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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Playoff system needs a little tinkering to protect 2nd-best record

Baseball has plenty on its plate as far as potential rule changes, such as the possibility of an illegal defense violation to limit shifts or the implementation of a universal DH. But another topic that is likely to gain some momentum during the second half of this season and into 2019 is a rethinking of the playoff structure. You can thank the Yankees and Red Sox for that.

Get ready to sound the East Coast Bias siren, because commissioner Rob Manfred is likely to have a scenario in which two of his biggest draws, in New York and Boston, finish with the top two records in the majors. And both are likely to win more than 100 games.

The issue? Sure, the rivalry could bring some extra eyeballs to the TV with an epic September race for the AL East title, with the victor avoiding the do-or-die wild-card game. But possibly having the runner-up bounced from the playoffs immediately rather than keeping the ratings train going deeper into October certainly doesn’t do MLB or its network partners any good.

Based on the standings through Friday’s games, the Red Sox and Yankees would meet in the Division Series if one were to advance past the wild-card game. That’s something, but a five-game series doesn’t have the allure of a seven-game ALCS with the World Series at stake.

And before you bring up that favoritism we mentioned earlier, have you checked baseball’s national broadcast schedule? There’s a reason these two teams continually clog up the prime-time slots.

Not only that, but it’s hardly a coincidence that the Yankees and Red Sox were chosen for MLB’s first games in London next season. When you’re trying to sell a product, you go with the A-listers to pitch it, and when these two franchises are at the top of their game, the sport as a whole benefits.

Hal Steinbrenner may be the managing general partner of the Yankees, but as the pilot in him likes to say, he also sees the game from 35,000 feet, and he agrees with the upside of this AL East battle taking center stage.

“I do,” Steinbrenner said last month. “I would hope just about anybody in baseball would. It’s a 100-year-old rivalry, 2,000-odd games and never boring, never dull. But to have us both doing what we’re doing right now, I think it’s a pretty good thing. Of course, I’m biased, right?”

True. But the playoff conundrum isn’t just a Yankees-Red Sox issue. They just happen to be useful in pointing out the need to reconsider how October is set up.

If MLB can’t figure out how to expand the playoffs, say by making the wild card a best-of-three, it makes sense to avoid having, for example, a 108-win team suffer for being in the wrong division.

A similar thing took place in 2015, when the 98-win Pirates lost to the 97-win Cubs in the wild-card game, the highest win totals ever to play in it. It’s too bad for them that they shared the NL Central with the 100-win Cardinals, and wouldn’t you know it, the National League rep for the World Series that year was the 90-win Mets.

The only other option would be to reseed the playoff teams by record rather than automatically put the division winners above a wild-card team. And for those traditionalists resistant to change, have you taken a look at the AL Central lately? How much of an accomplishment is it to kick around those tomato cans all season long (no offense to the Indians)?

And it’s not as if MLB hasn’t messed with the playoffs recently. Perhaps you recall the failed “This Time It Counts” campaign to have the All-Star Game determine home-field advantage in the World Series. We understand Bud Selig’s misguided attempt to drum up ratings for the Midsummer Classic, but still. That lasted for 14 years before Manfred axed it and awarded home field to the World Series team with the best record. Before Selig’s ASG initiative, however, it simply alternated from year to year, which was pretty silly, too.

As for any more immediate changes to the playoff format, Steinbrenner said, “I’d be up for talking about it,” and he’s surely not alone among the owners or Manfred, who no doubt would prefer more postseason games to fewer. But until then, a good first step would be to squeeze as much entertainment value from the limited amount of games they currently have, and reshuffling the playoff deck for October could be the smart way to do that.

Fallen Stars

With MLB scheduled to announce the All-Star rosters Sunday, we present instead this collection of “Fallen Stars,” basically players who once participated in the Midsummer Classic but are struggling through a season at the other end of the spectrum this year. There’s varying degrees of underachievement here, the only constant being a subpar performance compared with their previous All-Star status (stats through Friday’s games).

C: Salvador Perez, Royals

His five-year, $52.5-million contract figured to be a bargain for the Royals, but maybe the losing in K.C. is getting to Perez, who’s hitting .215 with a .637 OPS, the latter is almost 100 points below his career mark.

1B: Chris Davis, Orioles

Matched Cal Ripken Jr.’s franchise strikeout record this week in 2,029 fewer games and continues to plummet, batting .153 with only seven homers. Oh, and he’s just in Year 3 of his $161-million deal.

2B: Ian Kinsler, Angels

Hit eight of his 11 homers in June, so the power is on the upswing. But the slash line of .217/.276/.380 is well beneath his career numbers.

SS: Alcides Escobar, Royals

His streak of consecutive starts at shortstop ended last month at 407, as the Royals have tried to work in rookie Adalberto Mondesi, with Escobar playing some centerfield. Since he’s hitting .193, it’s a wonder he’s in there at all.

3B: Evan Longoria, Giants

Swapping Tampa Bay for the Bay Area hasn’t been so great for Longoria, who was batting .246 with a .711 OPS before getting his hand broken by a Dan Straily fastball. This $63-million investment is not looking so hot for the Giants.

CF: Michael Conforto, Mets

This is a franchise with plenty of uncomfortable questions, and Conforto is among the most perplexing, hitting .224 with a .378 slugging percentage. Is the offseason shoulder surgery to blame? And if not, what does that mean for his Mets’ future?

RF: Dexter Fowler, Cardinals

Fowler had a public spat this week with Cards president John Mozeliak, who questioned his effort in an interview. Not a good sign for a player in the second season of a five-year, $82.5-million contract. Neither is his .171 batting average and .275 on-base percentage.

LF: Ryan Braun, Brewers

Braun has been bothered by back and thumb issues this season, so those health conditions could have something to do with hitting .236 with a .714 OPS. Still had 10 homers through 70 games, though.

SP: Dallas Keuchel, Astros

It’s all relative for Keuchel, who’s still a key piece of the defending champs’ rotation, even if he’s not pitching like his former Cy Young self in a walk year. His 4.12 ERA is more than a run above last season, with a 1.308 WHIP that hasn’t been that high since 2013.

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