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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

October 13, 2011 at 10:53 AM

Mariners about to lose a big advantage they rarely capitalized upon

Baseball has some weird inequities (which are different from the big, troubling inequities like one team having a nearly $200-million payroll and another, in the same league, having a payroll under $40 million). I’m talking about stuff like the wild-card schedule, in which teams in the same league, and even division, competing for the same prize, can have wildly divergent caliber of opponents, depending on whom they happen to draw in the wild card that year. And also the fact that teams in one division — the six-team NL Central — have to beat out five foes to win the title, while teams in another division — the four-team AL West — only have to beat out three.

Yet somehow, in the 17 full seasons since baseball went to the three-division format in 1994, taking the White Sox, Royals and Twins out of the AL West and moving them into a newly formed AL Central, the Mariners have capitalized the least from the reduced competition. They have three titles (in 1995, 1997, and 2001), compared to five for the Angels (2009, 2008, 2007, 2005 and 2004), five for the Rangers (2011, 2010, 1999, 1998 and 1996), and four for the A’s (2006, 2003, 2002 and 2000).

Now, by all indications, their divisional advantage (and the disadvantage of the six teams in the NL Central) is about to come to an end. Ever since it came out earlier this year that Bud Selig was eyeballing some tweaks to the playoff system and division alignment — an extra wild-card team in each league, and a switch to six five-team divisions — it has been obvious that the end is near for the four-team AL West.

The only question was which team would switch from the National League to the American League, and it quickly became apparent that there were two prime candidates: the Arizona Diamonbacks and the Houston Astros. If the Diamondacks moved, obviously another team — probably the Astros — would have had to move to the NL West to balance things out. Now it’s becoming even more apparent that it’s going to be the Astros, who are in the process of being sold to businessman Jim Crane. . It appears that part of the deal will be a switch of the Astros to the AL West, which is a mixed blessing for them. The Astros reportedly don’t like the idea of playing so many road divisional games in the Pacific time zone. On the other hand, the idea of a divisional rivalry with the cross-state Rangers is enticing. At any rate, the well-connected Peter Gammons tweeted yesterday that “Houston ownership change expected to go through in mid-November, w/ AL move.”

The Houston Chronicle has a story today saying that nothing has been finalized on either the sale or realignment front. But I’m hearing that it has a good chance of happening as Gammons tweeted. However, it’s very unlikely the Astros would join the AL West next season; not with the 2012 schedule already out.

The change would likely take place for 2013, meaning that the Mariners may have just one final chance to exploit their four-team division. Yes, the Astros, at 56-106, were one of just two teams to finish with a worse record than the Mariners last year (the Twins were the other). But the Tigers lost 119 games in 2003 and were in the World Series in 2006. Fortunes change, but it’s a mathematical reality that beating out four teams will be harder than beating out three.

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