Rays build strong case for playoff expansion
Inclusion of club in October would enhance, not dilute, competition
The 2011 Tampa Bay Rays are, all by themselves, a terrific argument for Wild Card expansion.
And take a look at the Rays' competitive home, the American League East. There is the collective argument for one more Wild Card team.
Whether the addition of one Wild Card team in each league to the current postseason structure happens next year or later, the idea has momentum on its side. On the other side is the argument that any expansion of the postseason will dilute the quality of the competition.
This is a standard, conventional objection and it doesn't need to be automatically dismissed out of hand. But a team such as the Rays defeats this objection. And what goes on in the AL East also makes a strong case in favor of the expansion of the Wild Card entries.
The Rays have made a remarkable late-season run, creating a contest for the AL Wild Card berth. A slump by the Boston Red Sox, who lead the Rays, has aided Tampa Bay's cause, but when the teams met head-to-head this past weekend, the Rays did precisely what they had to do, sweeping the series.
The baseball world doesn't need any more evidence of the strength of the Tampa Bay organization, but here it is anyway. What the Rays accomplished in the recent past was admirable and more, competing against the biggest of baseball's big guys, the Yankees and the Red Sox. Two division titles and one AL championship over three years said all that needed to be said about the quality of the Tampa Bay operation.
This season is yet another tribute to the competitive worth of this franchise. Forced to cut salary after last season, the Rays essentially lost an entire bullpen, their franchise-fixture left fielder, starting shortstop, starting first baseman, a key starting pitcher and more. And then, early in the season, the Rays lost their designated hitter, Manny Ramirez, to a suspension/retirement. Manny may have been the one move the Rays made that actually qualified as a mistake. And yet, with personnel losses all over the place, here they are, in mid-September, genuine contenders for a postseason bid.
With the kind of organizational pitching depth the Rays have developed, their inclusion in a postseason series right now would not dilute the competition, but would enhance the competition. They are a living, breathing argument for the concept of an additional Wild Card berth.
The AL East is already the toughest neighborhood in baseball, and it is not going to become any more forgiving as the young Tampa Bay pitching matures, and as the impressive young talent that the Toronto Blue Jays are assembling makes its presence felt. The competition in this division doesn't need to be any more difficult, but that is what it will become.
The additional Wild Card berth could be justified by the presence of this division alone. The Yankees and the Red Sox don't need any further assistance reaching the postseason. In the 16 years of the Wild Card's existence in its present form, the Yankees or the Red Sox have been the AL Wild Card winner 11 times. In fact, between these two clubs, they have been the AL Wild Card entry seven of the last eight years.
In this context, one additional Wild Card team would come under the heading "giving someone else a chance."
In this case, a very deserving someone else would be the Tampa Bay Rays. And not far behind them would be another postseason contender that would not currently qualify for October play. That would be the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, currently in second place in the AL West and third place in the AL Wild Card race, but possessing the kind of pitching that would make them a dangerous opponent in any postseason series.
The Angels' pitching is so good that entering play on Tuesday night it ranked second in the AL in team ERA. In that category, the Angels trailed only -- you guessed it -- the Tampa Bay Rays.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.