Expanded playoffs would be fairer

Quietly, we could be approaching the end of an abundantly successful period — economically and competitively — in baseball history.

The Wild Card Era, Part One.

On measure, the system has worked quite well. But now, just as with your smartphone, it’s time to upgrade. This could be the final season of the current playoff structure as we know it.

Here’s what we know: The basic agreement between Major League Baseball and the players’ union is set to expire at the end of this season. The prospect of playoff expansion is one issue likely to be addressed in the new collective bargaining talks, which are under way.

MLB commissioner Bud Selig has indicated that he is receptive to the idea of adding a fifth playoff team in each league. Observers of the operation at 245 Park Ave. will tell you that Selig rarely backtracks after suggesting publicly that he would be open to such a high-profile change.

If Selig indeed supports the creation of a second wild-card team, he is unlikely to receive much pushback (if any) from the union. More playoff teams mean more playoff shares for more players. In theory, at least, everybody wins.

So, it’s conceivable — likely, even — that a second wild-card team could be added in time for the 2012 postseason.

This should be called The Toronto Rule.

“Or The Baltimore Rule,” said a smiling Adam Lind, “or The Tampa Rule.”

We know it’s possible for a team other than the Red Sox or Yankees to win the American League East. The imaginative Rays, after all, have claimed two division titles since Boston’s most recent championship in 2007.

But Lind, the slugging Toronto first baseman, is familiar with the flaws in baseball’s current competitive structure. His Blue Jays won 85 games last year, despite trading away the game’s best pitcher prior to the season. They boasted the game’s breakthrough star, 54-homer man Jose Bautista.

And yet the Jays were out of the race — 13 games back — by late July. They were one of the best fourth-place teams any of us can remember. Toronto won only six fewer games than playoff-bound Atlanta, and the Jays played better competition.

So here’s a question: Of the other five divisions, how many would Toronto have won last year?

“All of them,” Lind replied, matter-of-factly. “I mean, the NL East would have been tough. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way. But against the other teams in our division we had a winning record (39-33).” (Oddly enough, a poor record in interleague play — against five NL contenders — was their downfall.)

The Jays won their season series against the Yankees (10-8) and Texas Rangers (7-3), teams that later played for the AL pennant. This week, Toronto was described as a “very dangerous” team by Rays manager Joe Maddon, who understands plenty about the rise from obscurity to October.

Aside from Bautista, Toronto’s calling card has become a young pitching staff that lowered its team ERA from ’09 to ’10 even with the departure of Roy Halladay. “I’ll put my rotation against anyone’s,” declared lefty Ricky Romero, 14-9 with a 3.73 ERA last year. “Brandon (Morrow) and Brett (Cecil) can be No. 1 starters.” (Right now, of course, the Opening Day assignment belongs to Romero himself.)

Baltimore is about to roll out a high-ceiling rotation of its own. Zach Britton, 23, has been a certifiable spring sensation. The lefty allowed one earned run in six innings against the Yankees on Tuesday . . . and watched his spring ERA increase to 0.64. But here’s the thing: He may not make the Opening Day roster, because the Orioles’ staff has become crowded with capable arms.

By now, you’re probably asking the question: What relevance do Ricky Romero and Zach Britton have to baseball’s competitive balance? It’s simple, really: They represent hope to two franchises that deserve a more realistic chance of exciting their fans with meaningful September (and October) baseball.

Only five teams had lower average attendance figures than the Orioles and Blue Jays last year. It’s impossible to know for certain, but I would wager that many fans who stayed home are wondering when their team will again become a true contender. Toronto hasn’t reached the playoffs since Joe Carter touched ‘em all in 1993. Baltimore last earned a postseason berth four years after that.

I will admit that a five-team playoff is unwieldy, particularly at a time when MLB would like to tighten its postseason calendar. It would be unwise for baseball to ask any team — top-seeded or otherwise — to sit idle for four or five days during the preliminary round. But if the Jays and Orioles (and Rays, for that matter) are going to face the most challenging schedules in baseball, then they deserve another onramp to October, logistical issues be damned.

But even adding one wild card spot wouldn’t have saved last year’s Blue Jays. Both the Red Sox and White Sox finished the 2010 campaign with better records and still missed the playoffs. Toronto, though, was one of only three teams in the American League (along with the playoff-bound Rays and Yankees) to boast a winning record against all three divisions.

How do we sort this out? The simplest solution of all would be standardizing the schedule, thus ensuring that no team is at a competitive advantage or disadvantage simply because of geography. If a team plays the Yankees as often as they play the Indians, then it becomes a much fairer fight for the lone wild-card berth.

In fact, a veteran player (Tampa Bay’s Johnny Damon) and veteran manager (Baltimore’s Buck Showalter) advocated for versions of that plan during interviews this week.

“I want to get it so that we’re facing the same competition,” Showalter said. “The way the schedule is set up now, we’re competing for the same thing, but we’re playing different people. The integrity of the schedule is just not there. Everybody in the American League should face the same challenges. That’s not the way it is.”

Selig, the owners, and the union may be faced with a choice between two complicated options: tear up a 2,430-game schedule, or squeeze a pair of extra teams into the postseason – with the promise of new revenues for all.

My guess: Pretty soon, third place in the American League East will make bronze look like gold.