- The Washington Times - Monday, September 1, 2008

When baseball first decided to institute the wild card 14 years ago, there were plenty of steadfast traditionalists who opposed the idea. It’s hard to find anyone today who still doesn’t think the wild card has been good for the sport, and indeed more teams than ever find themselves in the pennant chase now.

There is, however, one not-so-positive residual effect the wild card has had: the preponderance of unworthy teams making the playoffs.

The combination of the wild card and expansion in the 1990s forced baseball to realign from two divisions per league to three, a move that made sense from a numbers standpoint - the league doesn’t want eight teams in one division - but at the same time has made it far easier to reach the postseason than at any time in the game’s history.

With only five teams in each division - aside from the NL Central (six) and AL West (four) - the talent is more spread throughout each league, and the number of wins required to capture a title has dropped.

Consider that since 1996, there have been 13 division champions that won fewer than 90 games, more than one a year. In the last three seasons alone, there have been five, including the 2007 Cubs (85-77), the 2006 Cardinals (83-78) and the 2005 Padres (82-80, the worst team ever to win a division).

Never before has mediocrity been so rewarded, and it may get worse before this October rolls around.

The 2008 NL West is threatening to earn the title of “Worst Division in Baseball History,” with the first-place Diamondbacks trying desperately to remain over .500 and stave off the Dodgers and Rockies, who are right in the race despite losing records.

How embarrassing would it be for baseball to see an 80-win club make the playoffs? Bud Selig loves his parity, but that’s not exactly what he had in mind.

Make no mistake: There’s a decent chance it will happen this year. The Rockies, who stunned everyone last September with their late-season surge to the World Series, have enjoyed a nice upturn since the All-Star break but remain a deeply flawed team.

The Dodgers, despite some initial gains following the Manny Ramirez trade, have fallen back into their old habits in which they can’t score more than two runs a night. No offense to the Nationals, but teams that get swept on South Capitol Street don’t deserve to play in October.

And the Diamondbacks, despite their brilliant starting pitching, also struggle to score runs in bunches and struggle to hold leads late. (Anyone see how Jon Rauch has been blowing games left and right?)

But as easy as it is to do, the NL West isn’t the only trouble area. The NL East and AL Central are both in danger of boasting a sub-90-win champion. And though the Cubs (and to a lesser extent the Rays and Angels) have a shot at winning 100 games, there remains a reasonable chance no one will reach triple digits in wins for the third straight season.

Such is life in the world of major league parity. Yes, more teams have a chance to make the playoffs, but it has come at the expense of the elite teams that always could be counted on to lead the pack by season’s end.

Would baseball be better off without the wild card? No. That alteration to the pennant race has allowed far more teams and far more fans to experience meaningful baseball in August and September, and that’s a good thing for the sport.

But understand that there is a drawback to the current (and wildly popular) system. There may not be many dissenters now, but when the first sub-.500 division winner emerges - whether this year or someday down the road - watch them come out of the shadows.

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