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John Romano: Baseball must make expanded playoffs work

Rays manager Joe Maddon, right, congratulates Matt Joyce after Joyce’s solo homer in the first inning against the Tigers.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Rays manager Joe Maddon, right, congratulates Matt Joyce after Joyce’s solo homer in the first inning against the Tigers.

ST. PETERSBURG — Nothing wrong with the Detroit Tigers. Nice offense. A potential Cy Young Award winner. One of the finest managers of this generation.

In fact, if you want to measure them by wins and losses, the visiting Tigers are virtually identical with your hometown Rays this season. Except for this one caveat:

Because they play in the American League Central, the Tigers appear to be heading to the playoffs.

And because they play in the East, the Rays almost certainly are not.

Which is why you should probably have interest in what White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf told USA Today last week. Reinsdorf, one of baseball's most influential owners, is not a fan of expanded playoffs and doesn't think it will happen in 2012.

And that's not good news around here, particularly after commissioner Bud Selig made it sound as if expanded playoffs were almost a foregone conclusion for 2012.

So what has gone wrong?

It seems the addition of wild cards has been tied to realignment and schedule changes, and no one in baseball can agree on those issues.

Again, that's not good news around here. Because, let's face it, the addition of a second wild-card team in the American League would do more for the Rays in the long term than a .300-hitting shortstop ever could.

"From our perspective of the world," Rays manager Joe Maddon said, "I think additional teams in the playoffs is absolutely a wonderful idea."

The assumption, and the hope, is that an expanded postseason has hit a hurdle and not a wall. That eventually owners will figure out a way to get an equal number of teams in each division in each league and that a schedule can be developed that will appease the players association and the television networks.

Because the idea that Tampa Bay (as well as Baltimore and Toronto) is at a disadvantage in the AL East is not just a vague concept but a statistical reality.

They say these things go in cycles, but that's a difficult argument in the era of $200 million payrolls. Since the wild card was added in 1995, the Red Sox and Yankees have combined for 24 of a possible 32 postseason appearances.

That's not cyclical; it's tyrannical.

And it's no surprise that the AL East winner has averaged significantly more victories (98.2) than the AL Central winner (92.9) in the past 15 seasons. What's disturbing is that it has also been more difficult to win the AL wild card (94.9) than the Central.

Think about that for a second. What it basically means is Central teams can come into a season figuring a division title is in reach if they win around 93 games. For an East team, a 93-win season potentially means third place.

To be clear, Maddon isn't complaining about that. It doesn't seem to eat at him that, if he were in the Central division this morning, the Rays would be in first place.

"Everyone knows the rules going into a season, so there's no sour grapes when it comes to that. I have no issue with that at all," Maddon said. "But, moving forward, I think anything that promotes more involvement for more communities and more teams in September is a good thing for baseball.

"There may be some resistance in the beginning from people who say too many teams are making the playoffs. We went through that the first time around with the wild card when it wasn't readily accepted by the purists. But I think that will go away because, by adding one team per league, it's still very competitive to get to the postseason.

"How you make it all work is the rub."

At this point, the most popular alternative appears to be a play-in scenario between two wild-card teams. The idea is baseball can expand the playoff field and reward division winners at the same time.

The problem is you can't have the division winners sitting around waiting for the first round to be played. So do you make it a best-of-three in the wild-card round? Even that might require a layoff of four or five days.

So should it be a one-game playoff? That wouldn't seem fair in a season such as this, where Boston has a significant lead on Anaheim and Tampa Bay in the wild-card race.

If the solution were simple, I suppose it would already be in place.

The larger issue is the commissioner does seem determined to make it happen.

It won't help the Rays in 2011, and it might not help in 2012, but it could eventually be a critical lifeline for a needy franchise.

John Romano: Baseball must make expanded playoffs work 08/23/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 23, 2011 12:18am]
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