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A few more thoughts about MLB expansion, realignment and scheduling

All of these things are likely to happen... someday.

The skyline of Montreal, a candidate for MLB expansion
De Agostini/Getty Images

It’s a popular topic among baseball people, both insiders and fans, to think about what the game will look like in the future. Beyond the possible rule changes that are upcoming over the next couple of seasons, Major League Baseball could see some shifts in league and divisional alignments as well as a change to the 162-game schedule in the future.

In this article I’ll look at several different possibilities for expansion, realignment and scheduling.

First, it’s important to understand that while expansion is likely coming to MLB, it’s not going to happen anytime soon. Commissioner Rob Manfred has stated on several occasions that he wants to see the stadium situations in Oakland and Tampa Bay resolved before any cities are considered for expansion. Part of the reason for that is because if those situations don’t get settled, either or both of those teams could wind up relocating to possible expansion cities.

The last time Manfred opined on expansion was last summer, when he named several candidate cities for new teams:

“Portland, Las Vegas, Charlotte, Nashville in the United States, certainly Montreal, maybe Vancouver, in Canada,” Manfred said. “We think there’s places in Mexico we could go over the long haul.”

Without getting into a lot of detail, for the purposes of this article I’m going to choose Portland and Montreal. Both of those cities have groups ready to sponsor a team. The Portland Diamond Project has already committed $1.3 billion (!) for a team and stadium, and a group led by Stephen Bronfman (son of the first owner of the Expos, Edgar Bronfman) appears ready to put a team in Montreal.

Not only do those two cities appear to be the best-prepared for expansion teams, they’d also serve well for a divisional realignment to new 16-team leagues. I’ve spoken often here about how 16-team leagues would be easier to schedule than 15-team leagues. More on that in a moment.

First, and I can’t believe it’s even necessary to say this, but MLB would apparently consider realigning the leagues to put (among other things) the two-team markets in the same division.

I cannot tell you how bad an idea this is. Beyond the fact that it would blow up 140 years of league history, literally no one wants the Cubs and White Sox (or Mets/Yankees, or Dodgers/Angels, or Giants/Athletics) in the same division. Most Cubs or Sox fans will tell you that four or six meetings a year is enough, or more than enough. In the same division? Playing perhaps 18 times a year? Man, that would be horrendous. Such a realignment would also destroy some current rivalries such as Cubs/Cardinals or Dodgers/Giants, by putting those teams in different divisions.

The stated reason for a realignment like this is to reduce travel during the season. That’s a noble goal, to be sure. Fortunately, there’s another divisional alignment available that would include Portland and Montreal teams, be relatively compact geographically, and keep most of the current N.L. and A.L. teams together. Here’s a map of those proposed divisions. Thanks to BCB reader Theo’s Spare Soul for putting together this map:

In this scenario, all the current team rivalries are maintained. The Montreal team (presumably called “Expos,” as pretty much everyone wants that) would be come a National League club and Portland would head to the American League, becoming a rival with the Mariners. This alignment would also reunite the Phillies and Pirates in the same division, rekindling a Pennsylvania interstate rivalry that the teams had in the old N.L. East from 1969 through 1993. It would require two teams to shift leagues. The Rockies would go from the N.L. West to the new A.L. South, and while Denver isn’t really “south,” the longest in-division flight time for them (to Houston) would be just a bit over two hours. Similarly, the Rays would become a N.L. South team and have an in-state rivalry with the Marlins. Maybe that would help attendance in both places.

The longest in-division flight for any team in that map would be Seattle to Los Angeles, about three hours. Most in-division travel would be an hour or less, and only three divisions of the eight (A.L. Central, N.L. Central and N.L. South) would be split between two time zones. Currently, four of the six MLB divisions (A.L. Central, A.L. West, N.L. Central and N.L. West) are split between two time zones.

This is an elegant solution which maintains most of the existing league history; the two teams being asked to switch league in this scenario are both expansion teams (Rockies, 1993 and Rays, 1998).

Now, a few (or actually, a lot of) words about scheduling.

First, I wanted to address something that a number of people have mentioned regarding the Cubs’ 2019 schedule, and that’s the fact that three times this spring, the Cubs have had an off day after the first game of a series. That’s because in each case (Rangers, Braves and their own), they participated in a home opener. The off day, given for most teams playing in places where weather can be an issue early in the season, is given so those who paid premium prices for an “Opening Day” ticket can attend the season’s first game, instead of the fan who paid a much lower price for the season’s second game. To give an example, bleacher season ticket holders at Wrigley paid $88 for the home opener. The second game of the season for bleacher STH was $21. Single-game buyers paid more in both cases. I think you can see why someone who paid quite a bit for the home opener would be pretty unhappy to not be able to attend that game if it was postponed — as it was in 2018.

The next issue, though, is an inequitable split in off days for the Cubs and some of their division rivals. Here are the off days for the Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers this year, updated to reflect the Cubs’ rescheduling of the April 14 snowout to June 3. (In doing this, I am making the assumption here that since no Cubs player had to report to the ballpark April 14, that resulted in an “off day.”) Thanks to BCB reader JohnW53 for doing the research into this in this FanPost.

N.L. Central teams off days, 2019

Team March April May June July August September
Team March April May June July August September
Cubs 1 6 3 1 4 3 2
Brewers 0 3 4 4 2 5 2
Cardinals 0 5 4 3 2 4 2

At least for September, this is better than last year, where the Cubs had far fewer off days than the Brewers and a couple of them got filled with makeup games. But Milwaukee already has a built-in advantage of 81 home games that are not affected by weather. This is not to say that’s an excuse for the Cubs, but the league should do a better job of giving the Cubs more off days when the weather’s better and teams are more fatigued. I’ve already mentioned that the Cubs had three series this year involving home openers and thus had three off days early, but then also wound up with even more off days in April, presumably to make up postponements. This ignores the fact that if you have a game postponed in April, the weather the rest of the month is likely also going to be lousy.

Conclusion: Don’t schedule three West Coast teams, one of which is an A.L. team, to play in a northern city in April! (This happened last year, too, when the Pirates and Tigers had all six of their games scheduled by April 26. Result: one rainout and only one game-time temp above 50.) I am aware that with 15-team leagues, there has to be an interleague series at all times, but scheduling the Angels into Wrigley in mid-April was risking exactly what happened, a postponement that wasn’t easy to make up.

This will change when expansion happens and there are 16-team leagues — and let’s be clear, there aren’t really two “leagues” anymore. We have one league called “Major League Baseball” with the A.L. and N.L. being NFL-style conferences. This has been the case since interleague play began in 1997. Separate league offices and presidents were eliminated in 1999 and MLB has had a single umpiring staff since 2000. With an even number of teams to schedule, you don’t necessarily have to have interleague play all the time. For those of you who don’t like interleague — forget it, it’s not going away. But it could be returned to the mid-summer few weeks that it had in the schedule from 1997-2012.

And that’s where we get into the discussion of reducing the schedule. Even though it could cost owners money by eliminating home dates, this is very likely going to happen. It would result in a shorter regular season, helping eliminate some early weather problems. The main reason it’s likely to happen is that it could result in more playoffs, which makes MLB more money overall. That could make up for some teams losing home dates. What expanded playoffs would look like is still uncertain; the wild-card round could be expanded to best-of-three, or there could be 12 postseason teams instead of 10 in a 32-team MLB.

The question then becomes, how many games? There’s been talk of returning to the 154-game standard that was in place before 1962 (N.L.) and 1961 (A.L.), but the primary reason for 154 games then was... math. Each league had eight teams; 154 meant playing the other seven 22 times each. When expansion occurred, a 10-team league formed neatly into 18 games vs. nine other teams (162). In fact, the 162-game schedule has now been in effect longer than the 154-game schedule. This is the 59th season of 162 games (58 seasons in the N.L.). The 154-game schedule was in effect from 1904-60 in the A.L. (57 years) and 1904-61 in the National League (58 years). Things got messy with the schedule when the leagues expanded beyond 12 teams each.

So what number would work well with 16-team leagues, including interleague play?

First, I think we should all accept the fact that if Major League Baseball were being started from scratch in 2019, there’s no way we’d have a 162-game schedule. It’s long and fatiguing, especially with coast-to-coast air travel and night-to-day schedule switches, things that did not exist when 154-game schedules were put in place in 1904. You’d probably have around 140 games, begin in late April and end in late September and have far more off days.

Obviously, owners aren’t going to agree to drop 22 games off their calendar. Too much money is at stake.

Here’s a 156-game schedule proposal that might work, and help reduce travel.

20 games vs. teams in your own division = 60 games
Six games vs. all other teams in your league = 72 games
Three games vs. eight teams in the other league = 24 games

To keep the current “rivalries” going in interleague, those games would be played every year (Cubs/White Sox, etc.), rotating ballparks each year. I think one Cubs/White Sox series a year is enough.

This also would have the advantage of every team playing 23 of the other 31 teams every year, making everyone’s schedule more equitable. Further, you could put the 24 interleague games into one or two groups in the calendar every year, closer to summer (say, one around Memorial Day, the other near Independence Day) to reduce the risk of interleague postponements.

Each team would thus have 78 home games instead of 81. Yes, it would cost them money, but in the end probably be better for the game.

Well, that’s over 1,900 words on these ideas. I’m sure you have your own thoughts on these topics, so have at it.