During the past five years, the American League wild card spot has belonged to the AL East. Whether it’s been the Yankees, the Red Sox or the Rays, each of the three have slipped into the postseason — via the final entry — in that span.
But the division’s stranglehold on that final playoff spot may be in jeopardy. After reeling in Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson via free agency, the Angels are primed to compete against the Rangers for the AL West crown, leaving the loser to vie for the wild card.
The MLB intends to add another wild card team to each league in the near future, but that will likely happen in 2013 — when the Houston Astros join the American League.
Considering that Texas has advanced to back-to-back World Series, it’s likely that either AL West squad could deny the AL East a wild card berth for the first time since 2006, when the Detroit Tigers punched the last ticket into the playoffs.
On the last day of the winter meetings, Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington acknowledged as much in the lobby of the Hilton Anatole.
“There’s a lot of good teams in the [American] League,” Cherington said. “That will be a very competitive division certainly with Texas and Anaheim going after each other and a bunch of teams that are in pretty good shape going into 2012 who could compete in October.”
The heightened competition in the AL West could produce the division’s first wild card club since 2002, when the Angels advanced to the World Series and toppled Barry Bonds‘ Giants for the championship.
Unfortunately for Boston, it already has its hands full with Tampa Bay’s deep pitching staff and the Yankees’ potent offense in the AL East. With the Angels adding a three-time MVP in Pujols and a southpaw ace in Wilson, the Red Sox could find themselves without a wild card seat in these musical chairs.
The daunting part for Boston is that this dance is just getting started.
Keep in mind that Brewers slugger Prince Fielder is still available in free agency. The Rangers, who certainly have the money to spend, could emerge as major players to sign the marquee first baseman to bash homers in a hitter’s paradise.
In the past five years, Fielder has amassed 200 homers in Miller Park. At Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, he could potentially feast even more on opposing pitchers.
Regardless of Fielder’s ultimate destination, this year’s AL West is seemingly inching toward its status from 2001, when the Athletics and the Mariners each eclipsed the 100-win plateau and combined for 218 victories.
“We’ve always had a ton of respect for the Angels,” Rangers assistant general manager Thad Levine told reporters in Dallas. “To a certain extent, even though we’ve won the division the last two years, we still see them as the class of the division. They have been our main competition and will continue to be as Oakland is rebuilding, Seattle is turning the corner. We’ll have to respond. I think our players will rise to the challenge.”
And it may come at the AL East’s expense.