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The Additional Wild Card Team: Will It Help The Cubs?

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The ALDS logo is seen on the field before Game One of the American League Division Series between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Texas Rangers at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
The ALDS logo is seen on the field before Game One of the American League Division Series between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Texas Rangers at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Your knee-jerk reaction to the question posed in this headline is probably going to be "No", and if you're thinking about 2012, that's probably the right answer. Most of you think the Cubs aren't going to be a contending team in 2012, and there's no guarantee the second wild-card team in both leagues is going to be added by then, anyway -- this excellent Baseball Nation summary of the new CBA says:

The agreement sets a deadline of March 1, 2012 for deciding whether to expand to two wild-card teams for the 2012 playoffs. If they do so agree, the two wild-card teams in each league will face off in a one-game playoff. The winner will go on to face the team with the best record in that league, even if that team is in the same division as the wild-card winner.

But what about future years? What does this do to the playoffs in general? Would the Cubs have been helped if this system had been in place since 1995, when the three-division-champions-plus-wild-card playoffs began?

After the jump, details on what might have happened since 1995, and what we can look forward to as this system begins -- since it will begin in 2013, if not in 2012.

Chris McKeown at our SB Nation Yankees site Pinstripe Alley has helpfully put together the last 10 years of matchups had the second wild card been in effect (I boldfaced the actual wild card team):

Year American League National League 2011 Boston (90-72) vs. Tampa Bay (91-71) Atlanta (89-73) vs. St. Louis (90-72) 2010 Boston (89-73) vs. New York (95-67) San Diego (90-72) vs. Atlanta (91-71) 2009 Texas (87-75) vs. Boston (95-67) Florida (88-74) vs. Colorado (92-70) 2008 New York (89-73) vs. Boston (95-67) New York (89-73) vs. Milwaukee (90-72) 2007 Detroit (88-74) vs. New York (94-68) San Diego (89-73) vs. Colorado (89-73)* 2006 Chicago (90-72) vs. Detroit (95-67) Philadelphia (85-77) vs. San Diego (88-74) 2005 Cleveland (93-69) vs. New York (95-67) Philadelphia (88-74) vs. Houston (89-73) 2004 Oakland (91-71) vs. Boston (98-64) San Francisco (91-71) vs. Houston (92-70) 2003 Seattle (93-69) vs. Boston (95-67) Houston (87-75) vs. Florida (91-71) 2002 Boston (93-69) vs. Los Angeles (99-63) Los Angeles (92-70) vs. San Francisco (95-66)

A couple of notes: the asterisk denotes that in 2007, there was a wild-card playoff game between San Diego and Colorado, who tied for the spot. (The Padres are still waiting for Matt Holliday to touch the plate.) And look! More Yankees/Red Sox matchups! TV network executives salivate! Eight of the 20 wild card teams that actually did make the playoffs in those 10 seasons made it to the World Series, and four of them won it (Angels, 2002; Marlins, 2003; Red Sox, 2004; and Cardinals, 2011). Now, let's go back farther, to look at the 1995-2001 wild cards:

Year American League National League 2001 Minnesota (85-77) vs. Oakland (102-60) San Francisco (90-72) vs. St. Louis (93-69) 2000 Cleveland (92-70) vs. Seattle (91-71) Los Angeles (86-76) vs. New York (94-68) 1999 Oakland (87-75) vs. Boston (94-68) Cincinnati (96-66) vs. New York (96-66)* 1998 Toronto (88-74) vs. Boston (92-70) Chicago (89-73) vs. San Francisco (89-73)* 1997 Anaheim (88-74) vs. New York (96-66) NY/LA (88-74) vs. Florida (92-70) 1996 Seattle (85-76) vs. Baltimore (88-74) Montreal (88-74) vs. Los Angeles (90-72) 1995 California (78-67) vs. New York (79-65) Houston (76-68) vs. Colorado (77-67)

Notes: in 1995, the Angels and Mariners tied for the AL West title. The Mariners won the tiebreaker game; had there been a second wild card, the loser would have been guaranteed the one-game play-in vs. the Yankees. It's not yet clear how such a situation will be handled under the new system. In 1996, the Mariners finished 85-76 and the White Sox 85-77. It's likely that under the new system, the Mariners would have been forced to play the makeup game vs. the Indians (that wasn't played in real life) and had they lost, then played the White Sox to see who actually was the second wild card. Or maybe they'd use tiebreakers. Again, that hasn't yet been worked out. A similar tie in 1997 between the Mets and Dodgers would either have been played off, or decided by tiebreaker.

In 1998, only five AL teams finished over .500 -- under the new system, all of them would have been in the playoffs. The team with the worst record among those who actually made it -- the 86-75 Indians, who won the AL Central -- went to the World Series. There were wild-card playoff games in the NL in 1998 (Cubs vs. Giants) and 1999 (Reds vs. Mets). In 2000, the AL East champion Yankees had the worst record of any of the postseason teams (87-75) and would have been worse than the extra wild card (Indians); they wound up winning the World Series. In the NL in 2001, the Cardinals and Astros tied for the NL Central title; since both were in the playoffs, the Astros were given the division title by tiebreaker. In the new system, it's unclear who would be forced to play in the wild-card game; there were also two other teams (Cubs and Phillies) who finished within five games of the Houston/St. Louis record (93-69), which would have made for a great September race.

Would this new system have helped the Cubs since 1995? Not at all. The only time you see them in the charts above is the one year (1998) when they were involved in a wild-card playoff game, which they wound up winning. With the Astros scheduled to move out of the NL Central into the AL, making the NL Central a five-team division, could that help? Not necessarily; it would depend, of course, on how good a team the Cubs are, as well as whether the overall schedule is redone to become more balanced. That is also yet to be determined.

Some people will lament the fact that a day like the last day of the regular season in 2011, so exciting, could never happen again. That isn't necessarily true; this past Sept. 28 only occurred because of a unique confluence of events. You could still have teams battling to get into the playoffs, or more importantly, to win their division title and avoid having to play in the one-game play-in. Having to play that play-in game introduces another strategy: if you have to play that game, do you go with your best pitcher (if available)? Or do you save him for the first game of a division series that you might never play? One thing is clear -- this system makes winning your division much more important. The winner-take-all nature of the two league wild card games will make for drama and excitement, and you can imagine teams going all-out to win their division to avoid having to play those games.

Looking at the matchups that would have occurred over the last 17 seasons had the new system been in place, we don't see many tremendous mismatches. Of the 34 possible games, there is just one (Minnesota vs. Oakland in 2001) that matches two teams more than eight games apart; 15 of them would have matched clubs with no more than two games separating them in the regular season standings. Also, the idea that this lets "bad" teams into the playoffs is not true; not counting the shortened 1995 season, only six teams with fewer than 88 wins would have made the wild-card game in the other 16 years. There were division champions (Yankees, 2000; Cardinals, 2006) who won the World Series with fewer than 88 victories.

Will this help the Cubs? Only if they get good enough over time to qualify, obviously; any system that brings more teams into the postseason gives the Cubs extra chances to make it, and thus win the World Series that all of us dream of. First, Theo & Co. have to improve the club on the field. As I wrote above, that's not likely to happen in 2012... but in 2013 and beyond, bring it on. I like the additional wild card, and I don't think it leads to any "slippery slope" where 16 teams get in, NBA or NHL style. (Not unless you want to finish the World Series around Thanksgiving, anyway.)