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MLB Arizona Diamondbacks

MLB to Add Wild Card Teams: Why Indians Could Benefit More Than You Think

With just three days left in the season, both leagues’ wild card races are coming down to the wire—in the NL the Cardinals have narrowed the Braves’ lead to just one game, while in the AL the Rays have nearly caught the Red Sox, and the Angels are theoretically still in the race.

But the bigger news this weekend isn’t about the wild card this year—it’s about the playoffs of the future. The New York Post‘s Joel Sherman reported that both the owners and the MLBPA have “all but agreed upon…adding two wild-card teams” to the playoffs, with a new one-game first round between the two best runner-ups:

One person involved in the talks described that scenario as a done deal and another hedged a little by saying it is likely to play out that way, but nothing will be finalized until an entire CBA is inked.

Both sources said because there would be just a one-game playoff added, the second wild-card team could be installed as early as next year, but the new system will go into effect no later than 2013.

The first thing most would think of in response to this news is the AL East. Ask any New York, Boston, or Tampa Bay fan and they’ll tell you how unfair it is that one of their teams has to stay home in October when they’d likely win (or at least finish a strong second in) any other division. Assuming the Angels don’t make a miraculous comeback, this will be the third time in the last four years that the third-place AL East team would have won the second wild card in the Junior Circuit.

But if history is any indicator, this news matters more to the Indians than you might think.

In 2005, the previously rebuilding Indians broke out and played like one of the best teams in the league. After winning 80 games in 2004, they went 93-69. They finished two games behind the Red Sox in the wild card race and missed the playoffs on the final day. Had the second wild card spot existed then, the Tribe would have made the postseason.

Go back a few years and you’ll find a similar story. In 2000, the Indians’ streak of five consecutive AL Central championships was finally broken when the White Sox surged to win 95 games. Again, they missed out on the postseason on the last day of the season. The Mariners and A’s won out as the three teams competed for two spots; had the proposed rule change been in place then, Cleveland would have been in the playoffs.

We’ll never know for sure, but a similar situation could very well have unfolded in 1994 if it hadn’t been for the strike. When the season ended, the Indians were ahead in the wild card race, but not by much. The Tribe had only 2.5 games on the Orioles and just 3 on the Royals with what should have been 49 games left to play, so their lead was far from secure. Having an extra wild card slot wouldn’t have guaranteed Cleveland a playoff berth, but it would have meant a much bigger safety net.

This isn’t to say this is necessarily a good or bad thing (personally I think it will make the pennant race more exciting, but given how crapshootish the short playoff series are, the more teams make it the less likely the World Series winner is to actually be the best team), and in the next few years the biggest beneficiaries of the changes probably will be in the AL East. But Cleveland fans should remember that, at least twice in the last 17 years, the second wild card would have been the Indians.