Is Splitting-up the AL East Good for Baseball?

Entering this off-season, there was a lot of chatter about the potential to reorganize the division structure in the MLB. Although there is no real structure proposed or any agreement on the table yet, it got me thinking about. Let’s be honest, the AL East is one of the main reasons why owners and executives would be interested in reconfiguring the league. With 3 perennial power-house teams, a 4th strong contender and the AL Wild Card almost guaranteed to be locked-up within the division every season, it makes gaining a playoff spot in the AL Central or West much harder/near impossible. As a Red Sox fan, it is nice to almost guarantee 2 divisional playoff spots each year, but the competition between the New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and sometimes the Toronto Blue Jays makes winning 90+ games each year a bear. The top 4 teams in the AL East finished with 85+ wins in 2010, leaving only the Baltimore Orioles with a below .500 record. Is it time to share the wealth and spread the love?

This is a topic/debate that I haunts me every year. At the end of a long season, I look at the standings and see a complete and utter disparity between the AL East and every other division. It is obvious on paper and on the field. In the last 15 years, 10 times an AL East team won the AL Pennant. With the exception of the Red Sox vs. the AL Central (15-18), the top 4 teams in the AL East had winning records against the AL Central and West in 2010 and even the 66-96 Baltimore Orioles had a winning record against the West. In that same vein, no team outside the AL East had a winning record against the powerhouse division. Only 1 team even broke 20 wins against the East and that was the Oakland Athletics at 20-25. What does all this really tell us? Not much, except that the AL East may be too powerful for it’s own good. If the MLB wants to continue to build and draw interest from all parts of the country, a reorganization may be the way to go.

When it comes to this topic I am still on the fence about my true feelings. On one hand, I love the high-level of competition and because of that, it means more hotly contended games between the Sox, Yankees and Rays. It is that competition that makes April divisional games feel like the playoffs. Every game means so much, regardless of the time of year, creating more fan interest. On the flip side, it just seems unfair to exclude a team from the playoffs that has just as strong a record or resume as another division winner. Perennially, the East produces 3 teams near or above 90 wins. This past year, even with their plethora of injuries, the Sox finished with 89 wins, good for 3rd in the division and 6 games out of a playoff spot. The AL West champion Texas Rangers finished with 90 wins and won their division by 9 games. The Sox would not have made the playoffs in either scenario, but they at least would have been in contention. Again, I’m not saying the Sox deserved to be in the playoffs in 2010, but it would have made for a significantly more interesting race down the stretch both for the Texas Rangers and Red Sox.

For those of you thinking I’m only interested in seeing an easier path for the Red Sox to make the playoffs, you are wrong. On the contrary, I would love to see every division in baseball be as competitive as the AL East is each year. A balanced league would allow for teams like the Toronto Blue Jays to have a shot at the post-season. Right now, if the Blue Jays are ever going to be a post-season team they need to win 90+ (likely 95) games in the East and somehow beat out 2 of the 3 other powerhouse teams, with whom they play 1/3 of their games against (about 57). The other issue, albeit a smaller one, is preparedness for the post-season when a team gets there. It is no coincidence that AL East teams that make the World Series are 7-3 in those series’. They play tougher competition day in and day out, making them better prepared for the big stage. It certainly isn’t always the case, but as a general trend makes a difference when looking at the bigger picture.

Ultimately, does it really matter where these teams play if they are at such a high level? Wouldn’t it hurt the league to have the Yankees win the West, the Red Sox with the Central and the Rays with the East? Who knows, but as each season comes and goes, the AL East only gets more competitive, not less.

After all of that non-sense and rambling, the more likely scenario facing the MLB is the addition of a Wild Card slot in each league and not an immediate reorganization. It could be seen as a patch to try and gather a broader interest for more of the season. There are positives and negatives with that approach, but it at very least adds another avenue for a team to enter the post-season. That way, if an AL Central or West team has a fantastic year, but doesn’t win their division, they at least have a shot at one of the Wild Card slots. In that same vein, the AL East could now just have 3 of the 5 AL representatives in the post-season, creating an even bigger cry for divisional realignment. Let’s not even approach that scenario right now…

The realignment topic is not a new phenomenon and will likely be talked about for months and years to come as the game of baseball looks to continue to grow and gain wide-ranging appeal. A World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Texas Rangers was great for the game, exposing 2 teams that rarely get the attention they deserve this season, but that isn’t enough. If baseball wants to continue to be America’s pastime and gain new viewers and fans on a consistent basis, the game needs to grow and advance to continue to remain both historical and unique, but also modern and interesting. The topics of instant replay and realignment are just a few ideas that focus on keeping the greatest game ever played exactly that, great.

Tags: AL Central AL East AL Pennant AL West AL Wild Card Baltimore Orioles Boston Red Sox Division Realignment MLB New York Yankees San Francisco Giants Tampa Bay Rays Texas Rangers Toronto Blue Jays Wild Card

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