It’s not officially announced yet, but it’s looking like each league will be sending five teams to the playoffs this year. Three division winners, and two wild cards forced to battle in a hellish one-game playoff with each other.
In general, I enjoy the strong emphasis on the regular season–and the depth and endurance it requires–in baseball that a limited playoff system offers. Anything that rises to diminish that is therefore troubling; so you can imagine how I feel about the legitimacy of a one-game playoff.
It will also increase the emphasis on winning divisional races in the power divisions, and decrease the likelihood of more Red Sox-Yankees ALCS’. So there are negatives, there are positives. It’s not yet an ‘everybody-in’ disaster, but it got a bit closer to it.
The initial reaction to the news is “Wow, that’s good news for the coastal AL powers.” The Rangers, Angels, Rays, Red Sox, and Yankees, and Tigers figure to be the class of the league, and now only one of them would be excluded if they finished at the top.
But that’s a little close-minded. An additional playoff spot lowers the bar for everyone. That includes the White Sox, even if it looks like they’re better off hoping for Detroit to collapse. And since the White Sox have traditionally found it hard to pass on a puncher’s chance at the playoffs in favor of rebuilding, their reaction to an extra slot should be interesting.
It would put a bit of a different spin on the White Sox recent slate of performance, which is most often justified with “Well, we’re in it every year”. In 2010, the four-game set against the Red Sox that was the second-to-last series of the year? Now it would be a battle for the last playoff spot, where the White Sox enter down 3 games, and finish it down only 1 entering the final weekend. The disappointing-but-still-pretty-good 90-win 2006 squad would get a one-game playoff against the Tigers for their troubles.
Those are the most exciting tweaks to recent White Sox history an extra playoff spot would offer. The 2003 and 2004 squads’ playoff outlooks would have been rosier at the trade deadline, but both those teams went for it full-bore anyway, even if it meant Roberto Alomar both times. Of course, in ’03, ’04, ’08, ’09, a 2nd wild card slot wasn’t any easier to acquire than the AL Central crown.
So roughly half of the time over the last decade this measure would have lowered the bar of contention for the Sox, resulting in one more playoff birth…and being in the running for a 2nd.
Without the 2010 birth, I’m not sure the Kenny Williams look any better. The criticism in place for his work fully acknowledges that he built a great team in 2005-06, and that the Thome trade was plenty fine. If the White Sox miss out on the 2nd Wild Card slot in 2010 by 1 game, it’s still 3 years without a playoff appearance, 5 years without 90 wins. It’s still middle-class major league results with a barren farm system, portending a dreary future.
It’s open to speculation–and pretty much only speculation–whether the temptation of an extra playoff spot will alter Kenny Williams’ view of what the cutoff is for the team to be a competitor. Because this move has been in the pipeline for years, and the only thing that changed today was the timeline being confirmed, I would theorize that it has already been considered into the White Sox long-term plans. Perhaps just enough to figure as a slight factor in deciding to forestall a “domino-fall type rebuild”, but hopefully not. I would like to think that the sound decisions to re-invigorate their Latin American scouting and lean on their organizational ability to develop pitching prospects are made with bigger plans in mind.
Chances are if the White Sox had an international talent pipeline and drafted well, whether or not the new playoff system encouraged the itchy-finger GM to be a shade more short-sighted would be a non-issue. But they’re living on the on the fence now, and every tweak to the environment becomes significant.