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MLB needs to decide on its 2021 rules now

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Opacity around the playoffs and a universal DH are slowing down the winter and hurting next season.

MLB: Winter Meetings Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

One of the reasons why the NBA and NFL have proven more popular than MLB over the past decade or so is the drama that comes when those leagues aren’t playing. Players have the ability to dictate rosters in the NBA, creating superteams that may or may not work out, but are entertaining along the way. Both leagues also tend to get major transactions out of the way early in the offseason, meaning rosters are largely set and giving fans, media and fantasy players more to talk about — and get excited about — before the season starts.

And then there’s MLB, where three of the last four years have seen historically low levels of activity in the free agent market. The White Sox and Padres, arguably the two most exciting teams in baseball, have lived up to that reputation this winter, but outside of that, we’re all kind of just staring around wondering what happens to Francisco Lindor and DJ LeMahieu.

There are a number of reasons why winters are so sluggish in MLB, but today, I want to talk about a particular failing by the league, and it’s around how they set the rules for the 2021 season. MLB can’t directly influence spending on free agents, and it can’t force teams to make blockbuster trades, but it can give more information about the state of play next season, and more information would help drive team’s decisions.

This isn’t the first time MLB has had this problem, or even the first time in the last eight months. Rob Manfred announced during the first game of the 2020 season that playoffs would be expanded, drastically altering the season objectives for teams, but also giving them less time to actually do anything to achieve those objectives. The league then announced AFTER the trade deadline that there would be zero off days in the postseason, a rule that demands teams build deeper bullpens... but it was too late for playoff-bound teams to actually build deeper bullpens.

This winter, we’re all fairly certain that MLB is going to expand playoffs again in 2021, and that there’s a strong possibility the universal DH will be mandated. We don’t actually know those things yet, though, and MLB’s failure to communicate rule changes not only hurt a team’s ability to plan, but also remove the potential for any of the hotstove drama that keeps fans engaged even when there’s no Yankees-Sox game to watch.

The universal DH quite literally doubles the market for players, both in free agency and the trade market. If the Yankees want to trade for one of the great arms in the NL Central, they would need to ensure that any pieces going back can actually play a defensive position. I don’t think the Yankees would ever trade Luke Voit, but if they did, he probably needs to be dealt to an AL team, limiting his value in an extremely optimistic trade for someone like Joe Musgrove.

Of course, similarly-skilled free agents face even more uncertainty. Luke Voit isn’t as valuable to an NL team, but he’s got a starting job in the AL. Marcell Ozuna, a guy who came within throwing distance of the NL Triple Crown in 2020 — and is projected to eclipse .850 OPS by both Steamer and ZiPS next season — effectively doesn’t have a market, given that he’s likely best as a fulltime DH, and half the teams in the league don’t know whether or not he would have a role on their club.

Expanded playoffs, meanwhile, are inevitable and MLB needs to own up to it. More teams making the playoffs might cool the trade market, given teams may decide to hold on to certain players in order to advance from the tenth-best record in the AL to the seventh-best. Despite the dilution of the playoff format, we saw in 2020 that the best overall teams still have the best chances of winning, as the Dodgers and Rays eventually met in the World Series.

I do think that expanded playoffs increase the incentive to be fine, but not great. The 86 win team suddenly finds itself solidly in the postseason, rather than on the outside looking in of the Wild Card race. However, I also think there’s an equal incentive, now that we’ve seen the result of an expanded playoff, for the best teams to try and be the best — homefield advantage, added depth for extra rounds of games, that kind of thing.

The NFL expanded playoffs this season, and demonstrated this effect perfectly. The middling team became the seventh team in, but the race for the first seed, and the first round bye, kept a team like the Green Bay Packers engaged until the final week. MLB’s expanded playoff will have to adopt something like this, a greater incentive for doing better over the season, but whatever the decision is, it needs to be made now.

An offseason transaction freeze happens for a whole bunch of reasons, but the one way that MLB can directly influence the hot stove is by clarifying the rules teams will be playing by. The more uncertainty that exists in the baseball market, the more caution teams will employ, and unfortunately for baseball fans, caution usually means “do nothing” in this era of baseball. Fans are disengaged and the competitive marketplace of 2021 is in flux, and MLB seems completely disinterested in addressing either of those problems.