a year until Rendon is ready, whereupon they'd be likely to move Ryan Zimmerman to first. If that's the plan, keeping LaRoche for one more season isn't as crazy an idea as it might have seemed last winter, when the Nationals were chasing Prince Fielder.

Phillies

• The Phillies continue to scour the planet for third-base and left-field options for next year. Their Chase Utley experiment (which might lead to Utley getting a start or two at third base eventually) tells you all you need to know about how concerned they are about the lack of possibilities at third. And they are expected to call up the man who led the minor leagues in homers, converted first baseman Darin Ruf, for a late-season look in left field.

Ruf just turned 26, had never shown up on any top-prospects radar screens and had never hit 20 homers before this season. But he mashed 38 in Double-A and inspired one scout to say: "He might be Matt Holliday. … I saw him eight or nine games. And I saw him hit everything. I saw him take a 97 mile-an-hour heater from Zack Wheeler off the wall for a double. I saw him hit a changeup for a home run. I saw him barrel up junkballers, guys who throw hard and everything in between. And defensively, I actually thought he was better in the outfield than he was at first base. He's an interesting guy."

• Sometimes, the most important work that's done in any organization happens below the surface of the big league earth. And two places where that has happened are Baltimore and Pittsburgh, where minor league pitching gurus Rick Peterson and Jim Benedict have been working their magic.

Peterson, the former A's and Mets pitching coach, was hired by Dan Duquette to work with the Orioles' young pitchers. And he has done remarkable work in resuscitating the careers (and deliveries) of guys such as Chris Tillman: "He's done a tremendous job with that kid," said one scout who covers their system. "He did a biomechanical analysis of his delivery, showed him every area of weakness, and the kid bought in and fixed it. Now, he's throwing 96 [mph] again, with a slider and a changeup. And the first time I saw him, I said, 'I haven't seen this in four years.'"

Meanwhile, Benedict, the man who turned Charlie Morton into Roy Halladay Jr. last year, has helped the well-traveled Rick van den Hurk undergo a "Charlie Morton-esque" transformation this year, according to another scout. Van den Hurk is 13-5, with a 2.92 ERA and a 113-to-35 strikeout-to-walk ratio, in Triple-A, and now appears to figure in the Pirates' rotation plans for next year. "He used to be straight over the top, with an average curveball," the same scout said. "Now he's got a three-quarters slot, with a little turn in his delivery. He's throwing a slider instead of a curve. He's throwing 93 to 96 [mph], and it's nasty. And that's all Jim Benedict."

No one ever recognizes the important work that's being done by men like this. And here at Rumblings, we're as guilty of that as anyone else. But not this week!

Roger Clemens
Clemens

• Finally, despite Roger Clemens' latest protestations that "I don't see [a return to the big leagues] happening," an old friend of Clemens laughed uproariously this week when we read him that quote.

"Not buying it," he said. "Not a lick. That's just Roger trying to temper expectations. I'll still bet he tees it up." And by that, he meant: In Houston. This month. Stay tuned.

Tweets of the Week

The true test of a baseball player's arrival as an official Famous Person isn't the first All-Star team he makes or first big award he wins. It's when he's a rising legend like Mike Trout, and he gets his very own "Mike Trout Facts" Twitter account. Well, it's happened. He's arrived. So check out this sampling of Mike Trout Facts you won't find anywhere else:

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com