Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Winners and Losers of a Second Wild-Card

There are early reports that the MLB will finalize its plan for a second wild-card tomorrow. Before we know the specifics and can truly analyze the logistical and strategic changes that will result from this huge change to baseball's playoff system, let's analyze who will benefit and who will lose out from a second wild-card team.

  • Cubs, Pirates, Astros, Mets, Padres, Athletics, Mariners, White Sox, Orioles, and Twins: These teams would need a miracle to make the playoffs even with a second wild-card. However, the addition of a second wild-card will increase the number of teams in contention ahead of the July 31st deadline, increasing the number of bidders on each team's veterans. Smart general managers should be able to take advantage of overly aggressive bidders and get prospects that will jump start their rebuilding efforts.
  • Blue Jays and Rays: Andrew Freidman and Alex Anthopoulos are two of the best GMs in the game, but are always going to be fighting an up-hill battle against the Red Sox and Yankees. The Rays and Blue Jays are never going to match the dollars spent by the Red Sox and Yankees because they don't have the same resources. The Rays and Blue Jays additionally have to to face these top teams 30-40 times a year, putting them at a disadvantage with teams from the AL West and Central. While the Blue Jays have a right to be upset about the late timing of the decision, as their off-season plans might have been much more aggressive with another playoff spot up for grabs, they will benefit in the years to come. A second wild-card allows these teams to compete against each other, the Indians, and the Angels and Rangers for a chance at the postseason, an easier task than beating the Red Sox or Yankees.
  • Tigers, Brewers, Cardinals, Reds, Diamondbacks, and Giants: Three of these six teams will win their divisions and I'd argue that all of these teams will be weaker than the first wild-card team. The Tigers in my mind are worse than the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, and Rangers, yet one of these superior teams will be eliminated before the Tigers ever take the field.  The team that does win the wild-card playoff will also have to burn one (or maybe two or three depending on the format which hasn't been announced) starting pitcher(s), a huge disadvantage in a short series with few travel days. The leading NL teams are in the same position, but you can certainly make a better case that the teams are better than Braves (my assumed wild-card team). Either way, the importance of divisions, or rather where a team is geographically located, remains. 
  • Nationals and Marlins: These two teams spent ridiculous amounts of money this off-season in an effort to bridge the gap between themselves and the Braves and Phillies in the NL East. However, they are stuck behind the Phillies with their three aces and huge payroll and the Braves and their loads starting pitching. Perhaps these teams anticipated a second wild-card being added, or they just had money to spend; after all, Ted Lerner of the Nats is the richest owner and moving to Miami should create an influx of new cash. But either way they should be improved in 2012. These teams are still flawed, but in a one game wild-card series with Josh Johnson or Stephen Strasburg on the mound I wouldn't bet against them.
  • Fans: The biggest reason for adding another wild-card in my opinion is making September baseball more relevant and having an exciting series to jump start enthusiasm for the playoffs. Higher TV ratings and fan interest is a positive for teams and players and this is a simple way to add interest by giving more teams a chance and making winning the divisional title more important. The Yankees openly admitted to losing the AL East in 2010 in order to prepare for the playoffs. Fans were deprived the excitement of a division race with the Rays (who won the division by one game) because there wasn't enough incentive for the Yankees to play their best players. That is an obvious flaw of the playoff system and the second wild-card will correct it, while also adding the race between the second and third wild-cards. I realize that a team can still settle for being just the "first" wild-card without fear of missing the playoffs, but it seems more likely that a team in the "first" position would have a chance to win their division, something certainly worth playing hard for.
  • Red Sox and Yankees: The impetus for the second wild-card is at least partially attributable to the fact that these two teams are in the same division. I understand the Rangers' new TV contract has increased their budget and Arte Moreno's checkbook can bring in Pujols, but ultimately the Yankees and Red Sox are in the best position, given the revenue they bring in, to win the wild-card. However, as mentioned earlier, the value of winning the wild-card decreases severely when a team faces an additional round. The Red Sox and Yankees might each win 95 games, something which previously would have forced a team to beat them three times in the ALDS, but now one good performance from a starting pitcher from an inferior team could knock them out. This is a fair knock on the two wild-card system and if I were a Yankees or Red Sox fan I'd be upset.
  • Braves: I don't think it's a homer pick to say that the Braves are the preseason favorites for the NL "first" Wild-Card. placed their over/under for wins at 87, the third highest of any NL team, and only .5 wins behind 2nd place San Francisco. Winning the wild-card in the old system would have given the Braves a favorable match-up with the NL Central or West division winner, instead just like the Red Sox or Yankees they will have to ward off a team with a worse record in one or three game series.
  • Schedule Makers: This is going to be a logistical nightmare that will have to have contingency plans for several different scenarios. There is tons of pressure from Fox to start the World Series during a specific time each year for programming reasons and MLB is going to heed their request as long as their checks keep coming through. This means that baseball is going to either have to sacrifice travel days, play doubleheaders, start the season earlier and risk inclement weather, or play fewer games. I'll touch on this more when the details emerge, but many these various factors will have to be considered and I'm curious how Bud Selig will find a solution.
More to come tomorrow once more details are released as well as an analysis of the ideal playoff solution that incorporates fans and fairness.

1 comment:

  1. One huge loser of the new playoff structure is the MLB's ability to claim that the best team won the World Series. Last year the Cardinals won and they sucked. The playoff system is not suited for the sport. If they're going to make significant changes to the playoff system, they should make it more suited to the sport and less arbitrary. This move does the exact opposite.