Back in the early part of the century, if you were a fan of the Blue Jays, the Rays or the Orioles, it always felt like you were in third place before the season even started. Being Toronto, Baltimore or Tampa Bay was a little like being peaceful Tatooine as you watch the Empire and the Rebel Alliance shower each other with lasers. No matter what you did, you weren’t overpowering either the Yankees or Red Sox.
This division sure doesn’t feel that way anymore, and the new playoff format makes it more compelling than usual.
Allow me to set the scene: Let us not forget that, amazingly, there were four teams in the AL East that won at least 91 games last season. (The NL East had, uh, zero teams that did that, though it did have one that won the World Series.) And you can make a legitimate argument that all four teams will be just as good this year … if not better.
You, of course, have the Red Sox and the Yankees, the juggernauts they always are: The Empire and the Alliance will always be at war. The Red Sox have been rather quiet this offseason, signing some pitchers (Rich Hill, Michael Wacha, Jake Diekman and Matt Strahm) and bringing back Jackie Bradley Jr., but they are rumored to be heavily involved with several players, including Trevor Story. They’re the Red Sox. They’re highly motivated. They’re not going anywhere.
And the Yankees, while not necessarily making the massive splashes some of their fans might have wanted, have been incredibly active, bringing in Josh Donaldson and Anthony Rizzo, not to mention Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Ben Rortvedt from Minnesota. They’re surely not done, either. And remember: Both those teams won 92 games last year.
Right behind them were the Blue Jays, the team that many felt might have been the best team in this division as the season ended, even as they fell one game short of the postseason. They did lose both Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray and star infielder Marcus Semien, but it’s fair to say they’ve aggressively added talent everywhere, as well, from Kevin Gausman, perhaps the top free agent pitcher on the market, to Yusei Kikuchi to Yimi García to perhaps their biggest coup of all, taking advantage of the A’s talent dump to bring in Matt Chapman, who instantly both lengthens the lineup and dramatically improves an infield defense that very much needed the help. And is it possible that lineup, which now has seven hitters (including Chapman) under the age of 30, is even better? It’s possible every hitter in that lineup hits at least 20 homers. Yikes.
And, oh yes: The Rays are the team that just won 100 games, have won two straight division titles and bring back their entire lineup (including their superstar shortstop, Wander Franco, who’s only 21 years old and just signed himself an 11-year contract extension in November).
This is a division of four titans: Is it possible that, talent-wise, these are the best four teams in the American League? All in one division?
(Forgive the Orioles fans for ducking under a chair right now.)
In the past, you might have said, “Well, what a shame that one, and maybe two, or even all three of these teams have to miss the playoffs.” But the new playoff format extends the possibility of something truly unprecedented: All four teams making the postseason. Are you ready for four AL East teams playing in mid-October? The new format lends itself to that potential. Imagine a world where, say, the White Sox win the AL Central, the Mariners win the AL West and every other team is from the AL East.
It would be far from accurate to say the new format would somehow make the division race less dramatic or even meaningless. I’d argue the opposite is true. Take last season, for example. The Rays won 100 games, so they had some distance from the other three, but if last year’s format had been in place, every single game between the Jays, Red Sox and Yankees would have mattered, not just to get in the playoffs, but for positioning. The Jays were trying to catch the Sox and Yanks, but this year, because of all three games of the three-game Wild Card Series being at the home stadium, home field means even more than it did in a one-game playoff, making the Sox-Yankees battle that much more important. It ends up making places one through four in that division matter. The difference between finishing first and getting a bye, and finishing third or fourth and having to play three games on the road, just for the opportunity to advance, is vast. Seeding will be of vital importance at every slot.
It could give us the best of both worlds: Four teams in a division all fighting for playoff spots and having the slot they ultimately land be of paramount importance. The AL East is always a little wild. But it may never be more wild than it looks like it’s going to be this year.