The problem with the playoffs

After a rough September, the Yankees stormed into the playoffs nearly a month ago. In three games played over four days, they quickly dispatched the Minnesota Twins to reach the American League Championship Series for the second straight year. And then they sat, sat and sat some more.

In total, the club sat for six days before playing Game 1 of the ALCS, and the Yanks never seemed to click in their series against the Texas Rangers. The pitching wasn’t sharp, and after a long layoff, the bats seemed sluggish as well. While speaking on the air earlier today, Yanks’ owner and Manager General Partner Hal Steinbrenner fingered the long delay as a culprit behind the Yanks’ ALCS loss. “We seemed a little bit cold in that series. I don’t know if it was the long layoff or not,” Hal said, obviously intimating that it was indeed the long layoff.

The problem seems particularly exacerbated when we look at the playoffs on the whole, and the problem starts with the ALDS. When the baseball season ended on Sunday, October 3, teams were granted two days off before the first Division Series games. The LDS slates were designed to take forever in the grand scheme of baseball. Due to built-in travel days, had the Yanks gone to five games, the series would have taken seven calendar days. The Reds and Phillies played only three games, but it took five days for the series to wrap.

The layoff in between the LDS and LCS series is problematic too. Had the Yankees gone to five games, they would have had two days off in between series as the Rangers did. At that point, they would have played five games over nine days since the regular season had ended. Outside of April and the All Star Break, at no point during the season do teams play just five times over nine calendar days.

The break after the LCS and the World Series is nearly as painful. This year, the two League Championship Series finished in six games. The Rangers wrapped their series on a Friday with World Series Game 1 scheduled for the following Wednesday while the Giants had three days off after their Game 6 win. This development too is a relatively new one.

A few weeks ago, I dug up playoff schedules for 1998 and 2003 as a point of comparison, and the changes were apparently from the get-go. The 1998 season ended on Sunday, September 27, and the playoffs started on Tuesday, September 29. The Yanks needed just three games to beat the Rangers in the ALDS that year, but their five-game set was slated for just six calendar days with no day off between Games 4 and 5. The other ALDS series enjoyed the same schedule so that the two would have ended on the same day, and the ALCS was slated to start on Tuesday, October 6 with just one day off between a potential ALDS Game 5 and ALCS Game 1. Game 7 of the ALCS was scheduled for Wednesday, October 14, and the World Series started on Saturday, October 17. Game 7 of the 1998 World Series was scheduled for two days before the start of the 2010 World Series. The 2003 playoff schedule was similarly more condensed.

In essence, even though the Yanks swept their ALDS series in 1998, they had just three days off before the ALCS started. Compare that to this year’s six-game vacation. No wonder the team came out of the gate seemingly playing slowly.

So what went wrong? At some point over the last few years, baseball decided it needed more days off. It needed to make sure that no Division Series game overlapped with another. It needed to maximize prime time playoff exposure while discarding baseball continuity. It had to make us nearly forget in between the ALCS and World Series that baseball was going on.

The sport’s reaction is, of course, the opposite of what you would expect it to be. Instead of proposing to fix a situation where the World Series winners played 15 games over a span of 27 days this year, Bud Selig and Co. want to expand the playoffs. More teams! More rounds! More days off! Coming to a baseball stadium near you in 2012.

The details are sparse, and the MLBPA and Commissioner’s Office will hammer out in agreement when the Collective Bargaining Agreement comes due next year. Selig, though, has his flawed rationale. “We have less teams than any other sport” in the playoffs, he said in September. “We certainly haven’t abused anything.” If the NHL and NBA both allow more than half of their teams to reach the endless dance these leagues call the playoffs, why shouldn’t baseball? Brilliant, indeed.

The answer is a simple one: Baseball should prepare for flexible playoff scheduling while restoring the master schedule to the 2003/1998 model. The league doesn’t need all of these days off in between the end of the season and the playoffs, in between the end of the rounds and the start of the next. At the very least, considering the options are narrowed just by the initial schedule, baseball should be able to determine that, if the ALDS series end early, the ALCS can start earlier. If the two LCS series end early, move up the World Series.

Baseball is meant to be played every day, and for six months, we see our teams take the field day in and day out with off-days few and far between. In the playoffs, the season grinds to a halt. It stretches from early October into early November for only one reason: money. It doesn’t always have to be about the money, and as baseball in October starts to feel fleeting, the herky-jerkiness of the playoffs should give way to a smoother schedule. It would be for the good of the game.

Thanks to Jeff Quagliata, the research manager at the YES Network, for tracking down the old playoff schedules. Find him on Twitter at YEStoResearch.

Banuelos & Heyer combine for six strong innings

Manny Banuelos, Austin Romine, and Brandon Laird were selected to participate in the Arizona Fall League Rising Stars Showcase. It’s an All Star Game, but not based on AzFL performance. It’s the best prospects in the league all in one game. The game will be played this Saturday at 9pm ET and guess what? It’ll be broadcast on MLB Network. Neato.

AzFL Phoenix Desert Dogs (2-2 tie with Surprise in 11 innings) ewww ties … they probably ran out of pitchers
Brandon Laird, DH: 1 for 5, 1 RBI – four for his last 27 (.148)
Jose Pirela, 2B: 1 for 3, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 CS – the walk was intentional
Manny Banuelos: 3 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 6-2 GB/FB – 25 of 40 pitches were strikes (62.5%) … Project Prospect’s Adam Foster tweeted a mini-scouting report
Craig Heyer: 3 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 4-2 GB/FB – same deal as ManBan, 25 strikes in 40 pitches … creepy

Agent calls Yankees a ‘dark horse’ in Iwakuma bidding

Via NPB Tracker, agent Don Nomura called the Yankees a “dark horse” in the bidding for Japanese righty Hisashi Iwakuma. I don’t know about you, but this sounds like a classic case of an agent trying to drive up the price by looping the Yanks into the mix. I posted about Iwakuma yesterday, and we have zero indication that they actually have interest in acquiring him, at least until this report from his agent. The posting process started today, so we should found out a results in the next week or so.

Open Thread: Important Offseason Dates

Now that the 2010 baseball season is officially over, we can all turn our attention to the Hot Stove League. The Yankees figure to be prominent figures this offseason, as always, and their first order of business will be re-signing Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. Cliff Lee is a not-to-distant second … or is that third? Either way, you get the drift.

The baseball offseason is full of important dates for various events, such as arbitration deadlines and the like. Here’s a round-up of this winter’s key dates, with a brief explanation…

  • Nov. 2nd-6th: Period for teams to negotiate exclusively with their own free agents. This used to be 15 days.
  • Nov. 7th: Free agents can now negotiate – and sign – with any team.
  • Nov. 16-17th: GM Meetings in Orlando. There will be rumors, but probably not any major moves.
  • Nov. 17th-18th: Owners Meetings in Orlando. Everyone complains about the Yankees.
  • Nov. 20th: Deadline for teams to set their 40-man roster with regards to the Rule 5 Draft.
  • Nov. 23rd: Last day for teams to offer their free agents arbitration, which they must do to receive draft pick compensation.
  • Nov. 30th: Last day for free agents to accept an arbitration offer.
  • Dec. 2nd: Last day to tender contracts to players with less than six years of service time. Another batch of players will hit free agency as they’re non-tendered.
  • Dec. 6th-9th: Winter Meetings in Lake Buena Vista. All hell breaks loose.
  • Jan. 5th-15th: Period for teams and players to file for arbitration.
  • Jan. 18th: Salary arbitration figures are exchanged.
  • Feb. 1st-21st: Salary arbitration hearings. Everyone likes to avoid these.
  • March 2nd-11th: Contracts of players with less than three years of service time can be renewed at any salary by the team (as long as it’s 80% of his previous year’s salary).
  • March 28th: Deadline to release players with non-guaranteed contracts without having to pay them their full 2011 salary.

I have no idea when the Rule 5 Draft is this year. Usually it’s on the final day of the Winter Meetings, but there’s been talk that’ll be moved up to late-November. That Nov. 20th date for setting the 40-man roster isn’t even set in stone (all of the other ones are, however). You’re also going to see a lot of options picked up and declined this week, those things usually have to be addressed within three days of the end of the World Series (or something like that) per the contracts.

Anyway, you may notice that everything is earlier this offseason than in years past, and that’s by design. MLB and the union want to give players as much time as possible to find jobs, and it’s hard to blame them given the way the market’s played out over the last few years. It’s also good for us, because all of the Hot Stove action starts that much earlier.

* * *

Here’s your open thread for the evening. The Knicks are playing the Magic in the Garden have been postponed because of asbestos at the Garden, so that’s pretty much it for local sports. Now I remember why I hate the offseason. Talk about whatever, just be cool.

Harkey gets ‘serious consideration’ for pitching coach spot

Via Sweeny Murti, bullpen coach Mike Harkey is being given “serious consideration” for the team’s vacant pitching coach position. He’s served as the Yankees’ bullpen coach since 2008, and although he has no full-time experience as a pitching coach in the big leagues (remember he did fill in for a month while Dave Eiland was on personal leave in June), he’s done it at the Triple-A level. Harkey’s familiarity with the staff certainly works in his favor.

Hal talks playoffs, Jeter, payroll, plans

Hal Steinbrenner has vowed to make the 2011 Yankees a World Series-caliber team. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Hal Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ Managing General Partner and co-chairman, took to the airwaves this afternoon and spent around 20 minutes chatting with Michael Kay and then Mike Francesa on New York’s two sports talk radio stations. While keeping the Yanks’ offseason plans close to the vest, Steinbrenner let slip a few choice words on the playoff scheduling, Chuck Greenberg’s recent comments, the clubs’ payroll and the Yanks’ willingness to dip into the free agency pool.

We’ll start with the sexy stuff. Hal opened both interviews with his assessment of the team’s performance in the playoffs. Both times, he blamed the days off in between the end of the ALDS and the start of the ALCS. “We seemed a little bit cold in that series,” Hal said of the ALCS. “I don’t know if it was the long layoff or not.” I’ll have more on the playoff format and the unnecessary days off later tonight, but the Yanks never seemed to click during the ALCS. Having to stop play for six days probably didn’t help.

As a side note, Hal also called the 2010 season “very disappointing.” I don’t find myself too disappointed by a six-game ALCS series even though the Yanks lost. Counting the playoffs, they won 101 games this year, tops among AL teams and just one fewer than the World Series champion Giants. It was disappointing to see them go down against Texas, but this was a fun season.

The Yanks’ co-owner shifted gears after that to talk about Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. “We absolutely want [Jeter] back. We absolutely want Mo back,” he said. Having said that, we’re running a business.” In fact, that’s a point Hal stressed in both radio appearances. The Yanks are a business and with Derek, the Steinbrenners want “a deal both sides are happy with.”

Hal seemed less nostalgic and sympathetic to the idea that Jeter deserves a huge contract than either Kay or Francesa wanted him to be. While noting that Derek is one of the all-time Yankee greats, he warned Kay, “There’s always the possibility that things could get messy.” To Francesa, he elaborated, “I want to get a deal done that he’s happy with but also that I’m happy with.”

In addition to resigning their own players, the Yankees will be active in the free agent market. Without naming specifics, Hal committed to spending the organization’s money. “We are looking at the free agent market as we do every year,” he said. “We certainly have money to spend and we’re going to look into it.” The team’s payroll, Hal said, will likely be on par with 2010’s though. So we shouldn’t expect too many big-ticket purchases if the team adheres to that budget.

Steinbrenner also stressed the team’s strategy. The use the free agent market to complement their youth movement, but they’re always going to spend money. “The fans need to know we’re not putting money in our pockets left and right,” he said. “We put most or all of it back into” the team. He also mentioned that the Legends Suites were sold at rates above 90 percent this year and that the franchise may adjust some ticket prices for 2011.

Finally, Hal talked about Chuck Greenberg’s comments. The Rangers CEO accused Yankee fans of being both violent and apathetic, and the Bombers were prepared to retaliate. These were “inappropriate, ridiculous comments,” Hal said. While the club accepted Greenberg’s apology, Hal was fairly merciless. “Stupid comments…they were inappropriate, “he said. “You need to apologize to our fans.”

At the end of both interviews, Hal said it was there intentions to build up the 2011 Yankees a “World Series-type team.” Whether it be via trade, free agency or both, the Yanks have a busy Hot Stove League ahead of them.

Yankees remove Gaudin & Ring from 40-man roster, add Mesa

Via Marc Carig, the Yankees have outrighted reliever Chad Gaudin and Royce Ring from the 40-man roster. Gaudin elected to become a free agent, and as far as I know Ring didn’t. High-A outfielder Melky Mesa was added to the 40-man, protecting him from this winter’s Rule 5 Draft. I’m not sure he’d be able to stick on a big league team’s 25-man roster all season in 2011, but okay. Gaudin and Ring were both on borrowed time, they were going to be cut one way or other at some point. Yay hot stove news.

Update: Mesa was scheduled to become a minor league free agency, that’s why they added him and the move came so quickly. Makes sense.