MLB Could Add Second Wild Card: Which Five Teams Will Benefit Most?
Commissioner Bud Selig announced last November that MLB would expand the playoffs to include two Wild Card teams from both the National League and American League instead of one from each league. The two teams would meet in a one-game playoff before continuing to the existing eight-team, three-round postseason.
Of course, that was three months ago, and there was a good chance that the new playoff system wouldn't be implemented in time for the 2012 season. But as Olney tweets, MLB still has until March 1 to add two more Wild Card teams to this year's playoffs.
This playoff change would change the entire dynamic of the 2012 season. Teams in strong divisions with three or more playoff-caliber teams would seem to benefit the most. Instead of the New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox all battling for only two possible playoff spots like in years past, it's possible that all three could make it to October. And while it does put an emphasis on teams to win their division and avoid the one-game playoff, all a team needs is a dance ticket to have a shot at bringing home a World Championship.
To give us an idea of how much an additional Wild Card changes thing, we can look at CAIRO projections provided by the Replacement Level Yankees Weblog. The post looked at preseason playoff odds under a one-Wild-Card and two-Wild-Card format. And while the title describes the projected standings as "somewhat useless," they are useful for comparing the relative strength of teams.
For this exercise of who benefits the most from two Wild Cards, I found the five teams that had the greatest percentage increase in their playoff chances. There is the caveat that the team's chances of making the postseason have to be at least 10 percent to qualify for the list. The odds of Toronto making the playoffs in 2012 jump from 1.5 percent to 4.1 percent, which is a jump of 173 percent, but it's still not enough to make the Blue Jays more than a 25-to-1 longshot.
So which teams truly improve their playoff odds the most under a two-Wild-Card arrangement?
5. Cincinnati Reds (38.9 percent chance of making playoffs with one wild card, to 51.0 percent with two wild cards)
Why their odds improve: The Reds finished third in the NL Central last season with a 79-83 record (though their run totals suggest a team that was closer to 83-79). General Manager Walt Jocketty made a big improvement to the big league pitching staff by trading for starter Mat Latos and signing closer Ryan Madson (a pretty good bargain at one year and $8.5 million). The moves put them in better competition with Central contenders St. Louis and Milwaukee, who lost their best hitters in Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, respectively.
How they can capitalize: Sign Roy Oswalt. Jocketty says he's "not even considering" adding the 34-year-old starting pitcher, the best free agent still on the market, but the GM's stance might be a mistake. The Reds currently stand to keep Bronson Arroyo (left) in the rotation, despite the fact that he's even older than Oswalt, delivered a 5.07 over 32 starts last season and has one of the most hittable fastballs around. The team should take a one-year, $6-million flyer on Oswalt, who has shown the ability to pitch well in hitters' ballparks (Minute Maid, Citizens Bank) like Great American.
4. Boston Red Sox (49.1 percent to 64.4 percent)
Why their odds improve: Well, isn't it obvious? The Red Sox lost out on a Wild Card spot on the last day of the 2011 season. If there had been a second Wild Card, they would have been in the postseason (and likely have saved the job of manager Terry Francona). The AL East should once again be a three-team race between the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays. Boston should still have one of the best offenses in the game, led by CF Jacoby Ellsbury, 2B Dustin Pedroia, 1B Adrian Gonzalez and 3B Kevin Youkilis, but the Yanks and Rays provide stiff competition.
How they can capitalize: Give a minor league contract to Edgar Renteria. Like the Reds, they could sign Roy Oswalt. Jayson Stark of ESPN says Boston is a finalist for him, and Oswalt would provide an improvement over the mediocre Aaron Cook. But free agent shortstop Renteria might give the Sox a better bang for their buck. At 36, his best days are very much behind him, but if Renteria can stay healthy, he would provide substantially better defense at short than projected starter Mike Aviles.
3. Milwaukee Brewers (36.9 percent to 48.6 percent)
Why their odds improve: Despite winning the Central last year by a six-game cushion, Milwaukee loses LF Ryan Braun for 50 games due to a steroid suspension, and 1B Prince Fielder for good. The NL Central projections anticipate a three-team race between the Brewers, Reds and Cardinals. Anything that allows three playoff teams to come from the Central division helps the Brewers, who sport a weaker lineup compared to last year's team that led the National League in homers.
How they can capitalize: Sign first baseman Derrek Lee (right). The Brewers have no way to fill the production left by Prince Fielder at first base -- there's a reason the Detroit Tigers signed him for $214 million. For now, Milwaukee is projected to start 26-year-old Mat Gamel at first base. Gamel hit for 28 homers in Triple-A last season, the fifth-most in the Pacific Coast League. But he has yet to produce on the Major League level, and struggles against lefties (so much so that manager Ron Roenicke has given Corey Hart time at first base this spring). Lee would solve both issues, providing a solid glove at first with an ability to hit lefties well. He mashed NL pitching to the tune of a .982 OPS in just over 100 at-bats last season, and while he likely won't do that this season, he is a solid veteran that is a better option against lefties than Gamel.
2. Atlanta Braves (25.7 percent to 36.7 percent)
Why their odds improve: Braves fans know all too well. On Sep. 9, 2011, they had the NL Wild Card all but wrapped up, with a 99-percent chance of making the playoffs. But they finished 5-13, letting the playoff berth slip into the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals, who went on to win the World Championship. Like the Boston Red Sox, they would have gotten a theoretical second Wild Card spot last season. Atlanta returns all of its impact players from 2011, but will have to beat out other likely Wild Card contenders such as the Brewers, Cardinals, Reds, Giants, Diamondbacks, Marlins and Nationals.
How they can capitalize: Bring back Edgar Renteria. The Braves had a low-key offseason with no marquee acquisitions. But they did see last year's starting shortstop Alex Gonzalez sign with the Brewers, a minor move that could still have implications on a Wild Card race. Atlanta is expected to start 22-year-old Tyler Pastornicky at short, despite the fact that he has only 104 at-bats above Double-A level. Renteria, who started for the Braves in 2006 and 2007, would provide solid defense and help ease the transition to Pastornicky, who is the shortstop of the future.
1. Miami Marlins (15.2 percent to 22.3 percent)
Why their odds improve: No team has changed more from 2011 than the Marlins. They have a new name, a new logo, a new stadium, and new, high-profile faces like starters Mark Buehrle and Carlos Zambrano, closer Heath Bell, and SS Jose Reyes. So they'll be better than last season's Florida Marlins, which finished last in the NL East at 72-90. Still, the changes aren't enough to compete with the Philadelphia Phillies, so they'll be fighting the Braves and the Washington Nationals for second place in the division. An extra Wild Card would improve their chances at a postseason berth by 47 percent, taking their playoff odds from 7-to-1 to almost 4-to-1.
How they can capitalize: Add Johnny Damon to the bench. CAIRO projects the Marlins to have the best offense in the NL East this season, and they've already added two free agent starting pitchers in Buehrle and Zambrano. What they need is depth in the outfield. Logan Morrison, Emilio Bonifacio and Mike Stanton form a solid young outfield, but could use a quality backup. Damon, 38 is no longer an everyday outfielder, but is able to come off the bench and provide a veteran presence to the youthful Marlins. He's obviously willing to play in the state of Florida, after a season with the Tampa Bay Rays, and would work just as well as a complementary piece in Miami as he did to a playoff team in Tampa Bay.