In 2012, playoff baseball will be unlike any year before. Over the winter, baseball added a new wrinkle to the game. Instead of just one wild card team in each league, two wild card teams will play one game to decide who advances into the playoffs. The change promises more teams in the playoff hunt. And since in baseball, the worst team can beat the best team on any given day, the new format gives greater incentive for teams to win their division and be protected from baseball’s version of a 50-50 coin toss. With only a few weeks left in the regular season, the current standings portend several races that could come down to the final day.
Three teams stand atop the National League. The Reds, Nationals, and Giants hold a commanding lead at the head of their respective divisions—the NL Central, East, and West. Atlanta also has a firm grasp on the first wild card spot. But beneath the top teams, the Dodgers, Cardinals, Brewers, and Phillies battle for the final slot. The Dodgers and the Phillies took completely different approaches to their season and ended up in roughly the same spot. The Dodgers owners, after buying the franchise for a record $2 billion, proceeded to take on millions of dollars in contracts. Meanwhile, the Phillies shed salary and talent at the trade deadline and then started to play their way back into playoff contention. In the NL Central, the Cardinals and Brewers find themselves well behind the Reds, but with a shot at the last spot.
At first glance, two teams battling for the AL East title would seem business as usual— except one of those teams is the Baltimore Orioles (the Yankees in first place is no surprise). With the emergence of outfielder Adam Jones and consistent starting pitching, the Orioles have morphed from a perennial loser into a team that could dethrone the Yankees. In the same division, the Tampa Rays are a long shot to win the division, but have a chance to win the wild card. The Yankees’ payroll in 2012: $195,988,000. The Orioles’ and the Rays’ combined: $145,812,000.
In the Al West, the small-budget A’s (they cover half of their seats with green tarps and their stadium is still half empty) are slightly behind the Texas Rangers and slightly ahead of the big-market Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The A’s feature young, enigmatic, and often brilliant pitching, while the Rangers succeed because most of the players on their team can hit a baseball extremely far. For the Angels, the 20-year-old Mike Trout is already a star and perhaps the game’s most exciting player.
The AL Central rounds out the Major Leagues as the weakest division. Both the Tigers and the White Sox are barely over .500, and the best thing that can be said about the rest of the division is that they are not the Astros. But don’t count out the AL Central. Although their regular season records are unimpressive, with their strong pitching, the Tigers and the White Sox could prove a threat in the playoffs.
September baseball hints at the playoff narratives of October: Small-market teams try to show that good young players trump large contracts and old stars. The Nationals and the Orioles put decades of losing behind them and move into a new era. The Texas Rangers seek redemption after two straight World Series and no trophies. The final few games of September decide which narratives becomes the focus of October.
The best rise to the top over 162 games. If the best team is going to win, the Texas Rangers are my pick for the World Series champs, but in the playoffs— anything can happen.