Back in November, MLB announced that it intended to change the playoff structure by adding an extra wild-card spot and expanding the playoffs 10 teams. The only thing missing was a timetable for implementation. Just a month before the start of the season, the league decide to implement the change in time for the 2012 season.
On one hand, MLB has greatly increased the value of winning the division relative to winning the wild card. On the other, MLB has increased the opportunity for a weaker team to get its foot into the playoff door in the fall.
With lots of money riding on making the postseason, any change to the structure of the playoffs will have both short-term and long-term consequences. While it seems unlikely to be a change that will have much of an effect on how teams evaluate players or configure rosters, the consequences over the long haul are quite uncertain. Seeing the long-term shakeout can be a difficult task -- I wager nobody predicted the Miami Marlins and Washington Nationals to be more aggressive than the Yankees in the free-agent market a few years ago -- so we'll focus on the short-term repercussions.
In 2012, who will benefit (and be punished) most by this change? Let's take a look.
NL East middle class
The rapid strengthening of the NL East has left too many insurgents chasing too few playoff spots. The Marlins are finally investing in their team as they open a new park, so that playoff boost is especially important when trying to fix the damage the franchise has done to its local fan base since 1997.
The Nationals didn't land the free agents they were going after, but they have some of the most interesting young stars in the game and a real playoff-caliber team, and the time's ripe to build their own legacy rather than the one borrowed from the Montreal Expos.
As you can see in the chart to the right, both the Nats and Marlins saw their playoff chances increase by at least 40 percent and now have at least a 1-in-4 shot of reaching the postseason.