Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association are apparently in agreement on a 12-team playoff in the upcoming collective bargaining agreement, reports Bob Nightengale of USA Today (Twitter link). As part of that deal, Nightengale adds that the league is likely to keep the penalties for exceeding the luxury tax in a similar level as they’d been under the previous CBA.
The league’s desire for an expanded postseason field has been evident throughout negotiations. MLB had pushed to expand from the previous 10-team field up to 14 clubs throughout discussions, but the union had resisted that possibility. It seems the league has agreed to settle for 12 during this round of negotiations, presumably via adding one more Wild Card team in each league.
Specific terms of the format being discussed are unclear. Hypothetically, it seems the likeliest scenario would see the top two teams in each league receive a bye through the first playoff round (similar to the format utilized in the NFL until that league expanded its own playoffs two years ago). That’d leave the division winner with the worst record and the three Wild Card teams in each league playing some kind of series to advance to the second round.
MLB reportedly offered more player-friendly terms on issues like the minimum salary and pre-arbitration bonus pool to try to get the union’s approval on a 14-team playoff. However, the PA continued to express concerns that broadening the field to that extent could reduce the incentive for teams to earnestly pursue upgrades to their rosters.
There’s a high degree of variability in the MLB postseason — just last year, the playoff team with the worst regular season record went on to win the World Series — and the union fears that under a 14-team system, front offices might be content to build marginally above-average rosters and let the chips fall where they may once the playoffs begin. That could have a trickle-down effect of diminishing free agency spending, one with which the MLBPA was surely uncomfortable.
In recent discussions on playoff expansion, the union has floated the concept of a “ghost win” in the first round for the division winner that doesn’t receive a bye. As Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic reported (on Twitter), that’d system involve the division winner playing the Wild Card team with what amounts to an automatic 1-0 lead in a five-game series. So under that setup, the division winner would only need to win twice in the remaining four games to advance. The Wild Card qualifier, on the other hand, would need to take three out of four.
It’s not clear whether that kind of format made it to the end of discussions on the issue. It also remains unclear how many games each first-round series would comprise. What is apparent is that the parties’ reported willingness to settle on a 12-team postseason marks a key step in their progress towards eventually hammering out a CBA. Postseason expansion has been one of the most important topics of these negotiations for years — with Commissioner Rob Manfred voicing support for a 14-team field as early as October 2020.