|AL Wild Card Fever as Trade Deadline Looms|
|AL or Nothing|
|Written by Ryan Carey|
|Thursday, 19 July 2012 06:34|
When it was announced prior to the season that MLB had decided to add an extra Wild Card team in both leagues, beginning with the 2012 season, the news was met with generally mixed reactions. As expected, baseball purists chaffed at the idea of further watering down the playoff pool. Further grumbling ensued when it was learned that the new system would have the two Wild Card teams from each league play each other in a one-game playoff immediately after the completion of the regular season.
Commissioner Bud Selig was predictably upbeat as he rolled out the new format and for the most part, whether you agree with the decision or not, it is delivering the intended results. Like it or not, parity has arrived in the majors. A quick look at the standings shows that in the American League, eleven of the league's 14 franchises are in contention for a playoff berth. Seven teams are within three games of the newly implemented second Wild Card slot. Say what you will, but the additional berth is keeping playoff hopes alive in Cleveland, Baltimore, Toronto, Boston, Tampa Bay, Detroit and Oakland, when in previous seasons some of these teams would already be thinking about next year.
Take the Al East for starters. The New York Yankees (57-34) have won eight of their last ten, took three of four games at Boston just prior to the break and just completed a sweep of another division rival, Toronto. Currently ten games up on second place Baltimore (47-44), they seemingly have control of the division. Despite the Bombers' dominance, the other four AL East squads are still alive thanks to the new system. Under the old rules, they would all be looking up at the resurgent Los Angeles Angels and feel less confident about their prospects of making it to the postseason. While the division may already be out of reach, both Boston and Tampa Bay are teams capable of getting hot at any time and making sure that the division secures a Wild Card berth for the 6th consecutive year. The Orioles and Blue Jays have had some injuries deal a blow to their hopes, and a tough divisional schedule doesn’t help matters.
The Angels (50-42) continue to trail the Texas Rangers (55-36) in the West, but have rebounded from their 8-15 April to not only take control of the Wild Card race, but put themselves in position to make a serious run at the Rangers in the second half. Whichever team claims the division crown will of course benefit from the new system, since the one-game playoff for the two Wild Card teams has made winning your division important once again. Regardless, both teams figure to be active once again at the trade deadline and both seem like good bets to make it to October. I think the battle between these two squads will be more dramatic than it would have been in recent years, and the new format is the reason. The reward for being a 90+ win second place team is the opportunity to get knocked off by a likely 85-88 win team while the division champ gets two days off to rest up its stars and line up its pitching staff.
The AL Central may not be able to claim a team as intimidating as either of the other two divisions, but as of today it has the tightest divisional race, with the Chicago White Sox (50-41), Detroit Tigers (48-44) and the Cleveland Indians (47-44) battling it out. The White Sox head into Comerica this weekend while Cleveland starts a homestand with a four game set against the Orioles, before welcoming the Tigers in next week. The Tigers are starting to heat up, which no doubt has gotten the attention of their rivals, since they did the same thing last season, eventually running away with the division. The new format gives a little bit of a safety net to everyone in this division, and the Indians in particular can continue to dream, with perhaps the easiest remaining schedule of all the Wild Card contenders.
The only team still in the running that I have yet to mention is also arguably one of the hottest teams in baseball right now. Yes, I am talking about the Oakland A’s (47-44), winners of 10 of their last 12 games, to put themselves back in the mix. The A’s recent surge has been a delight to watch and an exciting set-up for their upcoming series against the Yankees. Like the Orioles and Indians, the A’s find themselves very much alive for their first playoff berth since 2006.
Perhaps now you’ll forgive Bud Selig if you see him smiling and publically gloating over the increased attendance numbers that baseball is posting this year. The plan when this endeavor began was to increase excitement as well as find a way to not only increase attendance but also juice up television ratings. So far things look pretty good, especially on those fronts. But as with any seemingly “good thing”, it would be short-sighted to fail to point out the less exciting, or favorable aspects the new system has brought along for the ride.
While it is true that an unprecedented number of teams find themselves in contention as we head into the season’s annual trade deadline, it has also produced a situation where many teams are struggling to figure out exactly where they stand heading into it. On paper, this many contenders means lots of buyers, right? You would think so, but it may not be entirely true. While the new system succeeds in once again rewarding teams for winning their divisions, the one-game playoff unfortunately has taken a little bit of luster off the Wild Card berth itself.
As I mentioned with the Angels above, the reward for a team that doesn’t win its division is one playoff game. For the team that claims the second Wild Card berth, that one guaranteed playoff game will come on the road. This is the biggest reason I would have preferred to have seen a three-game series between the two Wild Card teams. At least then both cities, and franchises, would be guaranteed at least one home playoff game. It might not be as dramatic, but it would be better for the fans in those cities and let’s face it, the financial windfall for even one home playoff game is significant. No matter how you slice it, there isn’t as much incentive to claim a Wild Card spot as there was in the past from a financial standpoint for teams, especially those on the fringes of contention.
Adding to the confusion heading into this year’s trade deadline are new compensation rules, which in and of themselves have changed the way GM’s are approaching things this year. In the past, if you lost a free agent in the off-season, you received draft pick compensation for said player. Under the new rules, if a player has not been with his team for a full season, there is no compensation. This will make it much harder for teams, especially small and mid-market ones, to give up boatloads of prospects for a late season “rental” player. With less incentive to include impact prospects, the chance that teams hang onto their impending free agents increases, since the returns may not be enough to justify it. Add in the fact that more contenders means presumably less pure “sellers” could lead to an inflated marketplace for the few available studs, and you can see how this trade deadline could end up being a lot quieter than fans in the cities above would like.
There is one more little glitch that will thankfully only be in place for this season. In the past, the ALDS (and NLDS) have used a 2-2-1 format, with the highest seeded team opening with two home games. Due to scheduling issues for this season, the lower seeded team will open with two games at home, followed by three games in the higher seeded team’s ballpark. This means that the team with the best record will open up on the road against potentially the fifth best team in the league. Not exactly a great reward for that achievement, but at least it will revert back to the old format for next year.
As I prepared to write this article, I decided to shoot an email out to some of my fellow writers here at the site to get a general sense of their own personal feelings toward the new Wild Card format. Zach Steinhorn replied “I don't see a whole lot of negatives in adding the second wild card. More teams will still be in the postseason hunt come September and I do like the idea of adding more importance to winning your division. The only problem with this applies to this year since the format of six 5-team divisions won't take effect until next season. While we've added more importance to winning your division, there is still one division with six teams (NL Central) and another with four teams (AL West). This makes absolutely no sense to me as an AL West team will be given a huge advantage when it comes to getting that first-round bye. For this reason, I would have rather seen MLB wait another year for the second wild card.”
I totally get when Zach is coming from as I think the rush to add it this year was a little short-sighted. Part of me would just as much liked to see baseball do away with the Wild Card altogether rather than expanding them, as they have done. While it is kind of exciting that so many teams can call themselves contenders at this juncture, it will likely be much less exciting in September. Part of me longs for the days of real pennant races, something that younger fans sadly have never experienced. But that’s the purist in me talking, and I need to be realistic about this, which means accepting that we’re not going backwards in time anytime soon.
Lawr Michaels thankfully spoke to the Indians fan in me as he expressed excitement about his A’s: "I cannot believe the Athletics are in the hunt. It is a pleasant surprise, of course, and their pitching is good as always, but suddenly they have some pop, even from the corners. Opening up the wild card made this largely possible, so yay! Who knew?” I think I'm going to take Lawr's advice and just enjoy the ride this year, as long as it lasts.