With the baseball world focused on the Astros' scandal, reports surfaced in early February that MLB is considering expanding its playoff field in 2022. If adopted, seven teams in each league would make the postseason; the team with the best record in each league would get a first-round bye. Perhaps this was just commissioner Rob Manfred's effort to distract from sign-stealing purgatory.
If so, good job, commish. The leaked proposal, which generated much chatter, has merit. Most importantly, it would hugely benefit baseball's middle class.
In recent years, baseball’s best teams have grown more dominant, leaving the rest in the dust. In 2017, three teams won 100 games — the first time that has happened since 2003. In 2018, it happened again, and, in 2019, four teams hit triple-digit wins. Meanwhile, in 2018, three teams lost 100 games in the same season for the first time since 2002. Last season, four teams lost at least that many.
The best teams are getting better, and the bottom-feeders are getting worse, making for too predictable a regular season.
Under the current 10-team (five in each league) playoff format, middle-class teams prefer to trade assets rather than make a run at the wild card. The result? MLB standings look like a wasteland. In the AL, for example, Boston (84-78) and Cleveland (93-69) were the only non-playoff teams to win at least 80 games last season; every other team outside the playoff picture tucked its tail and tanked.
Even the Indians, who barely missed the playoffs, traded top pitchers Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber last season, and according to reports, are shopping all-world shortstop Francisco Lindor! A fringe playoff team embracing a rebuild so aggressively would have been unheard of in the past. But playoff expansion could incentivize regular-season competition and inspire a revitalized middle class. Last season, for example, the Indians, Red Sox, Diamondbacks and Mets would have been added to the field.
So who's in the best position to capitalize on this potential new playoff format? And what do these organizations need to do to make a run if the field expands in 2022?
Tampa Bay Rays
There’s no way to start a list of dangerous mid-tier teams anywhere but in Tampa Bay, a team that won 96 games and advanced to the ALDS last season. In the past 12 years, the Rays have won 90 games seven times and made a World Series. But Tampa Bay is no stranger to rebuilding. Last season was the Rays' first playoff appearance since 2013.
With a projected 2020 win total of 87, according to Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA standings, the Rays will be in the hunt for a wild card again this season. If the playoffs expand to 14 teams? They'll be an annual force, as not only do they have young studs Willy Adames, Austin Meadows and Blake Snell, but they also boast one of the top farm systems in baseball.
Shortstop Wander Franco, the top-ranked prospect in baseball, will be up this season. So will dual-threat LHP/DH Brendan McKay (No.15-ranked prospect), who went 2-4 in 49 innings with the Rays last season. With middle-infielder Vidal Brujan (No. 41), RHP Brent Honeywell (No. 75) and RHP Shane Baz (No. 96), Tampa Bay is loaded with rising talent, which will come in handy at the trade deadline in future seasons.
Toronto Blue Jays
Last week, in pondering 10 questions that could define the season, we wondered whether Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette was ready for the big-time. Based on last season’s 46-game, record-breaking stint — in which the Son of Dante slashed 311/.358/.511 — the answer seems to be yes. Unlike the Rays, the Blue Jays likely won’t compete for a playoff spot this season, as they’re looking up at (probably) Boston, Tampa Bay and New York in the AL East standings. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be electric.
With 20-year-old phenom Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Cavan Biggio (24) manning the infield alongside Bichette, Toronto has a legacy infield unlike anything seen before in baseball. In the outfield, Cuban defector Lourdes Gurriel Jr. has breakout potential. The Jays signed Hyun-Jin Ryu as their ace this offseason, but the rest of the staff is lacking. With three top-100 prospects and a surplus of premium minor league pitching, they’ll be in position to add another impact starter when the young sluggers develop into playoff-caliber contenders. That could be sooner than you think.
Owners of the top-ranked farm system in baseball, the Padres look poised to morph into a playoff team for the first time since 2006 — back when we still thought Khalil Greene could hit. Ahhh, memories. These days, with Manny Machado, Eric Hosmer, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Jurickson Profar, the Friars have few infield hitting concerns. That's why many fans expected GM A.J. Preller to trade for Mookie Betts this offseason. With a talented big league club and loaded farm system, now is the time to compete. Evidently, the price for Betts was too high.
But with seven top-100 prospects to pair with Machado & Co. — and a bona fide ace in Chris Paddack — Preller has the Padres in a position to be playing meaningful baseball for much of the 2020s ... that is, if they can catch the Dodgers.
Is it cheating to call the White Sox a middle-class team? Maybe, but the fact that Chicago is a major market doesn’t take away from the fact that White Sox management rarely acts like it. Until now. The White Sox seem to be moving from rebuild to win-now mode, adding Dallas Keuchel, Gio Gonzalez, Yasmani Grandal and Edwin Encarnacion in free agency and elevating Cuban phenom Luis Robert, the No. 6-ranked prospect, to a starting spot in center field. If RHP Michael Kopech (No. 18 prospect) can stay healthy, and first baseman Andrew Vaughn (No. 23) develops, this will be a playoff contender for years.
The D-backs made major improvements to their farm system depth last season, thanks to a June draft that produced four first-rounders (No. 33-ranked OF Corbin Carroll, left-hander Blake Walston, right-handers Brennan Malone and Drey Jameson) and a deadline trade of Zack Greinke that brought in three current or former top 100 guys (2018 first-round pick Seth Beer, an infielder, and righties J.B. Bukauskas and Corbin Martin). Developing that depth is key for a big league club that lacks any real star power and is spending just over $100 million in payroll at the major league level. Baseball Prospectus projects 79 wins for both the D-backs and Padres — a heated battle for a distant second-place finish in the NL West. No one is catching the Dodgers this season, but if the playoffs expand in 2022, Arizona will be in great position to push for a three-game wild-card series.
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