Expanding baseball’s postseason would give hope to teams like the Nationals, Orioles


Jayson Werth, second from left after Sunday’s win over the Giants, is in a new uniform this year thanks to the Nationals’ aggressive offseason. An extra wild card in the NL could create even more incentive to build a solid team. (Greg Fiume/GETTY IMAGES)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist April 29, 2011

For the Nationals and Orioles, as well as other teams that awake every day with a headache because they play in a division that’s too tough, or before crowds that are too small or have an owner who recoils at spending to be competitive, good news is on the way. Two more wild card teams will arrive in ’12.

It’s not a done deal yet. But it will be. Last week, Commissioner Bud Selig said that expanding to a 10-team postseason for ’12 was “inexorable.” The union says that’ll have to be negotiated. But, as I’ll explain, they believe the more the merrier, too. So, it’s a lock.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Will a 10-team postseason in a 30 franchise industry be good for baseball? That’s a tough call. “Yes, probably,” I’d say. I bad-mouthed the first wild cards and was wrong. As with that original switch, we won’t know until we watch it in action for a few years.

But will it be good for teams like the Nats and O’s that are in the midst of trying to move from perennial-losers to .500 and above? Almost certainly.

The rationale for the first wild cards in ’95 was that a wonderful team, in the old system, could be excluded from the playoffs just because an even-greater team happened to be in its division. More playoff revenue for Major League Baseball mattered. But “fairness” resonated, too.

The reason for expanding to two wild cards in each league, however, is aimed directly at franchises that sometimes feel like October is a month they will never experience or only if they get very lucky. A few teams (the Pirates, for one) may be beyond hope. But many clubs think, “Just a little help might be enough, please.”

The reason is elementary math. In the past 15 years, the average wild card team has had a 93-69 record. That’s very good indeed. And a dozen of those 30 wild cards won 95 to 102 games. If you own the Nats or O’s, and you doubt that wealthy teams such as the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies will ever to be easy to beat in your division, how motivated will you be to invest enough to get to a 93-win level? Especially when you know that, if you get there briefly, it may not be good enough? That’s a grim business proposition.

That’s where the extra wild-card team changes the equation. In the past 15 years, the team that would have gotten that second wild-card spot had an average record of 89-73. And eight of them weren’t even that good, winning just 84 to 87 games. So, being just 10 games over .500 probably puts you in a season-long playoff race or even gets you in ’em.

That new reality is going to put teams like the Nats and Orioles on the spot, which is probably good for fans. Long-term “plans” and minor league development are always a great foundation, but that “patience” verbiage can be used to fob off fan complaints.

Starting next year, it won’t work so well.

If you can’t aspire to 86-76 — even the ’69 Senators did that under inept, broke Bob Short — then why the hell would you even own a baseball team? Stop wasting everybody’s time. Cash out. Move on. Fund a museum.

See how easy that was? It may not be entirely fair. But if you think teams around .500 are under pressure now to add offseason free agents — or add payroll at the July 31 deadline to make a playoff run — just wait until next year. That’s why players, and their union, will love an extra wild card. It intensifies and broadens the demand for talent.

For those who wonder why both the Nats and Orioles finally became more aggressive last offseason, we may have another piece of the puzzle. At the ’10 World Series, Selig said that 10-team playoffs were a front-burner issue on his watch. Many got the hint. This is now Bud’s baby and it’s due soon. Suddenly, the Nats threw $126 million at Jayson Werth and tried to get Zack Greinke to take $100 million. The Orioles reworked their payroll twice to accommodate a $20 million increase for ’11.

Would the risk-reward equation in their business model change with a 10-team playoff?

Baseball’s main debate will be whether the two wild cards meet in a one-game instant-knockout playoff or else play a best-of-three series to find out who earns the right to advance against the six legitimate division champions.

Some will scream that a one-game or three-game playoff is comically inappropriate — and a grab for TV money — in a sport that plays 162 games to decide who makes the playoffs. Sounds reasonable. But that misunderstands the baseball culture: What infuriates lifers is playing six months to finish in first place, then run the risk of a KO in a fluky five-game series by a wild card. That problem will still exist under any new format.

However, few in baseball care much if two wild cards are put in an “unfair” position. Division winners have rights. Wild cards are poor relatives who are lucky to be at the big party at all. If they suffer short-series indignities, that’s just tough luck. If they don’t like the setup, they have six months to do something about it: finish in first place.

We’ll fuss as this unfolds. Will baseball have ridiculous wild-card “tiebreaker” rules like the NFL? Would a three-game wild-card playoff penalize the six division champs who have to sit idle? Can both wild cards come from the same division where an 85-win team might kill a 95-win rival in a mini-series? Will the Series end on Thanksgiving?

One thing’s certain. With the NBA and NHL playoffs at 16 of 30 teams, and the NFL at 12 out of 32 teams, there’s no way baseball isn’t going to 10-out-of-30 — by next year. Get prepared for the future. It looks like the Nats and O’s already tried to get a head start.

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