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September 19, 2007

Prospectus Today

Take a Breather

by Joe Sheehan

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Still think the Yankees should throw in the towel on that AL East crown? You are the world's worst Yankee fan. I think sometimes you like them only to hate them. Do you really think the Red Sox exorcised all their demons? All the Yanks have to do is get close and the Sox will feel a tighter collar. Plus they have the tie breaker now. The only problem with catching the Red Sox at the end is they got to feel good about themselves for so long.
--T.B.

Note how divergent the two teams' paths were coming out of last weekend's series. The Red Sox ran into Dustin McGowan and A.J. Burnett, two power right-handers who, when healthy and allowed to pitch regularly, are above-average starters. The Yankees faced Daniel Cabrera and Jon Leicester, who are a wee bit slightly worse than the Blue Jays' duo. This flips over the weekend, as the Yankees get Burnett, McGowan, and Roy Halladay in the course of a four-game series, while the Red Sox play the Devil Rays, against whom they're 31-12 this season. (OK, 11-4, but doesn't it seem like they play each other every week?)

It's hard to close even a 2 ½-game gap on a good team with 12 days left in the season. Even if it was necessary to do so, it would be a difficult task. In this case, it's not; whatever benefits-home-field advantage, schedule choice, comfort-are gained by winning the division versus being the Wild Card aren't generous enough to warrant playing the last week and change as if it mattered. Look at how Terry Francona has managed his squad all month, in the knowledge that his team is going to October. He's been resting players all around the roster, diddling with his rotation, and trying experiments like "let's see how many batters Eric Gagne can walk in one inning."

It would behoove Joe Torre to start doing this as well. The Yankees are up five games in the loss column on the Tigers, with a magic number of seven for the wild card. If form holds through the weekend and the Yankees' magic number reaches three or so, Torre needs to worry less about seeding and more about making sure his aging team is ready to go on October 2. Alex Rodriguez has missed two games all year, and none since August 8. Robinson Cano hasn't missed a game since May 6. Jorge Posada has played his usual 130-odd games behind the plate; a couple of extra days off next week couldn't hurt. I can't quantify the effects of rest on a player's performance, but I can say that the cost of doing so-possibly ending up as the wild card versus winning the division-is essentially zero.

The difference between winning the division and advancing as the Wild Card doesn't mean a thing. It's all just playoff seeding, and if you're looking for some evidence-I mean, other than the 1996 NL West race or the 2001 NL Central race-let's go all the way back to…last October. The Tigers closed the season 19-31, blowing a huge lead over the Twins, and were swept…in the last series of the year-at home-by the Royals to lose the division title on the last day.

Not two weeks later, they were the AL pennant winners, and no one cared how they got there. There was no hangover, no leftover impact on the team for having blown a division title in such a ridiculous fashion, no repercussions. They simply started a new season that Tuesday, one in which their pitching staff was utterly dominant for a week. The Twins? They played exactly three more games, the bare minimum allowed by the rules. Which set of fans came away happier last year?

How you get into the tournament doesn't matter. Seven of the last ten World Series participants opened the Division Series on the road. Ask fans of the 2006 Cardinals-who lost 6 ½ games of a seven-game lead in one week last September-or the 2005 White Sox-who lost eight games of a 9 1/2-game lead in September that year-if they care how their favorite team finished. Ask them if they even remember. The final standings dictate who gets into the postseason, with no credit for style points. The postseason is a complete reset, with no bonus points for having a record 14 games better than your opponent except getting to start the series at home and getting to go back there if you have to play one game for all the marbles. Is it any wonder the relationship between regular-season performance and postseason performance has broken down completely in the 21st century? Put eight comparable teams-all teams good enough to make the playoffs are essentially comparable-into a bracket, and none of them will have better than a one-in-seven chance to be left standing at the end.

Does the famed Red Sox Nation consider its 2004 World Championship diminished because they won it coming from the Wild Card slot? Do Tigers' fans not wear 2006 AL Pennant gear because of their shame at going 7-1 against the Yankees and A's when they shouldn't have even been there? Angels fans? Marlins fans? Any of you feel a bit queasy about raising a World Series flag without a divisional one to go with it?

It doesn't matter who wins the AL East. It just matters that both the Yankees and the Red Sox stay ahead of the Tigers. As long as both are doing that, there's no reason to care about who ends up with the better seed.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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