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MLB Reportedly Proposes 14-Team Playoff Field In Collective Bargaining Negotiations

Major League Baseball has proposed expanding the postseason field to fourteen teams in collective bargaining discussions with the Players Association, reports Jesse Rogers of ESPN. That’s hardly a surprise, as Commissioner Rob Manfred has publicly advocated for expanding the playoffs (reportedly preferring a 14-team setup) going back to last year, when the league and MLBPA agreed to a 16-team playoff during the shortened 2020 season.

Under the proposed format, the top seed in each league would receive a bye — as is the case with the NFL’s current structure. However, Rogers adds that MLB’s proposal would allow the other two division winners in each league to choose which Wild Card team they’d prefer to face in the first round, which would take the form of a three-game series. The division winner with the second-best record in each league would have its pick of any of the four Wild Card clubs in its league; the final division winner would pick to face one of the other three Wild Card teams; the two Wild Card teams remaining would face one another.

The league has long been expected to prioritize an expanded playoff field in collective bargaining talks. An increased number of postseason games comes with an associated uptick in gate and television revenue, an obvious appeal for ownership groups. The effects for players could be more mixed. While some players could stand to benefit from increased playoff shares, Rogers notes that the MLBPA is concerned that an expanded playoff field could reduce the incentive for teams to aggressively try to bolster their roster.

A broader playoff field increases every team’s odds of getting into the postseason, and front offices may find the greater odds a disincentive to upgrading their roster via free agency or trade. Small-sample postseason series have an inherent high level of randomness. It seems the fear among some on the players’ side is that teams could be satisfied to build a slightly above-average roster (which would stand a much greater chance of making the postseason in a 14-team field than under the current 10-team system) and hope that a hot streak can carry them deep into the playoffs.

MLB, on the other hand, contends that the first-round bye would offer such a significant advantage to the teams with the best record in each league that very good clubs would remain motivated to improve. Meanwhile, the expanded field could offer a greater incentive for teams with mediocre rosters to add short-term impact, since the proposal would significantly increase those teams’ chances of getting to the postseason at all.

Rogers notes that the expanded playoff proposal has been on the table for months, but he reports that MLB recently put forward a new suggestion: a lottery for the top three amateur draft choices. Rather than setting the draft order as the inverse of the league standings — as is the current setup — this proposal would introduce a weighted system that injects more randomness into the process. Teams with the worst records would still have a greater chance of securing higher picks, but any non-playoff team would have a chance at a top three selection.

That offer is in response to players’ concerns that the current system rewards teams that orchestrate long-term rebuilds with perennially high draft choices. Of course, it’s not entirely clear that a weighted lottery would serve as much of a disincentive for tanking, since teams would still have higher probabilities of top picks with worse records.

Rogers’ colleague at ESPN, Jeff Passan, shed some further light on CBA talks this afternoon. Passan reports that the league recently offered a slight raise over the luxury tax thresholds set in the 2016-21 CBA. That’s a turnaround from the league’s earlier efforts to tie a lowered tax threshold to a soft salary floor, an offer the MLBPA rejected. It’s not clear how high the league is willing to set the thresholds, though, and Passan adds that the league’s willingness to raise them might come with associated stiffer penalties for exceeding them. Unsurprisingly, the MLBPA expressed concern that’d counterbalance high-spending teams’ willingness to surpass those thresholds.

Passan further reports that MLB has expressed openness to a “minimal” bump on the league minimum salary, which sat at $570.5K in 2021. MLB’s offer also included the introduction of the designated hitter to the National League, an on-field alteration widely expected to ultimately be put into place. Passan offers an in-depth breakdown of the labor dynamics that is well worth a full read for those interested in the topic.

The current CBA expires on Wednesday at 11:59 pm EST. It’s widely expected that the league will lock out the players if no deal is agreed upon at that point, a move that would come with an accompanying freeze on major league transactions. (Players who were not on a major league roster last season could still sign minor league contracts with clubs, Passan notes). Jon Heyman of the MLB Network tweeted this afternoon that while there’s been “incremental” progress between the two sides of late, there’s “basically no hope” of a deal getting done within the next 48 hours. That reality has been reflected in the flurry of free agent activity we’ve seen in recent days, as many players and teams have been highly motivated to lock in deals before the expected MLB transaction prohibition.

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