At the beginning of the month, it looked as if baseball had a pennant race problem. With the exception of first place in the AL West, every other playoff position was secured by at least a five game lead. Included among those “safe” teams were the Red Sox and Braves, who each enjoyed a nine game loss column advantage over their league’s fifth best team (Boston actually led the A.L. East by a game). Since then, however, both teams have suffered a September slide, breathing life into what had been shaping up as one of the most mundane pennant races in the wild card era.
Not every team can enjoy the thrill of a pennant race, but that doesn’t mean their games are meaningless. The Houston Astros have been an afterthought for most of the season, but with one more loss, the team will clinch the first pick in the 2012 Rule IV draft. Don’t expect champagne in the clubhouse, but if a Stephen Strasburg-type talent emerges, the team might be popping a few corks in the future.
Teams “Vying” for the Top Slots in the 2012 Draft
|San Diego Padres||67||88||0.432||13.5|
|Kansas City Royals||68||87||0.439||14.5|
Aside from the Twins, who seem to have a good handle on the second selection in the draft, the rest of the order remains in flux. The Orioles may be doing baseball proud by knocking off playoff contenders like the Rays, Angels, and Red Sox, but those victories could wind up dropping them as many five slots in the draft. Although it’s hard to put a value on selection order at this stage, moving up or down by a slot or two could prove significant by next June.
In addition to jockeying for position at the bottom of the standings, several teams are also vying for the 15th lowest winning percentage in the big leagues. Because only the first 15 selections in the draft are protected (not forfeitable as free agent compensation), any team that finishes above this cutoff will be faced with a dilemma during the offseason. Currently, there are about seven teams on the “protection bubble”, and how they finish in the standings could have a significant impact on their decisions during the winter.
Teams on the “Protected Bubble”
|Draft Order||Team||W||L||PCT||G from 15 Slot|
|12||New York Mets||73||81||0.474||-2|
|15||Chicago White Sox||75||79||0.487||–|
|17||Los Angeles Dodgers||77||76||0.503||2.5|
|18||Toronto Blue Jays||78||76||0.506||3|
Draft positioning isn’t just a concern for the unfortunate teams who don’t make the playoffs. Take the Milwaukee Brewers, for example. After their playoff run has concluded, the team will be faced with the impending free agency of Prince Fielder. According to some early rumors, the Chicago Cubs are preparing to make a big offer (assuming they hire a new GM). That’s significant because the Cubs will possess a protected pick in 2012, meaning the Brewers’ compensation for losing a marquee Type-A free agent could begin with only a supplemental round selection.
On the flip side, a team like Dodgers could wind up paying for their late season surge to .500. If Los Angeles finishes above the cutoff line, it would then have to forfeit its first round pick should the team decide to pursue a Type-A free agent. Although the Dodgers’ current financial predicament might seem to preclude a big signing, the need to boost the brand could actually force the team into making a big splash. If so, it would be in the Dodgers’ long-term interest to lose a few more games over the final week of the season.
Obviously, no team is going to lose games just to boost their position in the draft, especially not in a sport like baseball where the amateur selection process can often be a crapshoot. Regardless of their intentions, however, the games played by these teams do have meaning. Draft order may not be a compelling enough reason to tune into today’s game between the White Sox and Indians, for example, but that outcome could wind up having a more long-term impact than any of the matchups featuring wild card contenders.