LAKELAND, Fla. — SI.com’s Tom Verducci threw a nasty curve to baseball fans early this week, when he wrote about how Bud Selig’s 14-person “special committee for on-field matters” has discussed the idea of a “floating realignment,” where teams wouldn’t be fixed to a certain division but instead be free to change from year-to-year based on geography, payroll and competitiveness.
On Sunday, I visited the team that would most benefit from that radical idea: The Tampa Bay Rays.
The Rays are the perfect example of the little engine that, well, can’t right now. They almost did in 2008, when they were the Cinderalla story of the season before losing to the Phillies in the World Series. But last year, despite bringing back the core of that team, they couldn’t reach the playoffs. And this year — though I love their squad — they probably won’t again.
The Rays — as well as the Orioles and especially the Blue Jays — have the terrible luck of playing in the American League East, a division dominated by two payroll giants, the Red Sox and Yankees. In the 15 years since the Wild Card system has been in place, Major League Baseball has never had a postseason without neither the Red Sox nor the Yankees. In ’09, both got in — with the $200-million Yankees winning it all — and the Rays, at 84-78 (.519), were left out.
That record wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs in any division last year. But if they don’t have to play the Red Sox and Yankees 36 times each every year, I’m thinking they do a lot better and sneak in elswhere.
Heading into 2010, I believe Tampa Bay is better than any team in the AL Central, AL West and National League West. In the AL East, however, the Rays have no shot. And they continually won’t. While the payrolls of the Red Sox and Yankees will allow them to continue to add pieces to competitive, the Rays will gradually continue to lose them (by 2011, for example, you could pretty much guarantee Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena will be gone).
Realignment (note of caution: it’s pretty much just an idea being floated around at this point — nothing more, nothing less) benefits the Rays, as well as the nearby Marlins and several others. But does this subjective strategy really benefit baseball and its fans?
Surprisingly, the Rays manager doesn’t really want it.
“I like the way it plays [now],” Rays manager Joe Maddon was quoted as saying by MLB.com’s Bill Chastain recently. “I’d be open to anything. But it’s not like I want to be in another division. I really like playing in the East. I like the fact, on an annual basis, whoever is representing this division in the postseason is a pretty good ballclub. I like the idea of playing in probably the best division in baseball.”
The Rays are outresourced ten-fold in that division, but they’re not shying away from the competition. In fact, it seems like they embrace that underdog role.
Here’s what Pena told me when I brought up realignment after the Rays’ game against the Tigers at Joker Merchant Stadium: I kind of like this challenge. We’re here in this division, where the Red Sox and Yankees are the frontrunners, they are the only ones who have a shot at winning it, and we’re kind of at the back end. I kind of like that position, because it’s just perception, it’s just people’s opinions. God knows that the way I view the world, the way I view life, everything is possible. So, I’m sitting here with a little smirk on my face saying, ‘Imagine if this happens. Wouldn’t it be nice if we get up there and win this division?’ … That’d be kind of cool, wouldn’t it. Do we have what it takes? Yeah. But no one’s talking about us. Great position to be in.
So, there you have it, I guess.
You can read my colleague’s piece on this subject matter here
Here’s where I’ll be this week …
* Monday: Twins-Marlins (Jupiter)
* Tuesday: Red Sox–Astros (Kissimmee)
* Wednesday: Nationals-Astros (Kissimmee)
* Thursday: Mets-Marlins (Jupiter)
* Friday: Blue Jays–Astros (Kissimmee)
* Saturday: Yankees-Astros (Kissimmee)
— Alden Gonzalez