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MLB Schedules And/Or Rosters Are Likely Going To Change In 2017

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The Cubs' 4:05 game Monday is an early indication of changes in the way games are scheduled.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

During spring training, I posted this article noting the following Cubs game-time change:

Monday, May 30, which is Memorial Day, the Cubs are slated to face the Dodgers at Wrigley. This game shows as a 1:20 start on original schedules. Now, it will begin at 4:05 p.m. CT.

In that article, I noted that the likely reason for the change was that ESPN wanted the game for part of its all-day holiday game coverage. But that turns out not to be the case: ESPN is carrying Mets/White Sox and Twins/Athletics Monday, not the Cubs game.

However, ESPN is in part responsible for the game-time change. The Dodgers are playing in the ESPN Sunday Night game this coming Sunday, May 29, against the Mets in New York. And someone -- whether it's MLB, or the Dodgers, or both -- apparently didn't want the Dodgers forced to play a night game in New York on Sunday and then a 1:20 game in Chicago on Monday. This is a perfectly reasonable position. I'm guessing the Cubs didn't want to play Memorial Day at night (or they didn't want to swap another night-game date), so the 4:05 time appears to be some sort of compromise. It will be the first 4:05 p.m. start in the history of Wrigley Field.

Further, this change was announced after tickets had been placed on sale. All the season tickets for this game say 1:20, and I'm guessing a fair number of the single-game tickets do, too, unless they were purchased after March 9. So if you have a ticket to this game, remember it's starting later than the original schedules say.

But more importantly, I think this reflects a desire on the part of Major League Baseball to make schedules easier for players. Fatigue has been noted as a major issue for many players, especially later in the season, and it can lead to injuries. And you might not think this is related to PEDs, but check out this Jayson Stark article from last month on the Dee Gordon PED suspension. Stark thinks scheduling might push some players to use PEDs -- while still noting that's wrong:

Let's look at the Miami Marlins because they're Gordon's team. On Thursday, they played a game in Los Angeles. On Friday, they play a game in Milwaukee. That's challenging enough. But that game in L.A. started at 7 p.m. Pacific Time. It ended at 10 p.m. By the time the plane made it airborne on the West Coast, it had to be close to 1 a.m. in L.A. By the time the Marlins made it to their hotel in Milwaukee, it had to be close to 8 a.m. Central Time. Absurd.

Why were they forced to play a night game Thursday? Why were there zero off days in a 10-day, three-city trip through three time zones? Absurd.

"The schedule," one of the execs quoted earlier said, "is a major, major issue. It does not excuse doing anything illegal. But the schedule must be looked at -- and is being looked at. It's impacting the health of the players. And it's impacting the product on the field."

Let's take Gordon specifically. He steals bases. He plays every day. And the teams he played for the past two years have talked about how swiping all those bases beat him up and wore him down by the end of each of those seasons. Is that what inspired him to take what he took? Only he knows. It's an unacceptable reason, but it's not one baseball should ignore, either.

There are two ways MLB can address this issue:

  • Reduce the regular-season schedule
  • Increase roster size
  • Or, potentially, both.

I think any reduction in the schedule is a non-starter. No owner is going to want to give up the revenue from home dates. The reason MLB had a 154-game schedule from 1904-1960 was that it was easy: 22 games against each of seven other teams in the league. Same for 162, begun for 10-team leagues: 18 games against each of nine others. Even when leagues split into divisions in 1969, 162 still worked: 18 games against everyone else in your division (90 games), 12 against the six teams in the other division (72).

When MLB went to the three-division format, scheduling became unwieldy, and especially so when interleague play began, more so with year-round interleague play. 154 or 162 games isn't a "magic number" anymore; if you were starting major-league baseball from scratch right now, you probably wouldn't schedule that many games.

But now you've got 130-plus years of an historical record, a tradition of playing every day, and most importantly, money pouring in. Want to reduce to 154? Fine, where's the revenue from the four home dates every team loses going to come from? Further, TV channels and networks would likely want a rebate from their rights fee, because they'd have fewer broadcasts to sell ads on. Good luck getting that.

Thus I think, for better or worse, we're stuck with 162 games. You might suggest (it's been mentioned before) that the schedule could be compressed into a shorter time span by scheduling (for example) one split doubleheader per team per month. Regardless of what you think about split doubleheaders, this doesn't address the fatigue issue. Doing that likely makes fatigue -- and the travel issues Stark mentions -- worse.

One thing I think you will see is mandatory travel days for any team involved in Sunday Night Baseball games. ESPN usually releases its schedule for Sunday Night Baseball well before the season, at least for the first half. For those teams, or at least the visiting team that has to travel after that game, give them Monday off. Or schedule a series that "wraps around" the weekend till Monday.

For games moved to Sunday night from day games in the second half, you might have to have teams in other cities schedule Monday games as night games to accommodate travel. Consider the Cubs' recently-completed road trip, for example, and the times of the nine games, in order (all times Central):

7:10, 7:10, 12:40, 9:15, 6:15, 7:05, 7:15, 6:10, 12:40

Understanding that some of those times were dictated by national TV coverage, that's ridiculous. Having a Milwaukee to San Francisco to St. Louis trip is ... well, let's just say that MLB is going to have to do something about that. This is just one team's example, too; there are certainly many others like this. It's one reason Joe Maddon pushed for the Cubs to eliminate 3:05 starts at Wrigley -- he wanted consistency, night games at 7:05, day games at 1:20, and with only two or three exceptions this year, he got it.

Scheduling isn't easy -- just this week, MLB mandated the Pirates and Rockies make up their Sunday rainout on Monday, when the teams couldn't agree on a makeup date.

But beyond that, I think MLB could do something with roster size to help fatigue, give teams extra players so they can rest regulars more often. It's been proposed by some that a 26- or 27-man roster would help. Yes, I am aware that many teams could just put another LOOGY on the squad, or other situational relievers, and not extra bench players. This could be legislated by mandating that the "26th man" or "27th man" be position players, once you set your first 25.

A better idea, I think, is this: Have a 29-man roster, with only 25 active for each game. That would, in practice, likely mean every team would deactivate the four starting pitchers who aren't going in any particular game. You could still have an eight-man bullpen, or even nine -- but now you can have three or four extra position players active for every game. No more having to have pitchers pinch-hit in extra innings; every team could have a third catcher, or a guy who's basically only a pinch-runner or defensive replacement.

The Players' Association would likely love this, as it would create quite a few extra jobs. Owners, probably not so much. You'd have to figure out some way of equalizing pay per game so that teams aren't suddenly having to pay four extra players for a full season. How that would be done, I'm not certain.

But I am certain that something will have to be done to major-league rosters, or schedules, or both, in the negotiations for the next collective-bargaining agreement. That agreement will take effect next year, hopefully with no labor stoppage. What you are seeing as "baseball as usual" this year, at least regarding schedules and rosters, is likely to be very different in 2017.