Realignment OK, expanded playoffs not

Realignment OK, expanded playoffs not
November 17, 2011, 9:21 pm
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We've known about the likelihood of the Astros' move to the American League and the addition of another wild-card team in each league for a while now. But both changes became official today at the owners meetings in Milwaukee, with commissioner Bud Selig announcing Houston's league switch in 2013 and the expanded playoff format that could take effect as soon as next season.

Why were these changes necessary? Well, since baseball expanded to 30 teams in 1998, the two leagues have featured imbalanced divisions. The NL, which has had 16 teams, has five teams in both the East and West divisions but six in the Central. The AL, which has had only 14 teams, has five teams in the East and Central but only four in the West. Is it really fair that the Rangers had to beat only three opponents to win their division while the Brewers had to beat five rivals to win theirs? No.

So the Astros, as part of their sale to businessman Jim Crane, have agreed to relocate to the AL West beginning in 2013. They'll give up more than five decades of history in the NL, but they'll now be paired up with Texas to create a nice, new rivalry.

The tangible effect on the rest of baseball, though, is going to be the necessity for one interleague series every day during the season. You can't have an odd number of teams in each league play only each other (unless somebody is off every single day, which isn't practical).

So that means there's going to be one interleague series on Opening Day 2013, not to mention another one during the season's final week. It's not an ideal scenario, but the once-hard line between the two leagues has been disintegrating for a long time already, so this is only the latest move in that direction.

It does raise a fundamental question: Will designated hitters continue to be used only in games hosted by AL clubs, or is there any chance the sport will either institute the DH across the board or eliminate it altogether? Believe it or not, Selig says he's committed to keeping the status quo. There's probably no way around this, because despite the support in many corners for the abolition of the DH, the players association will never go for it.

Now, the other significant announcement today from Selig was the confirmation that baseball will add another playoff team in each league, perhaps as soon as next season, and the two wild-cards will play a one-game, winner-take-all "series" to determine which one advances to the Division Series to face the league's winningest team.

I've been opposed to this plan all along, and my feelings haven't changed. I'm all for giving division winners more of an advantage -- there's really no incentive at the moment for winning your division over winning the wild-card, aside from one extra home game per series -- but I don't think the answer is to expand the postseason to include even more teams.

Here's a little research for your scrutiny. I calculated which teams would have won each league's second wild-card for each of the last 16 seasons. Here are the win totals for those 32 teams: 84, 85, 85, 85, 86, 86, 87, 87, 87, 88, 88, 88, 88, 88, 88, 89, 89, 89, 89, 89, 89, 90, 90, 90, 90, 91, 91, 92, 93, 93, 93, 96.

So, the average win total for teams that just missed the playoffs is 88.8. I understand that the 1999 Reds (who won 96 games) could justifiably complain they didn't reach the postseason, though they did get a chance to face the Mets in a one-game playoff for the wild-card and lost. But are we really saying the 1997 Angels (with an 84-78 record) or the 2006 Phillies (85-77) were screwed out of playoff berths they earned? We shouldn't be saying that.

All this new system is doing is rewarding good, but not great, teams while penalizing the better wild-card in each league in the form of a one-game playoff even if they clinched their berth weeks before season's end.

This plan doesn't even appease those who complain that wild-cards beat the top-seeded teams too often. They'll still be squaring off in a five-game Division Series; the only difference is that the wild-card will have had to play one extra game to reach that point.

Not that my griping is going to change anything. Selig had his special committee for on-field matters examine this issue for two years, and this proposal won overwhelming support.

Maybe it will all work out in the end and those of us opposed to the expanded playoffs will change our minds, much as many anti-wild card folks did once that system was installed in the 1990s.

But it sure seems like baseball was trying to fix something that wasn't broken, and you have to wonder what the end result will be.