While we were all involved in the Cubs/Dodgers National League Championship Series over the past week, an article by Tracy Ringolsby at Baseball America got a lot of attention across the baseball world.
The article was about MLB expansion to 32 teams and possible realignment, summed up thus:
There seems to be a building consensus that baseball will soon be headed to a 32-team configuration. It will lead to major realignment and adjustments in schedule, which will allow MLB to address the growing concerns of the union about travel demands and off days.
Given that there was no indication of exactly what “soon” means, I feel compelled to point out that Commissioner Rob Manfred has consistently stated that no expansion would be contemplated until the stadium situations in Oakland and Tampa Bay are resolved.
The Athletics have selected a stadium site. Probably. Even that might mean a few years before one actually gets built.
The Rays appear to be a long way from getting even a site, much less a stadium, although this article suggests they might be getting close to figuring out where a new park might be.
Given all that, it could be a decade or longer before MLB actually expands. So there’s plenty of time for all of us to examine and discuss this radical realignment possibility noted in Ringolsby’s article:
One proposal would be to geographically restructure into four divisions, which would create a major reduction in travel, particularly for teams on the East Coast and West Coast, and add to the natural rivalries by not just having them as interleague attractions, but rather a part of the regular divisional battles.
Consider four eight-team divisions with the addition of teams in Portland and Montreal:
East: Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Miami, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Washington.
North: Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Minnesota, Montreal, both New York franchises and Toronto.
Midwest: Both Chicago franchises, Colorado, Houston, Kansas City, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Texas.
West: Anaheim, Arizona, Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle.
The article goes on to describe a 156-game season with a standardized off day every week, and a postseason with 12 (!) playoff teams and two extra wild-card games.
Let’s go through this point by point. First, the proposal above adds Portland and Montreal as the two new cities. Montreal likely would still have a team if not for the 1994 strike and Jeffrey Loria’s destruction of the franchise. There were two different proposals, one in 1998, the other in 2000, for a beautiful downtown Montreal stadium that likely would have been built if the Expos hadn’t been run into the ground.
Portland? Eh, I dunno. There are a lot of serious baseball people in Portland who think the city should have a team, but they didn’t seem to care enough to even save Triple-A baseball there. The team departed after 2010 and is now in El Paso, Texas, and the stadium was re-done for soccer. The area has a team now in the short-season Northwest League, the Hillsboro Hops, which gets enthusiastic support, but that’s a long way from supporting a big-league franchise. I will note that the Portland TV market is about the size of the Baltimore, Pittsburgh and San Diego markets, so there’s at least that much market size in potential support of a big-league team.
But the alignment noted above? I give a big thumbs-down to that. First of all, putting the Cubs and White Sox (and similar groupings of the other shared market teams) in the same division would be a colossal mistake. I cannot think of any baseball fan in Chicago who wants more Cubs/White Sox games than there already are. The current scheduling scheme has four such games two of every three years, and six in the third year. That’s already too many — I’d be happy with one three-game series a year, alternating parks. The commissioner’s office seems to think these “rivalry” games are great, but the Cubs’ biggest rival is the Cardinals, not the White Sox. Similarly, in New York the Yankees’ biggest rival is the Red Sox, not the Mets, and in California the Giants and Dodgers are each other’s biggest rivals — Dodgers/Angels and Giants/A’s are afterthoughts. Some of the interleague “rivalries” put forth since 1997 seem forced; rivalries are better when they come up naturally and organically.
Beyond that, an alignment like the one above would eliminate some pretty good current rivalries. The Mets, who have been in the same division with the Phillies since 1969, would have that connection severed. Same thing for the Tigers and White Sox, who have had a nice little A.L. Central rivalry since 1994, and similarly for the Cubs and Reds.
The biggest thing I think this proposal ignores, though, is this: If you are going to blow up the existing league structure and shove all the teams together in an alignment like this, then you are going to have to expand the designated hitter to all 32 teams — because you’d no longer have a “National League” and “American League” as they’ve been known for over a century, even if MLB decided to keep those names for what would be more like NFL-style “conferences.” No present A.L. team would want to give up the DH.
You’d also be throwing out 100+ years of history; each league has its own record books and those matter to many people. More than any other professional sport, the history and records of baseball are important to many fans. The Cubs now have 141 years of being a National League team, since the very beginning of the league. Teams like the White Sox, Tigers and Red Sox have more than 115 years’ worth of uninterrupted history as American League teams. MLB shouldn’t be so hasty as to throw all this out just because it looks pretty on paper. There are lots of fan loyalties, rivalries and other emotions involved. This kind of alignment smacks of marketing people who don’t really understand the emotional connection fans have with their favorite baseball team. You can re-brand a breakfast cereal — most people don’t have a lifelong emotional connection with their breakfast cereal. Those kinds of attachments to sports teams do exist, and they do matter.
Having said that, I’m not against change. The world of baseball cannot remain static if it’s going to thrive and engage younger fans. I’m against dumb change for the sake of change, like the 2017 intentional-walk rule, which accomplished nothing — it certainly didn’t accomplish its stated goal of faster-paced games.
I get the idea of reducing travel; that’s a major issue for modern baseball players and it’s something MLB has already addressed with the longer schedule for 2018 that includes more off days.
So what if, instead of ripping up the league structure and having those four divisions of eight shown above (and that’s another issue: who wants to finish eighth?), why not keep the existing leagues and make them four divisions of four teams each, as follows. This assumes that Montreal and Portland would be the expansion teams and no current club moves anywhere:
What I’ve done here is put both expansion teams in the A.L. and slot the Astros back in the N.L. Houston had 50 years of National League history before leaving for the A.L., where they still don’t seem like quite the right fit. The A.L. teams here could keep the DH, and the N.L. teams could continue to reject it, if they so chose.
This alignment would have only one division where teams would be in more than two time zones. That would be my proposed N.L. South, with teams in the Eastern, Central and Mountain zones. It’s a bit unwieldy, but the Rockies, the only team in the Mountain zone, don’t really fit anywhere else. Four of these divisions, comprising half the teams, would be in a single time zone.
It would create or restore regional rivalries: a new Blue Jays divisional rivalry with the Montreal team, slotting the Pirates and Phillies back in the same division for a cross-state rivalry, and give the Mariners a regional rivalry with the new Portland team (not to mention helping the Mariners, who have the worst travel schedule of any team, by reducing their travel). Most of the divisions would be compact geographically to further help save on travel.
This would make it a bit more difficult to put together a playoff field. Keeping the current 10-team field would mean you’d have to have a single wild-card team play the team with the worst record among the division winners in the winner-take-all game. That obviously isn’t optimal, but it’s workable in this sense: It still would be important to have a better record than the other division winners in order to avoid the play-in game. You could have two wild cards, but that would still require more postseason games to make an eight-team field for the division series, which would make even more of a crunch in an already-tight October schedule.
And an alignment like this could have this type of schedule making up a 162-game season:
22 games vs. every team in your division = 66 games
4 games vs. every other team in your league = 48 games
3 games vs. every team in the other league = 48 games
That also solves the “unfairness” idea regarding scheduling, as every team would play everyone else every year. It would probably mean more four-game series, at least outside a team’s own division and inside its league, and the single series against those teams and those in the other league would mean alternating sites for those matchups. And it would continue to make divisional rivalries important, and likely eliminate the possibility of a team winning a division with a losing record — at least one of the four teams would likely dominate divisional games sufficiently to finish over .500 in every division. Lastly, with an even number of teams in each league, there would no longer be a need for year-round interleague play and, among other things, September play during pennant races could focus much more on divisional matchups.
Realignment in baseball is likely coming, not imminently, but likely sometime in the next decade. It’s a topic that generally brings out strong opinions. No doubt, you have yours. Let’s hear them.