Today, MLB is expected to announce the official addition of two more Wild Card teams to the playoffs for 2012, expanding the total field to 10. There will be three division winners in each league, and two Wild Card teams in each league. The Wild Card teams will face each other in a one-game playoff, before moving on to face a division winner.
The impact for MLB teams as a whole should be obvious. With more teams in the playoffs, the season is likely to be exciting slightly longer for more fan bases than before. Further, with a one-game Wild Card playoff (during which those teams will likely use their best starter), the importance of winning the division becomes all the more important. That, too, will create more excitement later in the season than there has been before.
The impact on the Chicago Cubs for the 2012 season, however, is likely to be only tangential.
Yes, it gives them a slightly better chance of making the playoffs – but it does that for every other team, too. It’s plausible now that the Cubs, who aren’t expected to be particularly good, could be more competitive later in the year than they would have been otherwise. That, of course, could be good (excitement) or bad (difficult trade decisions). There are arguments floating around that the additional Wild Cards make trade pieces more valuable, because more teams will be in the race, so the market for guys like Matt Garza will be deeper. That might prove to be the case; it might also prove to be the case that, because more teams are in the race, teams are less likely to part with top prospects for incremental upgrades – they’re already in the race, after all, and the playoffs are a crapshoot. I suppose, gun to my head, I come down on the “trade pieces are slightly more valuable” side of things, but it’s closer than some would have you believe.
In my book, the change is a good one, both for 2012 and beyond. More excitement late in the year is a good thing, and you’d struggle to convince me otherwise.
Finally, for those who reflect fondly on the final day of the 2011 season – the Rays’ epic win, the Red Sox’s epic loss, the Cardinals’ blah-blah-blah – and say that it wouldn’t have happened under the current system, please recognize two things: (1) you’re right that, if the current system had been in place last year, the last day of the regular season wouldn’t have had that same drama; and (2) that’s wholly and completely beside the point, because (a.) that was just as statically likely to happen on the final day of any given regular season (actually, slightly more so, since there are more spots) under the new system than the old and (b.) there is additional built-in drama now with the Wild Card play-in games.
In other words, the whole but-what-about-what-happened-last-year is total red herring. It was a wonderful fluke, no more or less likely to happen again in 2012 than it was to happen in 2011.