By this time last season, the Jays were 11.5 games back of the Division leading Red Sox, and the Orioles were a whopping 20.5 games back. Sure, the Jays were close to where are today, around .500, but they sure weren’t anywhere close to a playoff spot. In fact, at this time last year, the Jays sat 9.5 games back of the Yankees for the Wilcard spot. Only the Angels (5.5 GB) and Rays (6.5 GB) seemed to be within striking distance of the Yankees. That proved to be true when the Rays seized a massive breakdown from the Red Sox to secure a berth into the playoffs.
This year, everything has changed due to the extra playoff spots. Trades seem to be harder to come by, the price teams are asking is reportedly inflated, and all but 4 to 6 teams in MLB believe they have a shot at grabbing that last playoff spot. The questions I have today are these: will this continue to occur long-term, and what does it mean for competitive balance?
In years passed, teams like the San Diego Padres, who sit 15 games under .500, would likely have “handed” their best and most expensive players to the top teams for the “right price”. I put handed and right price in quotations because it all depends on how good the GM of the team is at getting fair value, and in being a little lucky that the presumed prospects received in a deal work out. The point is, the best players of that already lousy team would be gone, the “rebuild” would begin, and all of that team’s youth would be forced to take on more pressure and responsibility, with little leadership there to help them, the following season.
As we can see so far this season, the teams that are even remotely marginally good are thinking to themselves that with just a little tweaking, they could be competitive for that last playoff spot in 2013. And why wouldn’t they? As bad as the Padres are, they’re only 12 GB of a playoff spot! All of the sudden, being remotely close to .500 can make any team a playoff contended. Imagine all of those Jays teams which were experts at doing just that under JP Ricciardi being able to compete for such a spot. That would change how he was viewed by Jays fans now, wouldn’t it?
If you wonder why so few trades have occurred this season as we approach the trade deadline, look no further than the extra playoff spot. In the American League, 8 teams are within 4 GB of the playoffs, and 3 teams are tied for the wilcard leads. No team is further away from a playoff spot than Minnesota, who sit 11 GB. Last season at the same point in the year, 6 teams were further than 11 GB of a playoff spot, while only the Jays (9.5 GB), Indians (7.5 GB), Rays (6.5 GB), and Angels (5.5 GB) were within 10 games. In the National League, the same scenario held true, with 5 teams within 10 games of the wildcard spot holding Braves (the closest being the Diamondbacks at 6 GB), while this season 8 teams are within 8 games of the 2 wildcard spots. Selling has seemingly been put on the back burner as teams assess their chances to make the playoffs in 2013 and seem more willing to hang onto their stars for that shot.
Sure, some teams are still pulling the plug, such as the Astros, but they’re few and far between and some would contend that they were mismanaged for a good length of time. Let me ask you all this: would the Astros have traded Hunter Pence to the Phillies if the extra playoff spot existed at the time? I’m not so sure. The same scenario seems to be playing itself out for the Cubs, who are cornered and have a brand new GM trying to put his stamp on the team. But, other than the Cubs and Astros, it seems to me that even the worst of teams are keeping their top players.
Seatlle (42-55) has repeatedly stated that they’re inexplicably keeping Ichiro Suzuki, and they’re definitely keeping Felix Hernandez. Colorado (36-58) hasn’t had a fire sale of any sort, deciding instead to simply tweak their rotation by acquiring Jonathan Sanchez from Kansas City (40-54) who are taking a shot with Jeremy Guthrie, and Minnesota (40-55) is reportedly asking for the moon in return for Dernard Span and Francisco Liriano. You would think that Philadelphia (42-54) would be unloading a lot of talent and begin a rebuild of sorts, but not this year as they are still only 10.5 GB of the wildcard. They have yet to make a trade and are reportedly trying to lock up Cole Hamels instead for over $100 million!
Every single team has a new outlook on how the season can turn. Last season’s improbable run by the Rays and Red Sox, coupled with the extra playoff spot have changed everything. The Yankees haven’t acquired Felix Hernandez, the Rangers haven’t acquired Carlos Quentin or Billy Butler. Instead, the Padres have signed Carlos Quentin and are reportedly close to signing Huston Street to an extension! I can’t recall any bottom dwelling team extending their players instead of sitting the season out and waiting until the off season. Some could say that it’s posturing to increase the chances that free agents will look on San Diego more favourably when the off season arrives, but it’s still a major change of pace.
I definitely believe that if MLB retain the extra playoff spots, this is a sign of things to come and may be the best thing ever done for competitive balance in this sport. No longer will the empires repeatedly rob the bottom dwelling teams of their best players simply because the majority of teams realize they can’t compete for the playoffs.
There’s a renewed energy throughout MLB that speaks clearly and loudly. It screams that most teams have a chance to reverse their fortunes more quickly than ever. That’s a great thing for competitive balance, it’s a great thing for fans all over, and it’s definitely a refreshing occurrence to witness after years of domination by the so very few. There may still be a few fire sales here and there within the next few years, but I do believe that there will be try few in comparison to years past.
The extra playoff spots change everything. And they do so for the better. The league will remain more balanced year-to-year, player movement will be more conservative, allowing fans to cheer for the same players more often than not, and there will be more talk of playoff spot chases well into the later parts of the season. All of those are tremendous positives, and I certainly hope this continues for the long-term.