The Problem With The Fifth Playoff Spot

BALTIMORE, MD - Pitcher Matt Moore #55 of the Tampa Bay Rays throws to a Baltimore Orioles batter during the eighth inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland. The Orioles defeated the Rays 6-2. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

The Tampa Bay Rays are a good team. They have hitting, pitching, Sam Fuld ... they have it all. The problem is that the Red Sox and Yankees are also quite good, and only two of those three teams can make the playoffs.

Mike Bauman of MLB.com thinks there's a solution:

The 2011 Tampa Bay Rays are, all by themselves, a terrific argument for Wild Card expansion.

And take a look at the Rays' competitive home, the American League East. There is the collective argument for one more Wild Card team.

It's tempting. Real tempting. The current proposal for adding a playoff team would have the fifth-best record play at the team with the fourth-best record in a one-game playoff, the winner of which would move on to a Division Series.

One-game playoffs are ludicrous and fantastic at the same time. It's instant gratification in a three-hour burst, which is great for those of us who like our gratification right away. If the playoff setup were happening right now, the Rays and Angels would be scrambling for that last playoff spot. Texas, Detroit, and Boston would all be jockeying for position, each trying to avoid being the team with the fourth-best record. It's been a pretty dull playoff race this year -- other than the Angels/Rangers race, all we have to get excited about are too-late charges from the Rays and Cardinals.

It's tempting, both for the end-of-the-season race and the potential of an insane one-game, Rays/Red Sox playoff at Fenway Park.

Tempting, but I'll pass.

The best reason to pass would be the part about Texas, Detroit, and Boston all jockeying for position. Teams with the same record would be a huge problem, both at the top and bottom of the standings. This year, there would have been a chance of a three-way tie for the fourth-best record. If the divisions stay as they are, that wouldn't be a problem -- the Wild-Card winner would be the odd team out.

If divisions are eliminated, though, the difference between a) getting home-field advantage in the first round of a best-of-five series, or b) hosting a one-game playoff would be something silly like head-to-head record. Something like that would be the tie-breaker. Maybe which team contributes the most WPA to their league in the All-Star Game because that time it counts.

The alternative would be a round-robin system of one-game playoffs to see who gets to the one-game playoff. That's obviously not going to happen.

If the divisions stay as they are, that's not as much of a problem ... for the teams fighting for the fourth-best record. For the teams fighting for the fifth-best record, it's the same mess, except now you're dealing with teams that aren't all that exciting. In 2005, the Mets and Marlins would have tied for the fifth spot with 83 wins. Yuck. Then they'd have a one-game playoff to get in the one-game playoff?

Or how about something like 1996 National League, where three teams would have qualified for a spot? Round-robin tournament of one-game playoffs to get to the one-game playoff? Or would a series of coin flips suffice?

It would have been really fun in 2007, when there would have been a tie for 1/2, 3/4, and 5/6 in the American League. After 162 games, at least one team would get completely hosed by whatever tiebreaking system MLB comes up with. No one would be happy.

The current setup has all sorts of provisions for a three-way tie for the Wild Card, including a round-robin of one-game playoffs. It would be a mess, but the end result wouldn't be one last one-game playoff against a team with a better record. It's a manageable mess, though. I'd love to see the Rays in the playoffs this year, but the fear of tiemageddon isn't worth it.

Plus, the chances that you'd have to watch the Giants hit in the playoffs this year would have gone up. They make pills for the kind of side effect that would cause. It's best to just walk away and keep things as they are.

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