Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Too Much Parity in Baseball?

I have always been annoyed by the fact that so many teams make the playoffs in the National Hockey League. The regular season in any sport that concludes with a playoff season should winnow out the mediocre teams. The end result should be the best teams fighting for the national championship. This system has been mostly satisfactory in baseball except for the last decade or so. What has happened is that teams with less money to spend, particularly the so-called small market teams, have been unable to field truly competitive teams. The Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals come to mind.

In 2011 it seems that Major League Baseball has reached the goal of parity. As of this writing (June 8, 2011) the last place Baltimore Orioles are only 5 and ½ games out of first place, the same number of games that separate the top three contenders in the two other Al Divisions. The same applies for the NL East and Central Division, where 5 and ½ games separate the top three teams; in the NL West this separates the top four teams.

Now, this by itself is not so dramatic. It is not unusual for the top two or three teams to be clustered near the lead. Where the drama comes in is when you examine the Wild Card standings. Take the NL Wild Card, for example. The New York Mets, despite all their woes are only 4 and ½ games out of the Wild Card lead. At this stage of the season, with not even the first half of it being completed, there are a potential of 11 teams in contention, if you believe a 7 game deficit can be erased in 3 and ½ months. The American League Wild Card is similar, where 8 teams are in possible contention. What this means is that in the National League all but two teams have some decent chance of entering the playoffs; in the American League all but three have that chance.

In the big picture, this is good for baseball. More fans who think their teams have a chance will continue to attend games, providing more revenue to the teams. It will be interesting to see how this affects trades, however. Take the Mets again, for example. All talk has been about the possible need to trade Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Francisco Rodriguez to cut payroll. New York’s sport talk radio is filled with debates about the cost and benefits of possible trades involving these players. The assumption is that the Mets are going nowhere and should get the best value to build for the future. The consensus among fans and talking heads is that the Mets should hold on to Reyes and trade the other two, particularly Beltran.

But wait a minute; the Mets are only 4 and ½ games out of first place in the Wild Card. Their season has been one of ups and downs, but for the most part they’ve been able to smooth the cycle and stay near .500. Why should they give up in late July if they are within the same striking distance? Teams with less talent (arguably the 1973 Mets), were able to make up even bigger deficits to reach the top. Why trade for the future if the future is now? I don’t envy Sandy Alderson’s position but he can thank the apparent parity for giving him these difficult choices.

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