Thursday was a pretty historic day for Major League Baseball when Commissioner Bud Selig announced that the sale of the Houston Astros to Jim Crane was complete — along with the team’s move to the American League West for 2013 and the implementation of a second wild card team, along with a one-game playoff, possibly as soon as the 2012 season.
After using a format that was clearly unequal but had been in place since 1994 (when the implementation of the first wild card happened) baseball ushered in a rather seismic change.
— The Astros moving to the American League means there will finally be 15 teams in both leagues, instead of the 16 (National League) to 14 (American League) ratio that had been in existence. It also means that Interleague play — something we’d come to know basically as a two-week aberrational stretch in mid-June — will now be a constant. Starting in 2013, there will be two teams playing an Interleague series every night of the week.
— And then, of course, there’s the additional wild card and the implementation of a one-game playoff between the wild cards to decide who will move on to the regular series-style postseason.
So what does all this mean for the Washington Nationals?
In general it can only strengthen their chances of making the playoffs for the first time in team history.
More specifically, it puts a higher premium on winning the division. The teams that win the division don’t have to chance the entire season going to waste in a one-game playoff. They can sit back and watch as the two wild card teams fight it out. Everyone thought the final day of the 2011 season — with the Atlanta Braves, St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays playing for their playoff lives — was some of the best regular-season drama baseball had ever seen, right? This ensures that (while manufactured) we’ll get that type of excitement each season.
The Nationals were the eighth-best team in the National League in 2011 with a final record of 80-81. With the playoff format that has been proposed (but not officially accepted yet), only the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers had a better record among teams that wouldn’t have made the playoffs. Their records? The Dodgers won two more games than the Nationals and the Giants won six more. The Braves, who would have made it to at least the one-game playoff, won nine more. In essence, nine games are what would have separated the 2011 Nationals — a team I’m sure we can all agree wasn’t considered a contender — from the playoffs if they’d been in this format.
Sure, they still trailed the Phillies by 25 1/2 games in the National League East, an insurmountable figure by any standard, but with nine more wins they could have at least put themselves in a position to prolong their season. With all the optimism that surrounds Washington as they embark on the 2012 season, there’s not too many ways to see this as a negative for the Nationals.
Back in June, when the suggestion of realignment and two 15-team divisions began to be floated by major league baseball, the response in the Nationals clubhouse to the possibility was pretty positive. It doesn’t take a math genius to figure out that while some teams have to beat out four others to win a division title, others (AL West) have to only perform better than three, and still others (NL Central) would have to beat out five.
Then there was the matter of the Interleague schedule, which many considered fairly unequal with some teams forced to undergo a two-week barrage against the best the AL (or NL) had to offer, while many others faced off with lesser opponents.
Overall, ‘equitability is best,’ was the resounding theme when players were asked their feelings on the topic — and many felt it would strengthen divisional rivalries with the clear advantage winning the division would have.