Playoff changes present challenges for managers

Playoff changes present challenges for managers

Playoff changes present challenges for managers
Since the first Wild Cards were clinched in 1995, the rhetoric has been the same from just about every manager to don a uniform.

"We're trying to win our division, and we are trying to get to the playoffs -- in that order," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter on Sunday, echoing words that every manager has said or thought at some point in the past 17 seasons.

Only this season, those words mean a little bit more.

The addition of an extra Wild Card in each league has been well publicized, and -- for the most part -- well received in baseball circles. For good reason, too, as the final week of the season figures to provide a bit of extra excitement because of the changes.

For managers of teams currently in pennant races, however, "excitement" isn't necessarily the right word. Instead, the additional Wild Cards mean managers will have to be better prepared than ever before in terms of handling their pitching staffs and bullpens.

Plus, it's not like today's managers have a basis for what they're about to go through. The concept of a Wild Card play-in game -- possibly on the heels of a separate one-game tiebreaker -- is a novel one. So, too, is a potential divisional tiebreaker game, where the loser still has a crack at the playoffs by virtue of the Wild Card game.

The endless final-week possibilities don't have Cardinals manager Mike Matheny worried just yet, though.

"We're really trying to just enjoy each [game] and realize how much we're putting on each game as a club," Matheny said. "[We're] not looking forward to anything but the next one. I think the guys are staying pretty focused with that."

That's not a bad plan: Win enough games now and Matheny can set his rotation however he wants for the end of the season and the early playoff games.

But if he finds himself in a tight race for the second National League Wild Card during the final week, Matheny will be faced with several options. If he has a win-and-in situation on the final day, would he opt to rest his top starting pitcher anyway for a Wild Card game -- likely against Atlanta.

How about this scenario: If the Yankees and Orioles come down the stretch and end the season deadlocked, a one-game tiebreaker would be necessary. Who pitches that game? Does either team save their best starting pitcher for Game 1 of the American League Division Series (or the Wild Card game if they lose)? Typically that's out of the question, but this new circumstance is different because a loss does not mean elimination.

Obviously, this is all dependent on how much space teams have to maneuver within their rotations in the final week. But the new circumstances pose significant questions to managers, who will almost certainly be second-guessed, simply because of the novelty of the situation.

The potential strategies are seemingly endless. That's just the way Commissioner Bud Selig wanted it, too.

"It's been amazing," Selig said, speaking with media in New York, where he was taping an interview for the YES Network. "It's fascinating to watch the different things that have happened. We've got great division races, we've got a little of everything."

And it isn't just the clubs fighting for their lives that may have to alter their strategies. The No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs is a bit more important this year than in the past, because the top seed will face a team coming off a Wild Card game in which it likely just used its ace.

Of course, such issues could be solved simply by winning now and thus solidifying a playoff spot with a division title or a locked-down Wild Card heading into the final week.

That's why, on Thursday night when the Nationals wrapped up the city of Washington's first baseball playoff berth in 79 years, Davey Johnson knew better than to think his job was done in terms of positioning for the playoffs.

"What's the big deal?" Johnson joked, regarding the historic playoff berth for the Nats. "That was fun. It's not what I had my eye on, you know? It's a nice step to get here, but every manager that is leading the division, that's the only thing that matters -- wining your division."

This year, more than ever before, Johnson is right.

"The old style, where you were in as a Wild Card, that was OK [to win the Wild Card]," Johnson said. "But I don't want [just that]."

AJ Cassavell is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.