Pitchers and Catchers are reporting soon, teams are shoring up their rosters, fantasy projections are coming out and everyone is starting to get excited about baseball.
Except for, of course, fans of the Blue Jays, Orioles, Tigers, Indians, Royals, Mariners, Marlins, Mets, Nationals, Astros, Cubs, Pirates, Rockies, Dodgers and Diamondbacks. Fans of the Rays, White Sox, Cardinals, Brewers and Padres have some reason to be excited, though they should temper their optimism.
The Rays made the playoffs last year, but they had a brutal offseason. Picking up those two former hard slugging Red Sox has the potential to be entertaining though.
The Blue Jays had a surprisingly good year last season, finished 85-77, good for fourth in the AL East. They did well, very well, but nowhere near good enough to compete. They had to trade their opening day starter, Marcum, for a great prospect, a good trade but one a contending team would never make. They traded their CF Wells, a heart and soul leader but with a huge contract, another move a contender does not make. They cannot make playoffs despite being eight games over .500, so they must start a massive rebuild.
The Orioles are in the same boat, a team that can get better in every part of the game and still not come close to the postseason.
The Angels were shut out of the free agent market, had to pick up Vernon Wells and his huge contract and still may finish third in the division and miss out on the playoffs.
The Brewers loaded up for a run at the playoffs, picking up Marcum and Greinke in an attempt to prove to Fielder it is worth staying. In order to get there, they have to beat not just the Reds, the reigning Central division champs, but the Cardinals as well.
The Padres had a great run last season, but fell short. They will have an even tougher go of it this time around, as the Rockies and Dodgers did not finish too far behind.
Twenty teams are already on the outside looking in. 15 teams are starting the season knowing if everyone plays their best, lives up to expectations, they have no injuries, bad luck or any other problem which can plague a team, they will STILL miss the playoffs.
I understand baseball is a sport that prides itself on tradition; it is one of the best things about baseball. Tradition, however, should not become a crutch. Just as change for the sake of change should be avoided, keeping things the same because "that’s the way it has always been" should be avoided as well.
Expanding playoffs fixes a major issue facing the game today: divisions. The AL East is the strongest division in sports. The third place team in the AL East could, arguably, win another division. Yet regardless of their record, they cannot make playoffs. If they won every game out of division, they could not make the postseason. The current system does not reward the best teams. It rewards the best team out of five teams in the division. By expanding the postseason, it rewards the three division winners, as well as the three best teams regardless of division. This still favours weaker divisions, as they play more games against weaker teams, but a very strong team is no longer completely out of luck if they are up against $200 million payrolls.
My final point for expansion involves player movement. This offseason Texas, Boston, Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia, Washington, and to a lesser extent, San Diego and San Francisco, spent money on free agents. Anaheim and Milwaukee made big trades. Nine teams made a splash, which is fine. A third of teams making moves to try to give themselves the best shot to win their division is right around major professional sports standards. Football free agency is limited, as the draft is the best way to improve, but a third to half is right in line with the NHL and NBA. Making trades in baseball, however, is a messy business. Major League Baseball has the non-waiver deadline, waiver deadline, untradeable draft picks and a draft mid-season; the whole process appears designed to prevent mid-season trades.
If the postseason is expanded, teams who are close to the playoffs can load up. Currently teams load up if they know they are in the playoffs, such as Texas with Cliff Lee, but if there are more playoff spots available, there are more teams willing to take the risk on a free agent, gamble on trading prospects for a shot at the playoffs. This makes fans excited, taking a shot at the postseason, and gives weak teams a faster way to rebuild. A mid season trade generally costs more than an offseason trade, rewarding the team trading their stars with more prospects, which offsets the loss of stars.
As Bud Selig has already committed to investigating expanding playoffs, the question now is how to expand. Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated writes in his column, Three Strikes – No Decision on Expanded Playoffs But NFL Model Worth Following, Jan 7, 2011, he believes it should be expanded by one wildcard, and make it a one-game series between the two wildcard teams, winner take all. He points out the excitement of a win-or-go-home game, best pitchers versus best line up, then move on. I disagree completely.
My solution is adding two wildcards, for six teams in each league. The top two teams in each league get a first round bye. The first round is (3) vs (6), and (4) vs (5). A five game series would be ideal, but a three game series is an excellent compromise to the argument a 162-game regular season does not need any more games.
A three game series the first weekend after the regular season, game one Friday night, game two Saturday and the third game if necessary one Sunday, gives three meaningful games in two to three days. A Friday-Saturday TV doubleheader, Sunday deciding games, a quick series with high TV ratings that gives four teams the chance to do something in the playoffs.
Twelve teams out of 30 making the playoffs do not dilute the results. I believe playoffs where the Rays and Twins had first round byes, the Rangers played the White Sox in a three game series and the Yankees and Red Sox played a three game series would be fantastic. The first round bye gives the top teams something to play for, preventing the situation this season when the Yankees famously did not try to win the division. Suddenly winning the division and finishing first and second is important.
A team like the Blue Jays, instead of selling off pieces for payroll room and draft picks this off season, are suddenly in seventh, three games out of the playoffs and next year gearing up for a charge. It adds major intrigue to the postseason strategy as well. Now, teams cannot afford to use three starters for the whole postseason. They need a fourth or fifth starter, requiring depth in the back of the rotation. The Yankees riding Sabathia, Burnett and Pettitte to the title is not an option anymore.
Expanding the postseason gives fans hope, provides teams with incentives to succeed and gives baseball the "anything can happen" idea it has been missing. Expanding the playoffs is the best move for baseball right now and for the future.
Well, next to adding the DH to the NL.