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MLB expansion might not happen for a long time

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How did this come to light? That, dear reader, is an interesting story.

The skyline of Nashville, Tennessee, a potential MLB expansion city
Photo by: John Greim/Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Major League Baseball last expanded in 1998, when the (then) Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks were added to the group, making a 30-team league.

That’s quite some time in the expansion era; since expansion of baseball began in 1961, the previous longest gap between expansions was 16 years, between the addition of the Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners to the American League in 1977 and the creation of the Colorado Rockies and (then) Florida Marlins in the National League in 1993.

Among other things, adding two teams to MLB would make scheduling a lot easier; two 16-team leagues break down easily into divisions of four or eight, and there have been numerous proposals of how to schedule such a league that would help (among other things) making up postponed games.

It’s been assumed in some quarters that MLB owners would love to have two expansion teams soon, because expansion fees, which could total a billion dollars (or more) per franchise would help the existing owners make up some of the losses suffered in the pandemic.

Jayson Stark of The Athletic wrote this long and interesting article about how the Phillies finally landed Dave Dombrowski to be their President of Baseball Operations.

In it, Stark notes that Dombrowski had taken a position as a consultant to a group dedicated to bringing an MLB team to Nashville, either by expansion or relocation. Dombrowski’s commitment to this group seemed sincere and complete — he’d even moved his family to Nashville.

When Phillies president Andy MacPhail called and expressed interest in Dombrowski, Dombrowski turned him down twice.

After striking out on several other possibilities, Phillies owner John Middleton asked MacPhail to call Dombrowski again, and this time MacPhail left a message saying Middleton would be calling:

Dombrowski and Middleton wound up speaking for more than an hour. They’d known each other for years. But they’d never had a conversation like this. Among the topics was this game-changer:

“Dave,” Middleton said, frankly, “I don’t think expansion is going to happen for a long time.”

Just the day before, in one of his periodic conversations with the commissioner’s office about the situation in Nashville, Dombrowski had heard a similar take. It got him thinking.

Oh.

Then:

Dombrowski put in another call to his friends at MLB. For the third time in 24 hours, he heard the same message.

Nashville was a great city, he was told. And it was high on MLB’s list, but, in part because of COVID-19, it would be years before the league was ready to expand. And there was no scenario in which any club would be moving there (or anywhere) anytime soon.

That’s about as definitive an answer regarding expansion and/or relocation of existing ballclubs that you’re going to see as 2020 turns the calendar to 2021. So, as much as the Nashville group wanted to make MLB happen in their city, it wasn’t going to happen in the near future. That’s when Dombrowski decided to take the Phillies position.

The conclusion I reach from reading that is that we’re likely 8-10 years away from any MLB expansion. Relocation? Well, the Rays still have their stadium issue, and their lease at Tropicana Field runs through 2028. There was a crazy proposal for them to split time between Tampa and Montreal; that’s likely a non-starter for many reasons, but it’s entirely possible the Rays pack up and move to Montreal after their lease is up. Expansion would likely have to wait till after that.

There’s one more thing in the Stark article of interest to Cubs fans, unrelated to expansion. It has to do with Theo Epstein, who was contacted by Phillies management to see if he’d be interested in the position Dombrowski eventually accepted:

A source close to Epstein said the Phillies reached out, via a request from Middleton to Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts. They were told, politely, that Theo wasn’t interested in this or any front-office job like the one he’d just left in Chicago.

Oh, again.

Whether this was Theo saying “Not now” or “Not ever” isn’t clear. Personally, I think Theo’s done with being “President of Baseball Operations” or a similar title for an individual baseball team. Perhaps his future could be in the Commissioner’s office.

As always, we await developments.