Buster Olney has a better option. Rather than add a fifth playoff team to punish teams for not winning their division, he suggests abolishing the division system entirely.
“… as baseball executives and union officials negotiate over the expanded playoff field for 2012, they should strongly reconsider blowing up the divisions and taking the teams back to the pre-1969 American League and National League alignments. Let the five best teams in each league qualify for the playoffs. No East, Central or West divisions.
This way, the Orioles, Rays and Jays would compete with the other AL teams for a playoff spot instead of having their postseason chances more directly impacted by the talent acquisitions of the Yankees and Red Sox. The schedules should be balanced so that Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Toronto would have more games against other AL teams rather than opening the year knowing that matchups with Boston and New York would make up one-third of their schedule.
Olney’s point is one that I’ve been making for a couple of years. The division system is flawed. Due to MLB’s insistence on having an unbalanced schedule, it punishes teams in strong divisions, while championing teams in weaker divisions. As Olney points out, smaller market teams like the Orioles, Rays, and Blue Jays are forced to play a significant portion of their schedule against the financial titans of the American League. And for what reason? Geographic proximity? It doesn’t make any sense. It’s bad enough small market teams already have a small margin of error when it comes to building a contending team. They don’t need any additional factors holding them back.
My other issue with the divisional system is that sometimes the most deserving teams don’t make the playoffs. For example, in 2008, the Dodgers made the playoffs by winning their division despite finishing with a pedestrian 84-78 record. Their record was good for eighth best in the National League behind the Cubs (97-65), Phillies (92-70), Brewers (92-70), Mets (89-73), Astros (86-75), Cardinals (86-76), and Marlins (84-77). Eighth best! Yet, they still made the playoffs, solely based on their divisional affiliation. This is just one example though. There are many others. See the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals (83-78), 2005 San Diego Padres (82-80), and 1987 Minnesota Twins (85-77) as other recent examples.* The playoffs should be comprised of the best teams in each league—not the best teams based on divisional affiliation.
* Yes, both the 2006 Cardinals and the 1987 Twins ended up winning the World Series. That’s more a testament of how much of a crapshoot the MLB playoffs are, rather than a justification of either of those teams being in the playoffs.
Abolishing the divisional system sets evens out playing field (not accounting for financial advantages), and allows more teams to legitimately compete for playoff spots. It removes not only the potential for 84-win teams making the playoffs, but also the unbalanced from the equation. Furthermore, with the best teams in each league making the playoffs, the quality of play would (theoretically) improve. Sounds like a winning plan to me.