In stacked AL, Blue Jays and Orioles will again suffer the most
With the injury problems that have beset the Phillies, it is very possible that if you ranked the major league teams from 1 through 30, you might go through six American League clubs before you reached your first National League squad. See if you agree with this order: 1. Angels. 2. Yankees. 3. Rangers. 4. Tigers. 5. Rays. 6. Red Sox. 7. Phillies.
Such a sequence means an AL team that would finish out of the playoffs would be the best team in the NL. One league's non-playoff team is another league's number 1 seed. Such is the imbalance of power, particularly with stars such as Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Yu Darvish, Carlos Peña, Hiroki Kuroda and Kendrys Morales (who missed 2011 due to injury) all new to the elite AL teams this year.
What happened? The Boston-New York rivalry has caused tides to rise in the AL, especially lately with the new game-changing regional sports network money for the Angels and Rangers, the impulsiveness of Tigers owner Mike Ilitch and the pitching development acumen of the Rays. This didn't happen overnight. Check out the table at right for the best records in baseball from 2009-11:
What's so crazy about that list is that three of the four best teams in baseball over the past four years play in the same division. Poor Toronto and Baltimore. I started thinking about how the second wild card this year might benefit the Blue Jays and Orioles. Toronto has waited 18 years for a postseason game. Baltimore has waited 14 years. Only two cities are experiencing a longer drought between postseason games: Kansas City (26 years) and Pittsburgh (19 years). At least Toronto and Baltimore have the excuse of playing in baseball's toughest division.
(Keep in mind that the AL is much more top-heavy than the NL, which is better balanced and should have more teams in contention come the stretch run.)
The unbalanced schedule works so much against the Jays and Orioles, I'm not sure the extra wild card is going to help them much. Just how difficult is their task? First, consider that over the past four seasons the Jays and Orioles have played 33 percent of their games against the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox (216). By comparison, the Rangers have played just 17 percent against the Big Three (109) and the Tigers only 9 percent (60).
Of the 24 season series Toronto and Baltimore have played against the Big Three over the past four seasons, they are 1-19-4. Here are the composite won-lost records from 2009-11 against the Big Three and against all others for Toronto and Baltimore, as well as Texas and Detroit for comparative purposes:
It's clear that the Blue Jays and Orioles are getting hammered by their division rivals. Don't make the mistake of entirely excusing Baltimore's organizational woes on the schedule or that Toronto deserves a free pass. Both teams have done less with more money and better ballparks than the Rays. The point is that the schedule and the strengths of the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox have made Toronto and Baltimore appear worse off than their talent level. Here's one way to look at it: If you set aside the Bataan marches through New York, Tampa and Boston, the Blue Jays over the past four years have a better record than every NL team except the Phillies -- and yet they haven't sniffed the postseason.
I don't see much room for improvement this year for Toronto and Baltimore. The key for those teams (and many others) falls not so much with the extra wild card as it does the 2013 schedule. With Houston moving to the AL West next season, we will get two 15-team leagues and year-round interleague play that require a major change to the schedule.
The most important issue will be how many intra-divisional games each team will play. Commissioner Bud Selig is adamant about keeping some form of an unbalanced schedule (to protect rivalries and as many local starting times in prime time as possible). But will the intra-divisional games be scaled back? Will the Jays and Orioles get some relief from the Big Three? Major League Baseball must present a 2013 preliminary schedule to the players association this summer. The added wild card gets all the attention, but the schedule format may have an enormous impact on teams, especially the Blue Jays and Orioles.
There are 30 Opening Day starters in the big leagues, but not 30 aces. Somebody has to take the ball on Opening Day, just as Kevin Correia, Carl Pavano, Livan Hernandez and Tim Stauffer did last year.
But no matter how the assignment is derived, an Opening Day start is an honor, especially when it is the first one in a pitcher's career. Not all Opening Day assignments officially have been announced yet, but here are seven guys who are getting the ball on Opening Day for the first time. In many cases, it's been a long, hard road to Day One.
The sale of the Dodgers to Mark Walter, Magic Johnson and Stan Kasten could alter the landscape of the National League -- and quickly. Major League Baseball has been hurt in the past two years by the decline of its NL franchises in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. With new ownership and windfall of TV money about to drop in their laps, the Dodgers are best positioned for the quickest turnaround. In chronological order, here are the items the new owners need to address to make it happen:
The Dodgers are spending about $120 million on payroll this year -- about the same as the Giants but $20 million less than the Angels. Other than a contract that pays Kemp through 2019, they have almost no money committed beyond next season (one year of Chad Billingsley). They could soon be spending 20 percent more above everybody else in the division.