The recently completed 2020 MLB season featured two notable firsts — an expanded playoff field of 16 teams and the use of the designated hitter in National League games. Those structural changes were implemented for 2020 only, but the fact that MLB “crossed the Rubicon” on both fronts raised the possibility that a larger postseason field and the universal DH would at some point become permanent fixtures in MLB. 

Not long ago, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred implied that of seeing either rule change back for 2021 was unlikely. Behind the scenes, however, there may be some movement in that direction. On that front, here’s a small part of a wide-ranging piece from ESPN’s Jeff Passan: 

“Is the DH even happening in the NL next year?

Still unclear. Players want it, sources said, but owners want the players to agree to expanded playoffs for the 2021 season in exchange. Understandably, the players don’t find that to be a particularly equitable trade. The complicating factor is that most front offices would love it. Going back to pitchers hitting after a full season in which they didn’t doesn’t register right, particularly when the issue is going to be adjudicated for good in a new collective-bargaining agreement after the 2021 season.

Some executives believe the universal DH will stick around, even if the MLBPA doesn’t agree to the expanded playoffs. What MLB would trade it for is unclear.”

Players in general want the DH in the NL because most pitchers don’t particularly enjoy hitting or risking injury on the bases. As well, the DH in the NL theoretically means more higher-paying jobs for hitters. Knowing this, the owners want something in exchange for it, and that appears to be permanent expansion of the playoffs. As Passan notes, the players will likely see that as too much of a concession on their end. There are, of course, ways to make an expanded postseason more palatable to the union. Perhaps their share of postseason revenues can be increased (you’ll recall that’s how we wound up with an expanded playoffs for 2020) or perhaps the regular season can be reduced from 162 games. Everything’s a negotiation, as they say. 

There’s already plenty of enthusiasm within the game for a universal DH, and at some point it’s almost certainly going to happen. The question is whether it happens in time for 2021. Passan’s report indicates that having the DH in 2021 is more likely than it seemed mere days ago. 

As for the expanded playoffs, 16 teams isn’t likely. Rather, a 14-team field that includes a bye for the team with the best record in each league is the likely the path forward.

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