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Mark shapiro has a problem with baseball's competitive balance. What gnaws at the Cleveland Indians' general manager is not, however, the familiar, well-worn argument about the payroll discrepancies between high-revenue ball clubs and low-revenue ones. A new revenue-sharing system, instituted in 2003, and whip-smart management from some savvy G.M.'s have cooled that issue. The problem now for Shapiro is that, since a preponderance of the best teams in baseball are in the American League, a run for an AL playoff spot is a veritable Ironman Triathlon compared to the Easter Parade that occurs in the National League. � Shapiro's Indians won 93 games last season-and went straight home, where they could watch uncomfortably from their sofas as the NL's San Diego Padres (winners of 82 games, a record-tying worst for a playoff team), the Houston Astros (89 wins) and the Atlanta Braves (90) played on. Cleveland was the fourth AL team in the past four seasons to win 93 games and not qualify for the postseason. No NL team since the 1999 Cincinnati Reds has won that many games and missed out. � "Our initial plan was to build a club that could win 88 to 90 games year in and year out, which would give you a chance to win [a playoff spot] every year," says Shapiro, Cleveland's G.M. since November 2001. "There's no question that things have changed drastically since then, and that idea is no longer true. Now we have to win 93 to 95 games to be a consistent contender, and with a $60 million payroll, I don't know if that can be done year after year."
Rarely has the imbalance between the leagues been so pronounced. In an SI poll in which major league G.M.'s were asked to rank the game's 10 best teams, eight of the top 11 clubs were in the AL (box, page 50). Of the 44 votes for the best and second-best teams in baseball, 38 were cast for AL teams.
Says one AL advance scout, "The National League is a joke, and you really see the difference when you're in interleague play. Put it this way: We're always looking to go 10 games over .500 in interleague play when we start the season. If we've got 18 games against the National League, we're looking to be no worse than 14-4." The Indians, by the way, won 15 of 18 from the NL last season.
Overall, the AL went 136-116 (.540) against the NL last year, but the difference was more striking among the best teams. The four AL playoff clubs ( Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Angels, New York Yankees) were 47-25 (.653); the four NL playoff teams ( Atlanta Braves, Houston Astros, St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Padres) were 31-32 (.492). Those four AL clubs featured a host of sluggers such as Vladimir Guerrero, Paul Konerko, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield. The only NL playoff team to break .500 in interleague play last year was Albert Pujols's Cardinals (10-5).
The superiority of the American League, measurable in a variety of ways, is a deep-rooted trend at least five years in the making. Consider:
? From 2001 to
'05, 20 AL teams won 93 games or more, but four of them didn't make the
playoffs. Only 12 NL teams won that many games in the same span, and all of
them reached the postseason.
"It's going to be even more pronounced this year because it seems like every team in the AL has improved," says one AL G.M. who asked not to be named. "I'm sorry, [winning] is just not the same in that league. Give [G.M.] John Schuerholz and [manager] Bobby Cox in Atlanta their due, but look at that league they're competing against."
Oakland A's catcher Jason Kendall, who joined the AL last season after nine seasons with the NL's Pittsburgh Pirates, says that AL teams benefit from having the DH. "There's no breathing room in an AL lineup like there is in the NL," Kendall says. "That's the only difference I see." But the DH has been around since 1973, and this kind of imbalance didn't exist before. So why is the AL now in a league of its own? Following are a few theories.
Only three AL teams have changed general managers since Opening Day of 2003. Seven NL G.M. jobs have turned over in that same time. More AL G.M.'s, such as Shapiro, Billy Beane of the A's, Brian Cashman of the Yankees and Theo Epstein of the Red Sox, have been quick to embrace the importance of statistical analysis in evaluating players and building a roster. For instance, as power gained importance in baseball, those G.M.'s turned their attention to players who hit home runs and drew walks rather than focusing on players with traditional "tools."