The wild card berth used to be a big deal in the major leagues.
Teams earning it got to play a best-of-five league division series. As the Cardinals have demonstrated, teams with a single dominant pitcher ready to work Games 1 and 5 have a real chance to advance.
Once a team survives the treacherous first round, that momentum can propel a team a long, long way. The Cardinals rallied improbably to earn the National League’s wild-card berth last season, then edged the Phillies in their epic LDS and rolled on to the World Series championship.
Cardinal Nation thanks Chris Carpenter very much for that.
Now there are two wild card “berths” in each league. This is a ticket to a play-in game. The winner of the play-in game moves into the actual bracket.
One-game playoffs are great theater. Many viewers are attracted to such contests on TV, which is why Bud Selig, our believed-to-be Commissioner for Life, embraced the concept.
The one-game format also rewards the division champions, which sit back and watch the wild card hopefuls burn their top available pitchers. This increases the importance of the division race, which is a good thing.
But the format changes the way general managers view the playoff race and the summer trade mart. More teams are in the hunt, but fewer teams may feel compelled to go “all in” with temporary acquisitions.
The extra wild-card slot is a ruse, a gimmick. How much should any team sacrifice while hoping to play one more game after the 162-game marathon concludes?
For instance, the long-struggling Athletics currently sit within 2½ games of a wild card slot. “I don’t think if something is within your grasp, you ignore it,” Oakland GM Billy Beane told the Bay Area News Group.
“We are going to have to be somewhat leery of a short-term fix if we give up players for the long term, because I do like this group,” he said.
Imagine a team moving several good long-range prospects for veteran help. It fights its way into the play-in game, edging out several rivals. Then its ace pitcher blows up Verlander-like in the first inning and the postseason quest ends almost before it starts.
Baseball does not lend itself to single-elimination postseason play. One-game playoffs are fine as seldom-needed tiebreakers, but they are not appropriate for an annual format.
A key change in the collective bargaining agreement will further chill the market for rental players, i.e., veteran players in their final contract year headed toward free agency.
In the new CBA, teams that acquire pending free agents during the season will not automatically collect compensatory picks if they subsequently lose those players to the marketplace. To gain a pick, the club must offer the pending free agent a contract equal to the average pay of the top 125 players — about $12 million in today’s dollars.
That is a place many teams won’t want to go. “The compensation issue will definitely have an effect,” Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski told the Detroit News. “How much of a change? Only time will tell. I really don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The landscape has changed, as the Boston Red Sox can attest.
They sit 9½ games behind the New York Yankees in the American League East. Tampa Bay and Baltimore also stand between them and the division lead.
The Red Sox are just 2½ games out of a wild card slot. That proximity may keep general manager Ben Cherington from holding a fire sale.
“We’re right in the thick of the wild-card chase,” Cherington said Thursday, according to ESPN.com. “We’ve played very well since the beginning of May, aside from the last week. It would be foolish to start doing things that got in the way of giving ourselves a chance this year. We’ll see how it goes.”
But is a clear shot at the play-in game enough motivation to spend key long-term assets for short-term help? That is the dilemma Cherington and other GMs face.
The playoff race will be a bit different this summer. From this corner of the country, though, it doesn’t look any better.
Jeff Gordon is a Lee News Service columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com or (314) 340-8187.