Leveling the playing field for the Marlins

This week the MLB made two major announcements. The first was the move of the Houston Astros from the National League to the American League, scheduled to take effect in 2013. The second was the announcement of an added wild card team for each league, which may begin as early as next season. Every team will be affected by these two changes, but the Marlins might benefit more than others.

The Astros will make the switch from the NL Central to the AL West, which makes the two leagues comprised of an equal 15 teams divided into an even 3 divisions. For days in which every single team plays, like weekend series, it will now be impossible to have every series be intra-league. Formerly, inter-league play was a June-novelty, now it will be a year-round necessity.

Previously, scheduling occurred as follows with minor exceptions: Teams played 6 series against each team in their own division, playing 3 at home and 3 away. Teams played 2 series against all other teams in their league with 1 at home and 1 away. Teams played 1 series against each team in an assigned division of the opposing league with some at home and some away. Teams played their “rival” team (normally intra-city/state if they had one) for 2 series, 1 at home and 1 away. I imagine this format will stay relatively constant, but it will require minor changes.

I have mixed feelings about divisional play. As a resident of the greater D.C.-Baltimore region, I hope teams play the same amount of games within the division so that I will still be able to visit the Fish at Nationals Park three times every year. But by the same token, Miami’s division is extremely difficult. With the Phillies, Braves, and Mets as big-market spenders, the Marlins have a tough time competing in the NL East.

Before the Astros’ move was announced, there was speculation of complete realignment in baseball that would group teams based on geographical regions and similar markets. This might have placed the Marlins, Nationals, Orioles, Braves, and Rays in the same division, which would even out the playing field drastically. Without a salary cap in baseball, it is much tougher for small market teams to compete since spending is a necessity. In baseball-established cities like Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and San Francisco, winning records seem to come naturally by nature of money, and don’t affect attendance more than the desire of the citizens to just watch baseball.

But the Marlins’ dog days are hopefully over with the rebranding. Now the elimination of one team of the National League will shrink the playing field for the wild card spot. It’s not a major change, but the second announcement by Bud Selig this week makes that wild card spot even more attainable. With the addition of another playoff-eligible team in each league, teams like the Marlins double their hopes of winning a wild card. The reasoning there is self-explanitory, but the phrase, “two wild card teams from each league,” is misleading.

Yes, there will be an added playoff-eligible team from each league, possibly starting as soon as next season, but there will not be another round of playoffs added to each league. Instead of a series between the wild cards, the two qualifiers will square off in a one-game playoff to determine which team advances. So this “expansion” of the playoffs is sadder than NCAA’s “expansion” of the basketball tournament by adding a few extra play-in games. Maybe the MLB should take lessons from the NFL, and have six teams from each league while giving two clubs a first-round bye.

This expansion will, however, add to the excitement of September. Coming the year after we saw the Braves and Red Sox utilize their butterfingers to let the Cardinals and Rays, respectively, overtake the wild card spots, the added qualifying spot will double the fall drama and give more teams hope as they head down the final stretch of the year. It’s not as if the wild card is just an extra filler team to the playoffs inserted as compensation for a decent year. In recent history, the wild card teams have been legitimate division contenders who succeed in the playoffs. The young Marlins franchise has never won an NL East title, but the two times they entered the postseason as a wild cards, they won the World Series. And this year, the Cardinals won the Fall Classic after an incredible September run while also relying on the Braves’ collapse.

Also in the news this week is Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. The young star has been on the radar for a great deal of teams including the Marlins. Many of the best prospects nowadays come from Latino countries south of the Continental U.S. In this sense, the Miami possesses a certain appeal to these players. If confronted by mega-million-dollar contracts differing from each other by only *a few million dollars,* players  would sensibly look at the venues I would be playing in. As a Cuban-defector, Cespedes might realistically rather to play in a city like Miami with a large Hispanic, and specifically Cuban, population than an All-American-limelight venue such as New York.

Cespedes is described as having a quiet personality, so if he ends up being the center fielder for Miami in 2012, hopefully his humility, along with Mike Stanton’s reserved nature, will rub off on Logan Morrison.

Playing in a smaller league, having an additional wild card spot, and looking forward to a bright future complete with star talent and the ability to spend, the Marlins have a great opportunity to benefit in the coming years. Hopefully they will respond to this opportunity, and cash in with playoff appearances.

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