First Pitch: Is an Expanded MLB Post-Season Good For the Pittsburgh Pirates?

I’m an Auburn football fan by marriage.

After last night’s blowout loss to Georgia, I was on the phone with my brother-in-law breaking down the game, and discussing a topic I’m very familiar with when covering the Pittsburgh Pirates: Rebuilding.

The college football system doesn’t leave much room for error, which means if you lose in a big way like this early in the season, your chances of coming back to win a National Championship are very slim. That’s especially the case when your loss exposes a young and inexperienced offensive line, a quarterback who has no pocket presence but routinely throws off his back foot when scrambling, and two talented wide receivers who are largely marginalized by that combo.

If they could ever find a way to consistently get the ball to Seth Williams…

That kind of discussion is what reminds me of covering the Pirates. The one or two talented players stand out. You know the team could win with those players. You just know that they need to upgrade in other areas to win with those players. Like college football, Major League Baseball has been historically unforgiving with rebuilding teams. There’s a feel that you have to be perfect, with so few teams making the playoffs, and the Dodgers, Cubs and/or Cardinals, Yankees and/or Red Sox, and the Astros routinely owning half of the playoff spots.

The feeling is that you can have a budding star player, but you’re still a long way away from being a contender if you’re a small market team.

That’s not the case this year with MLB’s expanded playoffs.

The ALDS features the Rays and Athletics. The NLDS is a bit more surprising, with the Padres knocking off the Cardinals, and the Marlins eliminating the Cubs.

The 16-team, best-of-three Wild Card round provided the excitement of possibility that you wished was around in 2015, when we knew for months that the Pirates would get destroyed in a one-game playoff against Jake Arrieta.

The Pirates spent the next few years stuck in No Man’s Land, largely in that position because they were shooting for another Wild Card berth, and at best looked like a team that would be on the outside.

Looking back at those seasons, the Pirates would have been the number eight seed in 2016, missing the playoffs by two games in 2017, the number seven seed in 2018, and still the second-worst team in the NL in 2019.

You could look at this two ways. One way is that they would have made the playoffs two additional times over four years, despite having only one winning record during that span. It’s not the best look for MLB when you routinely have teams with losing records playing in the post-season.

The other way is that the Pirates would have made the playoffs two additional times, and if you’re a Pirates fan, who cares about the look? Think about a 2018 best-of-three series with Chris Archer hitting his stride, Jameson Taillon in his best season, and either Trevor Williams continuing his strong season, or Joe Musgrove having his usual strong finish to the season. Do you care that the Pirates made it in with only 82 wins?

If MLB maintains an expanded playoff system, it changes the look of future Pirates teams and their expectations. There’s no longer the feeling that guys like Ke’Bryan Hayes will be wasted with the hope of one, maybe two, playoff trips if all goes right. You can start to envision future playoff appearances without the need for perfection.

Maybe that lowers the quality of the post-season, but the post-season entry is so rigged in the favor of so few teams that MLB needs something to allow teams like the Pirates a better chance to play meaningful games beyond July.

What are your thoughts on the expanded post-season format? Sound off in the comments.

The 2020 Prospect Guide returns to print for our tenth  we are releasing three variant covers, featuring Mitch Keller and Ke’Bryan Hayes. Visit our shop page to order these extremely limited items!


First Pitch