This has felt inevitable since December 9, 2017.
That was the day that the baseball world was rocked by the Yankees essentially fleecing old friend Derek Jeter (or was he just doing them a solid?) for Giancarlo Stanton. That was the day that any hopes and dreams of another magical World Series champion died. There will be no Cinderella finish like the 2015 Royals, 2016 Cubs, or 2017 Astros. The 2018 World Series champion seems all but guaranteed to come from the American League East, or at the very least, the AL pennant winner.
Those fears have played out as bad as imagined through two months. The Red Sox and Yankees are a combined 78-36 (.684) and blowing the doors off the crummy competition in the AL East. The next-closest team in terms of record is — gasp! — the Seattle Mariners at 37-22. The M’s are three back of the Sox in the loss column, and neither they nor the Astros (37-23) look like they’re the cream of the crop in 2018.
So what does this all mean, you ask? First, let’s talk logistics. Should the Yankees and Red Sox finish with the top two records in the AL — something that’s looking more likely by the day — it will mean a few things. Most notably, the team that fails to win the division will be relegated to hosting a one-game, do-or-die wild card game. That team would of course be heavily favored, but in theory, you never know what could happen in just one baseball game, especially if the opposing starter is someone like James Paxton, Corey Kluber, or Shohei Ohtani. It is important to note that the Yankees and Red Sox face off for the final three regular-season games at Fenway, and they could be fighting for the division crown. Should both teams be alive through Game 162, both could end up using their top starters on the final day of the season, which means that potentially Luis Severino or Chris Sale might be out of action for the wild card game. What is also possible — and it hasn’t happened yet since the playoff format was changed — is that we get a one-game playoff between the Yankees and Red Sox just to settle the division, further enhancing the possibility of taxing those aforementioned top starters.
Second, let’s talk about that format I just hinted at. When the league added a second wild-card team for the 2012 season, it also did away with the stipulation that divisional opponents cannot meet in the Division Series, rather only the LCS. The league has seen a number of divisional opponents square off since in the DS, starting with the Yankees and Orioles going a full five games in 2012. The Pirates and Cardinals met in 2013, also going five, and the Cubs beat the Cardinals in four in 2015. There hasn’t been any reason for MLB to start thinking about any possible changes… until, I fear, right now. Should the Yankees and Red Sox finish with the AL’s top two records, the wild card team will end up being considered a No. 4 seed, and the winner will take on the top-seeded team that wins the division. So let’s throw out a hypothetical here that give us all just a little bit of hope: let’s say the Yankees win the division, and Boston finishes as the wild card. The Sox win the play-in game and advance to the ALDS, where the Yanks have homefield advantage. Let’s also say that the Astros are playing the Indians in the other series. Let’s say the Sox and Astros win, knocking out the Yankees (and Indians, for what it’s worth). That means that not only will the Astros NOT have to beat both the Sox and Yankees (as they did last year, becoming the first-ever team to do so), but they will also get homefield advantage in the ALCS despite an inferior record. It served them well last year, as they beat the Yankees by winning all four games at Minute Maid Park.
We know what will happen if that actually plays out. The greedy fanbases of both teams will complain endlessly about how they got “shafted,” despite giving the shaft to the rest of the league by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on top-notch players other clubs can’t afford year in and year out. The league will listen, because it brown-noses the two franchises that make it the most money, and will make a change that will ensure that these teams will only meet in the ALCS moving forward, thus guaranteeing one of them to be in the World Series (you know, so the league can make even more money). If MLB decides it doesn’t want to go back to the pre-2012 DS/LCS stipulation, the other thing I could see happening it extended the DS to a seven-game series, so as not to lose that potential extra revenue from two more games. This means a longer, more drawn out postseason (but still no shortening of the regular season) all to stroke the egos of the two teams that most people despise more than any in all of sports.
What we as good, decent baseball fans have to root for this year is something we should not lose sight of, because I do believe a change will be made. But it can’t take effect in 2018, and given the inevitability of the Yankees and Red Sox finishing with the top two records in the league, knowing one is guaranteed to fall short of even the ALCS is a wonderful thing. It means we will have a savior to pull for in the ALCS, even if said savior is overmatched.
In a year in which these two Evil Empires have kicked everyone else to the curb, we have a chance to be saved by a technicality. Neither team would lose in the ALDS to anyone else, and if they both beat up on each other in a five-game series, maybe, just maybe, it will tax the winner just enough to be an equalizer in the ALCS. Houston has not looked ready to compete with either team this year, and the Indians and Mariners are clearly a cut below. But this is our best hope. As much as you hate watching both teams steamroll to 100-plus-win seasons, remember that ultimately, they are doing us a favor.