Will the 2021 postseason be the final one under the current 10-team format? That seems quite likely.
The current collective bargaining agreement (CBA), the negotiated accord that governs the working relationship between players and clubs, expires in December, and it's very likely that the next CBA will involve an expanded postseason. That next CBA will be in force prior to the start of the 2022 season.
There's also an additional backdrop to this, as the 2020 season -- heavily abbreviated by the COVID-19 pandemic -- featured a 16-team playoff field. That was a one-off arrangement, but it gave fans, observers, players, and owners a prolonged taste of what a more expansive postseason fray would look and feel like. As well, the league reportedly has for some time had long-term designs on a 14-team playoff structure that would include a handful of interesting structural wrinkles.
The 10-team field and the associated Wild Card Game in each league has been a part of MLB since 2012 (with, again, the exception of 2020), but there's more money to be made by expanding the postseason. Both sides want more of that.
By extension the loss of the 10-team postseason and the replacement of it with something larger very likely means the end of the "one and done" Wild Card Game. While there's no doubt the knockout format leads to high anxiety and intrigue, it also seems a bit absurd given the vast sprawl of the 162-game regular season. On another level, teams compete across divisions for the wild card berths, and that can lead to disparities in terms of schedule strength. Then every so often you get a case like this year's NL Wild Card Game, in which a true juggernaut like the Dodgers is reduced to perhaps having their postseason last nine innings. Whether that's a feature or bug likely depends upon your rooting interests.
So what might things look like instead? Let's briefly explore the two leading candidates to become MLB's next playoff structure -- the 16-teamer exampled in 2020 or the 14-teamer noted above.
The 16-team postseason
In this one, which, again, was in force for the 2020 season, the six division winners are joined by the six second-place finishers in each division. Then the field is rounded out with the two top third-place finishers in each league based on regular season record. That brings the total to sixteen.
Teams that would've made it this year under this format: The six division winners going would be the Rays, White Sox, Astros, Braves, Brewers, and Giants. The six second-place teams getting bids would be the Red Sox, Cleveland, Mariners (playoff drought ended), Phillies, Cardinals, and Dodgers. The best records left standing belong to the Yankees and Blue Jays in the AL and Reds and Padres in the NL.
What becomes of the current wild card teams?: Instead of playing in a one-and-done game, the Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, and Cardinals would play the best-of-three Wild Card Series under this 2020-style format.
Pros of the 16-team approach: Inclusivity is the word here. It grows the playoff field by a whopping 60 percent, which in turn means much more down-the-stretch engagement across the league. More fans in more cities will be watching contending baseball teams late in the season, and that's a potential way to grow the game. And, no, a larger playoff field won't rob us of final day drama in most seasons. Rather, it will just slide that drama a bit further down the food chain.
Cons of the 16-team approach: It's too big, as more than half the league would qualify for the postseason. As well, there aren't strong incentives to do much more than make that large playoff field and see how things go in October. Sure, you might see more teams behave like contenders in the offseason, but there would be little cause to run top-end payrolls and assemble the kind of roster strength we see with, say, the Dodgers. That's because the advantage of being the No. 1 seed versus the No. 6 seed or even No. 8 seed wouldn't be that notable.
Final verdict: It's so big that it whittles away the importance of baseball's gargantuan regular season, and the seeding incentives are too weak. Get outta here, 16-team postseason.
The 14-team postseason
So here's how what's believed to be MLB's favored path forward would work, in bullet-point form for today's busy sales professional:
- Seven teams from each league make the postseason. That's three division winners for each league plus the top four records among non-division winners get wild card bids.
- The team with the best record in each league gets a wild card round bye.
- The two other division winners and top wild card team host all games of three-game series in the wild card round.
- Those two remaining division winners get to pick their wild card round opponents (during a live broadcast) from the three other wild card teams. The top wild card team plays the unpicked team.
- Three series winners and the team with a bye advance to divisional round.
Needless to say, those are some interesting wrinkles.
Teams that would've made it this year under this format: Rays, White Sox, Astros, Red Sox, Yankees, Blue Jays, Mariners, Braves, Brewers, Giants, Dodgers, Cardinals, Reds, Phillies
What becomes of the current wild card teams?: The Dodgers and Cardinals likely would be meeting in the first round, anyway, as the Brewers and Braves would be picking the Reds and Phillies in some order as their first-round opponents.
Pros of the 14-team approach: There's lots to like here. It grows the postseason field significantly, which keeps more fan bases engaged throughout the season, but it still lets less than half the league into the playoffs. As well, the first-round byes in each league provide incentives for the best teams to keep it at full bore even if the division's been wrapped up for some time. To boot, having the other two division winners choose their first-round opponents is a highly compelling bit of build-up leading into postseason play. Really, this just seems like a lot of fun, and it also doesn't diminish the importance of the regular season as much as the 16-team field does. That's especially the case given the high value of landing a first-round bye.
Cons of the 14-team approach: If you object to this one, then it's because you simply cannot abide any further expansion of the postseason and the necessarily related further diminishment of the regular season. Troubling news for you: Further expansion is going to happen.
Final verdict: It says here this is indeed the best way forward. Call it the sensible middle ground between the status quo and the somewhat unwieldy and NBA/NHL-grade playoff field of 2020. It bears repeating that the first-round bye incentives and pick-your-opponent intrigue are excellent additions to the calculus.
In the meantime? In the meantime, let's enjoy what figures to be the final run of the 10-team arrangement.
2021 MLB postseason gear now available
The 2021 MLB Playoffs start Oct. 5 and 6 with the AL and NL Wild Card games. In celebration, 2021 MLB postseason gear is now available for select teams. Shop hoodies, shirts, and more here.
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