There has been talk recently that Major League Baseball and the Player’s Union could be open to expanding the current playoff structure, either by converting the divisional series from five to seven games, or by adding more teams to the mix. Anytime there is the thought of change being brought up in baseball, you get the usual protests from the purists to resist that change. The current playoff field is seen as a strong selling point for baseball, due to the exclusive number of playoff spots in the post season. Unfortunately, the problem is that there’s an exclusive number of teams competing for those spots, thanks to the poor financial structure baseball has established.
There’s no secret that baseball is a mess as far as finances go. The New York Yankees opened the 2010 season with a $206 M payroll, which was $44 M more than the second place Boston Red Sox, and six times the payroll that the last place Pittsburgh Pirates opened with. The figure is also more than double the league average of $90.5 M. Focus on that for a second. The average team spends $90 M in payroll. This summer, documents came out that showed that the Pirates made $35 M in profits over a three year period from 2007-2009. The Pirates ended up spending in the $50 M range in each of those years. Had the Pirates spent up to the $90.5 M league average in 2010, they would currently be sitting in $90 M of debt right now, just from that three year period.
It’s not impossible for a small market team like the Pirates to compete, but it is improbable. Bud Selig likes to point out all of the instances where small market teams have had success. In fact, Selig is using this year’s matchup between the Texas Rangers and the San Francisco Giants as proof of competitive balance in baseball, pointing out that baseball has seen 16 of 30 teams in the World Series since the year 2000. The problem isn’t who makes the World Series. The problem is who has a chance of making the World Series.
Since the year 2000, the New York Yankees have missed the post-season just once, in 2008. They’ve won the division every other year, with the exceptions of 2007 and 2010. The Red Sox won the division in 2007, and the Tampa Bay Rays won in 2010. Boston has made the playoffs six times in those ten seasons. The wild card has come from the AL East seven times in those ten seasons, all from the Yankees and Red Sox.
The AL West has been dominated by the Los Angeles Angels, who have won the division five out of ten years, and won the Wild Card in 2002. The Oakland Athletics but together an impressive run as a small market team, winning the division three out of the ten years, and making it as a Wild Card team once.
The Minnesota Twins have dominated the AL Central, winning the division six out of ten years since the year 2000. Like the Athletics, the Twins are a small market team that has managed to find the formula for success, only Minnesota has maintained that success for a decade, all while losing star players like Johan Santana and Torii Hunter to big market teams like the Angels and New York Mets.
The Atlanta Braves had an impressive playoff streak going from the early 90s to the 2005 season, winning the NL East from 2001-2005. Since then the New York Mets have won the division once, and the Philadelphia Phillies have won the last four years.
The Cincinnat Reds won the NL Central this year, but don’t think the division is up for grabs. The St. Louis Cardinals or the Chicago Cubs have won the division every year since the 2001 season, when the Houston Astros won, and the Cardinals made the Wild Card.
The NL West has been an open race over the last decade, despite the big spending Los Angeles Dodgers, although the Dodgers have won the division three times and made the Wild Card once. The only NL West team that hasn’t won the division has been Colorado, who made it as the Wild Card in 2007 and 2009.
So what does baseball have? The Red Sox, Yankees, Angels, Twins, Athletics, Rays, Braves, Mets, Phillies, Cardinals, Cubs, and the open NL West. What about the other teams in the league? Let’s take a quick look:
-Baltimore Orioles: Have posted a losing record from 1998-2010.
-Toronto Blue Jays: Five winning seasons in the last ten years. Seasons with 85, 86, and 87 wins, but never made playoffs in that stretch, and only finished above third place once.
-Kansas City Royals: From 1994-2010 they’ve only had one winning season, which was an 83-79 season in 2003.
-Detroit Tigers: Had losing seasons from 1994-2005, with only one losing season from 2006-2010, and only one playoff appearance in that span.
-Cleveland Indians: Had an impressive run from 1995-2001, rebuilt in 2002, won again in 2005, made the ALCS in 2007, currently in another rebuilding phase.
-Washington Nationals: Since 1994 they have had three winning seasons. An 88 win season in 1998, and back to back 83 win seasons in 2002-2003. Won 81 games in 2005 after the move from Montreal to Washington. Haven’t made the playoffs at all during this stretch.
-Florida Marlins: Famous for buying a World Series in 1997, and winning again in 2003, although the team hasn’t made the playoffs outside of those years. The Marlins have never won the division in their 18 year history, and have only finished in 2nd place three times.
-Cincinnati Reds: Had back to back winning seasons in 1999-2000, but lost every year from 2001 until winning the division in 2010. Their playoff appearance this year is the first since 1995.
-Pittsburgh Pirates: We know the story here. 18 years of losing.
-Colorado Rockies: Have never won the NL West in their 18 year history, and have only made the playoffs three times in that span.
Since the 2000 season, five teams have failed to make the playoffs: Baltimore, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Washington. Five additional teams have failed to win their division: Colorado, Detroit, Florida, Houston, and Milwaukee. Compare that to the NFL, where only three teams have failed to make the playoffs since the 2000 season: Buffalo, Detroit, and Houston. Only three others have failed to win their division: Cleveland, Jacksonville, and Washington. Also keep in mind that the NFL has 32 teams, two more than MLB.
There are two main reasons the NFL has those numbers. First, the NFL sends more teams to the playoffs each year, sending 12 of 32 teams (37.5%), compared to MLB’s 8 of 30 teams (26.7%). More importantly, the NFL has been a balanced league all of this time, with fair revenue sharing, and a salary cap/floor. How else do you explain that Pittsburgh and Baltimore have been two of the most consistently hopeless teams in baseball over the last decade, but have dominated the AFC North? Or what about Kansas City and Washington, two teams that have struggled to win in baseball, but have no problem making the playoffs in football. Then there’s the flip side: the New York Giants won the Super Bowl in 2008, as a huge underdog. If a New York team makes the World Series in baseball, they’re not making it as a huge underdog, and probably wouldn’t be an underdog. Even more, they had the lowest payroll in the NFL that season.
Major League Baseball obviously has no intentions on fixing the broken economic system, a point that becomes more apparent each time Bud Selig proclaims the game as having a competitive balance. Therefore, the best solution in this broken system is to add more playoff teams. The system currently guarantees that either the Yankees, Red Sox, or both, will make the playoffs each season. So why not add two more playoff spots, to give the other American League teams a shot, outside of trying to win the division from the large market team they have to compete against?
Adding two extra wild card spots would add one additional round. Make it a best of five series, and you’re only talking about adding an additional week to the playoffs. That could easily be added to the post-season if baseball cut out all of the dead time in between the different rounds. This also allows for more teams to get a shot at the playoffs, which is great for baseball, as it drives up interest in more cities, and creates more playoff races down the stretch of the regular season. It also gives small market teams hope. Having a winning season seems hard enough for teams like Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Washington, and Kansas City. Expecting those teams to win 90+ games to make the playoffs seems impossible. But 86-87 wins doesn’t seem as far fetched.
An expanded playoff system might lower the talent level in the playoffs, taking the post-season from a group of 90+ win teams to a group of 87+ win teams, but in the long run it’s the best move baseball can make. MLB isn’t going to do what needs to be done: a salary cap/floor, and equal revenue sharing. Rather than pretend that this current system is flawless and breeds equal competition, baseball should throw a bone to the small market teams, adding two more wild card spots to give those small market teams a better chance of reaching the post-season.