Commentary

Accepting expanded MLB playoffs

Players at spring training see opportunity, challenge in play-in game

Updated: March 15, 2012, 3:31 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The American League is, in a word, stacked at the top. Five of the top seven projected payrolls -- New York Yankees ($205 million), Philadelphia ($179 million), Boston ($168 million), Los Angeles Angels ($159 million), San Francisco ($139 million), Detroit ($134 million) and Texas ($118 million) -- are in the AL.

The AL West, which has had only three wild cards in the 17 years since realignment, has two monster clubs: two-time defending pennant winners Texas and the muscled-up Angels.

[+] EnlargeMichael Young
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesMichael Young and the Rangers, winners of the past two AL pennants, have extra incentive to win the West.

The two top sluggers and baseball's top two free agents from the National League, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, are now in the AL. In the AL East, superpowers Boston and New York as well as the best underfunded club in baseball, Tampa Bay, may be joined in the division race for much of the campaign by a Toronto club expected to be much improved.

Before Monday's Angels-Dodgers game in Tempe, Yankees 2003 hero and ESPN analyst Aaron Boone and I were standing on the field watching Kendrys Morales hit when Boone dropped this one on me:

"I really think going into the season 20 teams can say they'll be disappointed if they don't make the playoffs." The sentence marinated for a minute. Boone then offered the 10 teams he believed had no chance to make the postseason.

AL: 1. Baltimore, 2. Minnesota, 3. Chicago, 4. Kansas City, 5. Cleveland, 6. Oakland, 7. Seattle.
NL: 1. New York Mets, 2. Pittsburgh, 3. San Diego.

It was tough to argue with his logic. Everybody else has a shot.

In Surprise, where the Rangers are thinking about becoming the first team to win three straight pennants since the 1998-2000 Yankees, the road just grew more difficult with the addition of a one-game, winner-take-all "play-in" game between the two teams with the best records after the three division winners.

When baseball first announced the idea, I was cynical. We had just seen perhaps the greatest regular-season finish in both leagues' in history, culminating with the collapses of both the Red Sox and the Braves. I thought of my ongoing disagreement with Terry Francona, who has long been a proponent of more playoff teams in baseball to make it more closely resemble other pro sports. In baseball in recent years, 26.7 percent of the teams have qualified for the postseason, a lower percentage than football (37.5), basketball (53.3) and hockey (53.3 percent, but better than in 1980, when 16 of 21 teams, or 76.2 percent, made the postseason).

[+] EnlargeYankee Stadium with the ALDS logo
Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesWild-card teams are no longer guaranteed a spot in the ALDS.

I thought about teams selling mediocrity to fans as quality. Adding a playoff team reduces the number of wins required to qualify for the playoffs, allowing front offices to promote an 80- or 83-win team with numerous deficiencies as championship-ready the following year because it missed the play-in playoff by a couple of games. I also thought about the tension between baseball and the television networks, which often have blanched at the poor ratings for teams not named "Yankees" or "Red Sox." The new playoff system is yet another opportunity for the superpowers to make the playoffs, as if 162 games, dominant payrolls and oftentimes an All-Star at almost every position were not advantages enough.

At each camp I've visited, however, the sentiment is virtually the same: The players like the new format. They like the extra challenge and the restored emphasis on the 162-game season, and mostly because the uncertainty and anxiety of that one-game playoff can be avoided by winning the division.

In the AL, if each team answers the bell, the tension will be heightened all season. Six teams -- the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, Rays, Angels and Rangers -- are World Series-caliber. One won't make the tournament at all, and only the three division winners will be guaranteed the luxury of a playoff series without the risk of having an entire season undone in nine innings.

"That old stuff of setting up your rotation for the month of September is over. Gone. Forget it," said Rangers captain Michael Young. "Because that last game is going to be exciting for the fans, but it's the poison game. Let me tell you: After a full season, under no circumstances do you want to play in that game. Under no circumstances do you want to be in that position. So, it's almost like old-time baseball again. Every game in the regular season matters because you want to win your division."

There will be issues, naturally. When baseball added the wild cards and another round of playoffs in the mid-'90s, teams weren't exactly overjoyed to have their seasons whittled down to a five-game series. Now, for some, that's been reduced to one. The doomsday scenario will be a season like 2001, when wild-card Oakland won 102 games and the next-best team was Minnesota, 17 games behind the A's. A similar mismatch would have occurred in 1997, when the wild-card Yankees finished 12 games ahead of the Angels.

There will also be doomsdays combined with intrigue, like in the 2010 season, when the 95-win Yankees would've played the 89-win Red Sox. The debate will be whether a team that finishes six games ahead of the third-place team in its division is being penalized. Just don't expect any of these arguments among players during spring training.

"I like it," said Angels outfielder Torii Hunter. "Everything is going to be on the table. You won't be able to hold your ace because you might need him. And if you're really grinding to get there, you might have to run a fourth starter out there. All kinds of things are possible."

[+] EnlargeHank Conger, Vernon Wells, Erick Aybar, Torii Hunter
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesVernon Wells, second from left, will have a better shot at the postseason in 2012 than in recent years.

Exercises in mediocrity will be inevitable. In 2006, the 88-win Dodgers would've played the 85-win Phillies in the poison game. Of course, some good teams also will get one more day. Boone's 96-win Reds in 1999 would have played the Mets instead of watching the playoffs on television.

There will be another chance for long-suffering stars to win. Look at Vernon Wells. He's been in the league all these years and has never been to the playoffs. Here's another chance. And here's another chance for clubs, like the one that brought him up, to claw their way into the postseason. Toronto, by the way, hasn't made the postseason since winning consecutive World Series in 1992 and 1993, but would have qualified under the new system in 1998.

The excitement that veteran players have for a winner-take-all scenario speaks to the true challenge of competition. I still believe that the desire of baseball and its networks to see Boston and New York play in October was significant motivation to expand the playoffs, but the end result may very well be games to remember.

"At the end of the day, this is what baseball is. Handle your business. Don't put yourself in the position where you have to play that one game, especially this year," Young said. "And if a team goes out, wins 80 games one year and then wins the World Series, props to them, because they will have earned it."

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