MLB postseason proposal: The unintended consequences

Expanding the MLB postseason structure could curtail teams’ interest in making deadline trades since more teams would view themselves as contenders.

When any sort of radical change is proposed, the unintended consequences are often the most interesting. That’s certainly true of the idea that surfaced this week to expand the MLB postseason schedule and radically alter how the matchups are determined.

Sources confirmed that MLB is considering a proposal to expand post-season entries from five to seven per league, and to allow the divisional champions with the best records to hand-pick their opponents. The idea could be implemented as quickly as 2022.

In the case of this proposal, the most likely unintended consequence could be a significantly reduced level of activity at the trade deadline.

In the week preceding the July 31, 2019, trade deadline, nearly three dozen deals went down involving nearly 100 players. That was more than enough activity to stoke the fires of interest among fans of both contenders and non-contenders.

But some of those deals doubtless were facilitated precisely because teams viewed themselves as non-contenders. Examining the July 31 standings over each of the past five seasons, and using a “within five games” yardstick to determine contention, the average number of “non-contenders” had this proposal been in effect would have dropped from a dozen per season to just nine.

That’s probably viewed as a positive by MLB since more teams would be able to project themselves into contention heading into the season’s latter stages. That translates to more fan interest and more tickets sold.

But it almost certainly would also create a drag on the deadline trade market because fewer teams would be willing to move assets they might need for a stretch run.

Indeed, the 2019 trade deadline suggests that some teams might find themselves in a true pickle in that respect. The biggest impact might be felt by top-tier teams trying to pick up that “missing piece” — often an impact starter — who fleshes out an otherwise solid post-season roster.

Take the Arizona Diamondbacks. Literally minutes before the expiration of the trade deadline, the D-Backs shipped their ace, Zack Greinke, to the Houston Astros for four prospects. It was a classic give-up deal. The D-Backs stood 54-55 at that point and they were 16 and one-half games behind the Dodgers in the NL West.

More importantly, they stood sixth in the NL wild-card race, creating an imposing barricade to their MLB postseason hopes even though the margin between themselves and the wild card leading Washington Nationals was only four games.

That phalanx of teams ahead of them provided a rationale for unloading Greinke, to whom they were under contract for $35 million through 2021.

Had the system now under consideration been in place this past season, the D-Backs would have faced a different scenario entirely. Rather than trailing five teams in the wild card race, they would have trailed just two.

With only two teams to leapfrog, would the Diamondbacks have been willing to let Greinke go? If the Astros – the team that pried Greinke loose – had not gotten him, would the resulting gap in their rotation have changed their post-season fortunes?

For the record, the Diamondbacks – who finished the season on a 31-22 run – would have qualified for post-season play under the revised schedule, and then possibly sent Greinke out to pitch their first playoff game.

Consider also the July 2017 deadline trade in which the Texas Rangers shipped ace pitcher Yu Darvish to the Dodgers for three minor leaguers. Part of the motivation was Darvish’s contract status; he was due to become a free agent at season’s end. But another vital factor was the Rangers’ status. When the deal went down they were 45-47 and trailed four teams in the American League wild-card race.

Next: 2020 MLB Season: The odds probably not in your favor anymore

Had the seven-team MLB postseason format been in effect in 2017, the Rangers would have trailed by just one game in the wild card standings at the trade deadline. In that changed scenario, would they have traded Darvish to the Dodgers?  And if not, keeping in mind that Darvish pitched post-season victories against the Diamondbacks and Cubs, would the Dodgers have even made it to the 2017 World Series?

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