On negotiating a potential expanded MLB postseason

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The MLB Players Association is correct to not give in to the owners’ idea of an economic proposal, but at some point, they’re going to need to concede some ground on the areas the league really cares about in order to bring about the kind of changes they want on their side of things. This isn’t meant to say, “hey, union, hurry it up!” or anything — take your time, guys, get that best version of a CBA no matter how long it takes — but more as a warning that some version of an expanded postseason is likely on the way.

The owners, obviously, want an expanded postseason. They want it for two reasons. The first is that more postseason rounds and games means larger (and maybe even more) national television contracts to broadcast postseason games. The second is that teams can make it to the postseason more often without actually trying to, which will help combat the idea that a significant chunk of the league regularly isn’t putting in anything close to their best effort, or any effort at all. After all, they just made the postseason!

I mean, read this bit from the pro column for an expanded postseason from ESPN’s Jesse Rogers:

The league believes the incentives for the top seeds — like having a bye or picking your opponent — will keep teams aggressive both in the winter and during the season. Plus, it opens the door for a perennial 75-win team to now push for around 80 wins to potentially make the postseason.

Of course, the expanded playoffs would be a windfall for owners in terms of television and gate revenue, but they would also add over 100 players to the postseason spotlight where reputations are burnished. Players also get playoff shares for every round their team wins in October.

I included that second bit where Rogers comes real close to saying that an expanded postseason means more players would be paid in exposure, because it’s extremely funny. Even more so considering Rogers recently admitted on Twitter that he leans towards siding with the owners in the lockout because of the recent free agent contracts. It must be nice to be paid that much to be head empty all the time.

Anyway! Yes, “a perennial 75-win team to now push for around 80 wins” is not just a dream Rogers concocted, but a thing that opponents of the expanded postseason have been warning against for some time now. Opponents like… me! Here’s what I wrote about the issue in September 2020, when MLB’s side made it known they’d like the expanded postseason format to persist:

If the league was already full of teams aiming to win 83 games because it’s cheaper than trying to win 90 and they might get lucky and win 90, anyway, what is going to happen when the threshold for making the postseason drops? A bunch of teams looking to win 75 games and occasionally being rewarded for it because a prospect hits their stride sooner than expected, or an inexpensive, low-end free agent has a surprise epiphany and subsequent breakout? We’re going to end up in a scenario where owners know they’ll be getting increased shared revenue from an expanded postseason, and more revenue than that if their teams manage to make it there themselves. And little incentive to spend any of that increased revenue, because why try when not trying might get you to the postseason, anyway?

All of that is valid, still, but as I pointed out in February 2021, that doesn’t mean the union should refuse to engage on the idea of expanding the postseason at all:

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.

The PA’s minimum salary increase proposal does not scale to revenues, as far as I know, but they did make a proposal for a significant jump there, enough that MLB countered with a lower one, and they are attempting to bring arbitration eligibility back to two years of service time from the current three. So, they’re doing what I said needed to be done if they were going to concede on expanding the postseason. That’s good!

The reality of the situation is that they don’t have a whole lot to give up on in order to get what they want, and a lockout precludes them from striking — withholding your labor is the most effective tool in the box for a union, especially when there is no material item to concede otherwise. Still, a lockout can be leveraged similarly to a strike — the lockout, like a strike, will end when one side blinks, regardless of who started it — so, it all comes down to how the MLBPA leverages the expanded postseason in these talks. Waiting the lockout out long enough for MLB’s owners to get nervous about in-season revenues and be less willing to stand in lockstep against them should allow the PA to propose expanding the postseason, but not to the half-the-league-makes-it degree that MLB wants it to be at. And while getting MLB to concede on the key economic issues the PA wants, too.

Basically, be ready for an expanded postseason to exist. It can be done in a way that fixes some of the current issues, which will simultaneously keep new ones from cropping up, but it’s going to take really threading the needle here to get to that point.

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