NEW YORK, NY - (L to R) Baseball Commissioner Allan "Bud" Selig speaks as New York City Mayor Bloomberg, Mets Chairman and CEO Fred Wilpon and New York Mets' mascot Mr. Met listen during a press conference. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
The second Wild Card is in place for the first time ever, and even though the season hasn't ended yet, we can still know a few things.
We haven't seen the full effects of the second Wild Card yet, of course. We probably aren't going to see an 82-80 team limp in this year. We haven't seen a five-team tie for a spot that needs to be sorted out by coin flips, tiebreakers, and Facebook likes. Even better: a five-team tie for both Wild Card spots -- as in, five teams for the same two spots, with no way to figure out who should have home-field advantage for the play-in game to the play-in game for the playoffs. One of these years, man. One of these years.
It could be this year. And when that happens, it will be fun to watch the baseball-loving corner of the Internet melt. But the early returns on what we know are pretty positive. The three things we've learned so far:
The trading deadline wasn't affected that much
One of the early concerns with the extra playoff spot was that every team and their minor-league affiliates would be contending. The deadline was going to be nothing more than the Royals sitting by a phone that would never ring.
That didn't happen. There were 26 trades between major-league teams last July. This year there were 33. And there certainly wasn't anything from last year's August dealings that could come close to comparing to the Red Sox/Dodgers swap, depending on your opinion of Delmon Young.
It's going to be easier for first-half stinkers to get into a race
It might be that the success of the Brewers and Phillies over the last two months of the season makes that first point less valid. Maybe there will be a trend away from deadline deals precisely because of teams like the 2012 Phillies. I'm going to guess not, though. The risk is to forego a chance at a bounty of prospects for pending free agents, or players who aren't seen as a long-term solution. The reward is a 2-percent chance at a one-game playoff. Just about every team should, and will, take the prospects in the hand.
But there will always be teams like the Brewers and Phillies. Maybe not every year, but often. And one of these years, they'll win a playoff spot, months after they should have been buried. The 2006 Phillies were 49-55 at the trading deadline, 14 games back in the NL East and behind five other teams in the Wild Card standings. They went 36-22 after the deadline, which no one remembers. But if the current playoff rules were in place, it would have meant a playoff berth for the Phillies.
It's not going to happen often. But it will happen. And it's kind of neat. Look at all those Phillies fans, excited at unexpectedly relevant baseball in September! Look at them! /tousles hair
The difference between winning a division and winning the Wild Card is huge
This isn't a surprise, but it's being reinforced with each passing day. The Rangers finished June with the best record in baseball, moving to 50-29 after a three-game sweep of the A's. Since then, the A's have gone 44-18, with the Rangers posting a 34-28 record during that same span. Entering Wednesday, the A's are three games back in the AL West.
The difference between winning that division and settling for the Wild Card can't be understated. The safety net is gone. The 2001 A's won 102 games, but they finished 14 games (!) behind the Mariners. They never had to panic, though, because they knew the only thing the Mariners were really winning was home-field advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
The 1993 Giants won 103 games, but they missed out on the playoffs to a Braves team that won 104. This new system splits the difference between the two -- not as unfair as the old divisional setup, but not as forgiving as the setup in place before this season. You won't see the Rangers getting too creative with their lineups and rotation during the last series of the season, in Oakland. Not unless they have a four-game lead or better. There's much more at stake than home-field advantage and the phrasing on a flag.
I was very much against second Wild Card. But seeing what could happen if the A's actually catch up to the Rangers, watching the newfound mirth of the Phillies and Brewers fans, and being assured that deadline deals weren't going to disappear has all turned me around.
I reserve the right to type out spittle-flecked diatribe against Bud Selig after a five-way tie, though. It's going to make the All-Star Game tie look like the Treaty of Paris. Can't wait. This other stuff is exciting, too.