In recent years, the Detroit Tigers have had a modest advantage by playing in the AL Central division. Until the recent rise of the Kansas City Royals, the Tigers often faced somewhat weak competition for a near-guaranteed shot at the playoffs. This isn't an uncommon scenario as the fortunes of various divisions rise and fall.
The same could be said this season of a team like the New York Mets, who had only one opponent capable of beating them out for a postseason berth. By contrast, the NL Central was a crucible constructed between three of the better teams in the game, with the Cardinals, Cubs and Pirates all posting well over 90 wins. Is it time to eliminate the divisional structure again, and simply let the best teams in both leagues win out regardless of the relative strengths and weaknesses of their divisional placement?
Phil Rogers of MLB.com recently laid out a comprehensive plan that could return the chase for the postseason to more of a strict meritocracy. Rogers' plan would eliminate the divisions, and create schedules where teams played all others in their league equally. This would prevent teams getting an unfair advantage based on playing a weaker schedule based heavily on divisional opponents. It would also seem to spread the travel burden around much more evenly than the current structure. This is the more controversial piece in my mind, a proposal to create a pair of three-game series in place of each league's Wild Card game.
The playoff schedule would thus eliminate the one-and-done game which strikes many as unfair. Instead, teams in the wild card round would have to play a three game set. Not only is this a fairer way of determining the better team, but it also forces these teams into a tense short series where they would have to use two or three of their best starters, thus giving an extra advantage to the two best teams in either league, who would avoid the wild card round.
Of course, there are potential weaknesses to such a plan too. By eliminating the divisions, you lose divisional rivalries where teams like the Yankees and Red Sox play each other far more often than they do teams currently in the AL Central or West. Those concerns have more to do with marketing than anything else, but their potential impact would have to be gauged before implementing a plan like this. There would be a period of adjustment for fans in terms of following the standings as well.
Additionally, while the postseason schedule wouldn't take any longer under ideal conditions, it eliminates some of the off days that allow flexibility for weather issues, which could cause some scheduling conflicts. The season already stretches through October. The specter of a wild card series experiencing weather delays and pushing the whole season several more days into November is another concern that has to be weighed.
The postseason changes seem more problematic at first blush. Frankly, teams that don't win their division can only complain so much about this, and the wild card game has proven to be pretty popular. It launches the postseason into an immediate Game 7 scenario, which has made for some really tense and exciting games so far.
The simplest piece of the proposal is the simple elimination of the divisions. Still fairly young in the context of baseball history, the divisions don't have so much history to be concerned with losing. Many Tigers' fans would probably be thrilled to see the Yankees, Red Sox and other out of division opponents more regularly.
Rather than having the teams divided up into vague, regional categories, forcing them all to play each other in near equal measure seems like a solid step that would level the playing field. For teams like the Tampa Bay Rays and others, who are forced to contend with a heavy dose of the spending behemoths in their division every year, it could shake things up and perhaps improve their fortunes.
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