The soon-to-be-implemented new playoff format could be a good thing for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ future.
If you haven’t heard the news, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is looking to expand the playoff race from the current 10 team format to a 14 team format. This would add two more teams from the National League and American League. The best team in each league would also receive a bye round, and Wild Card games would be extended to Wild Card series (best 2 of 3). One very interesting change would be that the top 3 teams that do not receive a bye round would get the opportunity to choose who they will play next.
Nothing is written in stone yet, as it still needs to go through the player association, but the current timeline is to have this all in place by the 2022 season. Whether you like this or not, this will have a major impact on many teams, but I think this could be a very good thing for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Now let’s look back at the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates. They finished the season at 82-79. In the current format, the team finished 8.0 games out of a playoff spot. However, if the new format would be in place, and they held their lead over the Arizona Diamondbacks in the standings, then the Pirates would play the St. Louis Cardinals, who missed the playoffs by 2.5 games under the 10-team format.
Looking at how the Pirates overall organization looks, I don’t see them being in contention in either 2020 or 2021 unless some god-sent miracle happens. However, before all this news, I honestly thought the Pirates might have a good enough team to go for a playoff spot in 2022.
In 2020, Mitch Keller, Ke’Bryan Hayes, and Cole Tucker should establish themselves as big leaguers to join 2019 rookie stars Bryan Reynolds and Kevin Newman. In 2021 the team could see Travis Swaggerty breakout, with sluggers Oneil Cruz, Mason Martin, and pitchers Quinn Priester, and Brennan Malone having the potential to get their first Major League appearances under their belt in 2021 or 2022.
By the start of 2022, the Pirates should have a handful of established players (Keller, Reynolds, Newman, Tucker, Hayes, Swaggerty), with many others on the line of making the Majors (Preister, Martin, Cruz, Malone).
Now yes there are some un-factorables. Not every single prospect is going to turn out, and some prospects are going to turn out better than you thought. But not I highly doubt that all of them are going to fail.
Plus we have to factor in where other teams in the division will be by 2022. After 2021, the Cubs will lose a handful of key players such as Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Kyle Schwarber will hit free agency with Willson Contreas following suit after 2022. Even if they are able to get hauls back for Bryant and Contreras, their payroll will still be brought down by nearly $40 million until 2023 because of Jason Heyward and Yu Darvish.
The Brewers could lose Ryan Braun to retirement after the 2020 season, and two outfielders (Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain) after 2022. The Cardinals will likely see the retirement of Yadier Molina sooner rather than later, as his contract is up after this upcoming season. Plus, the trajectory of aging players like Paul Goldschmidt (31), Miles Mikolas (30), Matt Carpenter (33), don’t point in the greatest directions.
I see the Cardinals being a bigger threat than either the Brewers or Cubs as of now. Even if the three previous names mentioned do decline, they still have some very good prospects like Dylan Carlson, Nolan Gorman, and Matthew Libretore to join ace Jack Flaherty (23), Harrison Bader (25), Tommy Edman (25) and Paul DeJong (26). However nobody poses more of a threat to the Pirates in the central than the Cincinnati Reds.
The Reds are the only ones who you can say with certainty that they will pose as a threat for the next 5+ years. Many of their core pieces are controllable through 2022. This is the case for Luis Castillo (2023), Eugenio Suarez (2025), Nick Senzel, Nick Castellanos (2024), Mike Moustakas (2024, 2023 at the earliest), Aristidies Aquino, while also having two intriguing prospects in the minors. One of them being 2017 second overall pick Hunter Greene.
By 2022, if this new playoff format is put into place, the Pirates should have a much easier time making the playoffs. If the 2018 Pirates could have made it, then I believe the 2022 Pirates have more than a good enough shot. Not only should they be more talented than in ‘18, but this format should also give them a better chance to go deeper into the playoffs.