Earlier this week, Buster Olney took his annual look at which teams face the toughest early-season schedules. In the NL, Buster has the Pirates, Cubs and Padres facing difficult early slates. In the AL, he has the Twins, Orioles and Rays with the toughest opening five or six weeks.
That's my segue into baseball's problem with its schedules, a problem that will be compounded by the addition of a second wild-card team.
Let's compare two teams: the Rays, playing in baseball's toughest division; and the Angels, playing in a division that includes Seattle and Oakland.
Tampa Bay Rays
72 games against the AL East (18 against each team)
34 games against the AL Central
38 games against the AL West
18 games against the NL East (six against the Marlins)
Los Angeles Angels
42 games against the AL East (but only six against the Red Sox)
45 games against the AL Central
57 games against the AL West (19 against each team)
18 games against the NL West (six against the Dodgers
So while the Rays get 36 games against the Red Sox and Yankees, the Angels get 38 games against the Mariners and A's. Yes, you can argue the Angels get 19 games against Rangers while the Rays get only nine, but that hardly makes up for the Rays having to play the Red Sox and Yankees 21 more games than the Angels do. In interleague play, the Rays also have to play the NL East, a presumably tougher division than the Angels' NL West opponents.
Is this a big issue? I believe so. I suppose those who disagree would argue, "Just win your division." That's certainly what MLB appears to be saying by implementing a second wild-card team. Just win your division. Take care of business.
The problem, of course, is there are two completely different playoff races going on here: (1) The division race, in which the competitors play close to identical schedules; (2) The wild-card race, in which competitors may play drastically different schedules.
Such a situation came into play a year ago in the National League, when the Cardinals edged out the Braves by one game for the wild card. The Braves played in a division in which the worst team was the Marlins at 72-90. The Cardinals played in a division with three teams that went 72-90, 71-91 and 56-106. The Braves went 36-36 against their division. The Cardinals went 44-35 against their division.
Maybe a second wild-card team helps alleviate this issue. After all, with a second wild card, the Braves make the playoffs last year and nobody talks about their collapse. But what if the Rays, Red Sox and Angels are battling for two spots? Or the Rays and Angels are battling for the second wild card? Then we're slipping back into murky waters of unbalanced schedules being an underlying factor.
And that doesn't even get into possibility of a third-place team winning the World Series. As Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said, "It's hard to swallow sometimes when you play all year and you win a lot of games and you lose to somebody who did not play as good as you consistently all year."