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October 29, 2010 at 12:54 PM

More playoff teams? Ugh!

MLB commissioner Bud Selig, in a blatant attempt at a cash grab and to shore up some of his sport’s weaker markets, announced yesterday that he wants to implement another layer of post-season teams as early as next year.
It’s been 15 years since MLB went forward with its first attempt at a wild-card format, a process delayed a year by the 1994 strike. Back then, there were howls of outrage from purists who argued the move would dilute the magic of the post-season. I don’t think that’s been the case. The entire country was captivated by the 2004 post-season, which featured the wild-card Boston Red Sox winning it all.
One of the better World Series of the past decade was the seven-game 2002 Fall Classic in which the wild-card Angels upended the San Francisco Giants. As an aside, yes, the Giants this year have laid my early prediction of a five-game Rangers win to waste. When you score 20 runs in two games, as the Giants have, you’re usually going to win both. The Rangers now have to get their bullpen to start acting like a major league caliber relief corps in a hurry to make this a series again. Also, they have to get manager Ron Washington out of his own way.
Washington seemed to spend too much time listening to the chattering classes when he sat slugger Vladimir Guerrero after his two-error performance in Game 1. Are you kidding me? This is the scariest hitter in your lineup next to Josh Hamilton. A lineup that scored seven runs on an off-night in Game 1. This isn’t some Class AAAA rookie like Brooks Conrad who made those errors. Guerrero’s one of the guys who got you to the World Series in the first place. He can’t sit. Even if he’s going to guarantee you an error or a run against every night.
Without Guerrero, the Rangers guaranteed themselves even more of an uphill struggle against a sensational-looking Matt Cain, no doubt thrilled by the prospect of no Vlad in the middle of the order.
Washington also has never been much of a bullpen management specialist, but looked downright out of his element last night. Darren Oliver should not have been left in to face Juan Uribe once he’d gotten Aubrey Huff out. And Washington should have had a fallback plan ready to go the moment it was clear youngster Derek Holland could not find the strike zone. Not sure what Mark Lowe was doing out there, either, with so many flamethrowers who’ve been healthy all year sitting unused in the pen. I’m sure Washington wanted to rest some guys, but, newsflash, they had plenty of rest after the ALCS and there’s an off-day today. Yeesh.
Back to Selig’s plan. While I think the purists were wrong back in the 1990s and that the wild-card format has enhanced modern baseball, I think their cries of resistence this time are more on-the-mark.
Photo Credit: AP

Selig wants to add two or more additional playoff teams, making MLB more similar to the NFL, which is good in theory. He also wants to expand the opening playoff round to seven games, which I also don’t mind too much. The Minnesota Twins had a great year, but saw it go up in smoke after a couple of bad middle innings in Game 1 of their Division Series with the Yankees this year. Once New York “stole” one in Minneapolis, you knew that series was done. The Twins played like they knew it, too. In a seven-game series, you don’t have so much pressure on your team to win one opening game.
Trivia question. How many teams who lost their best-of-five openers this year came back to win? Answer? Zero.
So, that part of Selig’s plan has merit.
But adding two or more additional teams? I don’t like it.
Let’s be honest, Selig is only taking about this because of one thing: money.
That added wild-card club increases the odds you’ll see the Red Sox and Yankees in the post-season as often as possible. That means bigger numbers TV-wise. It’s funny, for all the folks who gripe every year about how it seems all TV cares about are the Red Sox and Yankees, the minute somebody else makes it to the World Series, the numbers go tumbling.
So, unless all the TV viewers in the country live in Boston and New York, the rest of the country seems to be yawning collectively at some of the newer contenders this year.
Adding more playoff teams also allows Selig to give hope to MLB cities where there is little interest in his product outside of playoff time. Seattle could quickly become one of those, but I’m thinking of even more established places like Chicago (White Sox) and Detroit. Toronto used to draw more than 3 million fans per season routinely, but this year was getting 12,000 at some games despite a pretty good team. So, if a team like the Blue Jays could finish third in the AL East and still have a shot at the playoffs, Selig’s thinking is it’s a win-win scenario.
But I think this is too simplistic a solution. MLB’s problems attendance-wise in some markets have more to do with poor planning than playoffs. Franchises like Tampa Bay and Oakland continue to struggle to draw even in years when they have playoff caliber teams. Their stadium locations are terrible and you have to question, in both cases, whether there is really enough of a pro baseball devotion to make their markets ever work.
Kansas City is a once proud franchise fallen on hard times because of inept front office management.
And then, even if you start letting more teams in, getting the number up to 10 or even 12 — from the current 8 — you still have not addressed the biggest problem. It’s the reason MLB will never be the NFL, even if you let half the teams into the playoffs. Economic disparity is still killing MLB in terms of competitiveness. Selig loves it when some brainiac fan chirps up that Peter Angelos spending money never guaranteed the Orioles a playoff spot — or Howard Lincoln doing it for the M’s,for that matter. Loves the “Moneyball” tales of Billy Beane and the lower-budgeted A’s from last decade.
But the truth is, if you want to go to the post-season on a regular basis, you still have to spend money to do it.
All teams are not created equal.
Yes, you do have to spend the money wisely in most cases. And yes, every year, another low-budget team — usually from the NL — will get in and Selig and those who follow what he preaches will go “A-ha! See? Our system works!”
But who keeps coming back to the playoffs year after year? The Yankees. The Phillies. The Red Sox. The Angels. The Cardinals. The Dodgers. All of those teams have had payrolls up near or well beyond $100 million consistently. The exceptions to those rules tend to be one-and-done clubs that then have to go back and start rebuilding all over again. The low budget Rays bucked the trend with two playoffs in three years, but now face the prospect of massive cuts.
And it’s teams like the Cleveland Indians, who had one playoff to show for in a decade of rebuilding, that have really caught Selig’s eye. Cleveland is another market in serious attendance trouble despite its rich history in baseball and all sports. It’s in trouble because fans walked away after enduring the typical rebuilding plan that cost-cutting teams try to go through to attain lasting success. When that plan doesn’t pan out long-term, the rebuilding starts all over again, as it has in Cleveland, and you lose a generation of fans.
This is one of the real causes of dwindling fan interest in some markets.
Selig sees and understands it firsthand, having witnessed much the same with his family’s Milwaukee Brewers club, which built its way all through last decade, had a first-round playoff appearance in 2008 — thanks to a C.C. Sabathia rental — and now looks to be rebuilding again.
And the fact is, Selig has fought the Players’ Association tooth and nail for changes that might lessen some of the economic disparity. But globally, it’s been the biggest failure of his tenure as commissioner. Under Selig, the gap between the haves and have nots of his game is the largest it’s ever been.
So, he’s looking at what he feels is the next best thing. More playoff teams.
But adding more teams isn’t going to fix what’s broken in MLB, unless you really do let half, or two-thirds of clubs into the post-season. If anything, adding more teams simply removes some of the magic that making the post-season in baseball entails. The limited number of teams in the playoffs compared to, say, hockey, is what makes MLB what it is. Start letting a third, or closer to half the teams in, it becomes just another sport.
Baseball and its union should work to find ways to make its sport truly competitive from a financial perspective. And no, that won’t be easy or happen overnight. And maybe things really do need to get worse for baseball before they get better. But eventually, at some point, players and owners will come to the common consensus that having teams with $200 million payrolls competing against those with $60 million is not a good thing. And maybe then, they’ll seriously address it. It took a lot of bad happening before the NFL got serious about real revenue sharing.
And once both sides in baseball come to the same realization, you won’t need to worry about letting more playoff teams in. They’ll start getting there on their own.



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