Playoff Expansion Winners (and Losers?)

In November, when Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association signed the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that will govern the sport through the 2016 season, several changes were made to the game both on and off the field. Included in the new CBA are adjustments to the salary arbitration system, spending caps for teams’ international and draft budgets, expansion of instant replay, and alterations to the revenue sharing plan, among other amendments. However, no stipulation of the new CBA will be as quickly or as obviously impactful on the major league level as the addition of an extra Wild Card team in each league, after MLB announced that the new playoff structure will be in place for 2012. Several teams will likely be ecstatic, as the second Wild Card slot will be their best chance to make a run at the World Series. However, for others, the new structure means they’re only guaranteed a single playoff game even if they can take a Wild Card slot, rather than the full Division Series they would have been assured under the old system. I’ll run through the teams who will benefit, and those that might have their chances hurt under the new playoff structure.

There are a couple of groups of teams who clearly gain from the new system. The first, and most obvious, are teams who would have been unlikely to win the first Wild Card slot but should have a solid shot at a second one. In the old playoff structure, my playoff picks in the NL are the Phillies, Reds, and Diamondbacks, with the Braves taking the Wild Card spot. If that’s the case, the second Wild Card would offer hope for teams like the Nationals, Marlins, Cardinals, Giants, and Rockies. In the American League, my best guess is that the Rangers will three-peat in the West and the Tigers will run away with the Central while the Yankees will do the same in the East. That’ll leave the Rays, Angels, and Red Sox to duke it out for two wild-card slots. While I think the Jays are well-positioned to take huge leaps forward over the next few years, I still think they’re a year or two from contention, because they’ll need to get production from their stable of exciting young arms and most of their better ones still need minor league seasoning. The second playoff slot clearly helps Tampa, Los Angeles, and Boston in 2012, as it gives them another chance to make the playoffs.

However, once in that playoff game, I believe the Rays and Angels are better positioned to move on to the Division Series, as long as the teams are able to line up their ace to start that game over the last week of the season. Last season, the Angels’ top starter was Dan Haren, with 6.4 WAR, while the Rays were led by James Shields, who put up 4.9. I believe the Angels would probably start Haren, or potentially Jered Weaver in a game 163, and the Rays could start either Shields or David Price depending on how both pitch over the course of the season. I think there’s at least some chance Matt Moore will pitch himself into that conversation by the end of the season, but in the end Joe Maddon will probably defer to experience for their potential season-ending game. The Red Sox would start either Josh Beckett or Jon Lester, neither of whom were as effective as the Angels or Rays starters and neither of whom I’d expect to be favored in a matchup against either of the other team’s aces. The Red Sox rotation could certainly be deep, especially if Clay Buchholz bounces back from a 2011 lost somewhat to injury and Daniel Bard‘s transition to the rotation goes smoothly. However, I think they’re a team that would benefit from a full series, rather than the one-and-done situation they now face. In the National League, I feel that the Giants, Cardinals, and Marlins, with Tim LincecumChris Carpenter (or Adam Wainwright), and Josh Johnson likely to be attractive choices, would welcome the idea of entrusting their season to their ace, while the Rockies, Braves, and Nationals might not be as comfortable with their options in that situation. As in Moore’s situation, historical dominance by Stephen Strasburg could certainly change that level of comfort, but I’m hesitant to project historical dominance on anyone. That said, he’s certainly capable of forcing the issue by having something close to the best first full year as a starter anyone’s ever seen, exceeding or surpassing the pure ridiculousness of Dwight Gooden’s 1984, when Gooden put up 8.6 WAR by striking out 276 in 218 innings for an 11.39 K/9 rate.

Long-term, every team in the league is a winner, as there will be more opportunities for teams to make playoff runs in the future. Once they gain a berth to October baseball, I firmly believe any team can get hot and get a few bounces and win a World Series. My hometown Giants certainly did, although the team’s excellent pitching was also obviously a key factor. The reason this was a somewhat inevitable move, however, is that more playoff games means more money, simply because it’s the time of the year in which the country’s eye turns to baseball the most. Additionally, more playoff spots mean more teams will be competitive later into the season, retaining fan interest and collecting on that in the form of increased ticket sales later into the season for fringe playoff teams. Overall, while scheduling issues certainly make it impossible to call the new playoff system perfect, the excitement and benefits of the guaranteed game 163 make it a positive move for Major League Baseball, and a major item off Commissioner Selig’s to-do list for his final term in office.


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