Major League Baseball is expected to expand the playoffs for the 2012 season, according to sources including Ken Rosenthal and Jon Heyman. The sides are working out the final agreement, which includes the new playoff schedule. The format will add an additional Wild Card team from each league, and the two Wild Card teams from each league will play each other in a one-game playoff.
This news is exciting for Washington Nationals fans, as it improves their chances of making the playoffs starting this season. As Mark Zuckerman calculated yesterday, the average fifth-seed in the National League over the last 10 years wins just under 89 games each season. Last year, the Atlanta Braves narrowly missed the postseason in that fifth spot with... 89 wins.
Perhaps the part that's most exciting for Nationals fans is the thought of 89 wins isn't totally ludicrous this season. In each of the last two seasons, the Nats have increased their win totals by more than 10 wins from the previous season: from 59 in 2009 to 69 in 2010 to 80 in 2011. Between those years, the team certainly improved, but the 2012 Nationals have even more going for them than those teams. The perfect example is the status of John Lannan. Just two seasons ago, the Nationals couldn't imagine not having Lannan at the top of their rotation. Entering 2012, Lannan may still find him self in the minor leagues as a victim of remaining contract options and burgeoning organizational pitching talent.
There was a chance the Nats could stay relevant in the playoff picture well into September this season even without the expanded playoffs, but with them, the excitement seems to flourish in NatsTown a bit more. Any way you shake it, the Nationals will likely have to finish second in the NL East to have a chance. The NL East is the strongest its been in years, which is saying something, and there will be a lot of beating up on each other during the year. The Atlanta Braves have a stellar pitching staff, and the Miami Marlins experiment could earn them 92 wins, 72 wins, or anything in between.
If the Nationals want to have a shot at the playoffs this year, for the first time in the team's DC history, they have to start strong and capitalize on a relatively easy April. With 13 games against the Cubs, Mets, Reds, Astros, and Padres, they have a legitimate shot to get out to a fast start. If you look at their competition, the Phillies will be without Ryan Howard due to his Achilles injury and with an aging lineup, and the Braves will be without their ace Tim Hudson through April due to back issues and with a seemingly fragile rotation, a fast start could be invaluable when the dog days of summer hit in late-July and August.
One thing is sure, the Nationals are going to be much more fun to watch for the casual fan with the new playoff format, and it could ultimately help ticket sales with September success. The excitement during Spring Training hasn't been this palatable since the Inaugural Season in 2005. It's hard not to get caught up in it.