Expanded playoffs are good for baseball

At first, I opposed expanding the baseball postseason.

Hardly anyone contended that the playoffs were too short. If anything, the postseason was too long.

I’m still concerned that baseball’s decision to add a wild card in each league will lead to further expansion, turning the playoffs into a come-one, come-all, similar to the endless NBA and NHL extravaganzas.

But at this point, even that argument is nitpicking. And the major benefit of adding a one-game, wild-card round in each league — the increased emphasis on winning division titles — is too important to ignore.

Enough handwringing.

The new format is good for the game.

The expansion of the postseason will be only baseball’s second since 1969 and first since ‘95. The ratio of qualifiers — 10 of 30 — still will be the lowest of any major professional sport.

In the end, the changes will add excitement with minimal intrusion — at least starting in 2013.

The expansion, thanks to an imminent agreement between management and the players’ union, will take effect one year before it was mandated by the game’s new collective-bargaining agreement.

The commissioner’s office and the players’ union spent weeks devising a workable plan for 2012, knowing compromises were necessary because the regular season and postseason schedules were set.

Scheduling inequities will occur this season due to Commissioner Bud Selig’s desire to implement the new system immediately. In 2012, the five-game division series will begin with two home games for lower seeds, followed by up to three home games for higher seeds, eliminating the travel day prior to a decisive Game 5 of the division series. But both issues are concerns for this season only.

The 2013 schedule will include a greater number of days between the end of the regular season and start of the division series, accommodating potential tiebreakers as well as the wild-card round.

The move of the Astros to the AL and creation of two 15-team leagues will reintroduce, at long last, an equitable qualifying process, with teams playing essentially the same opponents as their division rivals.

Purists still might be offended. Baseball could have stuck with the current system and penalized the wild cards in other ways. But the new format will be better for all.

The additional playoff berths will create newfound hope for teams that rarely make the postseason. The Toronto Blue Jays are one obvious example, and even rebuilding clubs such as the Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates can now dream of reaching the playoffs sooner.

Some will complain that the high-revenue New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox will proceed to the postseason almost automatically, but only one of those teams would qualify as a division champion. The other would face the terrifying prospect of a one-and-done.

Winning the division should matter, shouldn’t it? But too often under the current system, the cushion of the wild card deterred division leaders from giving maximum effort in the season’s final days.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman offered a damning indictment earlier this spring, saying his team conceded the AL East to the Tampa Bay Rays two years ago because the format reduced the meaning of the division title to “nothing more than a t-shirt and a hat.”

That won’t be the case anymore.

Teams will scramble like crazy to win their divisions. The wild card teams will be at a true disadvantage, burning their best pitchers in the playoff game, and maybe to qualify for that game as well.

It’s high time the wild cards suffered: In 17 seasons under the current format, a wild-card qualifier won five World Series while the team with the best regular-season record won only three.

To those who say that a one-game playoff is unfair after a 162-game grind, baseball’s answer is simple: Win your division. Win your division, earn a short breather, advance to the best-of-five DS.

One of my concerns with the new format is that in some cases, it actually will eliminate drama. Indeed, the memorable finish to the 2011 season never would have occurred if the playoff field had consisted of 10 teams; both the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves would have qualified as second wild cards rather than fall victim to historic collapses.

Well, the dynamics of each season are different, and some years turn out more spectacularly than others. But sheer mathematics suggest that the new system potentially will create an even greater number of races.

At minimum, the one-game knockouts will add electricity that baseball previously experienced only in tiebreaker games. And the number of tiebreaker games also could increase — tiebreakers, rather than head-to-head record, will determine division winners.

No system is perfect, and the 2012 season, in particular, could end in chaos as baseball squeezes in the additional round. But in ’13, the fun will truly begin.

The playoffs will be more open. The road to the postseason will be more equitable. And the game will be in a better place.