Friday November 12th, 2010

Should baseball expand its postseason, and if so, how? The next four weeks will provide commissioner Bud Selig with the information to begin answering those questions.

Baseball general managers are expected to discuss the issue of adding two playoff teams when they hold their annual meetings next week. Three weeks later, during the winter meetings in Orlando, Selig will present the issue to his 14-man committee for on-field matters.

When I asked Selig what has caused the groundswell for expanding the playoffs -- fearing it was about TV ratings and not competition -- he said, "I think it's fair to ask the question, 'Is eight out of 30 enough?' Is that fair? That's the basic question."

Baseball could add two playoff teams and still have a lower percentage of its teams in the playoffs (33 percent) than the NFL, NBA and NHL. But, as with instant replay, the most important question is how?

What scares me is that the managers and GMs who like expanding the playoffs are pushing Selig for two wild-card teams to play a best-of-three series instead of a one-game elimination. It's such a horrible idea that baseball would be better off keeping the current system.

Their argument goes like this: "It's not fair for my season to come down to one game." Selig's counter should go something like this: "Yo, you had 162 games to win your division and you didn't do it."

A play-in series is a terrible idea because it makes the division winners sit around too long -- as many as five or six days -- while second- and possibly third-place teams have the stage to themselves. It's bad for ratings, too; baseball needs more ultimate playoff games (winner-take-all) but not more playoff games that may or may not decide a series.

And the length of the regular season and postseason already are creating a fatigue factor that is undermining the excitement of the World Series. The postseason took 14 days in 1990, 26 days in 2000 and 28 days in 2010. People just don't have the hours and nights to devote to postseason baseball viewing for a month straight, so why ask them to make an even longer investment?

We'll have a better idea of where Selig is headed with this in a month. And if second-place teams complain about having to play a one-game elimination, he should tell them to look at the Chibe Lotte Marines. They finished in third place in Japan's Pacific League (half of the 12 teams in Nippon Pro Baseball make the playoffs). They played a best-of-three series against the second place team and then a best-of-seven series against the first-place team -- all on the road!

The Marines somehow advanced to the Nippon Series, where they played Games 1 and 2 on the road. They wound up playing 10 straight playoff games on the road before they played a home game. And yes, the Marines wound up winning the Nippon Series.

The Athletics made a good decision to trade from their inventory of pitching (Vin Mazzaro) to try to find any offense whatsoever (David DeJesus). But at some point can Oakland actually identify and develop a good-hitting outfielder with some staying power? The Athletics' recent track record for developing, trading for or keeping outfielders is abysmal. DeJesus is just the latest in a long line of what Oakland treats as interchangeable parts. Consider these numbers just in the four seasons since 2007:

• The Athletics have used 43 players in the outfield. Forty-three.

• Only one of Oakland's 43 outfielders over the past four seasons has hit more than 13 home runs: Jack Cust in 2008.

• Only one of Oakland's 43 outfielders over the past four seasons has posted an OPS+ better than 100 with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title: Cust again in 2008.

• Only four of those 43 outfielders even qualified for the batting title: Cust, Shannon Stewart, Ryan Sweeney and Rajai Davis --none were homegrown.

• In the past decade the Athletics have just three 20-home run seasons from homegrown outfielders: Nick Swisher twice and Eric Byrnes once.

• Last year alone Oakland used 16 outfielders, with only Davis playing enough to qualify for the batting title.

DeJesus can leave as a free agent after next season or, as Oakland operates, be flipped during the season for other parts. The feeling is that DeJesus is Conor Jackson, who was Coco Crisp, who was Scott Hairston, who was Matt Murton, who was Mark Kotsay, who was... you get the idea. Why can't the A's find a gem like Carlos Gonzalez or Andre Ethier? Of course, they did, but traded both as young players.

Oakland's home park plays huge, especially at night early and late in the season. There is no doubt that it harms power numbers. And the Athletics have a nice foundation for contending with a strong, young rotation backed by a terrific defensive infield. But at some point the Athletics are going to have to find some consistency and some offense with this never-ending parade of outfielders. Last year Oakland's outfielders posted the worst OPS in the league (.692).

Hey, maybe the Athletics can give their neighbors a call for some help about how to find some offense in the outfield cheaply. Castoffs Pat Burrell, Andres Torres and Cody Ross did OK for the Giants this year.

The Gold Glove Awards are given to the best fielder at each position in each league as determined by major league managers and coaches. And that is why Derek Jeter won another Gold Glove this week. You must understand who is voting on the award and how and why they make their choices, and once you do you understand the respect that people in uniform have for Jeter.

It is not some great travesty that a 36-year-old shortstop with diminishing range won the award. I've seen coaches fill out ballots. They are not poring over advanced fielding metrics. They want guys who they see as reliable. And as one coach told me, Jeter is extremely reliable at every phase of defense -- a sure-handed fielder and accurate thrower who also is excellent at relays, tags, pop-ups, double plays, decision-making and positioning.

Jeter fielded 437 batted balls this year and had only one fielding error. He played 1,303 2/3 innings at shortstop and put only five runners on base with an error. He doesn't take a poor at-bat into the field and doesn't make careless mistakes. Night after night, inning after inning, hit the ball to him and you're out. Those things matter to coaches.

I get all the valid arguments about Jeter's range issues, about how Rush Limbaugh goes to his left better and all that. I thought Elvis Andrus of Texas was the best fielding shortstop. There's no way Jeter wins such an award if writers armed with defensive metrics are voting for it.

But the Gold Glove Award is unlike most awards because of who votes and why. It is a coach's award and Jeter is a coach's player.

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