MLB Teams Sew Up Division Titles, Wild Card Slots

Summer is just about over. That usually means Major League Baseball fans are feverishly checking the standings as the playoff races tighten up in the last weeks of the season. But this year, virtually every division title and wild card slot have been sewn up. Could an unexciting September lead to a dramatic October? Robert Siegel talks to sportswriter Stefan Fatsis.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And I'm Robert Siegel. Major League Baseball's regular season officially ends in less than three weeks. And for fans everywhere but Texas and Los Angeles, it's pretty much over already.

Joining us to discuss this year's lackluster pennant races is sportswriter Stefan Fatsis. Hi, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS: Hey, Robert.

SIEGEL: There are eight playoff races in Major League Baseball every year, the six divisions and the two wildcard spots. And this year, all but one of those races is pretty much resolved already. Bring us up to date.

FATSIS: Yeah. The only unresolved race is the one you referred to in the American League West. The Los Angeles Angels have shaved a seven game deficit to the defending American League champion, Texas Rangers, down to just two and a half games.

Otherwise, no team is closer than six and a half games from the playoffs, which means, barring an epic collapse or two, your 2011 playoff teams are all but certain to be the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers and either the Angels or Rangers in the American League. And the Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves, Milwaukee Brewers and Arizona Diamond Backs in the National League.

SIEGEL: Now, while the presence of the Milwaukee Brewers on this makes this good news, I...

FATSIS: For you.

SIEGEL: For me. I guess a dearth of pennant races really can't be all that good for baseball.

FATSIS: No. Especially when the culturally dominant National Football League kicks off the way it did last night with a high scoring, down to the last play game between the sport's two previous champions, New Orleans and Green Bay.

Baseball is facing one of the least competitive Septembers since it added this extra wildcard team in 1995. And look, this happens, but it hasn't helped that the defending champions, the colorful San Francisco Giants, have been injured out of contention. And it does point out some of the problems in baseball.

You've got the revenue and talent giants in New York, Boston and Philly who were virtually certain playoff teams before the season even started. And, also, maybe the sport needs to tinker with its system to reduce the risk of this sort of finish.

SIEGEL: Stefan, earlier in the season, we talked about the possibility of adding another playoff team. Is Major League Baseball any closer to taking that step?

FATSIS: Well, the idea is to add one more wildcard in each league, which would mean one more playoff race and Commissioner Bud Selig would like to have this done as part of the next labor agreement with players, which is being negotiated now and, very importantly, is likely to be Selig's last before he retires after the 2012 season, so he wants it badly.

But the playoff plan is going to be tied up with another plan to even the size of the two leagues at 15 teams apiece. That's tied up with the proposed sale of the Houston Astros, who would move to the American league and that deal is reportedly taking longer than expected, in part because of questions about the business background of the proposed owner.

SIEGEL: Now, while this might be a predictable and uneventful September on the field, September would be quickly forgotten with a scintillating October. Is there a likelihood of great baseball to look forward to in the World Series, Stefan?

FATSIS: You know, there really is. There are some great teams in the playoffs this year and especially some great pitching staffs. It's been sort of touted as the year of the pitcher. Hitting numbers seem down across the board and pitching, as you know, Robert, is the key in playoffs.

It won't hurt Detroit to have the presumptive AL Cy Young award winner and possibly its most valuable player, Justin Verlander, pitching three times in a series. He's got 22 wins already. He's also dominant in the newer and more revelatory pitching metrics.

The Yankees and Red Sox are actually the teams with the pitching issues in the American League. Meanwhile, in the National League, the Phillies have the big three, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels. They'll be tough to beat and I know you're pulling for the Brewers with their MVP candidate, Ryan Braun and T-Plush, Tony Plush, the alter ego of the fun-loving outfielder, Nyjer Morgan. I'm sure you're a big follower of his Tweets.

SIEGEL: And Prince Fielder. Thank you, Stefan. Have a great weekend.

FATSIS: You, too, Robert.

SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports.

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