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August 2, 2012 at 12:03 PM

Even the Mariners trying to get in on second wild-card “fever” now: good for baseball fans?

After the Mariners won their seventh in a row last night, some of the team’s marketing types took to Twitter trying to fan the flames of fan interest in the fact the squad is “only” sitting 7 1/2 games back in the race for a second wild-card spot. And who can blame them? It’s their job and if I’d spent the past few years trying to spin some positives about a last place team, I’d milk every angle possible about the M’s longest win streak in five years. I’d be trying to conjure up images of 1995 as well.
Believe me, it’s nice to see the Mariners playing some good ball for a change by going 16-11 since July 1.
But it all got me thinking. Actually, I’ve been thinking about this issue since well before the Mariners took out the Royals and Blue Jays in consecutive sweeps. Thinking about the second wild-card spot and whether it really is good for the game and — more importantly — good for fans in the long run.
Now, the knee-jerk response is to say “Of course it is!” After all, the goal of every fan is to have something to root for, right? And being relevant in sports means your team has a shot at a championship and getting to the playoffs gives you a better chance at a title than not getting there, right?
Well, yeah. But here’s the thing. Right now, because of the second wild-card, every team in baseball within telescopic range of .500 can claim they have a “shot” at something. Even if they really don’t. But the goal of the most cynical-minded baseball teams (and if you think I’m cynical, you should meet some of the folks who own and run MLB teams) isn’t necessarily to make the playoffs and win titles. It’s to get their fanbase thinking they can, no matter how unrealistic it may be.
And that’s why, for me, it’s going to be very interesting to see how MLB teams react this winter to the new second wild-card reality. I want to know whether they will act within the spirit of why that wild-card spot was added in the first place. Or, will the more cynical-minded (some might call them “cheap”) teams continue to milk the illusion of contention in order to suit their purposes?
The spirit of the second wild-card addition was clear. To get teams that spent years hoarding revenue-share money, or stockpiling endless high-round and compensatory draft picks, to get off their penny-pinching behinds and start trying to win by keeping up with the bigger spenders who did it more frequently. Because for every Tampa Bay Rays “success” there was a Royals, Pirates, Blue Jays, Indians cycle of mediocrity that wasn’t coming up with any tangible success more than once every decade or two, or three.
Even worse, from a quality perspective, too many bonafide, middle class MLB players were losing jobs to cheap young talent rounding out the lower payroll teams. And in many cases, the term “talent” was being used rather loosely by teams charging MLB ticket prices to see Class AAA and AA players who had no business being in the majors. Don’t believe me? Go back a few years and check up on some of the younger pitching “talent” that graced the rotations of some lower payroll squads, never to be seen nor heard from again.
MLB realized it wasn’t going to get the more cynical teams to spend like the Yankees, Angels, Tigers, Rangers, Red Sox and Phillies simply by osmosis. So, Bud Selig and his counterparts in the Players’ Association did the next best thing. They introduced the second wild-card and simultaneously changed the draft rules. Overnight, they discouraged the cynical practice of hoarding draft picks while putting together one mediocre season after another, while at the same time giving even the sub-.500 teams a sniff of what “pennant fever” can feel like.
The idea being: even the cynical, billionaire or near-billionaire owners of lower-payroll teams being dwarfed by big-spending rivals would be compelled to spend more in order to get over the second wild-card hump.
That was the theory, anyway. About the only time you’ll get MLB and the Players’ Association to agree to anything is when both see more money at stake. Both saw it here and that’s why these rules passed without a hitch.
Only thing is, I’m not convinced this is going to work out the way they intended. Even worse, I worry that the cynical-minded teams will exploit the second wild-card to even more cynical ends.
Photo Credit: AP

After all, what incentive is there for teams to spend more in the off-season to try to get better? Two weeks ago, the Mariners were the worst team in the American League. Today, their marketing department is trying to get fans to believe in a wild-card race.
A look at shows that second wild-card chance at only 3.7 percent, which is not surprising since the M’s would have to leapfrog seven teams in two months. Not at all the same as passing one team in a division race. Hey, I don’t want to dampen the enthusiasm of M’s fans with this because it’s nice to see the squad finally playing like an MLB team and not a doormat. Enjoy the success and hope it leads to more enjoyable baseball down the road.
It’s not even the M’s that I see as the biggest potential exploiters of this new wild-card system. The team the M’s just swept, the Toronto Blue Jays, has spent years being exactly what it is right now — a .500 or so team trailing several others in its own division. Every year, the trendy pundits like to point to the Blue Jays as an up-and-coming darkhorse and every year, the Toronto squad fuels that fire while finishing around .500 and posing little threat to the serious contenders.
Baseball’s new rules were designed exactly with the Blue Jays in mind. Their smart, young GM, Alex Anthopoulos (from Montreal, naturally), was making new inroads each year with finding ways to exploit baseball’s draft system and stockpile picks while his wealthy conglomerate owner spent about half what the Yankees and Red Sox did. The Blue Jays’ owners have operated their own system of regional sports TV networks for years and profited off the advantages of those while cynically doing very little to try to compete financially with division foes. Worse, the Jays took revenue sharing money and dollar-equalization payments in the process from the rest of MLB.
This year, they’re still a .500 team, but the second wild-card has allowed them — up to this point — to spend half a season telling their fans that they are smack dab in the middle of a playoff race. Which, technically, they still are. They are far more in it than the Mariners.
So, how will the Blue Jays react this winter? Will their owners do what MLB intended, realize they were fairly close to getting over that second wild-card hump, and actually make a stronger effort to secure the added talent and depth to their roster to make a serious playoff run in 2013? Or, will they sit back and say, “Heck, we were in a race two-thirds of the year with injuries and all! Why should we make the extra effort by spending more when we can just get healthy and take our chances?”
As I said earlier, to make money in baseball, teams don’t have to win championships. They just need to give the illusion that they can. I once had a GM tell me that to have profitable TV ratings, all his team had to do was be single-digits back in the first wild-card race on Sept. 1. So, how will that same, cynical executive run his team now that there are two wild-cards?
This is something all baseball fans should be wondering, whether they live in Toronto, Seattle, Oakland, or Washington, D.C.
Spending more doesn’t guarantee any playoff spots. But it does help cover you in the event of injuries and gives you the talent depth needed to ride out a prolonged race. That’s why, in the free-spending AL, you see the Yankees, Rangers, Angels and Tigers all poised for wild-card success while the White Sox spent the trade deadline ramping up to meet their challenge.
The AL East now has a second-place team, the Baltimore Orioles, with one of the worst run differentials in the entire league. That division was imminently more up-for-grabs than at any time in the last decade, especially with the Yankees suffering the early rotation loss of Michael Pineda. How would the Blue Jays have fared with a pre-season payroll boost that would have enabled them to acquire more certain rotation and bullpen help and better cope with in-season injuries? We’ll never know now.
The question now is, what will they do in the off-season? Will the Blue Jays stand-pat yet again payroll-wise and figure that, with returning injured players, they’ll be right back in the thick of second wild-card fever next year? Or will they do more?
How about the Mariners?
Will they realize that even a season remotely close to .500 can keep a team in the second wild-card race? That by upping payroll and bringing in some quality, proven bats and arms, they can still rebuild and keep fans interested in a playoff race at the same time?
Or will they simply shrug, roll the dice that their current lineup can play at a 75-to-80-win pace next year and declare that enough “success” to placate fans hungry for some type of race?
I’d like to believe it’s the former and not the latter.
And yet, I saw what happened at the trade deadline with the Oakland A’s, a team that parlayed one unexpected, sustained hot streak into a wild-card position as of today. The A’s never expected to be in a playoff hunt this year when Billy Beane rebuilt his squad with an eye towards a new ballpark in 2015. And yet, miracle upon miracles, some young guys hit big, a wave of momentum swpet them up and here the A’s are.
And at the trade deadline, the A’s did…nothing.
They could have taken on some payroll by adding more veteran pieces to protect the young squad from the inevitable August wall that many inexperienced guys tend to hit, either from physical strain or mental pressure. Instead, the A’s did nothing at all to boost their young team.
If they make the playoffs, Beane will look like a genius. If they don’t, though, will Oakland fans be able to say their team did all it could to ramp-up along with the other, bigger-spending wild-card contenders? I don’t see how.
Again, we’ll know more about all teams this off-season.
Fans of the more cynical-minded teams — and yes, I’m including the Mariners here — will have their eyes opened a bit further as to what the second wild-card race will really entail moving forward.
Will it serve as an incentive for teams to make that extra push to secure a playoff spot that appears closer than ever?
Or, will they cynically exploit the new rules by sitting pat and hoping the mere existence of an additional wild-card will give the illusion of contending while the club does nothing more to up its chances?
The jury is still out. But it will make for a very interesting off-season for anyone willing to look beyond the hype.



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