Baseball

How MLB might still end up with expanded playoffs

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Max Scherzer was already in the midst of his prestart regimen on July 23 for the first game of 2020, a matchup against Gerrit Cole and the Yankees. Yet, the final details of an expanded playoff format for later that fall were still being hammered out.

The scramble was frantic. Less than 48 hours before that game, there had been a call between union chief Tony Clark and commissioner Rob Manfred about the fact that the players didn’t have a direct stake in postseason revenue the previous fall. With that in mind, Major League Baseball and the Players Association haggled over an agreement on a larger playoff field, with Manfred working in a conference room at Nationals Park, briefing the owners about the plans at about the time Scherzer arrived at the park. The union and MLB had butted heads for much of the COVID-19 shutdown, but in the last hours before Scherzer took the mound, they rushed to plant a set of playoff parameters for the 2020 season.

Despite the rocky intransigence that has largely dominated the relationship between the union and MLB over the past five years, they have demonstrated that they can work quickly when absolutely necessary — history worth remembering in the weeks ahead. As of today, the 2021 playoff format will include 10 teams — six division winners and four wild-card entrants. But it’s still very possible this will change before the regular season begins April 1, according to some working within the industry bubble.

For the players, agreeing to the expanded playoffs would be like cashing in a lottery ticket that bears a redemption deadline. It’s apparent that MLB really wants the expanded format as it works to generate revenue in a year that promises to have a lighter ingestion of consumer dollars — and it is likely willing to handsomely pay the players for an approval of those extra postseason games.

The current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is set to expire next December. In the talks around that, the union is likely to go to war against what it deems as noncompetitive team behavior, like service-time manipulation and tanking. When the Players Association rejected the owners’ proposal to delay the start of spring training, there were reports that the union leadership views the expanded playoff field as fueling team complacence, because with more clubs included in the postseason, some clubs like the Dodgers or Yankees might feel less compelled to make critical improvements.

Some team executives have a completely different view of how an expanded playoff format impacts competitiveness — more on that later — but that substantive debate will happen after the 2021 season. With Trevor Bauer and Marcell Ozuna signed, almost all of the major free agents are off the board. Teams are largely defined. The question of how a larger playoff field affects team behavior is largely obsolete for the upcoming season.

Any agreement on expanded playoffs in 2021 is a one-off; the players could agree to the larger postseason field, as it did last year, and glean some financial benefits. If they choose not to do that — an option completely within their rights — then they would miss their own opportunity for additional revenue following a winter in which free-agent dollars have plummeted significantly.

Much was made of how Bauer will set a record for the highest single-season salary. But this is worth noting: The guaranteed dollars in Bauer’s deal are less than one-third of Gerrit Cole’s $324 million contract just a year after Cole signed his deal, and less than one half of Stephen Strasburg‘s $245 million contract with the Nationals. Ozuna is in the prime of his career, coming off his best season — a performance that earned him a sixth-place finish for the NL MVP award — and in his new deal with the Braves, he is taking a pay cut. He made $18 million prorated over 60 games last year and will make $12 million in 2021 — and an average of $16.25 million over the four years of the deal. A rough winter for free agents will only get worse in the days ahead, as the last 100 or so unsigned players find deals and drag down the numbers.

Whatever extra dollars generated in an expanded playoff agreement would probably be welcomed on the union side.

And about the universal DH

If the two sides do emerge from their respective bunkers to revisit the idea of expanded playoffs, that will only enhance the possibility of a universal designated hitter for the 2021 season. NL teams have been told to operate under the assumption that they won’t have a DH, but within the industry, the support for the universal DH is, well, almost universal. There are some pitchers who like to hit and some uniformed staffers who prefer the National League game. But increasingly, teams have come to view the injuries incurred by pitchers while hitting or running the bases as a stupid waste of assets, in the same way the lords of the sport came to view catcher-collision injuries as a colossal waste of resources.

MLB has been trying to trade the universal DH to the union in return for expanded playoffs, but the MLBPA has viewed that proposal as being of relatively little value. The union could look, instead, for some kind of financial cut of postseason run in return for expanded playoffs.

How to keep everyone interested

Officials from small-market and midmarket teams feel that the extra playoff berths in an expanded field actually increase the incentive for clubs to remain engaged. Think of a team like the Diamondbacks, which inhabits the same division as the big-market Dodgers, winners of eight consecutive NL West titles. Given L.A.’s preeminence and the emergence of the Padres, there would seem to be little to no chance for Arizona to break through into the playoff field. But with a 14-team field and seven berths in each league, there is more hope. The same might be true this year for Cleveland, for Kansas City, for the Marlins. With more opportunity to reach the postseason, those same executives say, teams might be less inclined to pull the plug early and tank.

The Rockies’ and their finances

Word among teams and agents that the Rockies’ decisions in recent weeks — to trade superstar third baseman Nolan Arenado immediately, rather than wait, and to retain shortstop Trevor Story for now — have come from owner Dick Monfort, who seems to be struggling to define exactly how his team operates.

“We know we’re not ever going to get out there and go after [a pitcher such as] Gerrit Cole, or some of the really top-line free agents, because we’re in a grouping where we just can’t take that risk,” Monfort said to reporters the other day.

He’s right. But even with that realization, the Rockies still signed Arenado to one of the biggest deals in history, an eight-year, $260 million contract — with opt-outs and a full no-trade clause that quickly became problematic.

According to Cot’s, the Rockies have never compiled salaries of higher than $145 million on their roster — that was in 2019 — which puts them somewhere in the middle tier of clubs, but a significantly lower payroll than that of the Dodgers. Arenado’s annual salary is equivalent to almost a quarter of a budget in that range.

It’s far less than ideal for baseball that Cleveland really can’t pay Francisco Lindor like the superstar he is, or that the Rockies have to operate with greatly diminished margin for error whenever they sign a franchise icon like a Todd Helton, a Troy Tulowitzki, an Arenado. But the fact is that the Rockies, Cleveland, Tampa Bay and many other teams, don’t have the resources to risk investing a huge share of their payroll in one player, in a way that the Yankees, Dodgers and other big-market teams can. It’s not fair, but the sport’s financial model was cemented long ago and there’s probably a greater chance of the Manfred and Clark families sharing a vacation condo than there is for a level playing field in team payrolls.

Could the Rockies literally afford Arenado? Could the Rays have afforded David Price? Sure. But when a team that holds a payroll in the $150 million range pays one player $35 million a year, that one whopper deal will significantly shape a lot of decisions the team can make — or, more to the point, cannot make. If that one player gets hurt, or experiences a decline in performance, the lack of return on investment is devastating.

The Indians fully appreciated CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Lindor, just as the Rays understood how good Price was. But the front offices in Cleveland and Tampa Bay, widely viewed as two of the best in the sport, long ago made peace with their own franchise limitations. The sooner that Monfort does that, the better off the Rockies will be. Colorado should always be an elite offensive team, luring short-term value buys among free-agent hitters looking for exceptional hitting conditions in the mile-high air of Coors Field. Because of those same conditions, the Rockies will always struggle to produce consistently good pitching staffs. But they can compete — so long as they maintain payroll fluidity, foster individual improvement and maximize return on coveted assets — like Arenado and Story.

Colorado should push Story into the trade market as soon as possible, at the outset of a year in which the Rockies are not expected to compete, and with far fewer fans in the stands.

The depth of the Rays’ arms

The Rays lost Charlie Morton to free agency and traded Blake Snell, but one team’s internal projection of Tampa Bay for 2021 is a win total in the low 90s. Tampa Bay cut payroll and faces major changes in its rotation and yet it remains a very, very dangerous team.

“There is tons of depth there,” said a rival evaluator this week.

Behind ace Tyler Glasnow, Tampa Bay has a lot of talented internal options — Luis Patino, Ryan Yarbrough, Shane McClanahan and Josh Fleming, among others. Brendan McKay had shoulder surgery last year and could return to the mix in the middle of the ’21 season. Joe Ryan reached Class AA in 2019 and appears ready to graduate to the big leagues sometime in 2021.

The Rays have been engaged on a lot of the best free-agent starting pitchers this winter, bidding for Corey Kluber and attempting deals for Joe Musgrove and Jameson Taillon. They recently reacquired Chris Archer, signing the veteran to a one-year, $6.5 million deal — a good arrangement for the organization that probably knows Archer better than any other and can give him tools for improvement, and for the pitcher, who returns to a place of established trust. The Rays also signed Michael Wacha, whose underlying metrics in 2020 hinted at possible improvement.

The Angels are looking for an edge

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Alden Gonzalez explains the motivations for both the Cardinals and Angels in agreeing to a Dexter Fowler trade.

The Angels have been in this spot before, hoping that an effective rotation can be bolstered by a set of risk-filled investments. The 33-year-old Alex Cobb, acquired in a trade with the Orioles, made three starts in 2019 and 10 last season for Baltimore. Jose Quintana signed to a one-year deal after making only four appearances for the Cubs, including just one start. In his last month of outings in 2019, he had an 11.09 ERA. Shohei Ohtani is healthy now and there is again hope that he could have an impact as a starting pitcher. Still, he has gotten just five outs in the past two seasons as he worked through an elbow injury and rehabilitation.

But the bar for improvement is low, given all starters other than Dylan Bundy, Griffin Canning and Andrew Heaney had a combined ERA over nine runs. If Bundy can replicate his good 2020 performance, and if Quintana, Cobb and Ohtani can effectively upgrade the back end of the Angels’ rotation, the staff can be better. The AL West context is also better: The Astros dominated this division for years, but they lost George Springer to free agency and Justin Verlander to injury; the Athletics, managing payroll, have seen Marcus Semian and Liam Hendriks walk away in free agency; and the Rangers and Mariners are still retooling. The Angels seem to have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs for only the second time in Mike Trout‘s career.

New general manager Perry Minasian grew up working as a clubhouse attendant in the Rangers’ ballpark. In that time, he developed a sense of what leadership looks like. He got to see Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson cheerily connect with players and speak to the clubhouse, effectively nudging them with few heartfelt words. He heard the blunt honesty of Twins manager Tom Kelly and witnessed the impact among players. He saw firsthand what a difference Will Clark made when he joined the Rangers, in naturally pushing other players; years later, while Minasian was working for the Blue Jays, he saw Josh Donaldson have a similar impact.

Improving the rotation has been the Angels’ focus this winter — as it has been for many winters — but there seems to be a subtler change occurring as well. A lot of the newcomers are players who tend to compete with an edge. Shortstop Jose Iglesias is a good defender, but also has not been shy about saying something to teammates when he’s not happy about something that happened (like this dugout confrontation from his days with the Tigers). New closer Raisel Iglesias tends to compete with emotion, as does Cobb, who bears a reputation for high personal accountability. And the other day, the Angels added Dexter Fowler to the outfield mix, presumably with the approval of Joe Maddon, who, as Cubs manager, loved how Fowler tended to set a tone in his time as the Chicago leadoff hitter.

Noteworthy

On the podcast the other day, Jeff Passan talked about the labor situation and the process in his reporting of the Drew Robinson story; Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch talked about the Cardinals’ pursuit of Arenado; and Sarah Langs of MLB.com discussed the many unsigned free agents. … Teams interested in Joc Pederson were flatly informed that he wants to be a full-time player. As he explained in an article written for the Players Tribune, after years of serving in mostly a platoon role for the Dodgers — the left-handed hitting slugger had only 10 plate appearances for L.A. in the last regular season — it’s now or never for him to be an everyday player. At age 28, he becomes a regular for the Chicago Cubs. … Taillon, now 18 months removed from elbow reconstruction surgery, is said to be throwing with exceptional control and appears ready to go for the start of the Yankees’ camp. … The Braves handled the negotiations with Ozuna much like they did with Springer — hanging in, waiting to see if a good value opportunity would emerge. In the end, concerns about Ozuna’s defense affected interest, pushing him back to the Braves, to a clubhouse where he had emerged as a leader. …The Pirates continue to look for buy-low opportunities with veteran starting pitchers — and if any are effective and Pittsburgh does not contend (as expected), then they could be flipped for resources as the franchise continues its rebuilding. … This is the 42nd birthday of reliable right-hander Aaron Cook, the Rockies’ all-time leader in innings pitched, with 1,312⅓.

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