As of today, the Chicago Cubs’ record (67-49) stands tall as the third best record in the National League. Unfortunately, it is ranked just as highly within their own Central Division, because the Cardinals (76-42) and Pirates (69-47) stand taller in their way. Even in the American League, only the Royals (71-46) have a better record than the Cubs.
Fortunately for the Cubs, MLB introduced a two team Wild Card system, providing a pathway to the postseason that would not have existed four years ago. Unfortunately, the new Wild Card system, as of today, would result in the Cubs playing a one-game playoff – on the road – against the third best team in baseball, where the winner gets the “opportunity” to play the best team in baseball in the NLDS. The other NLDS would feature the fourth best team in the NL taking on the sixth best.
I present this information, of which I’m sure you are already aware, not to ruffle your feathers, but to bring forward the clear bias we will undoubtedly share in the following conversation: Eliminating Divisions.
In an article for Yahoo Sports, Jeff Passan opines that MLB should follow NBA’s lead and eliminate the traditional sense of divisions and divisional winners, at least in relation to the teams that qualify for the post season. Specifically, Passan believes that MLB should “keep the American and National Leagues intact and throw every team into a pool of 15 fighting for five spots.” The result, then, would be the top five teams of each league fighting to avoid the (presumably) shorter Wild Card series. The benefits include better teams making the playoffs, more natural rivalries (not based on geography) and more compelling races down the stretch.
While that structure appears to be a simpler, fairer way to determine the playoff teams (assuming scheduling imbalance was worked out), it is obviously one that would benefit the Cubs this year, so we need to be mindful of our bias. I tried, then, to keep an open mind when reading the reasons against making the change, presented by Passan’s sources, but I fear that the quotes in the article are less than compelling. Example:
One assistant GM: ‘I think there is something to be said for winning your division,’ he said. When asked what that something was … he really didn’t have much of an answer.
‘Because we’re baseball,’ another executive said. ‘And nostalgia is our thing.’
Regardless of the topic at hand, my least favorite reason for avoiding change is tradition. Every story, event, sport or process in life is going to come with some form of tradition; however, every single one of them has undoubtedly experienced change at some point, as well. While there are many reasons why tradition is important – and even the reason some things are special – that doesn’t mean those things are perfect or incapable of improvement. Change can be good, and, while there can be many reasons against change, tradition should probably not be one of them. At the very least, we should always be open to a conversation, even if it ultimately results in the status quo.
With that said, and my bias in mind, I have to believe that making this sort of move is generally for the better. While I’m open to being convinced otherwise, my current understanding – based on the details outlined by Passan – is that eliminating divisions would increase competition, create a more balanced travel schedule, foster new, more natural rivalries and potentially increase the excitement near the end of the season. And all of that is not to mention that the best teams throughout the entire 162 game season would be awarded with more than a one game playoff, determining their fate.
There are a number of alternatives: notably, a reduction of the regular season to 154 games, coupled with an expansion of the Wild Card series to three games, but even that comes with its downsides, risks and roadblocks. [Brett: For the record, that’s the approach I’d most likely welcome, rather than eliminating divisions. They’re arbitrary and limiting, sure, but they also create mini races that are fun – for me, at least – to follow, and enhance rivalries that might otherwise not develop in a league where all 15 teams play each other evenly.]
So what do you think? Are there other viable alternatives? Or would making this sort of change ultimately dilute the quality and proud tradition of MLB? I’m genuinely interested to see what you believe, but remember, try to look beyond the benefit it would place upon the Cubs this season. After all, they could theoretically benefit from being a lesser divisional winner as soon as 2016.