The pennant races have, in many cases, become a leisurely stroll through September.
Entering Wednesday, only two of the eight playoff races involved a gap of fewer than seven games. And only one of those two -- the AL West battle between the Rangers and Angels -- is a legitimate race. The AL East might be a tight tussle between the Yankees and Red Sox, but it's a phantom race, given that both teams are going to the postseason whether or not they finish first. (And, as has been noted, it's conceivable that the East champ will "win" the right to face Justin Verlander twice in five games. Some prize.)
This has us thinking about the Wild Card.
Not the one we already have, because even those races seem set. But what about that second Wild Card that would be in the stack, should postseason expansion become a reality?
Depending on your perspective, this season might be Exhibit A as to why it needs to be put in play.
Commissioner Bud Selig has said baseball is moving "inexorably" toward a 10-team postseason format. Collective bargaining talks are being held, so it could happen as soon as 2012. Then again, with the players' union looking to tie expansion to a realignment that would create two 15-team leagues, that might not be the case.
IF IT WERE REALLY WILD
These are the teams that would have benefited from a second Wild Card in past seasons (victories in parentheses):
Red Sox (89)
White Sox (90)
Red Sox/Mariners (93)
Blue Jays (88)
Mariners/White Sox (85)
* Strike-shortened, 144-game season
However it turns out, it's become clear that a 10-team postseason is coming eventually in some form, and probably relatively soon.
Just not soon enough to save several teams in 2011.
"I'll use all my influence with Mr. Selig to include it this year," Tony La Russa said, tongue firmly in cheek. "Might get it done, might not."
La Russa's Cardinals are done. The Brewers used a 26-5 run from July 25-Aug. 28 to turn what had been a tight NL Central race into a laugher, and the Braves have the Wild Card all but locked up. But if MLB had two Wild Cards, the Cards would be in contention for that coveted final spot. At 75-67, they'd be tied with the defending-champion Giants for the NL's fifth seed, with the Reds and Mets both five games behind.
Little wonder, then, that La Russa sees the merits of playoff expansion. And he's not alone.
"If you add another spot to the postseason," said Giants reliever Sergio Romo, "it obviously gives you something more to strive for."
As far as the AL is concerned, if another Wild Card were on the table, the Angels (77-65) and their fans wouldn't just be scoreboard-watching for the Rangers' results. They'd also be keeping their eyes on the Rays (77-64), who would not be known simply as Yankees/Red Sox road kill but would have a half-game game lead on the Halos for the AL Wild Card, Part Deux. The White Sox would be five games back, the Indians five and a half.
"Tampa's obviously in a tough situation in that division," said Angels starter Dan Haren, "with those powerhouses and the financial resources they have."
Those "powerhouses" are Boston and New York, and the second Wild Card discussion really revolves around them.
In the Wild Card era, dating back to 1995, the Yankees and Red Sox, no doubt buoyed by the game's grand economic disparities, have claimed 24 of a possible 32 postseason spots [soon to be 26 of 34]. An additional AL entry opportunity would allow the Rays, Jays and Orioles a greater semblance of a fighting chance in a division that has more monopolistic qualities than any other.
"It's always going to be a good idea if you're a Ray," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. "Playing in the division that we do, in the circumstances that we do, I think a second Wild Card would definitely help us. But I also believe that it's going to keep more communities and teams involved in the course of a season, which is always good for baseball And I believe it could be done without saturating the playoff situation."
Here's a news flash: Not everybody agrees. And this 2011 season actually presents fodder for both sides of the discussion about what an added Wild Card would entail.
On the one hand, it seems silly that the only incentive the Yanks and Red Sox have for winning their division is to secure home-field advantage in the postseason. Especially when you consider that, since baseball's current playoff scheduling format was adopted in 1998, home-field advantage has not been decisive at all. Exactly half of the 52 Division Series and 30 League Championship Series in that span have gone to the team that had the home-field disadvantage.
From that perspective, making the AL East runner-up face another Wild Card winner in a one-game play-in or best-of-three first round for the right to advance to the Division Series makes all sorts of sense.
On the other hand, there's the argument that adding more playoff teams would sacrifice fairness for suspense. Look at this year's standings. If a 10-team playoff were in effect and the postseason started today, the Red Sox would be subjected to a short series or single-elimination game against the Rays, despite being eight games better than the Rays over the course of the season. The Braves have been 7 1/2 games better than both the Giants and Cardinals, but they'd have to put all that work on the line in a one-game or best-of-three setting.
Taking this point further, six of the past seven AL winners of Wild Card No. 1 would have been teams that posted records at least five games better than that of Wild Card No. 2.
Some see that as a major concern.
"You play 162 games, then play a one-game play-in?" Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "And you might have the second-best record in the league. It just doesn't seem right that it would happen that way."
The reality, of course, is that little in life and sport is fair. Especially in a sport in which an entire team [the Royals] had an Opening Day payroll just slightly higher than the season salary of a single Yankees player [Alex Rodriguez]. The playoffs are inherently about momentum, and there is something to be said for, and something to be gained from, an environment in which more teams have a chance to see where their momentum takes them.
Despite fears to the contrary, the second Wild Card wouldn't routinely add a cupcake to the October calendar. Since 1996 [the 1995 season was shortened by the strike], the 30 teams that would have claimed the second Wild Card, had it existed, averaged 89 wins. Eleven of the 30 won 90-plus.
Think they would have been in favor of a fifth seed?
"A lot of times," Haren said, "the Wild Card is the hottest team."
This much is true. Nine Wild Card winners have advanced to the World Series and four -- the 1997 and 2003 Marlins, the 2002 Angels and 2004 Red Sox -- have won it. Those clubs took advantage of a system that doesn't do much to distinguish between a Wild Card and a division winner. What's nice about the proposed Wild Card vs. Wild Card first round is that it would address that unfair format while still allowing for the intrigue and impact a hot hand can provide in the postseason.
It's an appealing idea on many levels, and it's going to involve many layers of discussion when the bargaining talks heat up. Some would want it tied to realignment, some are adamantly against a one-game play-in and some only favor expanded playoffs if the season itself is shortened.
"The season would have to be condensed," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "It's going too long as it is. A lot of things have to be put on the table. There are a lot of hurdles that have to be cleared if you're going to add another team."
Crossing those hurdles in a reasonable fashion would be beneficial to the game's reach. The NFL allows 12 of its 32 teams (37.5 percent) into the postseason, while the NBA and NHL both have 16 of 30 (53.3 percent) advance. MLB has been the most exclusionary of the major sports, with eight of 30 (26.7 percent) in the postseason. The proposed increase would still give MLB the smallest percentage of teams reaching the playoffs, but it would spread the excitement around a little more.
"The more teams that are involved in it, and the more cities you give a chance and an opportunity to be in the playoffs, the better," Indians manager Manny Acta said. "A lot of teams, despite playing well -- over .500 -- have nothing to play for with a month to go."
No matter your feelings about postseason expansion -- and both sides of the argument have merit -- there's no denying this season would have benefited from having an added element to the race.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. Reporters Matthew Leach, Lyle Spencer, Aimee Sachs and Chris Haft contributed to this story.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.