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There will not be an expanded postseason to conclude MLB’s 2021 campaign. We know this for a fact at this point, since the health and safety protocols for the upcoming season declared as much, but the league certainly tried to make it otherwise for a while there. A few proposals were sent to the Players Association in an attempt to reopen bargaining on the issue, to no avail.
We cannot conclude from this, though, that there will not be an expanded postseason going forward. All we know for sure is that the postseason this year will look like it did back in 2019, that the 2020 expansion was, for now, simply a way to recoup some revenues that would not otherwise be collected in a shortened, fan-less regular season. In the long run, though, 2020 could serve as an experiment and framework for a more permanent expansion of the postseason. And we’ll know if that’s the case sooner than later, too.
Regardless of whether the players actually want an expanded postseason, they were not going to negotiate for one in the present. Countering any of MLB’s proposals on the expanded postseason or the start of the regular season would have reopened bargaining on those subjects, which made no sense at all for the union to do. Especially not when, at best, MLB has given cursory, public-relations-centered attention to the PA’s problems with non-pandemic collective bargaining agreement issues in the recent past.
Think back to 2019, when MLB agreed to listen to some of the union’s growing issues by opening up discussions two years early. MLB listened, sure, in the sense they hosted some meetings as promised: commissioner Rob Manfred also said that there was “not going to be a deal where we pay you in economics to get labor peace” and that “maybe Marvin Miller’s financial system doesn’t work anymore.” My reaction, at the time, was that the owners wanted a second crack at 1994: they want to break the union, they want to get the salary cap other leagues have instituted, they want to stop allowing the union to have any real say. My interpretation of this moment in time has not changed, given MLB’s behaviors since.
This is a long-ish way of saying that it’s not the PA’s job to fix everything that’s wrong by themselves, or give MLB what they want just because they’re asking for it, and it’s especially not their job to do this with a partner that submits bad-faith proposals and essentially declares open war on you two years before the current CBA expires. So, if they were happy with the way things are — the way things are already agreed upon in the CBA — then that’s their right. That’s how it works whenever MLB and its mouthpieces want to point out that the players agreed to whatever loophole is being exploited by teams, isn’t it?
To circle back to what brought on these last few paragraphs, though: the PA’s behavior regarding negotiations on an expanded postseason in the present do not tell us what their actual view is on an expanded postseason. For me, personally? It’s a terrible idea, one that will further devalue the regular season from an entertainment perspective while also allowing MLB to make trying (and spending to try) even less of a necessity. From the union’s perspective, though, they have to weigh the risks of MLB teams doubling down on not trying because making the postseason is now easier than ever with the reality that the expanded postseason is something the league wants very much, and therefore is something the PA can use as leverage.
That doesn’t mean that the PA is absolutely going to give the owners an expanded postseason in the upcoming CBA talks, but the possibility is there that 2021 is the last time we won’t have an expanded MLB postseason, too. The union might end up using the postseason as a bargaining chip, and as potentially horrible of an idea as that is given some of the anti-spending consequences of it, it all depends on what the PA cashes this particular chip in on.
Trying to leverage an expanded postseason into a massive increase to the league-minimum salary — one that will scale with revenues going forward instead of just previously agreed-upon rates that won’t necessarily reflect the league’s financial growth — and a fix for service time and arbitration eligibility could help keep MLB teams from abusing the lowered barrier to postseason entry. Make cheap players less cheap, make arb-eligible players more plentiful and pre-arbitration players less plentiful, and MLB clubs lose the most obvious exploitation available to them when it comes to team building. Free agency is never going to be fixed in a vacuum: the only possible way to fix it at this point is to close off other loopholes and create a redistribution of the money MLB is already dedicated to spending, so that more of it is at the bottom instead of almost entirely in the hands of the most elite free agents. This kind of redistribution could keep the expanded postseason from being a labor issue, which won’t necessarily fix that it might make for a worse postseason experience, but hey. That’s a little more subjective.
Maybe an expanded postseason doesn’t sound like enough leverage to secure all of that, and it very well might not be. That’s not all the PA has for leverage, though. There is still the potential for a season-length grievance for the way MLB negotiated and stalled on the 2020 campaign, and an agreement to drop the rights to that particular grievance could net the PA that much more in bargaining. There is also always, of course, the players’ own labor to withhold. There hasn’t been a strike since 1994, so that always seems to be forgotten, but if the owners lock out the players for playing hardball, that’s still an opportunity for the players to withhold their labor just the same. A strike is caused by management, even if it’s declared by labor: a lockout is simply management getting ahead of things in the hopes of dividing a union and then extracting what they want from it. If the union stands together for long enough, they can win a lockout the same way they can win a strike.
The point is that we’re not out of the expanded postseason waters yet, and you should get used to the idea coming up again and again. We very well might see a permanent expansion as soon as 2022, and it might make a lot of sense, from a labor perspective, to go that route, but that’s all dependent on what the union is able to get back in return.