Last season, eventual World Series champion St. Louis erased a 10-game deficit in late August to capture the NL Wild Card. That race appears to be somewhat stable this year, with the Braves and Pirates staying ahead of the pack: the Cardinals, Dodgers and D-backs. In the AL, there's a logjam, with five clubs separated by 1 1/2 games.
"I'm excited," said Commissioner Bud Selig at his annual All-Star Town Hall Meeting last month. "Everybody is trying to figure out how many games back they are for the second Wild Card."
The effects of the extra Wild Cards can be felt beyond the standings, too, including with the annual wheeling and dealing prior to Tuesday's non-waiver Trade Deadline.
Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, whose club swung five deals in July, said last week that the extra Wild Card "adds some additional uncertainty" to the trade market, because so few teams are willing to commit to either buying or selling.
Indians president Mark Shapiro qualified the market as "slow developing."
Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said: "There are not as many clubs moving players at this time due to how close they are to a playoff spot. More clubs are in contention this year compared to others due to the second Wild Card."
That's partially true. While there are about the same number of teams realistically jockeying for a Wild Card spot, there is more traffic in the standings this year.
Were there extra Wild Cards last season, the first team out in each league would have faced a three-game deficit on Aug. 2. This season, a three-game hole in the AL Wild Card race would place a club behind the Orioles, Rays, Tigers, Athletics and Angels.
A handful of teams -- such as the Astros, Marlins and Phillies -- made multiple deals to trade veterans. The Dodgers and Giants reaped most of the benefits. An overwhelming number of clubs on the Wild Card bubble -- including the Red Sox, Rays, A's and Cardinals -- stood relatively pat. The congestion in the standings may have prevented certain teams from pulling the trigger on the moves they might typically make.
"Some teams are going to get hamstrung," said Indians closer Chris Perez, "because you're going to get so close where you can't sell, when in any other season you would sell and you would get some stuff that's going to help you in the future. But no fan base is going to let a team that's within striking distance sell just because you're so close."
Shapiro said he thought prices for the limited number of players available prior to Tuesday's Deadline were inflated because few clubs were willing to part with premier talent or with top prospects required to acquire such talent.
"The prices were higher than I can remember," said Shapiro, who served as Cleveland's general manager from 2001 to 2010. "The reality of the extra Wild Card means more teams are in contention. To counter that, though, there are fewer teams that are prepared to give up a lot to play a one-game playoff where there's obviously some randomness involved. Playing for that Wild Card is a dangerous proposition that I think everyone is aware of."
Could that fuel an increase in trade activity prior to the Aug. 31 waiver Trade Deadline?
Shapiro and Indians general manager Chris Antonetti suggested as much, though both warned that trades are more difficult to complete during August, because players involved must pass through waivers.
Nonetheless, though the last day of the 2011 regular season set the bar high, the extra Wild Cards should create plenty of drama during the home stretch this year. Leaguewide attendance is up about 5 percent over last year, and Selig expects that trend to continue with so many teams in contention.
"I can understand frankly why we're having this enormous attendance gain and everything else," Selig said. "People love the game, love the sport and love what it's doing. I think a lot of the things we've done on competitive balance and parity have worked. I was going through all of the division races and Wild Card races, and the numbers are staggering. We're going to have a great last [two] months of the season."
Earning a spot in the playoffs via the Wild Card used to mean an attempt at taking out a rival in a five-game series. Now it guarantees is a one-game playoff with a spot in the Division Series at stake. Still, more teams will play meaningful games in August and September -- one reason why Selig said he hasn't had "a complaint from any of the 30 clubs. Everyone is thrilled."
"It gives more teams the opportunity to have more interesting second halves," Shapiro said. "I just take the benefit that we have the opportunity to talk about both the Wild Card and a division championship, which means there's more chances at getting in the playoffs.
"That's just a positive."