Barry M. Bloom

Permutations abound with second Wild Card

Permutations abound with second Wild Card

Permutations abound with second Wild Card
SAN DIEGO -- It's never too early to take a look at the Wild Card situation, and with an extra slot now available in each league, those races take on even more significance.

Few folks are paying too much attention to it yet, but Major League Baseball has a chance to hit Labor Day this year with 20 of the 30 teams still in hunt -- perhaps not for one of six division titles, but at least for a spot in the one-game Wild Card doubleheader already slated for Friday, Oct. 5.

As play concluded Sunday, 28 teams were fewer than 10 games out of the top Wild Card spots, including all 14 in the American League.

"I think it's going to keep a lot of teams involved in the pennant race or a playoff race. I really do," Padres manager Bud Black said on Sunday, before his club lost to the D-backs, 6-0, at Petco Park. "Look back to the last couple of years at how many teams were vying for one Wild Card. Then you add an opportunity for another one? That obviously adds [a lot] more teams."

Competitive balance was what MLB and the Players Association had in mind when they negotiated changes in the postseason that took effect this year in the new five-year Basic Agreement. Realignment and the expansion to two Wild Card berths in each league were joined at the hip. The union wasn't going to expand the playoffs without the pending shift of the Astros next year from the National League Central to the AL West, giving the leagues an even 15-15 split.

That accomplished, both sides agreed to jump-start the new postseason format this year. The two Wild Card teams in each league meet in a one-game series to determine which club joins the three division winners in the best-of-five first round.

The race for those Wild Card slots could create a mad scramble down to the wire seen in baseball only on the final day of last season when the Cardinals and Rays made up huge deficits to unseat the Braves and the Red Sox for the Wild Cards. The Cardinals went on to win the World Series in seven games over the Rangers, so now hope really springs eternal.

The extra berth ultimately should change strategy, tactics and the way managers view how to approach attaining it.

"There's no doubt, as you move forward in the season another division is going to be formed: the Wild Card division," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said earlier this week. "When you make that turn sometime during the middle of August you're going to be looking at where you are, what your needs are, if you're going to change your rotation to match up against certain teams. Right now that seems like a lifetime away."

But it will happen before anyone realizes it is upon them. Scioscia is a member of Commissioner Bud Selig's 14-man select committee that studied this change and other on-field matters that effect the playing of the game. In their astute judgment, they determined that the additional Wild Cards would have a ripple effect on all the races.

The major impact is that the one-game series places a much higher premium now on winning the division title, Scioscia said. No team wants to play 162 games during the regular season just to be wiped out of the playoffs after one game.

"When we talked about it in the committee there were a lot of issues," Scioscia said. "First and foremost was giving more status to a division champion, giving more reward for having a great 162-game season with better seeding, and having teams that didn't win the division work harder for it."

But the extra Wild Card spot also gives every contender another safety valve. Of the managers interviewed, to a man, they all said that their emphasis right now is on winning every day. The dominoes can then fall where they may.

Manager Joe Girardi said the Yankees have their sights set solely on winning the AL East. Two years ago, the Yankees battled the Rays to the end of the season, but were content to simply take the AL Wild Card berth. Had the teams ended in a tie, both were assured of their spot in the Division Series.

The rules, though, have changed. Under the new format, a division winner would be decided by a one game play-in. The loser could take one of the Wild Card slots, but that depends on the records of the other contenders.

How's that for a brand new wrinkle?

Girardi pegged this date for teams beginning to assess their postseason chances based on the new era: the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.

"There are going to be more teams involved so there will be less trades," he said. "Teams are going to want to hold on to their players."

Teams that started the season poorly may still have a shot at it. Note that at the end of April, the Angels were 8-15, the Reds were 11-11, the Phillies were 11-12, the Giants were 12-10 and the D-backs were 12-11. All still have a legitimate shot to make the playoffs under the auspices of the new system.

"We haven't been playing good right now, but that doesn't mean we're not going to," D-backs manager Kirk Gibson said. "The Cardinals are proof that you can come back and win the World Series within the rules. If we could be the first [second-place Wild Card winner] to do that, we'd be happy. I'm not thinking about how we do it, it's whether. Either we do or we don't."

The D-backs are 25-29 coming out of the weekend's action, eight games behind the Dodgers in the NL West, but only six behind that second Wild Card slot.

Come September, imagine the combinations.

Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.