Should MLB Eliminate Divisions and Choose the Top 5 Records in Each League?
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The Los Angeles Angels certainly would be disappointed if they didn't qualify for the 2012 MLB playoffs. After handing out $331.5 million worth of free-agent contracts to Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, the team looked like a World Series contender.
The Halos got off to a disappointing start (8-15 in April), but made up ground to compete in the AL West and wild-card races. The Angels' playoff chances got another boost before the July 31 trade deadline when Zack Greinke was acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers.
Thanks to a 15-7 record thus far through September, the Angels are two games behind the Oakland Athletics for the second wild-card bid in the American League. With eight games remaining in the regular season, Mike Scioscia's team still has a shot at making the playoffs. But the likely outcome is that the Angels will fall just short.
If and when that happens, the Angels will have an interesting gripe. No, not that they didn't make the playoffs despite one of the top-five payrolls in MLB. But the Angels might end up not being one of the AL's five playoff teams even though they could finish with one of the five best records in the league.
Here is the top portion (teams over .500) of the AL standings before play began on Sept. 26:
Texas Rangers 91-63
New York Yankees 90-65—1.5 GB
Baltimore Orioles 88-67—3.5 GB
Oakland Athletics 87-67—4 GB
Los Angeles Angels 85-69—6 GB
Tampa Bay Rays 84-70—7 GB
Chicago White Sox 82-72—9 GB
Detroit Tigers 82-72—9 GB
The Angels are three games ahead of the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers, both of whom are tied for the AL Central lead. Yet one of those teams will make the playoffs as a division champion, while the Angels could be left out despite having a better record.
This is somewhat reminiscent of the 1993 season, when the San Francisco Giants went 103-59 yet finished second in the NL West to the Atlanta Braves and missed the playoffs. (Atlanta in the West? This is one reason why realignment took place.)
The Giants missing the playoffs despite winning 103 games may not have been the triggering mechanism toward MLB instituting a wild card. But it's surely not a coincidence that baseball realigned each league to three divisions and added an extra playoff team to its postseason format.
Could the Angels missing the playoffs when they finished with one of the top-five records in the AL spur another wave of change? Would MLB consider doing away with the divisional format and just put the top-five teams in the postseason instead?
That might be fair, and it's certainly intriguing to imagine, but it's never going to happen. Why? Because MLB wants to keep fans engaged throughout a season, and splitting each league up into divisions does that.
The Tigers might not be one of the best teams in the AL, but they could be the best in the AL Central. Competing for a division title gives them a shot at the playoffs.
Winning a division is more exciting. T-shirts noting the accomplishment get printed and worn proudly. Flags fly forever at the home ballpark. T-shirts boasting "Fifth-Place Team" and flags with "AL Fifth Place" stitched on them just wouldn't have the same appeal.
(Yes, those items would just say "AL Playoffs." I know that. I'm trying to run with a joke here.)
Besides, trashing the divisional format because of what happened in the AL this season would be irrationally reactionary. Look at the current Top Five of the National League standings:
Washington Nationals 93-61
Cincinnati Reds 93-61
San Francisco Giants 89-65—4 GB
Atlanta Braves 89-65—4 GB
St. Louis Cardinals 84-71—9.5 GB
The teams with the five best records in the NL also happen to be the Top Five teams in the league standings. No team is going to finish with a better record than one of the division winners and wonder why it's not in the playoffs. The best teams in the NL will be in the postseason. The current system worked just fine here.
There really is no perfect solution, of course. From one season to the next, one division is going to be tougher than another. Teams in that division will have to face more rugged competition as a result.
Interleague play adds further inequity among the 30 MLB teams. As ESPN's Jayson Stark pointed out when the 2013 schedule was released, there will be situations such as the Braves playing the Yankees six times, while the Marlins and Phillies won't play the Yankees at all. The Tigers have the Rockies and Pirates on their schedule, while the White Sox don't get to face those teams.
Regardless of how divisions and leagues might be realigned, at least one team is going to be snubbed. It's just bad fortune.
If the Angels truly wanted to complain about being left out of the postseason, they should look at how their poor play in April put them in a deep hole. There's no reason to throw the entire sport into upheaval to accommodate a one-year fluke in the standings.
Follow @iancass on Twitter.
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