The Nationals and Selig’s push to expand the playoff field

The tenure of Major League Baseball commissioner Allan H. “Bud” Selig has made one thing crystal clear: What Bud wants, Bud usually gets.

Selig wants to implement his plan to expand the playoffs by one team in each league for the 2012 season. Never mind that the players’ union isn’t on board with the arrangement, citing the fact that the schedule is already set and would have to be changed to create space for an extra one-game playoff to determine the final four postseason teams from the National and American Leagues.

There’s already precious little wiggle room in the postseason schedule, the union says, and it would be better to wait a season before undertaking such maneuvering. Selig counters that the teams and fans love the idea, and he contends it would increase the drama of the finals weeks and days of the season, culminating in a showdown where the winner advances and the loser goes home.

While the two sides hash out their differences (translation: while Selig convinces the union into seeing things his way), let’s think for a moment what the addition of an extra playoff team could mean for the Nationals.

Privately, the folks down on South Capitol Street believe they’re crafting a team that could legitimately contend in 2013, the year the extra playoff team was supposed to arrive. Not that the Nationals can’t contend in 2012, mind you, but 2013 has been the target. Stephen Strasburg will be healthy enough to pitch the whole season, Bryce Harper will be patrolling right field and Ryan Zimmerman will hopefully be locked up to a long-term extension.

Of course, there’s no reason things couldn’t break the right way for the Nationals in 2012, especially if another team is added to the postseason mix. The NL West lacks more than one dominant team beyond the defending divisional champion Diamondbacks. Who knows who will emerge as the kingpin in the NL Central, now that Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder are out of the division. Either way, it’s difficult to imagine more than one team from either of those two divisions challenging for the twin wild card spots.

The NL East? Well, that’s another kettle of fish. The Phillies will ride their strong starting pitching and hope it’s enough to compensate for the early absence of slugger Ryan Howard. The Braves will contend; they always do. The Marlins are improved, though it remains to be seen if a new ballpark and this offseason’s free agent bonanza will translate into wins.

And then there are the Nationals, who are counting on Strasburg’s presence until he reaches the team-mandated innings limit to protect his surgically repaired elbow, a rebound from Jayson Werth, a full season from a recovered Zimmerman, the arrival of Gio Gonzalez to thwart tough left-handed bats in the division, and the continued improvement of young core players like Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Drew Storen, Jordan Zimmermann and Wilson Ramos.

General manager Mike Rizzo has improved the rotation, added some depth, and not left any glaring holes through his offseason machinations (OK, there’s still some debate over whether Werth will play center or right and who will play wherever Werth doesn’t, but that’s fodder for another discussion).

The Nationals finished 80-81 last year, Could they improve enough to stay in the playoff picture if a fifth postseason team was added to the mix?

Whaddaya think?: Will baseball expand the postseason in 2012, or will that change be postponed until 2013? If a fifth playoff team is added in each league, is the NL East powerful enough to produce both of the wild card teams? Can the Nationals contend for one of those spots?

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