Manfred wants expanded playoffs format to continue, but with adjustments

Hazel Mae looks at the 2020 season for the playoff-bound Blue Jays, which saw the team deal with everything from playing in Buffalo instead of Toronto to losing star players to injury.

TORONTO – Rob Manfred wants expanded playoffs to continue beyond this year with fewer than 16 teams and better rewards for division winners, a shift from the format the Toronto Blue Jays capitalized on to return to the post-season.

The current system was agreed to by Major League Baseball and the players association hours before opening day on July 23 and applies to the 2020 season only. In an interview with sportsnet.ca on Friday, the commissioner said he’s in favour of proceeding with more than the 10 teams that have reached the post-season since 2012, but with a tougher barrier-to-entry.

“I think the 16-team format was a good format for the 60-game unique season we’ve been playing in 2020. The principle reason for that is in a shortened season, it seemed like giving more teams access to the post-season was the right thing to do, the fair thing to do, No. 1,” he said. “No. 2, I do think the way things played out this year, the 16-team format has created a lot of excitement right up through the last weekend. Our biggest problem right now is that we don’t know where the heck people are going and can’t plan as far in advance as people might like. I do think it’s been really exciting for the fans.

“The third thing I would say,” Manfred added, “over the long haul, if we continue with the expanded playoffs, I think it would be fewer teams — not 16 — and I think there could be structures that are built in that preserve the incentive, for example, to win the division, preserve the incentive to play hard all the way through the 162-game season, so that the additional teams in the playoffs do not detract from the regular season. The regular season is a really important product for us and believe me, believe me, whatever we do more permanently, we will protect the value of that regular-season product.”

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Alterations to the playoff format in 2021, the final year of the current collective bargaining agreement, would require union approval.

The only advantage for division winners this year under the 16-team format is that they, along with the top second-place finisher, host all the games in the best-of-three wild-card round. Advancing clubs will then gather in bubbles in California and Texas for the division, league championship and World Series.

The Blue Jays, who clinched a post-season berth Thursday, are likely to enter the playoffs as the eighth seed — although they can still surpass the New York Yankees as the second-place finisher in the American League East.

Manfred said he’s “thrilled at the rebuild Toronto has gone through and the success they enjoyed this year,” coming after the club was denied permission to host its regular-season home games by the Canadian government, and had subsequent plans to tenant in Pittsburgh and Baltimore shot down by state governments.

That led the Blue Jays to settle on Buffalo’s Sahlen Field, a plan that initially worried Manfred but ultimately exceeded his expectations.

“My concern when the decision was finally made about Buffalo was, No. 1, timing. It wasn’t just where they were going, they didn’t have a heck of a lot of time to get organized. No. 2, look, no rap on minor-league facilities in general or Buffalo in particular, our major-league facilities are really, really nice and players are used to a certain level of facility to go to work in.

“I was really concerned about our ability to deliver that,” said Manfred. “On both of those topics, the Toronto Blue Jays management team, Mark (Shapiro), Marnie Starkman, what they accomplished – and I did go to Buffalo, I saw it myself – is unbelievable, literally unbelievable.

“Not only was it playable, and serviceable, but the work they did actually created that feeling of this is the Blue Jays’ home, which I think is really important to the psyche of the team and the ability of the team to perform, and an unbelievable accomplishment given the tight timeframe.”

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Whether the Blue Jays will be allowed to return home next season is far from certain and Manfred doesn’t know whether baseball’s rebound from early-season outbreaks among the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals is enough to change the Canadian government’s outlook.

“The one thing I can say is that we will do everything humanly possible to convince the government that the Blue Jays should play in Toronto next year,” added Manfred, who also answered questions about how adapted protocols helped save the season, considerations for next year, the future of expanded rosters and whether the pandemic has impacted the Tampa Bay Rays’ dual city plan with Montreal.

Sportsnet: After the outbreaks on the Marlins and Cardinals, which of the mid-stream changes you implemented do you feel helped turned the tide and allowed you to reach this point?

Rob Manfred: I would point to two things. First, after the, and as a result of, particularly the Cardinals situation, we realized that the key consideration was not when could you play again, but instead, what do we have to do to make sure the virus doesn’t spread among the team. You saw a change in approach after the Cardinals where immediately when we found a positive, we shut everybody down and just waited it out until we were sure we didn’t have spread. That was really important.

The second thing is kind of nature. Throughout the year we asked a lot of the players, we asked them to change the way they play the game on the field, we asked them to change the way they lived their private lives, to tell you the truth. The two early incidents just drove home to everybody involved, us, our managers/coaches, front office personnel and the players, that attention to detail, the masks, the distancing is just absolutely crucial.

SN: Hopefully the world is a safer place next year as it relates to COVID-19, but if things level off where we’re at right now, could the protocols currently in place be employed over a 162-game season?

Manfred: That’s too much of a crystal ball for me. Obviously the longer you go, the tougher it is to maintain the (current) model, the more likely it is you’re going to have lapses. All I can say to you about that is what happens next year is going to be dictated by the course of the virus.

SN: The Blue Jays, among others, really leveraged expanded rosters this year. Given all the injuries experienced this year, the shortened body of work for pitchers, and interrupted player-development supply, can a season be safely conducted with only 26 on the roster next year?

Manfred: I think it’s realistic that at some point next year, we could get back to 26. What I would say to you is I suspect, depending on the course of the virus, that there would be a number of operational issues that we’ll have to work through with the MLBPA.

Even if we have a vaccine and everything is good on the health front, there are going to be some results from 2020 that are going to require us to have those kinds of conversations and to continue to show some type of creativity and flexibility to put a quality product out there.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

SN: What’s your sense at this point of what the minor-leagues are going to look like in 2021 between the expected cutting of teams and the need to restart some wider scale player development?

Manfred: Too early to tell on that one. The only thing I can say on that is we recognize that player development is the long-term lifeblood of the industry and whatever form it takes, there probably will be more activity next year than there was this.

SN: For baseball fans in Montreal, how has the pandemic impacted the Rays’ dual-city plan and MLB’s outlook for potential expansion?

Manfred: The Rays process, probably not significantly affected given the timing of that process. With respect to expansion, it’s hard not to admit that, to the extent that there was a certain timeline where expansion was going to be considered, I would say that the pandemic has probably pushed that timeline back.

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