Last season, the Chicago Cubs won the NL Central, but didn’t get a chance to play in the NLDS, because of the expanded postseason. Well that, and because the Marlins whooped them at home in their mini-playoff series.
In case you forgot: In an effort to make a fair playoff field for a shortened season (and, let’s be honest, make back some of the money lost to the pandemic), MLB and the players union got together on an agreement just before the start of the 2020 season to expand the playoff format from five teams per league (three division winners and two Wild Cards) to eight teams per league (the first and second place team in each division plus two Wild Cards). When October rolled around, the 3rd-seeded, first-place Cubs got to face the 6th-seeded, second-place Marlins at Wrigley Field, and I think you know the rest.
This year, however, we’re back to the normal pre-2020 rules. Division winners, plus two Wild Cards who play a one-gamer to move on. That’s 10 total playoff teams out of 30 MLB teams, the smallest playoff field in pro sports.
Before the season began, there was an effort to expand the postseason once again, with the owners offering the universal DH as chip for the union’s approval, but the players nixed the idea and that’s where both proposals died (for the time being). With the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) up at the end of the year, neither side wanted to push too hard or give too much away.
But what about 2022? Will an expanded postseason format return as soon as next season? And if so, what might it look like? Ken Rosenthal discussed it during a recent podcast on The Athletic, bolded emphasis mine (Apple, Spotify):
As for the expanded playoffs, last year was obviously unusual. And to have the sixteen teams in the playoffs that was a result of the 60-game season and MLB maybe trying to make up some money, create some more excitement, give more teams a chance because of the 60-game season and it was fine for then.
I would not be in favor of that particular format going forward, because it did not reward the division winner, it did not reward the best overall record – any of those teams could’ve lost right away in that Wild Card round.
Going forward, what has been discussed, is a 14-team playoff, seven in each league, in which some of those things I just mentioned — home field advantage for the division champion, penalizing the Wild Card, best overall record gets an edge — that will all be taken care of ….
And I expect that, in the new CBA, as part of the give and take that will take place, not just with the DH, but with all the things that are going on, the union will agree to expanded playoffs ….
Rosenthal goes on to explain that – as of now – the players and union officials aren’t fully on board with the expanded playoff format, fearing that it’ll disincentivize competition and eventually reduce organizational spending, but he concedes that he “fully expect(s) this to get done.”
Sadly, we’re not left with too many details – and, frankly, I wouldn’t even get attached to the seven-team format that has reportedly been discussed, because who knows where these CBA negotiations are going to lead us – but this is more than just a start. If Ken Rosenthal hears that these talks are already on-going *and* can include specifics like “seven-team” formats, you can bet it’s out there.
I do wonder, however, how a seven-team format would work. Would there be four Wild Card teams? Would each division’s second place team make it? Or would MLB switch to something of an NBA format (this won’t happen), where the top seven records in each league move forward?
And that’s not all, after the seven teams are selected, would the best record in each league get a first-round bye, leaving the other two division winners to play the lowest two seeds? Even with home field advantage, a short three-game series before the NLDS doesn’t seem like a big enough reward for winning your division, right? Or am I just salty because the Cubs lost out in 2020?
And, of course, the format could all change again when MLB expands to 32 teams and potentially restructures each league to accommodate the new teams. I know that’s not right around the corner, but it could certainly happen before the decade is up.
Expanded playoffs are just one of many big changes coming to baseball this winter. I just hope that whatever they land on, they land on it without forcing a work stoppage, for so many obvious reasons. Also, more at home: The Cubs need as much time as possible to get this offseason right and a lengthy battle over the playoffs or any other change to the CBA will only shrink that window of opportunity.