6:58pm: MLB has officially announced the 16-team playoff format and best-of-three Wild Card Series for 2020.
4:36pm: The league’s owners have ratified the agreement, Sherman tweets. Sixteen teams will make the playoffs this season.
3:27pm: ESPN’s Buster Olney reports that the top two teams in each division will qualify for the postseason under this format. The seventh and eighth teams in each league will be chosen based on the best overall records of the remaining teams. The Athletic’s Jayson Stark adds that all three first-round games of a series would be played at the higher seed’s home park, thus eliminating the need for a travel day.
3:00pm: Just hours before the first pitch of the 2020 season, Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association have reached an agreement on an expanded postseason field. ESPN’s Marly Rivera reports that the union has agreed to the proposal, which now needs only to be ratified by the owners. Joel Sherman of the New York Post suggests that will indeed happen (Twitter link), and USA Today’s Bob Nightengale tweets that there’ll be 16 teams as well as a best-of-three first round series (rather than a sudden-death Wild Card setting). The agreement covers only the 2020 season, per both Rivera and Sherman.
The postseason expansion comes with a $50MM player pool for the players, Nightengale further reports. That’s particularly notable given that in a traditional season, player postseason shares are derived solely from gate revenue and not from television ratings. Previous estimates on additional television revenue in an expanded postseason field suggested between $200-300MM could be generated by expanding to 16 teams, and ownership has agreed to share some of that windfall with the players’ side.
The potential ramifications here are broad reaching. It’s easy to envision this serving as a litmus test of sorts for future postseason expansion. The league has previously sought to push to 14 to 16 teams due to that considerable added revenue — the aforementioned revenue boost referenced only television money — and introducing it as a sort of experiment in an already anomalous season is perhaps a more palatable way of normalizing the change.
From a team vantage point, the impact this has on the trade deadline could be enormous. There have been plenty of questions regarding just how much clubs will be willing to surrender in order to acquire rental players in a 60-game season — particularly if the likeliest postseason scenario included a sudden-death Wild Card game. Now, clubs will at least be assured of a three-game series. Paired with the expanded number of fringe contenders a six-team expansion of the field, that could embolden some teams to be more aggressive buyers.
The greater number of postseason clubs not only widens the field of potential buyers but also narrows how many teams will be pure sellers. That could serve to up the demand for the trade assets on the few teams who are committed to selling off pieces. And it could lead to some dramatic last-minute decisions for teams that are on the cusp. Today’s brand of methodical, analytical GMs don’t make the emotional and even irrational plunges into transactions that once proliferated deadline season, but there’s a good chance we’ll again see some creative swaps of unexpected players. Complicated three-team trades have become prominent in recent years, and a radical change to the playoff format should only encourage creativity.
And what of the teams with trade candidates who have multiple seasons of club control remaining? At a time when clubs are reluctant to part with high-end talent to acquire 30-some games of a rental, a player controlled into 2021, 2022 or beyond becomes eminently more appealing. Matthew Boyd, Caleb Smith, Jon Gray, Francisco Lindor, Nolan Arenado and other controllable names who’ve been kicked about the rumor circuit in recent years will again be in demand. Depending on the status of those players’ teams at the halfway point of the season, the motivation to make a deal could increase. It’s worth reminding that only players in a team’s 60-man pool can be traded, so there are some clear restrictions in play, but the ripple effect here could be considerable.