An expanded postseason means reduced effort

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Obviously, it’s a little too early to say for sure that increasing the number of teams that can make the MLB postseason will never increase the in-season level of competition for those spots. But, as I wrote at Baseball Prospectus on Wednesday, the early returns aren’t looking even a little bit promising.

In the new collective bargaining agreement reached between the league and the Players Association in March, the postseason expanded from 10 teams to 12. This was expected, as MLB’s desire for a larger postseason was one of the major points of leverage the union had coming into negotiations, and it was considered a win that the PA was able to avoid giving the league what they actually were looking for, which was a 14-team arrangement. And thank Baseba’al for that, because if you think the laissez-faire attitude of the league towards building competitive teams is bad now, just imagine how much worse it could be.

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

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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.

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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!

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No expanded MLB postseason in 2021, but what about 2022?

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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.

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