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Changing MLB's postseason format would be complicated

ST. LOUIS -- So you think it's easy to "fix" the baseball postseason, huh? Oh, really? You might find out it would actually be easier to fix, say, your carburetor.

What's easy, after watching those 98-win Pittsburgh Pirates get sent home by Jake Arrieta in the wild-card game, is to say: This isn't right. This isn't fair.

And in the next few days, when either those 97-win Chicago Cubs or 100-win St. Louis Cardinals lose in the NLDS and get bounced themselves, we'll be saying it again. It isn't fair. It isn't right.

Well, you know what? We all pretty much agree on that. It isn't fair. And it's hard not to sympathize with the Pirates, who got MadBummed last year and Jaked around this year. Wrong pitcher. Wrong night. Wrong ending.

But here's our first question to kick around: Do we need to "fix" the postseason because we feel sorry for the Pirates? Or are the Pirates a symptom in need of a cure?

"Look, obviously, I think it is a mistake," said commissioner Rob Manfred, "to rethink the fundamentals of your format on the basis that a team had three great seasons in a row and had to play in the wild-card game, and two years in a row certainly faced a red-hot pitcher. ...

"I mean, that's unfortunate," Manfred said. "But I'm not sure that's a reason to try to design a system to prevent it."

It is a reason to ask questions, though. To think about the options. To seriously reflect on this format and at least kick around the question of whether there's something else, anything else, that makes more sense.

So over the last week, we've done that. We've gone looking for alternatives to this system. But then we had to ask ourselves: If we change it, would we really be happy with the new system?

And here's the truth: Every "solution" creates its own problems. And those problems are just as messy as the ones we have under the current system. Nevertheless, that's no reason not to reflect on all of it. So let's ask those questions now. See what you think.

Why not a best-of-three wild-card series?

Too bad we don't play these games on Planet Utopia, a planet with perfect weather and the power to make time stand still for some teams but zip along for others. If we did, of course we'd make the wild-card round a best-of-three. Or even best-of-five or best-of-seven. That's only "fair."

"Two out of three is a very obvious solution," says Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer. "But it's not so obvious when you factor in timing. And that's where I think MLB's job is really hard. I think everyone would agree that three games is better than one game. But at the same time, where do you put them?"

So what does he mean by "Where do you put them?" Think about it. The season ends on a Sunday. You need to save Monday for potential tiebreakers. Then the best-of-three could start Tuesday, but you'd need an off day in there somewhere to account for long travel or weather.

In other words, you'd have to block out four more days. At least. And next thing you knew, you'd have first-place teams sitting around for close to a week.

So remember, the idea when baseball devised these one-game wild-card faceoffs, was, in Manfred's words, "to disadvantage wild-card teams." But if that means everyone else has to go on vacation for four, five or six days until the wild-card series is over, it "would actually disadvantage the division winners," Manfred said.

And that's not happening. These two options were fiercely debated by owners and players four years ago, before the implementation of the second wild card. Both sides came to the same conclusion. If you're going to be "fair" to somebody, it ought to be to the teams that won their division, not the teams that couldn't. Or didn't. Why should that change?

The answer is that unless we can move these games to Planet Utopia, it shouldn't. And almost certainly won't. Unless ...

Does a wild-card doubleheader make any sense?

Cubs president Theo Epstein has tossed out this fascinating idea: If the biggest obstacle to moving to a best-of-three wild-card series is how much time it takes, why not compress that time -- with a doubleheader? That's one less day, anyway.

On one hand, a wild-card doubleheader would be awesome theater. On the other, is that really any way to decide a whole season's work? Our informal survey of players didn't take long to get a clear consensus: NOOOOOOO.

"The thing about doubleheaders is, no one likes them," said one veteran player from a non-playoff team. "So now you're going to tell a team they basically have to use their backup catcher in the second game? Maybe they wouldn't. Maybe they'd play the starter in both games. But he wouldn't be the same player. If you do something like that, you're going to run players into the ground."

But it isn't just the players who don't see this as workable. There's another important figure who isn't a fan of this concept -- the commissioner.

Manfred's take: "I think the problem with doubleheaders -- and again, you're trying to strike a balance here -- is that if you played three games, with one of them being a doubleheader, I think your wild-card winner at that point would be so shot that their chances in the division series would be so limited that I think it would be unfair."

So scratch that idea. Sorry. Let's not play two.

Would reseeding work?

Of course, it's not just the wild-card game itself that's drawing complaints these days. Also under fire is the fact that the format considers the wild-card team to be the lowest seed in the draw, whether that team won 97 games like the Cubs or 86 like the Astros.

The result is a system that sends off those 97-win Cubs to play the 100-win Cardinals in the NLDS, while the 92-win Dodgers and 90-win Mets get to steer clear of the winningest teams in their league until the LCS. Doesn't seem right.

So how about this: Why couldn't baseball stick with the one-game wild-card round but at least acknowledge all those wins in the regular season by giving a team like the Cubs a No. 2 seed instead of a No. 4 seed?

Well, even the commissioner admits that reseeding after the wild-card game is a reasonable suggestion.

"I think the reseeding idea, of all the suggestions that have been made, is the one that has the most appeal to me," Manfred told ESPN.com last week. "I'm not sure I would support it, but it is one that I would recognize the logic of. And I think it's consistent with, and wouldn't be too disruptive, in terms of additional games. And it is an idea worth talking about.

"I think there is a fairness," he said, "to the idea that you take a look at everything after the wild-card games and say, 'You ought to get a little something for the fact that your record might have been better than a division winner.'"

But every action has a reaction. And reseeding could produce a byproduct that is never real popular: chaos.

"What if you have a 101-win team playing an 88-win team in the wild-card game?" asked the Elias Sports Bureau's Steve Hirdt, long one of the strongest proponents of the one-game wild-card format. "And let's say, if the 88 team wins, the Dodgers are home [to start the NLDs], but if the 101 team wins, they're on the road. If you had to wait until midnight Wednesday to know where you were playing Friday, is that a good idea? So there are practicalities involved, apart from the purity of the format."

Those practicalities were the biggest reason this idea was shot down in the past. But of all the suggestions on the table, reseeding remains the most viable one -- and the one most likely to be kicked around after this season.

Couldn't MLB get radical and blow up the divisions?

Now here's an outside-the-box idea you also hear from time to time -- especially from teams that play in perennially tough divisions like the AL East: Turn the clock back a century, go back to two leagues with no divisions, play a balanced schedule, add more playoff teams so no one has to wait around for their postseason to start, and then seed the teams based on wins, period.

Fascinating idea. But we can sum up its chances in two words: No way.

Here's Manfred on the prospect of vaporizing those six divisions: "I think divisional play is really important for us in terms of generating excitement over a very long season, maybe more so than other sports. And I think it's important to emphasize winning the division in any playoff format that there might be going forward."

Now here's his reaction to expanding the playoffs in any way: "There are certain principles that I think the clubs are pretty committed to. No. 1, I think we want to remain the most selective sport in terms of postseason qualification. Our clubs are not in favor of additional wild cards, even though it might give some of them the opportunity to play in the postseason. So any format that expanded the number of playoff teams I don't think is realistic for us."

And, finally, here's his firm rejection of going back to balanced scheduling, so that every team would play a comparable or identical schedule: "Balanced scheduling, to me, would exacerbate what, to me, are already really, really difficult travel issues in a sport that plays 162 times in 183 days.

"So those are three principles that I think you really have to kind of take as guiding principles going forward," he concluded. "You're going to be unbalanced in your schedule to some extent. You're going to have divisional play. And you don't want additional teams."

OK then. Get the picture? There's a limit to how far outside any box this sport is willing to go to "fix" its postseason.

Which means we're back to contemplating the fundamental question we started with: Is the postseason, as it's structured now, really so unfair that it needs fixing?

"I think it's very fair," said Hirdt. "If you think back before there were wild cards, in 1977, the Yankees won 100 games, and Baltimore and Boston both won 97. And they were all in the AL East, with no wild cards. [So the Orioles and Red Sox were eliminated and only the Yankees had a chance to win the World Series.] It happens every once in a while. The fact is that at least now, if you don't win your division, you've still got a chance [to get to the World Series] by winning that one game."

Now that's what you call an excellent point. Back when there were just leagues but no divisions, between 1903 and 1968, six teams won 100 games and still didn't get to play a postseason game. Then came the division era before wild cards, from 1969-93 -- a time, as ESPN research whiz Paul Hembekides reminds us, when five teams won 98 games or more (i.e., as many as the 2015 Pirates) and just went home.

And then came the period from 1995 through 2011. Does anyone ever think about the way life was when there was only one wild card? The Cubs do.

"If this was four years ago," Hoyer said, "we would be home right now and the Pirates who would go on. So I think you kind of have to look at it as glass half-full."

Now does this system produce the greatest chance of the "best team" winning the World Series? Of course not. Consider this: In the wild-card era, the team with the best record in baseball has won the World Series four times. Wild cards have won it six times.

But five of those wild-card titles came in the years when the wild-card teams didn't have to worry about surviving a win-or-else duel with each other. So at least, said Hirdt, "this format is more conducive to the best team winning than the previous format, when there was no disincentive at all for being the wild-card team."

Right. Now, we live in an age where there's a price to be paid for not finishing first. We can argue over whether a one-or-done wild-card game is too steep a price. But when we start arguing about whether it's "fair," we're missing two huge points:

1) What's "fair" is that every team has 162 chances, over six months, to finish first and avoid that game.

2) The playoffs, no matter how they're structured, aren't "fair" to begin with, because postseason baseball bears so little resemblance to the 162 games that led up to it.

"Does this format give us the best chance of the best team winning? I think, if you really want to get analytical about it, no format really does," Hoyer said. "I think that ultimately, the marathon of the regular season probably tells you who the best team is most of the time. The playoffs, a lot of time, is about the hot team, what team sort of gets on a roll. Baseball is meant for the long haul. So even a seven-game series doesn't really do much to determine the best team. But it's a better format than five. Or one."

In other words, if baseball really wanted to have a format that rewarded the best team, it wouldn't have a postseason at all. But the world is a much more fun and interesting place because it does.

So if you have an idea we haven't explored that could "fix" the postseason -- and still get the World Series finished before Thanksgiving -- let us know. But for now, we'll just have to make do with this one. Unfortunately for the Pittsburgh Pirates.