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MLB’s proposed playoff changes would worsen an already broken system

Back to the drawing board, Rob

2019 ALCS Game 3 - Houston Astros v. New York Yankees Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images

On the heels of the Boston Red Sox trading away one of the best players in baseball, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has a plan to save the sport.

The proposed changes, which would need to be approved by the players’ association, are to expand the playoff field to 14 teams and implement a reality TV-esque twist in which the top-seeded teams would select their opponents.

So what problems are these proposed changes intended to address? Well, the working theory seems to be that they would discourage the widespread tanking strategy made popular by the Astros and the Cubs. With more postseason spots up for grabs, perhaps more fringe teams would be incentivized to make a harder postseason push.

But in trying to spin this as a boon for small market clubs, ESPN’s Buster Olney may have exposed the flaw in the thinking behind these proposed changes.

The current state of baseball can be summed up with a quick peek at Mookie Betts and Francisco Lindor. Two of the best players in baseball, one traded by a “big market” club and other serving out the remainder of his rookie contract with a “small market” club. We’re supposed to believe that Lindor’s all but inevitable exit from Cleveland is a cruel casualty of baseball economics. But the Betts trade suggests that it’s not just a simple case of the “haves” and the “have nots.”

Well, perhaps it would be less obvious if not for the patently absurd efforts of the Cleveland Indians to dramatically cut payroll while publicly maintaining that they are focused on contending for a World Series. Indians president Chris Antonetti even said on a conference call with reporters in December that the Corey Kluber salary dump freed up “more resources to invest in the team.” Yet here we are in February, with pitchers and catchers set to report next week, and it is more likely that Antonetti was referring to upgrading the team’s snack selection in the clubhouse.

What is most brazen about this strategy is that the Indians didn’t even make the postseason last year. They simply expect us to believe that last year’s roster — subtract Trevor Bauer, Yasiel Puig, Jason Kipnis, and Corey Kluber, add Cesar Hernandez, Emmanuel Clase, Sandy Leon, and Delino DeShields — is good enough to get it done because ... they said so?

To be honest, I don’t think Indians ownership cares all that much about winning a World Series. That may sound hard to believe, but their actions are not that of an organization eager to end a 72-year championship drought. They’ve all but flat out told fans that they can’t afford to extend or re-sign Lindor, but also expect you to understand that they can’t afford to build around him, either. This team hasn’t advanced past the first round of the playoffs since 2016. Most teams would look to close the gap with the teams that bested them in October, but the Indians seem content to trot out what they have, cross their fingers, and hope for the best.

This is why I don’t buy Buster’s argument. Indians ownership would love to be able to slash payroll and make the postseason. That is literally their dream scenario. They’ve stared a playoff spot in the face the last two offseasons, yawned, and shrugged their shoulders. What makes you think that another chance at October baseball is suddenly going to inspire them to open their wallets? It’s not an incentive. It’s an easy out. When fans criticize them for not spending more, they can throw up their hands and say, “Well, we made the playoffs. What more do you want?”

Well, a World Series would be nice, and making it to the postseason means nothing if you don’t have the horses to finish the race. The Indians’ recent October runs are evidence of that.