MARCH 4, 8:55 pm: Jeff Passan of ESPN writes that the union’s “ghost win” proposal would actually function as akin to starting a three-game series up 1-0. Under that scenario, the division winner would only need to win one game to move on to the Division Series, while the Wild Card club would need to win two straight games.
4:58 pm: In an effort to finalize a new collective bargaining agreement before the league’s imposed deadline to avoid regular season game cancelations, MLB and the Players Association reportedly agreed to move forward with the framework for a 12-team postseason field. With that deadline having passed with no overarching agreement and the league having since scrapped the first two regular season series, the union is apparently willing to reconsider a more expansive field.
Buster Olney of ESPN reports (Twitter link) that the MLBPA has informed the league it’s amenable to reopening talks on a possible 14-team playoff. That has been an important initiative of MLB’s throughout negotiations, with a broader field giving the league more postseason games it can sell to television providers. Andrew Marchand of the New York Post reported this week that a 14-team playoff would see MLB recoup an extra $100MM annually as part of its broadcasting agreement with ESPN.
That makes the 14-team playoff an enticing carrot for the league, one the union would no doubt make contingent on movement from MLB in other key areas. Where to set the competitive balance tax thresholds has been perhaps the biggest sticking point in negotiations. The league is reluctant to go beyond a $220MM base tax marker next season, while the union’s latest offer included a $238MM CBT base. That $18MM gap would only widen over the course of the potential agreement, with the MLBPA seeking more rapid increases in future seasons than the league has proposed. The parties also disagree on the amount of money that should go towards the pre-arbitration bonus pool and the league minimum salary, among other issues.
Reopening talks on the 14-team playoff could serve to kickstart talks as the parties regroup following MLB’s game cancelations. However, it’s worth noting that the 12-team postseason framework already marked a notable concession by the union. The status quo, of course, had been a 10-team field. Merely agreeing to bump from 10 to 12 teams created the possibility for extra playoff rounds and a corresponding windfall for the league. Marchand reported that a 12-team format would itself have led to around $85MM per season in extra revenue for MLB, again per the terms of the league’s broadcasting agreement with ESPN.
Approximately $85MM per season isn’t $100MM per season, though, so it’s little surprise the league had sought a 14-team playoff for most of negotiations. The union has maintained that it’d prefer a 12-team field. The MLBPA has expressed concerns that allowing 14 teams in would disincentivize clubs from ardently upgrading their rosters. The MLB postseason is more variable than those of other leagues — the playoff team with the worst regular season record won the World Series just last season, as an example — and the union fears those fluctuations could allow teams with already-strong rosters to be content not to push hard for further upgrades. That could have a trickle-down effect of limiting teams’ urgency to spend in free agency, a behavior the MLBPA wants to avoid.
The previous 10-team format offered a powerful incentive for clubs to try to win their division. Wild Card qualifiers were tossed into a one-game playoff, leaving little more than a 50-50 shot for any Wild Card team to advance to the Division Series. MLB’s proposed 14-team playoff setup would offer a first-round bye to the team with the best record in both the AL and NL (as in the case with the NFL’s system). However, the relatively minor favors for the other two division winners over the four Wild Card qualifiers — the division winners would get home field advantage and have the right to choose their first round opponents from among the bottom three Wild Card teams — weren’t significant enough needle-movers, in the players’ eyes.
Max Scherzer, a member of the union’s executive subcommittee, expressed reservations with that setup earlier this week. “It really came down to a format issue,” he told reporters (including Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch). “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.”
Scherzer’s comments leave open the possibility for alterations to the league’s playoff format that could still see 14 clubs qualify. During earlier stages of negotiations, the union floated the concept of a “ghost win” for the first round. Under that system, the two division winners per league that did not receive a bye would automatically get the equivalent of a 1-0 advantage in a best-of-five series against the bottom two Wild Card qualifiers. Thus, the division winner would only need to win two out of a potential four games to advance to the second round; the Wild Card club would need to win three out of four to move on. The top two Wild Card teams in each league, meanwhile, would face one another in a standard best-of-three set (via Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic).
There’s no indication the league was on-board with the “ghost win” idea, but it highlights the possibilities for the sides to find a mutually-agreeable solution in this area. The MLBPA would likely prefer a standard 12-team playoff group, but agreeing to 14 teams seems to be the best way to get the league to move on other issues the union considers important. It stands to reason the MLBPA will push for strong bonuses (like the “ghost win” concept) for division winners as the parties reengage on the 14-team postseason.
That might reinvigorate talks between MLB and the union, but the league’s call to cancel regular season games now looms over all discussions. Rosenthal tweeted this morning that the MLBPA is preparing a response to the league’s final pre-cancelation offer, which the union rejected on Tuesday to end a stretch of nine consecutive days of negotiation in Jupiter, Florida. The parties are expected to schedule their next talks fairly soon, but they’ll face a whole host of new challenges whenever they do meet again.
Commissioner Rob Manfred is on record as saying the league is of the opinion that players shouldn’t be compensated for lost regular season games. MLB has been adamant those games are officially canceled and won’t be made up. Union lead negotiator Bruce Meyer has unsurprisingly argued that the MLBPA will pursue compensation for salary lost to game cancelations. As MLBTR’s Steve Adams wrote yesterday, the union figures to take an especially hard-line approach to making sure players aren’t forfeiting service days as a result of the lockout. The MLBPA has also previously indicated they’d refuse to expand the playoff field in 2022 if the league cancels games and strips players of any salary (as it since has). That all sets up even more difficulties for leadership on both sides to work through, but the hope is that the union’s willingness to reconsider a 14-team postseason could be a catalyst for progress on those issues.