LAS VEGAS — When the Phillies clawed back against the Padres to win Game 5 of the National League Championship Series and clinch a trip to the World Series, they sent a message to the rest of the majors.
”I think it shows you [that] if you get in and you play well, anything can happen,” Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said at the general managers meetings.
The Phillies’ playoff run also upended Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer’s predictions about the new postseason format.
”I couldn’t have been more wrong on the National League,” Hoyer said.
Expanded playoffs this season featured a best-of-three wild-card first round, with the Nos. 1- and 2-seeded division winners getting a bye. Hoyer expected the byes to be a ”massive advantage.”
On the American League side, it seemed to play out that way. The Astros and Yankees advanced to the American League Championship Series. But the NL side of the bracket trended in the opposite direction. The Phillies and Padres carried momentum from the wild-card series to upset the Braves and Dodgers in the NL Division Series.
What did Major League Baseball executives make of how the playoffs unfolded? And what did the Phillies’ run illuminate about the Cubs’ approach to their rebuild?
Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto pointed to 2007, when he was in the front office for the Diamondbacks, who were swept by the Rockies in the NLCS. The Rockies were on a tear, going 14-1 to end the regular season and winning seven consecutive playoff games to claim the NL pennant. Then they waited more than a week for the seven-game ALCS to wrap up and the World Series to begin.
”I don’t know if this really would have made a difference because the Red Sox were wildly talented at the time,” Dipoto said, ”but [the Rockies] then just got steamrolled in the World Series.”
The Red Sox outscored the Rockies 29-10 in a four-game Fall Classic sweep.
”Baseball is about timing, and that long [of] a layoff can really disrupt your timing,” Dipoto said. ”I don’t know if that’s what we saw [this year] because it affected one league in a different way than the other, but I don’t think it was a nonfactor.”
Dipoto’s team had momentum going into the AL Division Series after ending a 20-year postseason drought and sweeping the Blue Jays in their wild-card series. But the Mariners ran into the eventual World Series champion Astros.
The Guardians also swept their wild-card series but lost in the ALDS. President of baseball operations Chris Antonetti reserved an overarching judgment of the playoff format for later.
”We had the two rainouts [against the Yankees], so we didn’t get to experience the format exactly the way it was designed,” he said. ”But I really do like the three-game wild card in the beginning. I know there are some trade-offs with days off for some of the teams, but I never was a huge fan of a whole season coming down to one game.”
Dombrowski called the format, which added a third wild-card slot in each league and gave the No. 6-seeded Phillies a shot at the playoffs, one of his favorite rule changes in recent memory. The universal designated hitter, another key to the Phillies’ success this season, was his other favorite.
”It was really fun to watch,” Hoyer said, ”in the sense of both Philly and San Diego felt like they were kind of underdogs going in. And from a fan-interest [and] an intensity-in-the-ballpark standpoint in both those markets, [it] was pretty awesome to watch. So I do think having some unexpected teams really activated those cities.”
In years to come, a clearer picture of the effects of the first-round bye might come into focus. A larger sample size even might prove Hoyer’s initial prediction to be correct. But the Phillies proved that the new format hasn’t changed the fact that once a team makes the playoffs, if they perform at the right time, they have a chance to win.
Hoyer has higher aspirations and repeatedly has said he wants to build a team with ”the best chance in October.” The Cubs aren’t positioned to reach that goal this offseason, but that doesn’t preclude them from trying to sneak into the playoffs in the interim and seeing what happens.
To do so, they’ll need to spend money this winter. And Hoyer has said the Cubs will be aggressive filling holes on their roster.
”I do feel like we certainly have the flexibility this winter to be competitive on the free-agent market,” he said.