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Imagining a 14-team expanded playoffs

The owners are going to get their expanded playoffs. Here’s what a 14-team format might look like.

2021 World Series Game 1: Atlanta Braves v. Houston Astros Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

It’s no secret that MLB, and in particular owners, have coveted an expanded playoff format for quite some time now. It figures to be one of the hot-button topics during the upcoming CBA negotiations. It’s also arguably the most valuable chip the players and union possess at the bargaining table.

So why do the owners desire expanding the number of teams in the playoffs so much? One word: money. More teams in the playoffs = more games = more views = greater ad revenue. Just look at the deal the league recently signed with ESPN to have the network become the exclusive Wild Card round broadcaster for the next seven years should the playoffs expand. $4 billion to televise one “round” of the playoffs!

For those wondering how this might even work, look no further than the expanded playoffs during the 2020 postseason. 16 teams competed in that bootlegged playoff setup. That’s more than half the league! If you’re fuzzy on how that played out, basically all playoff teams — even the division winners — were thrown into a pot for the Wild Card round. The division winners were assigned the top three seeds based on regular season record, the second-place team in each division was seeded four-through six, and then the remaining two teams the best record in each league was assigned a seed seven and eight. The one-seed played the eight seed, two played seven, etc. in a best-of-three series, meaning the division winner could be and was eliminated in what amounted to the “Wild Card round” (see the Cubs).

However, even before that format was decided for the COVID-shortened 2020 season, there were rumblings of a separate, more permanent expanded playoff proposal. Joel Sherman of the New York Post revealed in spring training 2020 that MLB had serious designs on expanding to a 14-team playoff format beginning in 2022. And the details of this proposal bordered on reality TV.

In this format, the division winner with the best record gets a bye to the divisional round. Each of the remaining two division winners and the first wild card team would host a best-of-three series to determine the three other divisional contestants. But here’s where the drama comes in. Those three host teams would get to pick their opponent from the three wild card teams with the worse records on a nationally-televised selection special.

So how would that have looked in 2021? In the AL, the Rays would get the bye to the divisional round while the White Sox, Astros, and Red Sox each host a wild card series. Starting with the Astros, they would get to pick from the Yankees, Blue Jays, and Mariners as their best-of-three series opponents. In the NL, the Giants get the bye and the Dodgers, Brewers, and Braves get to pick from the Cardinals, Reds, and Phillies.

I don’t know about you, but that’s a bit contrived for my blood. Instead, I’d like to propose a revised 14-team playoff format. My idea is to give the three division winners a bye to the divisional round. Then, the four wild card teams get placed into a two-round wild card playoff bracket.

In the first round, the top-seeded wild card team plays the fourth-seeded team while the two-seed plays the three-seed in a one-game playoff à la the current Wild Card game. The winners of those two games would then play in a best-of-three series to determine the team who moves on to the divisional round to play the division winner with the best record in their respective league.

The primary complaint against an expanded playoffs is that it disincentivizes going all-in on any particular year. If nearly half the league is getting into the playoffs, surely that incentivizes teams to simply do just enough — say, a few games over .500 — to squeak into the playoffs and reap that postseason revenue. I would argue that my proposal does some to combat that complaint, however it ultimately depends on the overarching goal of every contending franchise.

On the plus side, this format rewards division winners even more than current format. Skipping the wild card round looks even better when doing so avoids a two-round playoff, rather than a one-game “play-in”. By the same token, this system punishes wild card teams by introducing an extra round. Instead of one’s playoff hopes riding on one game, it now relies on winning back-to-back series.

All this being said, there are definitely some drawbacks to this model. If simply making the playoffs is the overriding goal rather than trying to win the World Series, this incentivizes teams to do just enough to squeak in. In this proposal, the playoffs as a non-division winner are even more of a crapshoot, so teams might be even less motivated to improve their roster.

At the end of the day, my proposal is a double-edged sword. Teams on the cusp may hold onto their players (read: not tank to try to sneak in). Teams that really do prioritize winning the World Series may make that extra signing to ensure they win the division. On the other hand, teams for whom simply making the playoffs constitutes a successful season would feel even less justified in increasing payroll to strengthen their squads. If they can’t win the division, what’s the point of paying that extra dollar, only to still wind up as a wild card with an uphill battle?

Make no mistake, expanded playoffs are coming in the near future, if not next season pending the results of the upcoming CBA negotiations. The owners appear to be leaning toward a 14-team format, with different variations on the theme representing better options than others. It was an instructive exercise trying my hand at designing a 14-team expanded playoffs, let me know in the comments what you think and what changes you might make.