Down the stretch they come

  • Jayson Stark [ARCHIVE]
  • ESPN.com | August 17, 2012

What lies ahead is another fabulous baseball stretch drive. And that's always a beautiful thing.

But what lies ahead is also a stretch drive unlike any other we've ever witnessed. You realize that, right?

Adding a second wild-card team in each league -- and a mere one postseason game per league -- might not seem like a revolutionary change. Not on the surface at least.

But the ripple effects of just this one new wrinkle have already begun rattling through the sport (via a trading deadline at which there was an all-time shortage of sellers). And those ripple effects are about to get even more visible and dramatic over the final 40 games of this season.

And we're not just talking about the fact that this change keeps more teams alive deeper into September, either.

We're talking about the newfound importance of finishing first under this system.

And the pressure teams will face to get their pitching lined up for that wild-card survival game.

We're talking, too, about the issues that could be raised by the increased likelihood that multiple teams will have to play tiebreaker games the day after the season.

And the shadow that will be cast by an overstuffed October schedule that could wreak havoc on travel, pitching staffs and the ultimate outcome of a potentially crazy postseason.

Hey, that's all. Other than that, it ought to be just another nice, normal, run-of-the-mill stretch drive. So let's take a look at the many storylines that are about to swirl:

Postseason odds

Somebody has to calculate the chances that miracles can happen. Fortunately, our friends at coolstandings.com have played out the last seven weeks of the season a million times. (Better them than us.) And they tell us the most likely playoff matchups look like this:

American League:

     • Wild-card game: Tigers at Rays

     • Division Series: Wild card vs. Yankees (No. 1 seed), White Sox (No. 3) vs. Rangers (No. 2)

     • Wild-card odds: Rays (50.6 percent wild card/60.1 percent of making playoffs), Tigers (30.5/59.2 percent), Athletics (31.8/43.9 percent), Angels (22.1/28.0 percent), Orioles (19.7/21.6 percent), Red Sox (6.2/6.7 percent).

     • First-place team most likely to wind up in the wild-card scramble: White Sox.

National League:

     • Wild-card game: Cardinals at Braves

     • Division Series: Wild card vs. Nationals (No. 1 seed), Dodgers (No. 3) vs. Reds (No. 2)

     • Wild-card odds: Braves (62.7 percent wild card/93.7 percent of making playoffs), Cardinals (46.9/58.0 percent), Pirates (34.2/40.9 percent), Giants (4.7/47.9 percent), Diamondbacks (2.5/16.0 percent).

     • First-place team most likely to wind up in the wild-card scramble: Dodgers

What it will take

Coolstandings estimates it will take 90 wins for a team to qualify as the second wild card in the National League, but only 86 in the American League. So here are the records the clubs deemed to have at least a 5 percent chance would need to rack up the rest of the way:

American League:

     • Orioles: 22-22
     • Rays: 22-22
     • Tigers: 23-21
     • Athletics: 24-21
     • Angels: 24-19
     • Red Sox: 25-15

National League:

     • Braves: 22-22
     • Cardinals: 26-18
     • Pirates: 25-19
     • Giants 26-18
     • Diamondbacks: 31-13

One thing we know about projections is that they come with no money-back guarantees. But it's interesting to note that, while it seems implausible now that the Red Sox could climb over all those teams, you know what the Cardinals' record was last year in their final 40 games? An identical 25-15. So, ya never know.

The pressure to win

Too many times in too many Septembers the past few years we've seen playoff-bound teams, heading for the finish line, that didn't even care if they finished first. And why would they?

Under the old rules, the only penalty a wild-card team faced in October was playing one fewer home game in each of the first two rounds. And that was such a big deal that four of the past 10 World Series winners were wild-card teams. So whoop-de-do.

Chipper Jones
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesChipper Jones, who homered twice on Thursday night against the Padres, aims for his 12th and final postseason appearance.

But those days are done, friends. Winning matters again -- more than it has at any time in the wild-card era. And you don't even have to take our word for it. Just listen to Chipper Jones:

"I'm not a big advocate of playing 162 games for a one-game playoff," Jones told Rumblings. "You could easily see two teams in the same division have the two best records in the league, and one of them has the luxury of waiting a couple of days to play a best-three-out-of-five [series], while the other one has that one-game playoff. And I don't see that as fair.

"It's basically a Game 7, right off the gut," Jones went on. "It's win or go home -- and three other teams [in that league] get to sit back and watch it. So that's why, at least for the guys in this clubhouse, we're putting the utmost emphasis on every game from here on out. For us, these are must-win games the rest of the way, because we don't want to put all our eggs in one basket, for that one game."

If every team plays it that way, just imagine the drama of this season's final weeks. And while you're at it, imagine the pressure managers will face in trying to figure out the best way to line up their pitching in that final week.

If you're say, Jim Leyland, and the Tigers are a game up on the White Sox on the last day of the season but know they'll be a wild-card team if they lose the division, would you pitch Justin Verlander in that final game to go for first place? Or would you save him in case you need him for a tiebreaker game or a wild-card game? Let the second-guess-a-thon begin!

The madness over the horizon

But as you contemplate your second-guesses, remember, too, that the craziness won't be confined just to the last week of the regular season.

The October calendar is going to be jammed with pressure-packed games before teams ever get to the League Championship Series. And one reason is that there's a greater chance of tiebreaker games this October than ever before -- because virtually all ties now will be decided on the field.

So here's a scenario that's far from out of the question: Say the Dodgers and Giants tie for first in the NL West -- and also tie the Cardinals for the second wild-card spot. You could see a situation in which the Giants would finish the regular season Wednesday (Oct. 3) in Los Angeles, play an NL West tiebreaker game the next day in San Francisco, fly to St. Louis for a wild-card tiebreaker Friday, fly to Atlanta for the wild-card survivor game Saturday, then head back to San Francisco to start the division series on Sunday.

"Oh my god," said an executive of one contender when we laid out that potential travel nightmare. "That's crazy."

Ah, but it's not out of the question, either. And also keep in mind there is now only one travel day built into the division series instead of two -- and no off day between Game 5 of one of the AL Division Series and Game 1 of the AL Championship Series, even though the site of that Game 1 depends on the outcome of Game 5. So what happens if it rains? Don't ask. Please.

Not all wild cards are created equal

Just for perspective's sake, we should point out that not every team would look at getting "stuck" with playing a win-or-go-fishing wild-card game as its worst nightmare. For some teams, in fact, even losing that game would feel like a trip to the World Series.

"There are two teams," said one NL exec, "that place the most importance on playing that one game. And that's the Pirates and the Orioles, just because of what it would mean, going into next season, for ticket sales and the psyche of those cities.

"For a team like Detroit, just to play that one game would be a disaster. For the Angels, for Texas, it's a disaster, because they're out to win it all. But for two teams that could get there and reflect back and say, 'We really had a good year, and there's a lot to be enthused about for next year,' we're talking about the Pirates and the Orioles. Even if they lose that game, nobody in those cities would be complaining."

The rankings

Finally, it's time to ask the question: Who's best built for the wild-card game?

It's a variation on a question we ask every year at this time -- the old "which team is best constructed for October" debate. But when you're looking at a scenario in which one of these wild-card teams is going to have to win a one-or-done postseason game just to survive to play in the LDS, it's an especially fascinating question this year.

So we asked a group of executives and scouts to help us rank all the wild-card contenders (plus the first-place teams with the slimmest leads) in terms of how they would line up for that Survivor Game. Now here are those rankings:

American League:

Tigers

1. Tigers: "Just because of Verlander," said one scout. "He's what you're always looking for to pitch a game like that. Programmed for domination."

Angels

2. Angels: "If they're going to throw [Jered] Weaver in that game," said the same scout, "somebody's going to be in for a hell of a challenge."

Rays

3. Rays: "Two words: 'David Price,'" said one scout. "But even if they get in a bind where he can't pitch, they're still dangerous. So much pitching depth."

White Sox

4. White Sox: Would they pitch Jake Peavy or Chris Sale? Folks we surveyed were split. But one scout nominated Peavy: "Veteran presence. Really competes. Not a dominating guy anymore. Just wears you down."

Athletics

5. Athletics: "Not sure who they'd pitch," said one NL exec. "Maybe [Bartolo] Colon. Maybe [Brandon] McCarthy. They have great pitching, but I'm not sure they have that one dominating guy."

Red Sox

6. Red Sox: "If they had to pick one starter for a game like that," said the same exec, "right now it would have to be Clay Buchholz. And four months ago, you never would have guessed that."

Orioles

7. Orioles: "At this point," said the same exec, "they'd really only have one option -- [Wei-Yin] Chen. He's the guy who'd give them the best chance to win. But it's tough to rank them above those other teams."

National League:

Giants

1. Giants: Their hold on this spot got shakier after the Melky Cabrera suspension. But no NL team has more good rotation options than the Giants, with Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong all having great years. "I'm not sure they'll be able to set up their pitching for that game," said one GM. "But it would be interesting to see how they'd do it if they could."

Dodgers

2. Dodgers: Anybody want to face Clayton Kershaw in a one-game playoff? Didn't think so. "If you had to beat Kershaw and then Kenley Jansen at the end of the game," said one NL exec, "that would be tough sledding."

Cardinals

3. Cardinals: They could run Kyle Lohse (better WHIP than Stephen Strasburg) or Adam Wainwright (4-0, 2.04 ERA in his past five starts) at you, along with the league's deepest lineup. "If you asked me to sit here today and say which so-called 'long shot' can win the World Series, I'd say St. Louis," said one NL GM.

Braves

4. Braves: Maybe they lack that classic big-game dominator. "But they could throw Tim Hudson at you for five or six innings," said another GM, "and then kill you with that bullpen at the end."

Diamondbacks

5. Diamondbacks: "A lot depends on how [Ian] Kennedy is pitching and on Justin Upton," said one NL exec. "If he ever gets hot, he changes their team dramatically."

Pirates

6. Pirates: "I hate to say this," said one scout, "but I'm counting out Pittsburgh. They just don't have enough pitching."


Ready to Rumble

Giants Athletics

• For about the 78th consecutive meeting of baseball's problem-solving owners, there was no resolution this week of the A's-Giants standoff. But if it wasn't clear before now, it's more obvious than ever that, in the words of one baseball official, that moving the A's to San Jose is, most likely, "never going to happen."

One sports attorney who has looked into this told Rumblings that the Giants have "a hell of a case" -- centered around a document signed by the commissioner defining their territorial rights to include San Jose. And that's critical, because any move by the A's, or by the sport, to ignore or override those territorial rights could open a messy can of larvae for baseball.

How? Well, if the Giants' territorial rights were suddenly deemed to no longer apply, it could set a precedent that might inspire some other team to attempt to move to New York or Southern California, by arguing the territorial rights of the Yankees, Mets, Dodgers and Angels were no longer valid, either.

So if the A's aren't bound for San Jose, what is likely to happen to them? Behind the scenes, baseball people are predicting they'll eventually have to give up on this battle and settle for a new, Pittsburgh-size park in Oakland -- and then do their best to beat up on the Giants in interleague play.

• Another item that wasn't on the agenda at this owners meeting was this not-so-hot topic: Who's the next commissioner?

Bud Selig
Selig

We've often said we expect Bud Selig to be commissioner for life -- if not commissioner beyond life. But not everyone in the sport is so sure anymore.

"I'll tell you what got my attention," said an official of one club. "Bud had a chance to take a five-year extension this time around and didn't take it. And that tells me, this time, when he says he's going to retire, he means it."

So who are some of the names being batted around, just in case Selig ever does step down in three more years -- or 50? A few we've heard: Tigers president David Dombrowski, Diamondbacks president Derrick Hall, Red Sox chairman Tom Werner and baseball's executive vice president for labor relations and human affairs, Rob Manfred.

But it's also possible the sport could look beyond its own population and pursue a business visionary to be named later. Then again, it's also possible Bud will still be in charge six centuries from now. So never mind.

Dodgers

Jimmy Rollins
Rollins

• The Phillies had no trouble ballyhooing Jimmy Rollins' recent ascent to No. 3 (behind only Mike Schmidt and Richie Ashburn) on their all-time games-played list. But he almost never got there.

Executives of multiple clubs that spoke to the Phillies before the trading deadline told Rumblings the club shopped Rollins extensively to West Coast teams last month. And one exec said he heard the Phillies and Dodgers kicked around a Rollins-for-Dee Gordon swap at one point. But Rollins' contract ($11 million in each of the next two years, plus an easily vested option for 2015) and Gordon's torn thumb ligament apparently did in those talks.

Phillies

• Speaking of the Phillies, by our calculations, they subtracted more 2012 payroll dollars (north of $8 million) in the past three weeks -- by dealing away Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence and Joe Blanton -- than any other club in baseball.

The next-largest subtractors? The Marlins, who dumped slightly less than $8 million by moving Hanley Ramirez, Omar Infante, Anibal Sanchez, Gaby Sanchez, Randy Choate and Edward Mujica.

Surprisingly, the Astros were able to lop just $2 million off this year's payroll despite trading players whose 2012 salaries totaled approximately $48 million, because they sent so much cash along in those trades.

But, on the other hand, the Stros left themselves with exactly one current player (Chris Snyder) who has guaranteed money ($500,000) coming beyond this year. And, in an even more amazing development, they have only three current players on their entire team making more than $1 million (Francisco Cordero, Ben Francisco and Jed Lowrie). The Yankees have 20!

Giants

Giants

• Elsewhere on this site, Dan Szymborski writes that the Melky Cabrera suspension reduced the Giants' probability of winning the NL West from 53 percent to 43 percent. But their schedule is so much easier than the Dodgers' the rest of the way, the Giants might still be the favorites.

The Dodgers and Giants play each other nine times. Other than that, the Giants have only one series (four games against Atlanta) left versus a team that currently has a winning record -- but play 22 games against the four clubs with the most losses in the league (Astros, Cubs, Padres, Rockies).

The Dodgers still have to play the Braves, Cardinals, Nationals and Reds (plus the Giants) – and have only 12 games left against the four losingest teams.

Padres

• The Padres never got offered enough before the deadline to trade Chase Headley. And, surprisingly, they're telling teams these days that they might not trade him this winter, either, now that (a) they finally have new owners and (b) Headley's heir apparent at third base, Jedd Gyorko, has played enough second base this year in the minor leagues to convince them he can be a viable Dan Uggla-esque option there in the big leagues.

Chris Carpenter
Carpenter

• It isn't often you see a player who's out for the year traveling with his team. But Chris Carpenter joined the Cardinals on their last road trip. And the reason, he said, was because "they asked me to." They asked him, said GM John Mozeliak, because he's a leader on a team that values leadership and because "he's very competitive, he's very interested in the game of baseball and he can add insights to the game that the average player can't see."

Carpenter's future is still murky following surgery to address thoracic outlet syndrome, a nerve issue in his shoulder that caused him to lose feeling in his arm, face and neck. But he told Rumblings: "I hope to start throwing before the end of the season. I think the only way to be fair to myself, fair to the organization and fair to everyone involved is for all of us to know, going into the winter, whether they can count on me for next year."

And Carpenter is convinced he'll be able to tell, if he's able to throw off a mound even at half-speed, if that's possible: "Once I get up there, I think I'll know if I can or not," he said. "The way it was responding before, with the numbness, I didn't have to throw 100 percent to know if it was going to go numb or tingle. I would think that's still the case. And I think if I can find that answer, that's a good thing. And it's better to find that answer now than wonder about it all winter."

• Finally, even officials of other clubs find themselves talking nonstop about Stephen Strasburg and his approaching Shutdown Day. And one of those officials posed this question recently: Why doesn't baseball do more to help teams with momentous decisions like this?

"If I were sitting in Major League Baseball's seat, I'd be doing everything I could to help the Nationals make as good and as informed a decision as they can," the official said. "I'd be loading them with stats, saying, 'Here are all the studies. Now you make an informed decision. But at least you have the information. Once you have it, you can do it any way you want.'

"It just kind of boggles my mind that that isn't happening. I mean, Stephen Strasburg has to be a huge moneymaker for Major League Baseball and the Nationals, right? So baseball should want the Nationals to get to the playoffs and for him to pitch in the playoffs. Isn't that what Bud Selig is all about? So if that's the case, why wouldn't you do all you can to help them make this decision?"

Excellent question. Don't you think?

Tweets of the Week

• From Gar Ryness, the always hilarious Batting Stance Guy (@BattingStanceG):

• And no one got more caught up in the moment following King Felix Hernandez's perfect game than those noted goofballs at @SportsPickle:

Headliner of the Week

Finally, this just in from America's foremost parody site, The Onion:

"RETIRED BOBBY COX EJECTED FROM ATLANTA CRACKER BARREL FOR RECORD 27TH TIME"

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