Bargaining is ongoing, but a 14-team postseason might be dead

This article is free for anyone to read, but please consider becoming a Patreon subscriber to allow me to keep writing posts like this one. Sign up to receive articles like this one in your inbox here.

There is little point in discussing the reports on the collective bargaining tax threshold at this particular moment, as this is being written during an overnight pause in negotiations between MLB and the MLBPA — the PA is speaking to its board in the morning before submitting a counter to MLB’s late-night offer. What did pop out that seems like it could stick, though, is that the league seems to have finally given up on an expanded postseason model that includes 14 teams.

Now, nothing is definite at this stage: the league could request to go back to 14 teams in their proposals, just like the PA did when they re-raised the pre-arbitration bonus pool amount to $115 million after making changes elsewhere. But the fact that MLB was willing to even entertain the idea of sticking with just 12 teams is a bit of positive news, for those who felt further expansion — unwelcome expansion — was an inevitability.

According to Travis Sawchik, the league is apparently against the idea of a “ghost win” in a 14-team expanded postseason format, to the point that they included just an expansion to 12 teams in Tuesday night’s proposal to the union. The PA has stuck with this idea of a ghost win, which would allow the higher seed in a first-round match-up to begin the series up 1-0, giving them a clear advantage in the proposed best-of-five round that would reward the team with the better record but also potentially push teams to be a bit more competitive to avoid starting down 0-1.

That the league opposes the ghost win so vehemently that they’d drop the 14-team proposal they were so adamant about to 12, which the players prefer and have stuck with, is alarming, and it’s because of the competition aspect. MLB’s owners are either overly concerned with their national broadcasting partners being upset about a best-of-five maybe not getting a full five games — not every series is guaranteed to go to the limit as is, so that would be an odd hangup on its own — or they’re opposed philosophically to an idea that might spur competition and spending in order to gain an advantage in the postseason.

Well that just doesn’t sound like MLB, now does it? Opposition to a fix that could encourage actually trying is a bad look for a league that is already hounded by claims that too many teams are content to just sit back and collect revenue from existing rather than trying to win, that is beset by service-time manipulation by teams that care more about control than about winning, that might just announce additional canceled games if the union’s coming counter isn’t satisfactory. I’m as surprised as you are.

The desire of MLB teams to avoid trying and to profit off of it is already at the heart of postseason expansion. Two more teams are going to make it, if we do end up with 12 clubs, and that means the barrier for entry has been lowered. We’re already in a situation where teams that are nowhere near as good as their inflated records make it to October, thanks to schedules that allow them to beat up on clubs that are somehow trying even less to succeed: that’s why there’s been such a rash of 100-win and 100-loss teams the last few years, with clubs winning over 90 not being nearly as good as advertised, either. From the fall of 2019:

The outcome might not be intentional, but the design is, and it comes from teams at the top stopping their spending push (Yankees, Dodgers, Nationals, soon to be joined by the Red Sox) at the same time the middle teams, those that should be investing to try to climb to that next level, instead deciding they are not going to do that. And the clubs at the bottom are as bad as they’ve ever been in MLB history, if not worse because there are more of them, and it’s all because they’re losing on purpose in order to win later. Or, more accurately, to tell you the plan is to win later, when in reality it’s to preach about the importance of financial flexibility teams don’t intend to use, or how now is not a good time to try, not yet, even when it seems like the not trying is at its end.

The teams that do try, even if it’s not as much as they could, are at the top or near it. The vast majority of the league wasn’t making even that kind of asterisk-laced effort, though, and they are just where you’d expect those spinning their wheels to be: caught between the ones who tried and the ones that used all of their effort to erase any chance of success.

At least the initial 16-team expanded format MLB went out of their way to say they wanted to keep after the pandemic season is dead and buried. A 14-team setup isn’t much better, as it only barely alleviates the concerns that half the league can make the postseason without even a majority of those teams necessarily trying to get there, and that’s only because the concern would then be “nearly half the league can make the postseason without even a majority of those teams necessarily trying to get there” instead. A 12-team format isn’t perfect, either, but it’s four and two fewer clubs than MLB has considered or outright proposed having in the past, and there are ways to make it work without further diluting competition in the regular season.

That doesn’t mean we’ll experience a world where any of those ways exist. I’m extremely wary of a situation where even more 80-win clubs will be content to sit back and see if they win more than expected without actually trying to improve their roster or chances, or if we end up with more teams pulling a 2019 Phillies and deciding they’d rather let it ride than spend resources on improving their team because they might just end up losing to a higher seed in October, anyway. Bumping up the luxury tax thresholds only counts for so much if teams aren’t going to bother spending more because spending less nets you a postseason slot more easily than it used to. The harsher penalties MLB proposed are a real problem, yes, but it’s not like the rest of the league was directly trailing the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, and so on of the league in dollars spent even when all of the penalties were much more negligible, either. Additional excuses to not give more of an effort won’t change that trend.

Maybe some of those problems will be worked out in the details, though. Not with ghost wins, apparently, but some incentives for becoming a higher seed could do the trick, at least to a degree. Clubs can still decide they’d rather just go with the roster that got them on the fringe in the first place, a la the 2019 Phillies, and there probably isn’t much to be done about that during this CBA, but maybe solutions will present themselves in time for the next one. That, or MLB will propose that the entire season is now made out of postseason. It could go either way.

Visit my Patreon to become a supporter and help me continue to write articles like this one.