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Elephant Rumblings: Long-term effects if expanded postseason becomes permanent

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Good morning, Athletics Nation!

The Oakland A’s have 10 games left in the regular season, and then it will be time for the playoffs, beginning Sept. 29. Of course, this year the postseason will be different than ever before, with 16 teams competing in a full four-round tournament. It begins with a three-game Wild Card Round and then proceeds as normal from there.

This change was supposed to be for 2020 only, which made sense. The season was already going to be extremely unusual due to coronavirus, chiefly due to its shorter duration, so why not spice up the playoffs while also ensuring that a legitimate contender wouldn’t get unjustly left out due to a two-week slump?

But now, commissioner Rob Manfred has begun publicly pushing the idea of permanently keeping an expanded model. This should come as no surprise to anybody — postseason games draw more revenue than regular seasons, so all sports/leagues want as many of them as possible. Manfred was always going to push for this, inevitably from the moment the expanded playoff plan got green-lit back in July, and now that advocacy has begun in real life.

Is it a good idea, though? From the fan perspective, there are positives and negatives. There’s a greater chance your team could make the playoffs, but will you care as much when the value of just making it gets cheapened? Ask an NBA fan about getting an 8th seed into their conference’s playoffs and many will tell you they’d rather have a few ping-pong balls in the draft lottery pot, though of course there are many differences between the two sports.

Furthermore, the regular season will lose much of its meaning. If all you have to do to make it to October is be not-terrible, followed by a three-game first round too short for seeding to matter, then what’s the point of the marathon campaign preceding it? It will just become a chore that we wait through before the real games start. It’ll be another six months of spring training. And then the postseason itself will lose meaning too, the first time a sub-.500 team or a fourth-place club wins the World Series.

From the league’s perspective, it’s only a good idea if it increases revenue. But how many current baseball fans can they piss off and drive away before that equation no longer works in their favor? How many casual non-fans do they have to attract for one month per year every October, clutching the filled-out brackets they wagered on, to account for all the former diehards who lost interest in watching from April to September?

And that’s not all. Ben Clemens of FanGraphs explores the topic deeper, and wonders how expanded playoffs might affect the free agent market. If teams no longer have incentive to be great, then why spend big money in free agency anymore for marginal improvements? You don’t need to win the regular season anymore, and anyone from David Freese to Steve Pearce can go big in a short October series and win the WS MVP, so why pay for upgrades?

The landscape has already become tough for the middle tier of free agents, the kind who can be replaced with minimum-salary 1-2 WAR youngsters. Could this change kill that market entirely? And who will find value in paying a premium for a superstar?

I’ll offer one bit of Devil’s advocacy here, though. If teams are no longer incentivized to be great, then the same should be true in the other direction. Being terrible (aka rebuilding for a greater future and/or tanking for a draft pick) might be less attractive because you only have to push up toward a .450 record to contend for the playoffs. You can rebuild but also grab one or two good free agents just in case you accidentally fall backward into an eighth seed. Perhaps there could be increased parity springing from the bottom of the league.

But I doubt that would make up for the losses at the top. A league where everyone is trying but only a little bit, isn’t better than one where half the teams are trying really hard and the other half are gearing up for the next time they’re going to try really hard. Indifference (to the standings), mediocrity (in goals and roster makeup), and tedium (long meaningless season) don’t make the sport better.

What do you think, Athletics Nation? Leaving aside 2020, what are your opinions on permanently expanding the playoffs, in 2021 and beyond? Share in the comments!

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