Cubs manager David Ross, who spent 15 years as a big-league catcher, thinks a lot of the new wrinkles added to this year’s ad hoc season are pretty cool — including the seven-inning games for doubleheaders.
But extending the expanded playoff field beyond this pandemic-shortened season?
“I’m not a fan of it,” Ross said. “I’m on record with saying that early on when this all started: Let’s put some value into making the postseason and not water down the pool.”
The Cubs are in the second position in the expanded, eight-team National League playoff field, which under this year’s format means hosting a best-of-three series played entirely at Wrigley Field before potentially heading to Texas for neutral, “bubble” sites in succeeding rounds.
Under the pre-pandemic format, five teams from each league make the playoffs, including two wild-card teams that play an elimination game for a berth in a four-team bracket. Under that format, the Cubs would be in position to open the playoffs with home-field advantage in a best-of-five NL Division Series against Atlanta.
Cubs veteran Anthony Rizzo, who has won and lost wild-card games with the Cubs and twice won divisions, said he likes the new format and is open to continuing it even during 162-game seasons.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “There’s so many teams, especially in the National League [still in contention for berths].
“I think there could definitely be a couple tweaks to it, but I think for the first go-around, we’ll see. If we have a couple teams at the top get eliminated in a three-game series that have steamrolled the whole league all year, I don’t know how good that will be but that’s what it is, and it’s going to be definitely exciting and entertaining.”
That lack of significant first-round advantage in a short series for top teams after a six-month, 162-game season might be the biggest hurdle for approval to continue a format that seeds more than half of each league into brackets with equal chance to line up frontline pitching that steals a game and swings a series for a .500 (or worse) team.
Commissioner Rob Manfred said earlier this week during a Hofstra University online event that most owners favored this year’s expanded version as a permanent playoff format — which would seem self-evident, given the additional national broadcast revenues that would produce, especially on the heels of major revenue losses this year.
That’s a far cry from the players union approving it.
But owners also reportedly are considering expansion as a means of adding a massive infusion of revenue through franchise fees from the added teams, and the promise of 50 or more big-league jobs could be part of a persuasive of any talks on the issue.
“I’m a fan of the expanded playoffs,” Manfred said during the Hofstra event. “Getting back to that three-game series in the first round is a positive change. I think the initial round could have the kind of appeal you see in the early couple days in the NCAA tournament. It’s going to be crazy — just a lot of baseball in a compressed period of time. We’re going to have a bracket, obviously. People love brackets and love picking who’s going to come through those brackets.
“It is one of those changes that I hope becomes a permanent part of our landscape.”
Never mind the difference between 30-game college basketball seasons and the 162 games professional baseball teams play in pursuit of a chance to win their sport’s piece of metal.
The only certainty about the debate is that such a plan will include some strong dissent.
“Maybe I’m singing a different tune if I’m in last place,” Ross said. “There’s a lot of cool things that have come about this year that I’ve liked. I love bringing the seven-inning games to doubleheaders. I think that makes a lot of sense. I think there’s some good feedback on the extra-innings dynamic [starting each extra inning with a man on second] and how that may play out in the future.
“Maybe the postseason will get positive feedback, but for right now I look at that list, and that’s a lot of teams.”