I was surprised a few days ago when I found out that baseball was still deliberating when to phase in the second wild card. I assumed that since it was mid-February and I had yet to hear it was a go for 2012 that it wasn't happening. It makes sense to do it next year while the leagues re-balance and a wackier regular season schedule comes about. However, it turned out that baseball had yet to rule an extra playoff spot, and the resulting change to the playoff schedule in or out for 2012.
Sources: Additional wild cards a "go" for this season. Playoffs to expand from eight to 10 teams. Announcement tomorrow. #MLB— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) February 29, 2012
As a reminder, the two wild card teams will play essentially a sudden death game at the conclusion of the regular season and the winner of that game will then advance and the playoffs will continue as they have proceeded since the Wild Card era began in 1995. I cannot confirm, but I do believe this also does away with the past requirement that a wild card team could not play a team from the same division in the Divisional Series.
If so, that does align the playoff seeding more along the lines of common sense and also creates a couple tiers of incentive. Under the (at least until tomorrow) current system, teams largely have no benefit past the point of qualifying. Even the team with the best regular season record is not guaranteed to play the weakest team in the first round. With the new system, teams that win their division get the benefit of avoiding the one-game first series and, in theory, the team with the outright best regular season record now gets to face a team that has had to burn a starter already.
To me, those seemingly ancillary impacts are far more pleasing than the inclusion of a ninth and tenth playoff team for one game. Sure, the Mariners' playoff odds, slim though they are, just went up a few percentage points. And tangentially, if this system had been in place from the beginning, the Mariners likely would have had between two and four additional appearances coming in 1996, 2002, 2003 and 2007. Beyond the appeal of some extra shots at a World Series though, I'm just happy that baseball's playoff structure is taking a step toward making more sense as a reward for regular season performance.