The CBA lockout is over a week old and the league and player’s association are still in negotiations. There doesn’t appear to be a resolution in sight, so there’s no point in discussing when we’ll get back to baseball. Instead, let’s look ahead at one of the items on the negotiation table: expanded playoffs.
Expanding the playoff structure is nothing new to baseball. In 1994, the leagues were realigned into three divisions each and the wild card era was born. This added an extra round and introduced two additional teams from each league into the playoffs each season, doubling the total number of participants from four to eight.
That number was bumped to ten when the wild card game was introduced in the 2012 season. Instead of one wild card seed from each league, there would now be two wild card winners who would have to face each other in a winner-take-all game to advance to the division series against the team with the best record in the league. During the pandemic of 2020, that number was bumped all the way up to 16 for a single season.
Now, the league is pushing hard to permanently expand the pool once again.
Reports indicate the league is proposing a 14-team playoff format. In this proposal, there would be seven teams from each league, with the best record in each league earning a bye in the first round. The other division winners and the non-division winner with the best record would then get to choose their opponent from the expanded three-team wild card pool in a best-of-three series, all hosted at the home field of the division winner or top wild card team.
There clearly are financial motivations at play for the proposition. After all, money from national television broadcast contracts and gate revenue only go to the teams who make the playoffs, and players on teams that don’t qualify for the playoffs can’t earn playoff bonuses.
But on a competitive level, this proposition is much more divisive. On one hand, there have been seven teams to win the World Series since the introduction of the seed in 1994. So, the more teams that have a chance to play for a championship each season, the better the odds that chaos will occur. On the other hand, this opens the door to rewarding teams with losing records during the regular season, diluting the purpose of the season itself. In this scenario, the 2016 Miami Marlins would have qualified with a 79-82 record, as would have the 80-82 Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Angels in 2017.
This brings us to the Colorado Rockies, who haven’t had a winning season since 2018 and have only ever qualified for the playoffs via the wild card.
In 2021, Colorado finished with a 74-87 record. Their final record (in 161 games) was 15 ½ games behind the St. Louis Cardinals for the second wild card spot. In the league’s proposed 14-team format, The Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Phillies would have earned the additional playoff seeds and the Rockies would have finished 7 ½ games behind the final spot with the San Diego Padres and New York Mets ahead of them.
We all know what happened in 2020, as the Rockies failed to finish in the top half of the league with a 26-34 record after an 11-3 start. In 2019, Colorado would have gained four games in the new format…but still finished 14 games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks.
In fact, if the league had never introduced the wild card game and just gone straight from eight teams to 14, the Rockies playoff chances would not have been impacted:
Rockies wild card chances since 2012
|Season||Record||Actual GB||New GB|
|Season||Record||Actual GB||New GB|
Maybe 2017 could have played out differently if the Rockies were able to play a three-game set instead of the single-game elimination against Arizona. Then again, maybe they don’t advance to the division round in 2018 in the new format. Other than that, the Rockies would still have not qualified for the postseason in any season that they didn’t already do so in the current system. For that, we need to go back over a decade to 2010 when the 83-79 Rockies finished eight games behind the Atlanta Braves for the wild card but would have snuck in as the seventh seed.
There’s no way of telling what decisions the front office may have made differently in those seasons if given better odds of qualifying for the playoffs, but what data we have doesn’t support the Rockies having been all that close.
Looking forward; maybe there is a big addition or two coming after a new labor agreement that will help Colorado’s odds. But for now, the front office appears content on starting next season with a roster much the same to the 2021 team, but without two of their best players due to free agency. They won’t get better by subtraction, and what they have on-hand has already proven to not be enough.
What about the competition around the league coming down? Well, the only team in the National League that seems to have taken a major hit so far in free agency is the Dodgers (losing Max Scherzer and Corey Seager), who are a perpetual machine of wins light-years ahead of Colorado’s reach.
Simply put, if the league expands to seven playoff teams for both leagues, the Rockies still currently don’t have what it takes to make the cut. That alone should tell the front office significant changes are needed if they truly plan to compete in 2022.
Are you in favor of expanding the playoffs?
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Noah Yingling looks ahead for the Rockies after a new labor agreement is reached. First up, the Rockies need to find a new shortstop to replace Trevor Story. Next, the outfield has numerous issues and could greatly benefit from an addition (or two). How that shakes out could lead to a need for designated hitter (if applicable) in his opinion, and he also sees Raimel Tapia as an odd-man out in both equations, leading to a trade needing to be found. Lastly, Yingling touches on pitching reinforcements being needed in both the starting rotation and bullpen.
Jayson Stark takes on the issue of tanking in his latest article, proposing teams striving for the playoffs being rewarded while teams who are actively not competitive being penalized. In his proposed structure, the teams who just missed the playoffs would receive the top picks, the teams who made the playoffs the next tier, and the teams who were afterthoughts would be dropped to the back-half of the first round.
In this scenario, the Toronto Blue Jays - who just missed the playoffs with a 91-71 record - would have earned the first pick as closest to the playoffs while the 52-110 Baltimore Orioles would have fallen all the way down to the 20th pick.
The general concept is to incentivize teams to try to win with better draft odds if they do. This, in Stark’s opinion, would increase the pool of teams pursuing free agents and reduce major selloffs around the trade deadline, all in an effort to win more games.
While not a perfect solution, Stark’s idea is intriguing to readers and members of the industry:
“This would work,” said one agent who is probably the biggest fan of this idea I know. “It would incentivize everyone to win in September, either to get to the playoffs or get the No. 1 pick. And that’s the first thing all fans deserve.”
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