By John Schmeelk
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With the All-Star break about to end, let's take a good, hard look at the structure and some of the rules of Major League Baseball.
Why? Let's be honest, there are some flaws in America's pastime.
The Wild Card: Many would argue that the Wild Card is a good idea. It keeps more fans of more teams engaged for a longer part of the regular season. It gives them hope of making the playoffs and potentially winning a World Series.
It has, however, has cheapened the meaning of the division championship and made the regular season far less important.
What always set baseball apart from the other sports was the 162-game grind. Every team had to survive it to have a chance to make the playoffs. Sustained excellence over such a long period of time was just as important as playoff success. With the Wild Card as a fall back position, some of that regular season importance has disappeared. "So what if the Yankees don't win the AL East and finish with a better record than the Red Sox, they'll have a chance to beat them in the playoffs when they get in as a wild card."
The answer is to reduce the value of the Wild Card, which in the current system doesn't provide enough of a disadvantage in the postseason. At the same time, the playoffs and Wild Card can be expanded to include another team. It's a solution I first heard suggested by Joel Sherman a few years ago and it has gained in popularity. Add an extra Wild Card in each league, and have the two non-division winners play a three game series immediately after the season for the rights to play the team with the best record in their respective league.
The positives are obvious. Another team can play playoff baseball, and this way there would be a true disadvantage to winning the Wild Card. It adds importance to having the best record in the American or National League and winning the division, forcing teams to play out the season to avoid a "crap-shoot" three-game series. It brings more meaning back to regular season baseball, something that is sorely needed.
The All-Star Game: As has been the discussed ad nauseam, the All-Star Game is a muddled mess. The game counts, yet fans vote for whom will start. A player from every team must be invited, even if they are undeserving. Players drop out left and right, and the managers try to get everyone in the game even if they are inferior.
None of those things would be bad if the game didn't carry such significance: home field advantage in the World Series. If the game counts, then treat it like a real game. Let the media pick the players and tell managers to treat it seriously.
If you like the fans voting and everyone getting in the game, then remove the importance from the game. Go one way or the other. Right now MLB wants to have their cake and eat it too, and it's a mess.
Interleague Play: Unlike a lot of people, I like interleague play. Some argue, "who cares if the Yankees play the Reds, they aren't rivals!" My response to that is "Is another series against the Oakland A's or Kansas City Royals any better?"
I like that I can see Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder in Yankee Stadium once in a while. Being in Cincinnati this year, I can promise you it was something special for those fans to see the Yankees come to town. I'd much rather see a team and players I rarely get to see play (like Troy Tulowitzki) than another series against a team in the AL Central or AL West. It's unique.
That doesn't mean there aren't ways to improve it. First, the teams in the same division need to play the same teams. I don't know why baseball went away from their divisional rotation, but it doesn't make any sense. If the division title is to mean something, the schedules need to be the same -- for every team in the division!
Second, the rivalry series should just be played once per season. I know this takes money out of the coffers, which no one wants, but it would level the playing the field. The Mets are at a disadvantage having to play the Yankees twice a year, and only playing once reduces that problem. In terms of competition, with the two teams playing only once a season, it increases the intensity of rivalry, which even in the case of the Mets and Yankees, has waned.
Fix the Amateur Draft: The fact international players are not involved in the Major League Baseball Draft is a joke. Players from the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean and South American countries are simply out there in the wild wild west, waiting for some team to throw millions of dollars at them. The bonuses are often in the $3-5 million range, making it nothing more than a bidding war. It gives great advantage to teams with greater resources to replenish their farm system by simply throwing money at these young players.
There's absolutely no reason the rules can't be altered to have these players included in the player draft. It would make the draft much more exciting, bringing it a little closer to the spectacles enjoyed by the NBA and the NFL. It will never reach that level, but maybe someday teams will be able to trade picks for players and move up and down in the draft order. It would give front offices more flexibility and add some more drama to what is now a completely under the radar draft process.
The Salary Cap: I left this for last since it's never going to happen, but baseball needs a salary cap. I'm not suggesting anything as crazy like the median salary, which is around $87 million. I'm not even suggesting capping it at $120 million, a number that the Mets and Giants hover around. My only goal here is bring back to the pack the teams that have such a high payroll it destroys competitive balance: the Yankees ($200 million), Red Sox ($161 million) and Phillies ($172 million). Those teams have such a financial advantage it nearly guarantees them a playoff berth.
Clearly, the Angels ($138 million), White Sox ($129 million), Cubs ($125 million) and Mets ($120 million) aren't guaranteed anything based on their payroll. Sure they have an advantage over teams like the Rangers ($92 million), Tigers ($102 million), Brewers ($85 million), Reds ($76 million) and Braves ($87 million), but nothing so insurmountable that the high-spenders have been able to consistently outperform their lower revenue counterparts.
So let's set the salary cap at $140 million. It would impact only three teams, but make a real difference in leveling the playing field across Major League baseball. The Blue Jays, Rays and Orioles would have a much more realistic chance of winning the American League East or making the playoffs.
What would you change? Let Schmeelk know in the comments below......
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