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Hittin’ Season #538: MLB’s push for a 14-team playoff expansion is bad for baseball

Nearly half the league makes the playoffs?

MLB Owners Meetings Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The Philadelphia Phillies haven’t made the playoffs in 10 years, the second-longest streak in Major League Baseball.

This ain’t the way to end that streak.

As MLB officials and the MLBPA continue negotiating a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the biggest sticking point has surprisingly come from the owners’ push for playoff expansion. Multiple reports indicate the two sides have agreed to a 12-team playoff pool, a compromise between the 10 teams sought by the players and 14 by the owners.

Of course, no agreement is official until all items are agreed to, which is why the issue of a 14-team playoff format could rear its head again before all is said and done this week.

So despite an apparent “agreement” on 12 teams, is a 14-team field still in play?

Regardless of whether it is or isn’t, it shouldn’t be.

The arguments in favor of increasing the playoff field to nearly half the league (14 of 30 teams) are thus:

  • More teams in playoff contention means more fan interest league-wide.
  • It could allow for more teams to decide not to tank and make at least a minimal effort to add to their roster in the hopes of reaching .500 and make the postseason.
  • More postseason baseball means more revenue for the league (i.e. ownership). A LOT more.

The arguments against expansion are more voluminous.

IT WON’T ENCOURAGE MORE SPENDING/LESS TANKING

There are simply teams that have never spent money and never will. So-called small market teams like the A’s, Rays, Marlins, Reds, Pirates, Twins, Orioles and others are content to sit on the sidelines and hope their minor league talent is good enough to allow them to compete with the big boys. Tampa has figured out the secret sauce and will likely never spend more. Oakland has made do with bottom-dollar payrolls most of the time, but appear prepared to embark on a long stretch of non-competitiveness now.

If all that is required to make the playoffs is to come close to a .500 record, adding a couple veterans on $6 million MLB-guaranteed contracts isn’t going to do much for the players as a whole, and it will allow general managers to decide they’re probably “good enough” to make the postseason with what they have.

SALARIES COULD BE ARTIFICIALLY DEPRESSED

If fewer teams need to add players to make the playoffs, teams aren’t going to spend as much on players.

Oh sure, the top tier guys will still get theirs, but the mid-tier players are unlikely to get what they’re worth, and it would incentivize GMs and owners not to go harder after free agents and outbid one another for top talent.

IT WILL MAKE THE TRADE DEADLINE FAR MORE BORING

If you’re a .500 team in a 14-team playoff field at the trade deadline, why would you do anything? In fact, if you’re 5 games under .500, why would you do anything? Essentially, just showing up would be enough to get you in most of the time. Given that we know the playoffs are a crapshoot most of the time and most MLB GMs are conservative by the natures, one would think the trade deadline would become a very boring exercise.

Sure, some of the teams who are true World Series contenders may jockey for position and look to add a key player to fuel a championship run, and there will always be some GMs who like to add to their rosters, but more teams in the mix doesn’t necessarily mean more teams active at the deadline.

IT DILUTES THE 162-GAME REGULAR SEASON EVEN MORE

The last thing we need is to give people an excuse to think that the regular season is a waste of time.

As recently as 1993, the year the Phillies went to the World Series against the Toronto Blue Jays, there were 28 teams in Major League Baseball and just four of them, four, made the postseason.

No, we’re never going back to that, but how can we go from a league in which 4 of 28 teams (14%) made the playoffs to one where 14 out of 30 (46.7%) make them? Even under a compromise proposal of 12 of 30 teams (40%) getting in would be a lot, although to be fair, the wild card has been a positive development for baseball and 12 is certainly a better option than 14.

And if the 162-game regular season is de-emphasized, MLB owners will be more emboldened to push for a shorter regular season in order to squeeze in more playoff baseball.

One of the things that makes baseball so wonderful is how teams need to be able to survive and thrive during the grueling 162-game schedule to earn a trip to the playoffs. It has always been unlike any other professional sport in that way. Last year’s Phillies team truly didn’t deserve to make the playoffs, and yet, under this format, they would have been in.

Teams like the 2021 Phillies could knock off a team like the Brewers, a team that performed well from the beginning of the season to the end, rendering 162 games of superiority pointless in just two or three postseason games, games that are fundamentally structured differently than regular season games. Not only that, No. 1 seeds will receive a bye, which is great in most sports, but a potential issue in baseball, where the rhythm of playing nearly everyday is akin to breathing.

MORE BAD TEAMS WILL MAKE THE PLAYOFFS

Consider this...

The MLB playoffs should be reserved for teams that truly deserve to be there. Anything less cheapens the postseason tournament.

In short, the things that have traditionally made baseball great would be undone by this proposal, all for the sake of a money grab by the owners with no attention paid to the many downsides.

On the latest edition of Hittin’ Season, Justin Klugh of Baseball Prospectus, Yahoo! Sports’ Liz Roscher and I talked a ton about the 14-team playoff possibility, as well as everything else revolving around the labor deal deadline.