For the Seattle Mariners, who have been unable to win the four-team AL West since two years before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it must come as disconcerting news that in 2013 the division will expand to five teams with the addition of the Houston Astros, currently a member of the National League Central.
The presence of the Astros in the AL West represents another obstacle in Seattle’s path to the postseason, which it has steadfastly shunned since Ichiro was a major league rookie (2001). With four teams to beat instead of three, and based on the Mariners’ annual summer swoons, it’s hard to say when, or even if, Seattle will see another playoff game.
Consider: Had the AL West been just a two-team division of Seattle and Oakland over the past decade, the Mariners would have experienced the postseason just twice (2007 and 2009). Same thing with the Angels: In a two-team AL West of Seattle and Los Angeles, the Mariners would not have reached the postseason since 2003.
So the Mariners have only one season left (2012) to exploit the fact that they play in baseball’s only four-team alignment. Not that the Mariners figure to do much exploiting: Since their last playoff year (2001), the Mariners are combined 204 games out of first place.
If there is any good news for Mariners fans in the relocation, it’s that, with Houston in the division, Seattle won’t play nearly as many games against Oakland, a team that routinely beats the Mariners with a payroll half the size of Seattle’s.
The move of the Astros to the West came about at the winter meetings in Milwaukee as a consequence of baseball owners unanimously approving Houston’s sale from Drayton McLane to Jim Crane. The decision means that each league will have 15 teams. It also marks baseball’s first realignment since the Milwaukee Brewers switched from the AL to the NL after the 1997 season.
Crane agreed to a division switch in exchange for a pile of cash. He received a $70 million discount, or credit, from $680 million to $610 million, on the price he would have had to pay McLane. MLB will make up part of the difference by paying McLane $35 million over the next three years.
MLB figures to recoup some of that money by adding two wild card teams for the postseason, meaning that beginning as early as next year, but probably by 2013, 10 of the 30 clubs will reach the playoffs.
The Astros joined the majors in 1962 as the Houston Colt 45s. They played in the NL West from 1969 through 1993. Since 1994, they have been part of the NL Central. The Astros have reached the postseason nine teams, including six since 1998. Houston reached the World Series for the one and only time in 2005, and were swept by the Chicago White Sox.
The Mariners have not played the Astros since an interleague series in June of 2007, when Houston swept three at Minute Maid Park.
Minute Maid is a hitter-friendly ballpark. Although the Mariners haven’t made many visits there, Ichiro has hit .536 (15-for-28) in six games at the facility.