MLB

Danger of expanded MLB playoffs is rewarding mediocrity

By Sports Desk June 19, 2020

The Texas Rangers were not very good last season and deserved to sit out the postseason. That is hardly a controversial statement for a 78-84 team.

Yet it is very possible that a team with a similar record to the Rangers – albeit in far fewer games – could advance to the playoffs in 2020 and beyond if MLB goes ahead with a proposed 16-team expanded playoff following a regular season delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

In the proposal, eight teams from each league would reach the postseason and the two wild card games would transform into an eight-team wild-card round with eight best-of-three series.

If the proposed 16-team format is applied to the final 2019 standings, the added playoff teams would have been the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians and Rangers in the American League, and the New York Mets, Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs in the National League.

Each of those teams finished above .500 except for the Rangers, who would qualify under the new format as the eighth seed in the AL.

The only previous team to reach the playoffs after finishing the regular season under .500 was the Royals with a 50-53 mark in the strike-split 1981 campaign. The Kansas City Royals went 20-30 in the first half of the season and 30-23 in the second half before losing to the Oakland Athletics in the playoffs.

It is not difficult to see why both MLB and players would be in favour of expanded playoffs. More postseason games mean more broadcast rights can be sold, which is particularly important after so much revenue will be lost from an abbreviated regular season played without fans in most cases.

In the proposal, commissioner Rob Manfred said MLB would give the additional playoff games to broadcast partners for free this year to compensate for the shortened regular season, and MLB would then sell the games for 2021.

The increase in playoff games gives players extra opportunities to play beyond the regular season, which is after all why the games are played in the first place. The new format also adds the designated hitter to all games for the first time, including games between National League teams for 2020 and 2021.

That will not make baseball purists happy and fans will be robbed of magical moments like Bartolo Colon hitting a home run, but a universal DH adds jobs to a game that has seen its free agent market squeezed recently. It will also extend the careers of players no longer able to play defense adequately.

How will fans feel about more than half the teams reaching the playoffs? Some will scoff at the idea and say that it makes baseball look too much like the NBA and the NHL.

Others might be totally on board with it. That could especially be true of fans in Detroit or Baltimore or any other team with no chance at the postseason in a regular 162-game season. Maybe the Orioles get hot for a couple of weeks late this summer and somehow sneak into the playoffs. This new format at least provides a glimmer of hope, however miniscule.

It was not long ago that just four teams out of 28 qualified for the playoffs, but changes were made following the 1994 strike season.

A wild card team was added in 1995, increasing the number of playoff teams to eight. That remained the status quo until another wild card was inserted in each league in 2012 to bring the total number of playoff teams to 10 out of 30.

It's often said that a whole new season begins with the playoffs and look no further than the 2019 World Series champion Washington Nationals for a prime example. Washington did not even win their division, finishing four games behind the Atlanta Braves, but the Nationals were the best team when it mattered most.

This new format may decrease the importance of the regular season, but it adds more excitement to the playoffs and would make those games even more tense.

More playoff teams provide more opportunities for upsets and what fan couldn't get behind a sub-.500 team knocking off a top seed? That scenario is a whole lot more likely if MLB goes through with the proposed three-game series in the first round of the playoffs.

Certain seasons leave an indelible mark, whether for on-field play or for other reasons. The 1981 season with its two halves and the 1994 strike-shortened season fall in the latter category. The 2020 season appears destined for that group as well.

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    Anyone concerned that famous old fixtures like the Manchester derby are becoming devoid of emotion without supporters need only have looked at Gabriel Jesus' expression as Ederson just failed to keep out Bruno Fernandes' second-minute penalty.

    Manchester City's Brazil forward netted a midweek brace in the 4-1 win over Wolves to persuade Pep Guardiola to keep him in the line-up on Sunday.

    One of Jesus' big calling cards is his work rate, never one to shirk defensive duties that plenty of attackers dread.

    Even so, haring back into his own area to clumsily foul Anthony Martial after mis-controlling a throw-in was taking that trait to unhelpful extremes.

    Ederson got a firm hand to Fernandes' strike but could not prevent City from conceding their earliest ever Premier League goal at the Etihad Stadium. Jesus hit his head with his hands and howled in frustration.

    At that moment it was easy to remember the eye-opening quotes the 23-year-old supplied during a goal drought last season

    "Always I think, 'Wow I have to score' because I'm playing for a big club in big competitions with big players," he said.

    "I think it happens with other players. I cannot talk about other players I can only talk about me when I'm not happy with me I want to shoot myself in the head because it's difficult for me."

    If City's collective demeanour had been one of swaggering confidence fuelled by inevitable triumph during their 21-match winning run, it was never one Jesus could comfortably tap into.

    He now has no goals in 10 derby appearances, but you won't need to tell him that. Sergio Aguero's expiring contract and the likelihood of City bringing in an elite forward replacement probably weighs heavily, too.

    Nevertheless, Jesus led from the front as Guardiola's side sought to recover from a shambling start.

    He was lurking when Harry Maguire cleared a dangerous Kevin De Bruyne cross – despite a patchy performance, City's midfield talisman created eight opportunities for team-mates – and a running battle before half-time saw the United centre-back booked for a foul on his opponent.

    Jesus had two shots blocked and concluded a half he began clattering into Martial by clattering into the post in a vain attempt to convert Riyad Mahrez's cross-cum-shot.

    In the opening stages of the second period, it was Jesus' lay-off that saw Rodri hit the crossbar. An equaliser felt close, but then the roof caved in on Guardiola's men.

    Joao Cancelo has been a revelation in his hybrid full-back/midfielder role, but Martial and Marcus Rashford's tirelessly penetrative running offered a reminder he can still lack when it comes to purely defensive duties.

    The Portugal international veered into no-mans land under Dean Henderson's throw, allowing the excellent Luke Shaw to start and finish a wonderful counter-attack.

    For a spell in the middle of the second half, a defence breached only 19 times in the Premier League this season appeared to be wearing an 'all through traffic' sign. Cancelo was spared from himself as Kyle Walker entered the fray to shore up City's right-hand side before a dejected Jesus made way for Phil Foden.

    The lead at the top of the Premier League is 11 points and this result – Solskjaer's third win in succession at the Etihad Stadium – should count for little beyond bragging rights. But Europe's elite will have taken note.

    As City strained to get back into the match, ghosts of other Guardiola setbacks returned. Raheem Sterling, like Jesus still without a goal in this fixture, spurned glorious chances; players did not get shots away in a crowded penalty area; individual errors piled up and counter-attacking routes were left wide open.

    A marque signing like Erling Haaland would solve some of Sunday's problems in the opposition penalty area, but little of what unfolded in other areas of the field.

    Speaking at his pre-match news conference, Guardiola rejected any notion of a reality check perhaps being useful for his side. Such questionable logic is unlikely to feature in his forensic analysis of the game.

    However, the last time United bloodied a City team bound for the title in April 2018, they did so after Liverpool had ransacked them in the Champions League quarter-finals. This lesson is at least more handily timed.

    City's rock-solid look for large parts of this season was entirely absent and that will concern Guardiola, as it is their key point of difference from unsuccessful tilts at European glory.

    Their collective loss of heads can only be partially explained by Jesus shooting himself in the foot.

  • Suarez forlorn as Atletico moment of weakness keeps Real Madrid in title hunt Suarez forlorn as Atletico moment of weakness keeps Real Madrid in title hunt

    Luis Suarez scored a dazzling goal and was named man of the match, but on the day his former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard finally became a league champion, did Suarez have his own 'Gerrard's slip'?

    Championships are often decided on fine margins, and it is almost seven years since Liverpool's Premier League title hopes were brutally hit by Chelsea, when Gerrard's famous stumble let in Demba Ba to score. Manchester City snatched the silverware from the long-time favourites, and Liverpool had to wait another six years before landing the trophy.

    Gerrard has managed Rangers to the Scottish title and Suarez is attempting to power Atletico to LaLiga silverware, and on Sunday it seemed all the glory would be his after he fired the Rojiblancos into an early 1-0 lead over Real Madrid, a typically flamboyant finish from a player some thought was washed up at Barcelona barely six months ago.

    How he has been revived this season under Diego Simeone, and what a moment it would be were he and Atletico to carry off the title in Spain this year.

    But this game at the Wanda Metropolitano finished 1-1, and Suarez will know he is partly responsible for the home side not seeing out victory.

    In the 87th minute, Atletico had a glorious chance on the counter-attack to go 2-0 in front. Suarez, in plenty of space inside the Madrid half, could not find the pass that would have sent Saul Niguez through on goal, instead pushing his team-mate wide, and the chance was snuffed out.

    Within seconds, Madrid were encroaching on the Atletico penalty area, Karim Benzema on the ball. His pass to Casemiro was carefully returned to the feet of the Frenchman, who burst beyond the penalty spot and finally found a way past Jan Oblak.

    Kingpins, that's what Suarez and Benzema are to their teams. Like Gerrard at Liverpool. They are the players whose influence is felt throughout the team, the squad, the club and beyond.

    Suarez walked off with an apologetic look at full-time, tracked to the tunnel by television cameras. He had the game in his hands, and he dropped it. Madrid are still in this title race, and five points behind feels an awful lot better than the prospect of eight adrift, which was looming as Suarez picked his pass to Saul.

    This was a result that would have been cheered in Barcelona, if they were paying attention in Catalonia and not all-consumed by the elections for a new club president.

    Maybe a Madrid win would have been an even better result for Barcelona's title prospects, but nobody among the Blaugranas would dare admit that.

    Barcelona sit second, just three points behind Atletico now, and Simeone's team must still visit Camp Nou. How Suarez must be relishing that, and how he must be relieved that Atletico remain in the box seat in this three-team battle.

    He was excellent for large parts of this game, hitting the target with four of his six shots and typically delighting in winding up the opposition.

    Benzema, by contrast, looked far from sharp until the final half hour, when the player who was returning from a three-week injury lay-off found something extra.

    Zidane had labelled Benzema "a joy for football" before this game, but by the break he had registered three attempts, none of which hit the target; a tame shot and two stray headers.

    This game seemed ripe for Atletico to end their nine-game winless run in LaLiga games against Madrid (D5 L4), with Marcos Llorente's skilful evasion of Nacho and Suarez's world-class finish from the pass that followed a real treat for the eyes. It was the Uruguayan's 10th goal in 13 LaLiga games against Madrid.

    It was Suarez's 17th goal from his 29th shot on target this season in LaLiga, and by early in the second half the expected goal (xG) rating for each side showed Atletico were leading by 1.2 to 0.4.

    Slowly, though, the chances began to flow for Madrid, Oblak making a string of magnificent saves, including two in quick succession from Benzema, who was coming into his own as others tired. Finally, Benzema got his reward for persistence. It finished a 1.8-1.8 draw on xG, 1-1 on the scoreboard.

    And now Atletico are 10 league games without a win against their neighbours.

    "We know how difficult this championship is," Simeone said in his pre-match news conference, pointing to how Madrid and Barcelona have been gradually reeling in Atletico in recent weeks.

    It may get a whole lot harder now.

  • Barcelona presidential election: The key questions ahead of critical vote for club's future Barcelona presidential election: The key questions ahead of critical vote for club's future

    After weeks of delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Barcelona will at last hold their presidential elections on Sunday, March 7.

    More than 111,000 members, or socios, will cast their vote either in person at polling stations or by mail to determine who will succeed Josep Maria Bartomeu in the top job.

    Bartomeu stepped down last October, just days before a scheduled vote of no confidence against his board, but interim president Carlos Tusquets has hardly had an easy few months since.

    As well as a delay in the hustings, which were initially set for January 24, Barca's off-the-pitch concerns have been exacerbated by official debt levels of more than €1billion and a legal investigation that involves Bartomeu, who was provisionally released under charges of unfair administration and corruption of business on March 3.

    Meanwhile, the men's senior football team requires an overhaul made even more difficult by the economic damage wrought by COVID-19, with Ronald Koeman's men chasing Atletico Madrid in LaLiga and facing a likely Champions League exit to Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16.

    The presidency has therefore become arguably the toughest job in elite football and could have a significant impact on the medium-term future of the club.

    Who are the candidates?

    There are three men in the race for the presidency: Joan Laporta, Toni Freixa and Victor Font.

    The favourite is Laporta, who previously held the post from 2003 to 2010, one of Barca's most successful periods that saw them win 12 major trophies, including their first treble under Pep Guardiola in 2009. He remains popular with a large part of the fan base and is arguably the candidate on best terms with Lionel Messi.

    Freixa, who campaigned unsuccessfully in 2015, previously advised Laporta's board of directors and served as spokesperson under Sandro Rosell and Bartomeu, and has been involved with the club for 18 years. His knowledge and experience of working for different administrations at Camp Nou could be key.

    Font, meanwhile, is banking on the support of those members who feel a fresh approach is needed. A successful entrepreneur, his expertise lies in telecommunication, media and technology, but his vision for Barca's future has been worked on since 2013 and perhaps represents the most prudent option available.

    What do they promise?

    The message from Laporta's camp is simple: "We are a group of Barca fans with ideas for the future and the experience to carry them out." He promises to focus on "social and human" results, as well as those on the pitch and in financial statements. He has vowed to put faith back in academy products from La Masia to complement the first-team stars, while he insists he is the best chance Barca have of convincing Messi to sign a contract extension.

    Freixa's campaign – Fidels al Barca, or 'True to Barca' – is, he says, "a candidacy for the people, free of outside interests". Following a member-first approach, he has vowed to correct Barca's crippling €1.2billion debt levels without the need for outside investors. Freixa's focus is on weaponising the club's passionate supporters: he wants to pack out the stadium "with Barca fans, not tourists", with reward schemes in place for the most loyal followers, and make sure the planned Espai Barca redevelopment of the stadium and surrounding area does not compromise the club's image.

    Font has been building his 'Yes to the Future' campaign for the best part of eight years. Founded on "new blood and good governance", his is an honest approach: accepting the club have reached "an historic crossroads" that requires professional experience to navigate, he says his project has the groundwork and the expertise to be by far the most viable for the club's future. His plan is "to revamp collectively the club and to ensure that Barca can contribute in a tangible way to making the world a better place".

    Will they hire a new coach?

    Ronald Koeman has rightly become fed up with questions over his future and will be glad when Sunday's elections are over and he can find out from the new president what his job prospects look like.

    While there can be few guarantees for any coach – Barca could still win the treble this season, or end up with nothing – it feels unlikely Koeman will be in charge for 2021-22.

    Laporta has reportedly considered offering the job to Arsenal's Mikel Arteta, having previously struck gold with former players when he gave the inexperienced Guardiola a shot back in 2008. Font, who has the valuable support of former club captain Carles Puyol, is believed to be eager to bring Xavi back to Camp Nou after the ex-midfielder's impressive spell with Al-Sadd in Qatar.

    Freixa has at least offered Koeman a public show of support until the end of his contract next year, but he too has spoken of wanting Xavi back in Catalonia sooner rather than later, even if that would initially see him take over the B team.

    What will happen with transfers?

    Barca's dire financial situation makes star signings, the kind on which many past club elections in Spain have been based, a very difficult thing to expect.

    Font has adopted by far the more prudent approach, warning fans that selling high-earning under-performers and restructuring the wage bill is essential to stave off a deepening financial crisis, but that is not a policy that will appease fans desperate to see Barca challenging for the Champions League again.

    Freixa has gone for the Hail Mary, insisting signing Kylian Mbappe AND Erling Haaland would be perfectly possible and that he has an investor lined up who could bolster the club to the tune of €250m through a stake in Barca Corporate.

    Laporta's priority is to build a competitive side around their club captain...

    So, what about Messi?

    As mentioned, Laporta claims electing him will give Barca the best chance of convincing Messi to stay. The Argentina star broke into the first team during Laporta's previous presidency and enjoyed great success in that spell, including winning the Champions League – the trophy he covets most – under Frank Rijkaard and Guardiola.

    Font and Freixa, without any personal connection to call upon, have each admitted keeping Messi depends more on Barca's ability to sell the strength of their new project to the six-time Ballon d'Or winner.

    Again, Font is the real pragmatist. When El Mundo leaked details of Messi's massive contract, Font rejected the notion that paying such a salary was a financial burden too great to bear, insisting Messi was an asset who helped to generate as much money as he cost. However, he also told Onda Cero: "If [Messi] is not here in the future then it would not be the end of the world."

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