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A few thoughts about MLB expansion, realignment and scheduling

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It’s gonna happen. Eventually. So let’s look at the possibilities.

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The skyline of Portland, Oregon, a leading contender for a MLB expansion team
Getty Images

I’ve been meaning to write on this topic for quite some time and never quite got around to it.

The impetus to finally “get around to it” on MLB expansion, realignment and scheduling came from this Jayson Stark article at The Athletic, posted Wednesday. I realize The Athletic is paywalled — and really, you should subscribe, it’s well worth the $5 a month if you can afford it — so I’ll be summarizing Stark’s article and quoting from it as I go along. Stark talked to a number of “insiders” who say some form of all three of these things is coming, and Commissioner Rob Manfred has gone on record as saying that expansion, for one, would solve a lot of scheduling issues, because it’s easier to schedule 16-team leagues than 15-team leagues.

My personal feeling is that none of this is going to happen soon, with the possible exception of a schedule adjustment. That’s because Manfred has gone on record as saying he wants the stadium situations for the Athletics and Rays to be solved first. In both Oakland and Tampa Bay, tentative steps have been taken toward new ballparks for those teams. But as you can see at those links, there’s no funding for either and even the sites aren’t 100 percent locked down. So we’re likely looking at least five years down the road for those, and then if MLB wants to expand from there, you’re probably looking at another four to five years to: 1) choose cities, 2) let them get organizations set up (as was done for the Rays and Diamondbacks before 1998) and 3) get stadiums built.

So in my view, expansion is a decade away. Thus, any realignment is probably also 10 years down the road.

But since Stark’s article is out there, let’s take a look at the three parts of MLB’s possible future.

Expansion

Stark’s article mentions seven cities in detail: Portland (Oregon), Charlotte, Nashville, Montreal, San Antonio/Austin, Las Vegas and Mexico City.

You can probably cross the last three off the list. The Astros and Rangers would probably ask for territorial rights infringement fees for any future team in Texas, and that would make San Antonio or Austin cost-prohibitive. Las Vegas, for all its growth, would still be the smallest TV market in MLB (40th, at this writing), plus they’d have to build a retractable dome similar to Chase Field, as Stark’s article notes:

And let’s face it: Vegas is one scorching place in the summer, with an average temperature over 100 in June, July and August. So “even with a dome or a retractable-roof stadium,” says an official of one team, “I just don’t think you have the same energy or commerce in Vegas in the summer as you do during the winter.”

There are more than 20 million people in metro Mexico City, but... it’s not a US TV market, so that makes it unappealing from that standpoint. Couple that with the fact that it’s at almost 7,400 feet elevation (which would make any stadium there Coors Field on steroids), and this statement from the Stark article is probably correct:

But there are so many obstacles to putting a team in Mexico, on almost every front, that one source we surveyed went so far as to say: “I think you’d see a team in London before you see a team in Mexico.”

So that leaves Portland, Nashville, Montreal and Charlotte. Montreal has the obvious cachet of having its team pretty much stolen from them by bad ownership, even while they have a large base of fans that would love to have a new team. Further, they have the issue of having to pay out US dollars while taking in Canadian $ (currently at about 77 cents US). They have a stadium available, though it’s probably suitable only temporarily while a new one would be built.

(Also noted in brief in the article are Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, New Orleans, New Jersey, Connecticut or a third team in the L.A. market. Either market size, proximity to other teams, or territorial indemnity fees make all of those locations extremely unlikely.)

Portland, Nashville and Charlotte have the same no-stadium issue, but for at least Portland and Charlotte, they have the advantage of being the 22nd and 23rd largest TV markets, respectively, in the USA. Pittsburgh, Baltimore, San Diego, Kansas City, Cincinnati and Milwaukee are TV markets smaller than 23rd that already have teams. (Nashville ranks 27th.)

Personally? I’d pick Portland and Montreal. Stark, for the purposes of his article, chooses Portland and Charlotte. Those are defensible choices. So for the purposes of my article, I’m going to go with those two.

Realignment

Some form of realignment is going to happen when the leagues expand, if for no other reason than the obvious divisional setup is two leagues with four divisions of four teams each. And I’m using the term “leagues” advisedly, because in reality, we don’t have two leagues now. With year-round interleague play, one set of umpires and no league staffs or presidents. In fact, there haven’t been any league presidents since 1999, except for an individual holding the “honorary” title of “league president,” currently Frank Robinson for the A.L. and Bill Giles for the N.L. Neither has any decision-making power. Thus, Major League Baseball is really one league with two NFL-style conferences, and has been for nearly 20 years, even though the conferences are called “leagues” for historical consistency.

I’m going to argue for some of that historical consistency to remain. Granted, some of it has been broken up already by the switch of the Brewers to the National League in 1998 (after 29 seasons in the American League) and the Astros to the American League in 2013 (after 51 seasons in the National). Still, there are 140-plus years of league history and records that shouldn’t just be thrown away.

Here’s a radical way teams could realign, according to what Stark has heard:

MLB EAST

BAMBINO DIVISION
Yankees
Mets
Orioles
Nationals

SPLINTER DIVISION
Red Sox
Blue Jays
Phillies
Pirates

AARON DIVISION
Braves
Marlins
Rays
Charlotte*

MUSIAL DIVISION
Cardinals
Tigers
Reds
Indians

MLB WEST

JACKIE DIVISION
Dodgers
Angels
Diamondbacks
Padres

MAYS DIVISION
Giants
Athletics
Mariners
Portland*

BRETT DIVISION
Royals
Astros
Rangers
Rockies

ERNIE DIVISION
Cubs
White Sox
Brewers
Twins

(*-expansion team)

First of all, those division names are a no-go from the get-go. Only one team gets its Hall of Famer as a division name? Imagine being an Orioles fan having your team in a division named after one of your rival’s great players. Or a Tigers fan. Why not “Kaline Division”? Why not the ”Clemente Division” with the Pirates in it? And you can imagine how much White Sox fans would love to have their team in the “Ernie Division”. No no no no no, that’s a bad idea, beyond the fact that this system breaks up some of the game’s best rivalries: Cardinals/Cubs, Yankees/Red Sox, Giants/Dodgers all wind up in different divisions here.

Even worse is the thought of 18 Cubs/White Sox games a year, or some similar number. Frankly, four or six games a year between the Cubs and Sox is too many. I’d much prefer one three-game series per year, alternating ballparks. I’d quickly get sick and tired of so much White Sox. MLB seems to be enamored with these “matchup” games, but at least here in Chicago, it seems many fans of both teams are bored with them.

Further, a setup like that, with the Cubs in the “West,” would also likely force the Cubs to play far more West Coast games than they do now, depending on how the schedule is set up. There are eight teams in the Pacific time zone in that “West,” and one in the Mountain zone. You can imagine the Cubs (and the six other teams in the Central time zone in that alignment) not being happy with that at all.

In fact, to make a brief historical diversion, that’s the exact reason the Cubs (and Cardinals) wound up in the N.L. East when the leagues were first split into divisions in 1969. Cubs management didn’t want to have to make three West Coast trips a year, and P.K. Wrigley apparently had enough influence with the other owners to keep them in the East, and bring the Cardinals along so as to not disrupt that rivalry. The Braves and Reds owners, apparently not having enough clout to overcome that, thus wound up as “West” teams for 25 seasons, until the three-division setup began in 1994.

Granted, a divisional setup like the one above would alleviate a lot of travel issues, presuming that you’d still have an unbalanced schedule — and that’s not a guarantee, either, because there are factions within MLB owners that like both the unbalanced schedule or a more balanced one. More on that below.

There’s one other thing that would happen, almost for certain, in a setup like that. Since the “leagues” as we know them now would cease to exist under such a setup, the DH would almost certainly be adopted across all of MLB. Even though I’m a proponent of the DH, I’m not a proponent of that type of alignment. Fortunately, Stark’s article has a different realignment possibility that preserves most of the current setup:

NATIONAL LEAGUE

NL NORTHEAST
Nationals
Mets
Phillies
Pirates

NL MIDEAST
Cubs
Cardinals
Reds
Brewers

NL SOUTH
Braves
Marlins
Rays**
Charlotte*

NL WEST
Dodgers
Giants
Padres
Diamondbacks

AMERICAN LEAGUE

AL EAST
Yankees
Red Sox
Orioles
Blue Jays

AL MIDEAST
Indians
Twins
White Sox
Tigers

AL SOUTH
Astros
Rangers
Royals
Rockies**

AL WEST
Mariners
Portland*
Athletics
Angels

(*- expansion team)
(**- changed league)

I could get 100 percent on board with that alignment. It would require two teams (Rays, Rockies) to change leagues, but neither of those has the history in their current league that, say, the Astros had. This alignment would preserve all the current rivalries within divisions, and create at least one new one (Rays vs. Marlins, also possibly Mariners vs. Portland).

Just one thing, MLB. If you do the second one? That’s got to be “Midwest” division, not “Mideast.” No one in the USA lives in the “Mideast.”

Scheduling

According to Stark, MLB is seriously considering, in conjunction with some form of realignment, reducing the schedule. Trust me, they do not have player health or fatigue in mind here — what they’re thinking, says Stark, is “more playoffs”:

Lopping eight games off the schedule also cuts about 10 days off the regular season. So an extra postseason round could fit comfortably into that time frame.

Does baseball really want to follow the NBA and NHL toward a 16-team postseason field? That would likely mean starting the postseason with eight best-of-three-game series. And in a sport that plays every day, that would mean overlapping games – and would probably work only if baseball goes to total geographical realignment. So adding a sixth playoff team seems more likely, leading to an NFL-type format in which the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds among the division winners would host the two wild cards in each league. Would that be a one-and-done game or a best-of-three? Too early to say. Just bear in mind that baseball’s national TV deals with Fox, Turner and ESPN run through 2021. And you know what drives those deals? October.

But does another round of three-game series really mean more money for the TV networks? Are ratings good enough to sell enough ads to justify the (likely) higher rights fees that will be demanded by MLB after 2021?

That remains to be seen. The question is, what sort of schedule would fit a 16-team league? It’s been suggested that MLB return to the 154-game schedule that was in place before the 1961/62 expansion.

I’m not sure why MLB sees 154 as some sort of magic number. Here’s another bit of history. The 154-game schedule, which was in effect from 1904 through 1960 (A.L.) and 1961 (N.L.), was created largely due to... math. There were eight teams in each league, so 154 games is 22 games against each of the other seven. When expansion came, 22 games would have been too many, so would 20, and 16 would have been too few (against nine other teams, that would have been 144). So the 162-game schedule — 18 games vs. the other nine teams in each league — began in 1961 (A.L.) and 1962 (N.L.). 162 games worked mathematically even when divisional play began with 12-team leagues, 18 games vs. everyone in your own division (90 games) and 12 vs. everyone in the other (72 games). Only when 14-team leagues and three-division setups came in did this get messy. But through 2018, the 162-game schedule has been in effect just as long as the 154-game schedule was.

So beyond the fact that MLB owners would likely balk at losing revenue from four home games (and TV partners aren’t going to refund rights fees, either), maybe some number between 154 and 162 might work for realigned leagues conferences.

Here’s an unbalanced schedule that could work:

24 games vs. all teams in your own division = 72
6 games vs. two other divisions in your league = 48
3 games vs. the remaining division in your league = 12
3 games vs. two divisions in the other league = 24

That’s 156 games, and every team would play 23 of the other 31 teams every year (as opposed to 20 out of 30, as now). The advantage of this schedule is its emphasis on divisional play, where every team would play almost as many in-division games as now (currently 76). The disadvantage is that, even with rotating all the divisions in that scenario, you wouldn’t see all teams in your own league home-and-home every year.

There aren’t as many easy mathematical formulas that add up to something in the mid- or high-150s in terms of games played if you want a balanced schedule. Plus, I’d be against a schedule that has less Cardinals and Brewers for the Cubs and more (say) Padres and Marlins and Rays and Portland, teams Cubs fans don’t really have any rivalry with. Cubs ownership would most likely want more games against traditional rivals.

Lastly, if part of the reason for realignment is to reduce travel, playing a balanced schedule negates that.

Postseason

This is where the TV networks make the big money that they pay MLB teams, so you’d think television would be in favor of adding a round to the postseason.

One thing for sure: With a four-division setup, the current system of three division winners and two wild cards doesn’t work. Do you then have a single wild card team play the division winner with the worst record? That’s a real disadvantage to the “worst” division winner, but then, as now, that’s an incentive to win more games so you don’t wind up in that spot. If that system were implemented, the “wild card vs. worst division winner” postseason matchup would almost certainly have to be a three-game series. With a slightly reduced schedule, this would fit in, and to not give the division winner a disadvantage, that team could have all the games at its park.

Stark writes:

The postseason field could expand to either six teams per league or as many as eight.

I’m not sure how you play a six-team field with four division winners. Two wild cards playing the two “worst” division winners in a three-game series, then the other two division winners play those series winners? Sure, but that gives the teams with “byes” out of the first round a very long layoff, likely a week, between the end of the regular season and their first postseason game. It’s not bad for giving banged-up players rest, but then you want them to be at playoff-level intensity after a week off? Hard to do.

An eight-team field in each league winds up with four three-game series in the first round. Lots of games for TV, but I think this dilutes the playoff field far too much. One of the best things about MLB’s playoffs, unlike those in the NBA or NHL, is that you have to be really good (in general) to get there. If the 2017 National League had a six-team postseason field, it would have put all but one team with a winning record (Cardinals) in the postseason; the 2017 A.L. would have had to break a three-way tie among teams with a losing record (80-82, Angels, Royals, Rays) to get a sixth team into October. That’s another issue, the more teams you put in, the more tiebreakers you likely have, and baseball has always broken ties like this on the field, not through arcane tiebreaking systems like other sports have.

Thanks for reading more than 2,800 words on this topic — Stark’s article was over 2,500 and I’ve quoted some of that here. It’s something that could radically change baseball as we know it, or make some minor adjustments that would help the sport while leaving much of history and tradition in place. I think you know which of those sides I’m on.

Poll

The cities I would choose for MLB expansion are...

This poll is closed

  • 41%
    Portland and Montreal
    (285 votes)
  • 17%
    Portland and Charlotte
    (120 votes)
  • 10%
    Portland and Nashville
    (70 votes)
  • 1%
    Portland and San Antonio
    (9 votes)
  • 1%
    Portland and Mexico City
    (13 votes)
  • 2%
    Portland and Las Vegas
    (14 votes)
  • 9%
    Montreal and Charlotte
    (63 votes)
  • 7%
    Montreal and Nashville
    (51 votes)
  • 0%
    Montreal and San Antonio
    (6 votes)
  • 3%
    Montreal and Mexico City
    (25 votes)
  • 3%
    Montreal and Las Vegas
    (22 votes)
  • 2%
    Some other combination not mentioned above (leave in comments)
    (17 votes)
695 votes total Vote Now