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Sweet 16: A Dispatch From Baseball’s Expanded Playoff Field Future

What will the MLB postseason look like if the league expands to 32 teams and the playoffs swell to 16 clubs? Let’s head to 2030 to find out.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Baseball looks dramatically different in 2020 than it did in 2010. What could the next 10 years hold? Will the new playoff format grow or destroy the sport? Could robo umps and five-hour games become the norm? Will MLB even exist at the turn of the next decade? On Thursday, The Ringer examines these questions as we try to determine what baseball will look like in 2030.

Hello, and welcome to the Amazon Prime Network, home of the 2030 MLB playoffs! We’re in Montreal today, ready to start down a winding postseason road as the Tampa-Montreal ExRays take on the visiting Minnesota Twins. I’m Joe Buck, here with color man Chris Archer, an ex-Ray himself. Chris, what a postseason this is shaping up to be!

That’s right, Joe. We have Tampa-Montreal vs. Minnesota here this afternoon, with seven more first-round series scheduled to start later today and tomorrow. And those are just the first steps in a lengthy sprint to the finish line: 16 teams, four rounds, and ultimately one champion to raise the World Series trophy.

So before these two teams take the field, let’s set the scene for the games to come. Here in Montreal, baseball fans are more excited than I’ve seen them in decades. And for good reason—today marks the first home playoff game in Montreal since 1981, although it came quickly to the city after the Rays split their season, and changed their team name to accommodate Montreal’s baseball past, back in 2028.

And Montreal needs to enjoy this series while it can. If the ExRays advance to the next round, they will host their home games in Tampa—and I’m sure all the ExRays fans down in Florida are waiting with bated breath to see whether their team will come home.

I’m wishing all the best for those ExRays fans, but I’m afraid they might be disappointed. I’ve been really impressed with this Twins team recently. Just six weeks ago, they sat 27 games below .500, but a hot streak brought them all the way to 78-84. They were the team nobody wanted to play—the fourth-seeded ExRays were forced to choose them after seeds 1, 2, and 3 picked other foes to face, avoiding Minnesota. And while the Twins finished 13 games behind the ExRays in the regular season, stranger things have happened since Major League Baseball began to expand the playoff field back in 2022.

The first major upset, of course, came that very first year. We all know it by heart. Cinderella Cincinnati, the roaring Reds, made the playoffs with the same 78-win total and stunned the world, beating the 89-win Diamondbacks, 114-win Dodgers, and 96-win Braves in succession to reach the World Series.

Strange things kept happening. The very next year, the 81-81 Red Sox reached the ALCS; the year after that, we saw a thriller in the National League Championship Series when the 79-83 Marlins beat the 80-82 Cardinals in seven games, before going on to wallop the 100-win Yankees in the World Series.

So a Minnesota upset in Montreal this weekend might surprise fans who just know these teams from the standings—but as we all know by this point, the standings don’t matter much anymore. As long as you make the playoffs, you have a real shot at the title. And now that there are 32 Major League Baseball teams and 16 reach the postseason, you almost have to try to not get in.

Exactly, and that development shows just how much the sport has changed as a result of the broadened playoff format. Back in the day, remember, only two teams made the playoffs—the winners of the American and National Leagues advanced straight to the World Series to face each other. The two leagues each added a championship series in 1969 and expanded the playoffs again in 1995 with the addition of a third division winner and a wild card. In 2012 came a second wild card in each league, meaning 10 total teams out of 30 made the playoffs.

But it wasn’t until 2022 that the sport really evolved. The playoff field expanded to 14 that year—three division winners and four wild cards in each league. And when the league expanded to 32 teams, splitting into eight divisions of four teams apiece, Major League Baseball added two more playoff squads in each league to round out a full 16-team bracket.

So this year, we have eight division winners, led by the Yankees in the AL and the Dodgers in the NL, and eight wild cards visiting the division winners for a best-of-three series, with every game on the road.

Chris, what do you make of the league leaders? Can they avoid the upset bug?

Well, the Dodgers look like a juggernaut again, but that hasn’t stopped them from losing before. If they can win in the next three rounds, they’ll advance to their eighth World Series since 2017—but they’re still looking for their first title in more than half a century. We’re all wondering whether they can finally sate their championship drought. If they couldn’t even get it done in the playoffs in 2024, when they won a league-record 118 games in the regular season, they might never be able to.

I’m especially interested to watch Dodgers right-hander Dustin May. The 33-year-old hurler made six All-Star teams in his 20s, but he’s thrown just 62 innings across 14 starts this year as the Dodgers charted a plan to keep him fresh for the playoffs. Some call it “load management”; others call it coddling. I call it smart, because the games don’t count until the playoffs, and with four playoff rounds to navigate and potentially more than 20 postseason games to play, the Dodgers need May 100 percent now.

The “load management” debate you mention isn’t new to professional sports. The NBA’s been at it for more than a decade, which is why they completely revamped their league schedule—people grew so focused on the playoffs that they began to ignore the first six months of the season, and TV ratings suffered accordingly. Major League Baseball has always prided itself on the importance of its 162-game regular season, but the sport has certainly headed in the direction of prizing the end of the season more than the summer months. The Dodgers’ handling of May this year is just the latest and most prominent example. So, do you think the Dodgers are right to play the long game with their ace?

It’s a fair question, and certainly a controversial one. But if you look at how the game has changed in the past decade, it’s hard to fault teams for shifting their focus to October. The Dodgers are actually the perfect example: They haven’t missed the playoffs once with the expanded field, because any team with a win total in the mid-70s can contend for a spot, and it’s just impossible to imagine a team with the Dodgers’ finances falling below that level.

You mentioned the Yankees, the AL favorites this season, and it’s the same situation there. New York hasn’t finished with a losing record since 1992—when their current MVP candidate, center fielder Jasson Dominguez, was still a decade away from being born. That’s a guarantee to reach the postseason every single year.

Let’s talk about the Yankees. They host Charlotte in the first round this weekend, in the first playoff appearance for the expansion team from North Carolina, and they have to be licking their chops as they look ahead to the next round. Because if the Yankees win, and Minnesota beats the ExRays like you’re predicting, then we’d get yet another Yankees-Twins series, and another chance for big brother to beat up little brother. New York has eliminated Minnesota from the playoffs in 2009, 2010, 2017, 2019, 2020, 2023, 2025, 2026, and 2028 without losing a single game along the way.

Well, I wouldn’t count out Charlotte just yet. Even if its record underwhelms, at just 74-88, it won five games in a row in the final week of the season to nab the last wild-card spot. That team beat out the Tigers and Royals, who both finished 73-89, and won a tiebreaker game against the Mariners, who were also 74-88—keeping Seattle out of the playoffs for the 29th season in a row.

I can understand why the Yankees picked Charlotte as their first-round opponent in the Major League Baseball Playoff Selection Show last night. But we’ve seen this process backfire before, like in 2026, when the Angels reached to pick Baltimore as their opponent in the wild-card round, and the Orioles responded by sweeping the Angels and preventing Mike Trout from winning his first playoff game. So this year, Charlotte’s hot streak could continue if it’s sufficiently motivated to take revenge for being deemed the most beatable team in the field.

Charlotte’s also an interesting club because, unlike most teams within striking distance of 70-something wins, it acted as a seller at this year’s trade deadline. And now the team finds itself in the playoffs lacking the right players to advance. Maybe Charlotte thought that as a recent expansion team, it made sense to continue thinking about the future. But it traded its starting center fielder in July—and now Kyler Murray’s on the Yankees, ready to lead off against his old club tomorrow night.

It’s a lesson most teams have learned by this point, and it’s why most of the league’s trades come in the offseason now. July’s usually a dead period for deals, because so few teams are out of the race by then. That increased competitive spirit, or at least a renewed push toward the middle of the standings, has made it harder than ever for the top teams to bring home the Rob Manfred Piece of Metal Trophy.

Historically, baseball’s best regular-season team has failed to win the World Series more than half the time, versus just a quarter of the time in other sports. And that trend has only accelerated in the last few seasons, as more playoff rounds mean more opportunity for upsets. Even with below-.500 teams routinely making the playoffs, the margins between the best teams and the most mediocre are just so slim over a short playoff series, and home-field doesn’t matter all that much, so it’s no real shock that wild-card clubs spring surprises every season.

And for all you viewers at home, heed that reminder, especially as you finish filling out your brackets and entering your picks in office pools or on gambling sites. College basketball has March Madness; we have October Outrage, and it’s growing every year. Some traditional fans may not appreciate the gamification of the playoff experience, but the gambling establishment loves the new developments, and Major League Baseball is thrilled with all the extra business and attention. Which reminds me: Head to or DraftDuel, official gambling partner for Major League Baseball, on your tablet, phone, or smart glasses to fill out your bracket today.

And now let’s get ready for the first game on that bracket: the Twins vs. the ExRays, here in Montreal. They say that baseball is a marathon, not a sprint. But the sprint’s the most important part, and the sprint starts now. We’ll take you to commercial, and when we return—the first pitch of the 2030 MLB playoffs. Let the real games begin.