JUPITER, Fla. — Within the dense fog of financial figures and acronyms like CBT and CBA that settled over Roger Dean Stadium, there was one last-minute souvenir from a solution-free week that will change how fans who stick with baseball will see baseball.
It has nothing to do with the intricacies of the ways a roster is made and everything to do with how, when, and even where the postseason is played.
Expanded playoffs remain a prominent element of negotiations during Major League Baseball’s lockout, which was extended Tuesday and is nearing 100 days as commissioner Rob Manfred canceled the first week of regular-season games. Increasing the number of teams that qualify for the postseason has great worth to the owners and, thus, provides leverage for the players’ union. In a work stoppage defined by the thousands of dollars separating the owners and MLBPA on the minimum salary and millions of dollars they are apart on the luxury tax or bonus pool, an area of contention that will directly change the fan experience comes down to a gap of two.
After pursuing and insisting on expanding the playoffs from 10 teams to 14, the owners’ final proposal met the players’ long-held preference, at 12.
“The expanded playoffs — that would bring meaningful baseball and postseason baseball to more markets,” commissioner Rob Manfred said. “While we preferred the 14-team format, when that format became a significant obstacle we listened to the players and accepted their 12-team format.”
Until there is an agreement, however, the size of the postseason remains a major chip in bargaining talks — one each side has tried to play to get a significant change elsewhere in the deal. Follow the money. A broadcast deal and at least $100 million in additional revenue is ready to go for Major League Baseball once it has more playoff games for its TV partner.
And more opportunity for fans to root for a playoff team.
The players’ union capped their offer at 12 due to concern any more would dilute the postseason, diminish the benefit of winning the division, and reduce spending to be competitive. The owners’ proposed 14-team format included a first-round bye for the two teams with the best records in each league. Only one of each league’s three division winners would get that benefit, and the other two would be seeded into a first-round series. The players thought the home-field advantage or hand-picked opponent for that series were big enough carrots for teams to be compelled to contend (i.e., spend) for a division title.
Throughout the lockout and dating back at least a year, the union has stressed its goal to address competitive integrity and end the race to the bottom of the standings known as tanking. Union officials have said they are reluctant to make competition one of their stated goals and then agree to the owners’ format they believe would undermine that.
“We’re not going to do anything to sacrifice the competition or anything that points toward mediocrity,” said former Cardinals reliever Andrew Miller, a member of the union’s executive board and part of its negotiations group. “That’s the antithesis of our game and what we’re about as players.”
That concern has weight.
Under the 14-team format, the teams with the best record in each league would advance to the second round, which would be similar to the current best-of-five Division Series. The other six teams in each league would play a best-of-three series to advance. In a made for TV draft special, the owners proposed the two division winners without the league’s best record would get to select their opponent from a pool of wild-card teams.
Over the past 15 postseason that followed a full regular season, the teams with the best record in the National League or American League have averaged 99 wins.
The team with the seventh-best record has averaged 85.2 wins in the AL and 82.4 wins in the NL — or, in the senior circuit, one game better than .500. A team with a losing record would have qualified for the postseason three times since 2006 under this format.
The Cardinals would have a 14-year playoff streak in a 14-team format.
A delta that is 17-wins wide between getting a first-round bye and only getting a made-for-TV selection could invite teams to surrender to the big spenders in the race for the best record. They could settle into the mix of teams squeaking in with a frugal 85-win payroll. The Cardinals’ approach has been to build a team to win the National League Central and avoid the wild-card game they lost this past October. They have not met that goal in several seasons, and a 14-team format would have forced them to change that approach. Either they’d reset their standards to chase the best teams in the National League for the top record — and first-round bye — or scale-back that equation because there wasn’t must substantive difference between winning the division with a 95-win season or reaching the playoffs with an 85-win berth.
The counterargument is that a 14-team playoff format would invigorate more teams to believe they are close to a berth and sign that one more free agent or become an active buyer at the trade deadline. Such a format might extinguish the fire sales that signal tanking.
The 12-team format championed by the union provided the same benefit for all three division champs — home-field advantage in the first round. Since 2006, the sixth-best record in the league has averaged 88.1 wins in the AL and 85.3 wins in the NL.
“It really came down to a format issue,” said Mets starter Max Scherzer, a former Mizzou standout and now member of the union’s executive board. “In a 14-team playoff structure we felt that competition could be eroded in that area. … (When one team gets a bye), solely home-field advantage was not going to be the advantage to go out and win the division.”
During a press conference Tuesday night at a harborside hotel in Jupiter, Miller described Scherzer as the best person to talk about myriad of playoff formats.
The union got creative in its pitches to the owners.
At one point in the past month of negotiations, the players proposed downsizing the leagues into two divisions each that would also streamline the schedule. The winner of each division would receive a first-round bye while the remaining four teams in each league played to advance to the Division Series. The union also proposed a “ghost win” structure that gave division winners a 1-0 head start in a series against a wild-card team. Neither of those two playoff formats were included in the proposal tabled by the owners on Tuesday.
“We didn’t understand why they didn’t want to take us up on a more competitive format,” Scherzer said.
What the owners did attempt to do, sources on both sides described, was link the 14-team playoff format to baseball’s first draft lottery. Before negotiations went sideways Saturday, late into the night Monday, and to an end Tuesday, the sides made progress toward a draft lottery system for the first five or six picks. The owners said such a change to the draft was contingent on expanding the playoffs, so that the 16 teams that did not qualify would be eligible for the draft. The union saw that proposal for what it was — a backdoor to the 14 plan.
They also saw it for what it revealed — a wealth of opportunity.
The owners’ quest to expand the playoffs and scratch off that broadcast lottery ticket is such that it could open elasticity elsewhere in the agreement. Both sides got to a draft lottery and a 12-team postseason by Tuesday. Even though the owners called that afternoon’s offer their “final” and “best,” Manfred later acknowledged “wiggle room.” The redaction of games from the calendar becomes a huge boulder to move at the bargaining table because players will now seek to be paid for a full season and receive service time from a 162-game year. They can, of course, resist any expansion to the playoffs until they get the regular season schedule or regular season salary restored. A bigger October is a big deal to the owners.
Fans can count on more teams in the postseason when it arrives.
Whenever that is.
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