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February 2, 2012

On the Beat

How Many Teams Will Make the Playoffs in 2012?

by John Perrotto

There are going to be two extra teams in the postseason this upcoming season. Oh wait, maybe there won't be.

Spring training is within sight, and the regular season is barely more than two months away, yet Major League Baseball doesn't know whether four or five teams in each league will qualify for the postseason. MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association have agreed to add an extra wild card team in each league but have yet to figure out the logistics of making two extra postseason games work in 2012. Commissioner Bud Selig wants it to happen this year, but the MLBPA executive director is taken a more conservative approach.

I've never tried to put together a schedule for a professional sports league, but I know people who do, and they say it is a very difficult task. I believe it, but if two extra games can't be folded into the post-season schedule, then the solution is very simple—wait until 2013 to add the two wild cards. At some point soon, a decision needs to be made.

Whether the postseason expands from eight teams to 10 this year or next year, almost everyone in the game believes it is a good move. Even the most traditional of the traditionalists, like Tigers manager Jim Leyland, scoff at the idea that the postseason will be watered down by adding teams.

"You've still got to be pretty darn good to make it," Leyland said. "You're talking about the fifth-best team in the league, not the 10th-best team."

Only 33 percent of major-league teams will qualify for the playoffs once the postseason field officially expands. By comparison, 38 percent of NFL teams make the playoffs, and that figure goes up to 53 percent for both the NBA and NHL.

The component of the extra wild card plan that baseball people have the most doubts about is that it will be a one-game, winner-take-all proposition. Selig, though, loves the idea and would not budge when some owners asked him to consider a best-of-three format for the new tier of games.

"My only problem with the single-game setup is that you ask your fans to invest in your team for a six-month regular season, not just financially but emotionally," one major-league general manager said. "If the second wild card loses the elimination game, it will have made the playoffs but never played in front of the home fans. I don't think that's fair. Part of the experience of rooting for a team is hoping you'll have a chance to see a playoff game in your home ballpark."

The Rays overcame a nine-game deficit to win the American League wild card last September. While Rays manager Joe Maddon sees some cons in the one-and-done format, he also has an understanding of the big picture.

"It's pretty cruel to think your trip to the playoffs could be over in three hours, but I guess that will be the fun of it, too," Maddon said. "I'm glad there is a new wild card team, though. Any time you have a chance to enhance the opportunities to get to the playoffs, enhance the number of cities and fan bases that are involved in the playoff run, I think that's always good for baseball."

***

Scouts' takes:

Free agent right-hander Roy Oswalt: "He should have taken the $10 million the Tigers offered. He's a guy coming off back problems, and nothing scares off a team more than back problems. He's not going to get $10 million anywhere else. The Cardinals and the Rangers don't really need him. He'd be a luxury item for them, and they aren't going to spend $10 million on him. I'd be surprised if either one went over $5 million."

Astros right-hander Livan Hernandez: "You can do worse for fifth-starter candidates, but he could be eaten alive in that ballpark in Houston. I know he might not have had many options (as a free agent), but Washington was a good park for him. He needs to be in a pitcher's park because he's at the stage of his career where he's strictly a pitch-to-contact guy."

Indians first baseman Russ Canzler: "The one thing that makes me pause is the Rays rarely make mistakes evaluating their own guys. Since they dropped him off the 40-man, I question how good he is. Nevertheless, it's a worthwhile gamble for the Indians. They need help at first base, they didn't give up anything to get him, and they can give him a long look in the spring and see what they have."

Phillies reliever Chad Qualls: "He doesn’t have anything left. He used to be a premier set-up guy, but he doesn't throw as hard anymore, and he doesn't have much movement on his pitches. It just seemed like he went from one of the best relievers in baseball to bad overnight."

***

Five random thoughts:

  • It was good to see Texas manager Ron Washington receive a well-deserved two-year contract extension earlier this week. He took his lumps for some managerial blunders in the World Series the Rangers lost to the Cardinals last October, and they were justified. However, Washington has also taken the franchise further than any other manager, making back-to-back trips to the World Series.
     
  • One of the great benefits of Washington being signed through 2014 is that it keeps Little Wash in the spotlight. Every major-league club needs a kid who can imitate his favorite team's manager like Little Wash.
     
  • If Miguel Cabrera can't make the transition back to third base for the Tigers this year, it's going to be fascinating to see what happens in 2013 when Victor Martinez returns after spending the 2012 season recovering from two knee surgeries. Martinez's left knee was so badly damaged that he might no longer be able to catch, which would leave the Tigers with three first basemen/designated hitters—including $214-million newcomer Prince Fielder—for two spots. The trio has a guaranteed $336 million remaining on its contracts. President/GM Dave Dombrowski and Leyland are going to have to be more than math geniuses to make that work.
     
  • I sincerely hope Pat Burrell enjoys his retirement; aside from helping the Giants make a run to the World Series title in 2010, he seemed miserable throughout his 12-year career.
     
  • The anti-Pat Burrell is Jim Hendry, newly hired by the Yankees to serve as a special assistant to GM Brian Cashman. Hendry made his share of missteps as Cubs' GM but also put together three playoff teams and walked the tightrope of getting along with Lou Piniella for four seasons.

***

This week's Must Read is Peter Gammons' profile of Braves right fielder Jason Heyward for MLB.com that chronicles his fall from potential superstar in 2010 to major disappointment in 2011 and his efforts to bounce back in 2012.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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