Carl Crawford and a new playoff format

Carl Crawford joining one of the two AL East powerhouses -- days after Adrian Gonzalez did -- may signal it's time for a new playoff format in Major League Baseball. AP Photo/Winslow Townson

Tampa Bay Rays general manager Andrew Friedman was joking the other day when he mused that the impossible task of winning the American League East has become more impossible in the aftermath of Boston's acquisition of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford.

Well, he was sort of joking.

Or maybe he wasn't joking at all.

The New York Yankees will spend more than $200 million in 2011, and the Boston Red Sox won't be far behind. Meanwhile, the Rays, Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles will bring knives to the Boston-New York gunfight. Baseball has more parity than it is given credit for, but the Rays, Blue Jays and Orioles are in a special class. Although the Giants, Rangers or almost any other team can go toe to toe with the Red Sox or Yankees in a short series, Tampa Bay, Toronto and Baltimore must do it throughout 162 games to make the playoffs.

The Rays got it done in 2008 and 2010 through extraordinary management and good fortune. But it has been 13 years since the Orioles made the playoffs -- largely through mismanagement -- and 17 years since the Blue Jays appeared in the postseason. The ballpark seats in Tampa Bay, Baltimore and Toronto remain empty during the teams' best seasons partly because few fans buy into the notion that those clubs can sustain success. (There are other factors, of course.)

Imagine selling season tickets for the Rays. Your script would include a recitation of the team's remarkable performances in recent years and the Cy Young worthiness of David Price. But the guy on the other end of the line could respond: What about Crawford? What about Carlos Pena? What about the exodus of the entire bullpen? Do you really expect me to believe they'll contend in 2011?

It's a really tough sell, and the gap between the Red Sox and Yankees and the three other teams is so deep that the disparity becomes part of the decision-making process for the have-nots. If the Jays played in the AL West or AL Central, they might be tempted to overpay for someone like Zack Greinke to load up for a run at the division title. But instead, the team evaluations tilt in the other direction: If the Rays get a really good offer for Matt Garza, they'd be smart to take the deal now, when they know his value is high -- because it's highly unlikely Tampa Bay can keep up with the big-money monsters.

This disparity is why, as baseball executives and union officials negotiate over the expanded playoff field for 2012, they should strongly reconsider blowing up the divisions and taking the teams back to the pre-1969 American League and National League alignments. Let the five best teams in each league qualify for the playoffs. No East, Central or West divisions.

This way, the Orioles, Rays and Jays would compete with the other AL teams for a playoff spot instead of having their postseason chances more directly impacted by the talent acquisitions of the Yankees and Red Sox. The schedules should be balanced so that Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Toronto would have more games against other AL teams rather than opening the year knowing that matchups with Boston and New York would make up one-third of their schedule.

Would it make a difference?

Well, consider how different recent history might look if there were no divisional factions in the past decade. In many years, rival talent evaluators regarded the Toronto Blue Jays as one of the 10 best teams in the majors. In a six-year period, Toronto won 86 games in a season twice and 87 games in a third season -- while playing an unbalanced schedule. Still, the Jays never made the playoffs.

If the divisional format was stripped away, the Rays, Orioles and Jays would more consistently have incentive to make moves to try to contend. If a player like Victor Martinez were assessing offers from Baltimore or Tampa Bay or Toronto, he would feel better about their chances for playing in the postseason.

But annually, the competitive mountain in front of those teams can appear too high to climb.

The Rays have shown that success in the AL East is possible. But none of the teams has demonstrated that it can remain financially or competitively viable on a regular basis while sitting across the table from the two teams with the biggest stacks of chips.

It's time for Tampa Bay, Baltimore and Toronto to get some relief. They should have the same shot at the playoffs as every other team in the AL Central and AL West. Said one official within the division with some frustration: "Maybe we should just let the Red Sox and Yankees have their own division and leave the scraps for the rest of us."

The Orioles have gotten better this winter, but it still may not be enough, Jeff Zrebiec writes. The Rays are still confident, Marc Topkin writes.

The Yankees think it's far from a slam dunk that they'll sign Cliff Lee. One of their executives told a general manager from another team that he figures their chances stand at 50-50 -- and if they lose out, they'll probably pursue bullpen and bench help. The odds are that they won't pursue Greinke because of concern about how he would adapt to the New York market.

The Yankees don't always get their man, writes Ben Shpigel. The Yankees shouldn't act desperate, writes Mike Lupica.

Texas manager Ron Washington thinks the Rangers will re-sign Lee.

The Red Sox took the right angles in going after Crawford, writes Peter Abraham. The signing makes for a full holiday stocking for the Red Sox, writes Dan Shaughnessy.

Crawford is sold on the Red Sox.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. Cesar Izturis signed with the O's.

2. Jason Varitek is glad the Red Sox kept him.

3. The Cardinals are pressing to sign Bengie Molina.

4. The Cleveland writers have bestowed some awards.

5. Joey Votto will be with Cincinnati for a long time, Reds owner Bob Castellini said.

6. Kerry Wood is still available, writes Phil Rogers.

7. The White Sox are not shopping Carlos Quentin, GM Kenny Williams says.

8. The Brewers could make a deal for Greinke, writes Tom Haudricourt.

9. George Sherrill passed his physical.

10. This is more of a "dings and dents" item, but Jimmy Rollins had minor surgery.

From the ol' mailbag

I suggest ESPN should host another live show named "The Decision" for Lee. Yankees? or Rangers? Obviously Lee's decision is very important to MLB, and it's very entertaining as well. The money war.

-- Cheng, Taiwan

Cheng: The guess here is that given Lee's personality, there are much greater odds of him making his choice while sitting in a deer stand in Arkansas than in front of a camera.

I think the New York Mets will have a strong interest in Albert Pujols should he become a free agent next year. They have a ton of money coming off the books after this season, and since this looks to be a dismal season in Flushing, they are primed to make a big splash next winter to reinvigorate their fan base and to put people in the seats. They could trade Ike Davis for help in other areas to open first base. What do you think?

-- Scott Hersey in Norwalk, Conn.

Scott: I have heard scouts and executives with other teams suggest the same thing -- that the Mets might be better served to take advantage of Davis' value by trading him for pitching right now because they can more easily find a replacement at first base than they can to dig out the kind of impact young pitching they need. But I tend to doubt that they would move Davis now, because he is cheap and productive and has a nice two-strike approach at the plate.

Your book "How Lucky You Can Be" arrived yesterday, and I read it front to back last night in one sitting. (And I'm not a big reader at all!) I had the extreme fortune of working for two years as an assistant coach from '02-04 at Northern State with Coach Meyer (also living in his basement for my first three months), and so many of the things I read about were things I was fortunate enough to experience firsthand. Many people who saw the ESPYS asked me what it was like to work with him and what kind of person he's like -- I always said he was beyond words and there's really no one I've met like him. I thought you did a great job of portraying the person whom people perceive him to be (the cranky, no-sense-of-humor drill sergeant for a coach) versus the person he really is (giving, funny, selfless).

-- Ryan Solie in Minneapolis

Ryan: Many thanks for the note; he continues to mean a lot to a whole lot of folks. I'll be doing a book signing at the Borders in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., from 6-8 p.m. on Wednesday, and then coach Don Meyer and I will be doing a signing together at Lipscomb University from 5 to 8 p.m. on Saturday in Nashville, Tenn., before the men's game.

Other stuff

• The Dodgers are playing in a first-rate city with second-rate talent, writes T.J. Simers.

Nick Swisher got married.

• Mets GM Sandy Alderson may wait until spring training to see Oliver Perez, writes Dan Martin.

• Here are winners and losers from the winter meetings, courtesy of Ken Davidoff.

• The Pirates must improve their defense, writes Dejan Kovacevic.

• Harvey Araton writes about two sports writers who passed away this year.

• Dave Niehaus will be honored with a statue, writes Geoff Baker.

Mark Buehrle did something really nice.

• Vanderbilt football wants to hire an Auburn guy.

And today will be better than yesterday.