Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig made two announcements today at the close of the owners meetings that will significantly alter the competitive shape of the sport. By 2013, the league will have constant interleague play and perhaps as soon as next season 10 teams will make the postseason rather than eight.
Selig announced that the Houston Astros, after their sale to businessman Jim Crane became official, will shift from the National League Central to the American League West, creating two 15-team leagues. The move provides great equity among divisions – no longer will AL West teams compete against three teams for a playoff spot while NL Central clubs vie with five.
The greater effect will come with the schedule. With an uneven number of teams in each league, an American League team will play a National League on every day of the season, from opening day to Game 162. The line between leagues, having already blurred over the years, will become nearly extinct.
It also raises questions about the use of the designated hitter. With constant interleague play, the chorus to either abolish it or make it uniform in both leagues will surely grow louder.
The playoffs will change format for the first time since 1995, when Selig ushered in three divisions and introduced the wild card. Now two wild cards will come from each league, with those wild cards teams facing off in a one-game playoff to determine the fourth playoff team to join the three division winners. It could be implemented as soon as next year.
The extra wild card team, of course, provides more incentive to win a division and could increase the excitement of divisional races that some years lose any hint of drama. An additional playoff team will allow more teams to remain in contention for longer into the season. But it will also add another layer of luck to a system already virtually defined by it.
Your position on the new wild card teams, really, depends on what you want out of a playoff system. The one-game playoffs will be must-watch events, even if the high drama is unlike anything the sport has tried and, frankly, manufactured.
But the competitive unfairness of the new system outweighs that excitement. Baseball’s 162-game regular season reveals more about the quality of the teams than any sport’s. The current playoff system, when six months of proof yields to a seven- or five-game crapshoot, already left so much about the deciding of a champion up to chance. The additional team, and a one-game playoff, is an utter crapshoot.