For Rays-Yanks, is East crown critical?
Wild Card clubs' success contradicts importance of division title
Baseball's Wild Card may be celebrating its Sweet 16 in 2010, but that doesn't mean debates over its value -- particularly when compared to that of a division title -- have been settled.
When the Rays visit the Bronx for a four-game set against the Yankees this week, it will once again inspire discussion and raise questions about how hard a team should try to win its division when a playoff spot is all but secured.
What exactly does a division title mean -- and not in the abstract, pop-the-champagne and stick-a-banner-on-the-wall sense, but concretely on the field, when the games start later and the nights get colder in the postseason? Is there any extra worth in qualifying for the playoffs the old-fashioned way?
The players will tell you a division title is always the first goal heading into a season.
"There's no question, we want to win the division," said Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez.
"You always want to win the division," Rays center fielder B.J. Upton said.
But is winning the division a necessary precursor to October success? Since its inception in 1995, a Wild Card team has advanced to the World Series nine times, winning four times. The team that finished ahead of those Wild Cards? Nine pennants, five titles.
The numbers, however, become skewed in the division winner's favor when applied more specifically to the Rays and Yankees. American League Wild Card clubs rarely perform better in the postseason than the team that finished ahead of them in the regular season. In the AL East, only once in 11 tries has the Wild Card team advanced further than the division winner -- and that's when the Red Sox stunned the Yankees in 2004.
First-place and second-place clubs from the AL East have met five times in the AL Championship Series, with the first-place squad winning four of them.
Home-field advantage can be key, as both of these franchises know. The Rays beat the Red Sox in Game 7 of the ALCS at home in 2008; the Yankees did it in 2003. Once again, the 2004 ALCS is the fly in the ointment. Overall, home teams are 14-10 in deciding games since 1995. The advantage gets more pronounced the deeper you go in the playoffs: Home teams in a Game 7 instead of a Game 5 are 8-3.
"We want home-field advantage for all the reasons," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. "If you get there and end up playing Minnesota, their home record is [outstanding]. And you don't want to have to play an extra game up there; you'd rather play it down here. Yankee Stadium is the same way. Texas. Whatever way it shakes out, you'd rather play that extra game here."
The Yankees, however, aren't as fixated on playing in the Bronx -- even if they christened their new ballpark with a 7-1 postseason mark there last season.
"We feel quite sure we can win, whether we're at home or away -- I don't think that's too much of a concern," said Andy Pettitte, who owns more playoff victories (18) than any pitcher in Major League history. "We've been through it. Whatever it takes, we're going to get it done. I'm not trying to be cocky or arrogant about it, but that's the approach you've got to have."
The Yankees have been more cavalier publicly in discussing the pros and cons of winning the division. While manager Joe Girardi and his team have maintained that the division remains a goal, it's not the ultimate one.
The difference in attitude likely derives from the two teams' respective rosters and histories. The younger Rays have made the playoffs only once, and they have never played a postseason series without home-field advantage. The veteran Yankees, meanwhile, have experienced pretty much everything a team can in postseason play. They have won with home-field and without it; they have lost with home-field and without it.
"You want to be macho and say, 'American League East at all costs,'" Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "Over time, you get educated. ... I've been beaten by a Wild Card Red Sox team in '04. I've been beaten by the Wild Card Florida Marlins in the World Series in '03. I'm not saying, 'Give me the Wild Card.' I'm just saying we have to realize perspective. We're in this to try to win a World Series."
The approaches aren't just divergent publicly. Girardi hasn't hesitated to rest his veterans, preferring to get them healthy rather than going all out to land the poll position for October. Girardi has given extra days here and there to Nick Swisher, Brett Gardner and Mark Teixeira as they nurse injuries. He has also stuck to his philosophy of not using relievers three days in a row.
For Girardi and the Yankees, winning the division might be a Pyrrhic victory -- even if the franchise has never won a postseason series as a Wild Card entrant in three tries.
"You can't risk the health of your players just for home-field advantage," Girardi said. "It doesn't make a lot of sense."
Maddon's most glaring managerial move, meanwhile, was shuffling his rotation to ensure David Price is in line to start against the Yankees on Thursday.
"If you win this division, that's something to be proud of," said Rays left fielder Carl Crawford. "It's the AL East."
And winning the AL East is often an indicator of playoff success. The division's champion has won the AL pennant nine times in the last 14 years, including three different franchises doing so in the last three seasons. Only once has the Wild Card from the AL East gotten to the Fall Classic.
Cashman, though, said that whoever emerges as the last team standing in the first week of November won't be there because of where it finished the regular season.
"You make things happen," Cashman said. "Whoever ends up running the table made it happen. As long as we qualify, I don't really care -- I just want our team to make it happen."
Tim Britton is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.