When baseball commissioner Bud Selig named a 14-person "special committee for on-field matters" four months ago, he promised that all topics would be in play and "there are no sacred cows." The committee already has made good on Selig's promise by discussing a radical form of "floating" realignment in which teams would not be fixed to a division, but free to change divisions from year-to-year based on geography, payroll and their plans to contend or not.
The concept gained strong support among committee members, many of whom believe there are non-economic avenues that should be explored to improve competitive balance, similar to the NFL's former use of scheduling to help parity (in which weaker teams were awarded a weaker schedule the next season).
As with most issues of competitive balance, floating realignment involves finding a work-around to the Boston-New York axis of power in the AL East. In the 15 seasons during which the wild-card system has been in use, the Red Sox and Yankees have accounted for 38 percent of all AL postseason berths. The league has never conducted playoffs without the Red Sox or Yankees since that format began -- and in eight of those 15 years both teams made the playoffs. Since 2003 the Sox and Yankees have won at least 95 games 11 times in 14 combined seasons.
One example of floating realignment, according to one insider, would work this way: Cleveland, which is rebuilding with a reduced payroll, could opt to leave the AL Central to play in the AL East. The Indians would benefit from an unbalanced schedule that would give them a total of 18 lucrative home dates against the Yankees and Red Sox instead of their current eight. A small or mid-market contender, such as Tampa Bay or Baltimore, could move to the AL Central to get a better crack at postseason play instead of continually fighting against the mega-payrolls of New York and Boston.
Divisions still would loosely follow geographic lines; no team would join a division more than two time zones outside its own, largely to protect local television rights (i.e., start times of games) and travel costs.
Floating realignment also could mean changing the number of teams in a division, teams changing leagues and interleague games throughout the season, according to several sources familiar with the committee's discussions. It is important to remember that the committee's talks are very preliminary and non-binding.
"But if there is something that comes up we feel should be addressed during the season, we can make a recommendation then," said committee co-chair and Braves president John Schuerholz, referring to less complicated issues such as pace-of-game directives. "This is all about any ideas that help make the game better."
The floating realignment idea is nothing more than a concept at this point, part of the brainstorming sessions that have occurred in the committee's one in-person meeting and occasional conference calls. (Selig is pushing for another in-person meeting, such as at the All-Star Game. The committee includes current managers and executives, making in-person meetings logistically difficult.) The mechanics of the system are far from nailed down. But what is important is that the committee is making good on its mission to look at absolutely any on-field idea that could make the game better. Blowing up fixed divisions as we know them -- and even leagues -- certainly qualifies as radical thinking.
• The only thing louder than the buzz surrounding Braves outfield prospect Jason Heyward is the sound of the ball coming off his bat. The buzz is reminiscent of the noise for Albert Pujols in 2001 and Ken Griffey Jr. in 1989, when Pujols, then 21, and Griffey, then 19, simply were too good for their clubs to send them back to the minors. Heyward, 20, is that good.
The kid hit his first spring homer on Monday, but you had to be there to understand how impressive it was. Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer jumped ahead of Heyward with two called strikes, but then Heyward did not bite on three pitches (one fastball, two breaking balls), two of which were borderline pitches. On the sixth pitch Heyward swung, and launched a tremendous drive off the metal roof of a batting tunnel well beyond the right field wall, after which the ball bounced over the other side of the structure. "And the legend grows," said Braves pitcher Tim Hudson, shaking his head. Heyward has come to bat 18 times this spring and reached base 10 times, with five hits and five walks.
• Baseball has a chance for a tremendous period of growth because it is blessed with a class of very young, talented players who have the potential to be great, not just good, and to represent the game well. The gold mine includes Heyward, 20; Madison Bumgarner, 20; Justin Upton, 21; Clayton Kershaw, 21; Rick Porcello, 21; Stephen Strasburg, 22; and Aroldis Chapman, 22 -- and that's not forgetting Felix Hernandez, 23; Tommy Hanson, 23; Matt Wieters, 23; Evan Longoria, 24; Troy Tulowitzki, 25; Prince Fielder, 25; Tim Lincecum, 25; and Joe Mauer, 26.
It reminds me of 1993, when Manny Ramirez, Chipper Jones, Pedro Martinez, Juan Gonzalez, Griffey, Frank Thomas and Mike Piazza all were between ages 21 and 24 and just starting to make an impact.
•In the 2007 draft, the Toronto Blue Jays already had filled out their card to take catcher Travis D'Arnaud with the 38th overall pick -- only 17 picks after drafting another catcher, J.P. Arencibia. But Philadelphia, with the 37th pick, took D'Arnaud, and Toronto drafted pitcher Brett Cecil instead. The Blue Jays wound up getting D'Arnaud two years later -- in the Roy Halladay deal.
Toronto, by the way, is thrilled with Kyle Drabek, the key piece back in that trade. Drabek, wearing number 4, has come as advertised: He has shown a wipeout curveball, mid-90s fastball and trademark competitiveness. He won't make the Opening Day rotation, but he is not far off.
• The Cubs already have a manager-in-waiting if Lou Piniella does not come back in 2011 on a new contract, according to one executive familiar with the club's thinking. It's Ryne Sandberg, their Triple-A manager and the darling of new Cubs ownership. Only eight men have managed a major league team after being inducted into the Hall of Fame as a player: Frankie Frisch, Rogers Hornsby, Ted Williams, Yogi Berra, Bob Lemon, Red Schoendienst, Tony Perez and Frank Robinson.
• Blue Jays center fielder Vernon Wells already can tell the difference in his surgically repaired left wrist. "Cured my slice," he said jokingly. As for his baseball swing, Wells said his wrist feels normal for the first time since he injured ligaments in it back in May of 2008.