How expanded playoffs might take a second bite out of Cubs


As if the Cubs didn’t already have reason enough to dislike this year’s expanded playoff format that gave them little advantage for winning a division and contributed to their quick playoff exit, now comes the revelation this week that we can add the uncertainty of that format for 2021 as a factor that might hamstring the Cubs’ best intentions this winter to make effective roster change.

(We interrupt this column for an NBC Sports Chicago real-time fact check: Although it is true that the expanded field and short first series contributed to the unheralded Marlins’ ability to compete on a more level playing field in a short first-round series, the available analytical data show that the greater reason for the Cubs’ elimination is that their batting sucked.)

Consider that a pandemic-wrecked economy already figures to roil free agent and trade markets this winter as the Cubs try to move salary and add a productive contact hitter or two and pitching.

Then consider the next layer of industry uncertainty that teams face in evaluating needs for 2021 that are not directly related to financial resources.

“There are some competitive unknowns, too,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said this week. “As we sit here today we don’t know how many teams are going to make the playoffs, what the schedule’s going to look like, what the roster size is going go be, what the playing rules are going to be — whether there will be as designated hitter or not. There are just so many unknowns.

“And I bring that up just to underscore the uncertainty.”

Depending on spread or control of COVID-19 as spring training nears, teams might be preparing for a traditional 162-game season with 26-man rosters and a 10-team playoff field — or the ongoing state of flux the nation and baseball industry have faced since March.

This year’s negotiated 60-game season included expanded rosters, universal DH and a 16-team playoff field — all as one-time measures, the playoff expansion as a means to help recoup a fraction of revenue losses.

Commissioner Rob Manfred already has said he prefers to continue the expanded playoffs, comparing it to college basketball’s March Madness — despite the lack of regard that affords teams who perform best during a season designed to reward those built for six months, the 162-game grind and long series.

Cubs center fielder Ian Happ, the team’s union rep, pushed back when asked whether the players would approve the commissioner’s preference next year — or even beyond that, when a new Collective Bargaining Agreement will theoretically be in place.

“I don’t know if it’s something that you’re going to see approved because there’s so many factors in the way that postseason shares are distributed and calculated,” Happ said.

Until this year, playoff shares for players were determined as a percentage of postseason attendance revenue. Without fans projected to be allowed in stadiums this year, the union and MLB agreed on a $50 million minimum pool for playoff shares (pending attendance revenues).

“There’s a lot that goes into that,” Happ said. “And without being able to know what the fan situation will be for next year right now, I think there’ll be a lot of discussion upon how it’s calculated and trying to figure out if it makes the most sense for next year.

“I think after the next CBA, yeah, you might see a new playoff structure and a lot of those rules [that were added this year] adopted, but before that I’m not quite sure.”

Happ said there seemed to be widespread support for continuing the DH for both leagues, but even that would need to be negotiated for 2021, the final year of the existing CBA — along with any continuation of seven-inning games for doubleheaders or the rule putting a runner at second to start each extra inning.

So maybe the Mets or Diamondbacks would be in the market for a Cubs core hitter with a DH in play next year — or maybe not if there’s no DH.

And if we knew the playoff field was expanded again next year, more teams would be in the market for the kind of short-term assets the Cubs plan to offer in trades this winter — or maybe it puts less premium on trying to ramp up in any significant way because more than half the league makes the postseason with the same first-round, best-of-three footing.

As Epstein said, the word of the winter is “uncertainty.”

“But our job isn’t just to sit there and shrug our shoulders and say, ‘Well, there’s uncertainty, we can’t do anything,’ “ he said. “It’s to be really systematic about asking the right questions, getting to the right answers, using each day as an opportunity to properly forecast the different range of possible outcomes and be really strategic about or plan moving forward, acknowledging the uncertainty along the way.”

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