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A few more thoughts about MLB expansion, realignment and scheduling

It’s gonna happen — but not for a while yet.

Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Some of the comments to my post yesterday about the new balanced MLB schedule turned to the idea of MLB realignment, so I thought I’d address that again here today.

The last time I wrote on this topic was last summer, after Commissioner Rob Manfred made some comments about expansion. Manfred had made those comments at the All-Star Game in Los Angeles, and as always, he summed up the issue this way:

“I can’t do better on timeline than I need to get Oakland and Tampa results before we can realistically have a conversation about expansion,” Manfred said. “Those situations in my view are serious enough and timely enough that they have to be our No. 1 focus.”

Six months later, where do we stand on the Oakland and Tampa Bay stadium situations?

In Oakland, they’re still trying to get funding sorted out for a new stadium, and Las Vegas appears to still be an option.

In Tampa Bay, there’s a proposal for a new stadium but still no word on who’s going to pay for it, and further, that proposal is for a ballpark in St. Petersburg, which is where Tropicana Field is located. St. Petersburg is probably the worst possible location for a baseball park in the Tampa Bay area, largely because it’s isolated with only a couple of bridges to get in and out. This is where the Trop is located:

I’ve been to the Trop. It’s not a great park, but it’s perfectly fine for baseball — except for its location. They need to go to the east side of Tampa Bay.

Anyway, the bottom line is that neither of these situations appears close to resolution and Manfred says no expansion until they are. There’s no doubt that MLB owners would love to pocket expansion fees from two new ballclubs — that could be somewhere in the $2 billion range for each. But that will have to wait. I don’t see expansion coming until the end of this decade — if then.

But when it does happen, that will make realignment and scheduling much easier. With 15 teams in the NL and 15 in the AL, interleague play has to happen every day. That results in schedules such as the one I posted in yesterday’s article, which has four West division teams coming to Wrigley Field in April. This is an exceptionally bad idea considering the likely Chicago weather in April. They’re just asking for either a) multiple postponements, as we had in one homestand in 2018, or b) playing games in horrific conditions.

Also, as a friend of mine pointed out on Facebook, with the new scheduling format:

Each team plays the four teams in its own division only two series at home. That means that all but four series in the course of the season will be the visiting team’s last visit of the year. So ANYTHING that interferes with a game is likely to cause rescheduling headaches, greatly increase travel stress, and pile up games at the end of the season. All based on the assumption that a Cubs fan is just dying to see Mike Trout at least every other year.

He’s right, in my view.

Regarding realignment once expansion occurs, some have thought that this might result in “radical realignment,” tearing apart the current league structures to make new divisions. That might even include the Cubs and White Sox (and Yankees/Mets, Dodgers/Angels and Giants/A’s) in the same division.

I can’t speak for people in New York, Los Angeles or the San Francisco Bay Area, but I can say confidently that no one in Chicago wants or needs to see the Cubs and White Sox play a dozen times a year or more. There’s too much enmity between a significant portion of the fanbases. It’s just asking for trouble. And while having four games (the current number) a year between the two games helps sell tickets, a dozen or more could create quite the yawn for ticket sales. There’s often a thought in American business: “If some of something is good, more of that thing must be better!” That’s not the case here.

“But Al!”, you’re saying. “The NBA and NHL do this, put same-market teams in the same division, and it works!” Well... sure, but the shorter schedules mean fewer intra-market games. For example, the New York Rangers play the New York Islanders three times this season and the New Jersey Devils four times. That’s not an extraordinarily large number. The New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets play four times. That’s the same number of games those teams have against the Celtics, Cavaliers and a couple of other NBA East teams.

There are ways to realign Major League Baseball, post-expansion, that would preserve much of the existing league structure, create new rivalries and reconstitute old ones, without blowing up 100+ years of history and tradition.

In my article last summer, I assigned the two expansion franchises to Las Vegas and Nashville, figuring MLB would want one new team in the West and one in the East, and also assuming the stadium situations in Oakland and Tampa get settled and those teams remain in place. (If not, and the A’s do move to Las Vegas, substitute Portland for Vegas). I still think that’s a viable way to do it. If that happens, this could be a divisional split:

AL East: Red Sox, Blue Jays, Yankees, Orioles
AL South: Rays, Astros, Rangers, Royals
AL Central: White Sox, Tigers, Guardians, Twins
AL West: Mariners, A’s, Angels, Las Vegas

NL East: Mets, Phillies, Nationals, Pirates
NL Central: Cubs, Cardinals, Brewers, Rockies
NL South: Braves, Marlins, Reds, Nashville
NL West: Dodgers, Giants, Padres, Diamondbacks

This would preserve almost all of the current league structure, reduce travel by putting teams in pretty close geographical proximity, and only four of the divisions (AL South, AL Central, NL South, NL Central) would comprise more than one time zone — and in all four cases, just one time zone’s difference. It keeps key rivalries like Cubs/Cardinals and Red Sox/Yankees and puts the Pirates and Phillies back in the same division for the first time since 1993 for an in-state rivalry.

Now, here’s how to schedule these new divisions while a) keeping divisional play important but b) still allowing teams to face every team every year:

11 games vs. teams in your own division (an odd number to make sure a tiebreaker would be valid for postseason), total of 33 games

Six games vs. all the other teams in your league, total of 72 games

Six games vs. the matching division in the other league, total of 24 games

Three games vs. three divisions in the other league, total of 27 games

That’s a total of 156 games, and the regular season’s going to have to be shrunk to make room for expanded playoffs, and you know MLB’s going to want a 16-team postseason once they expand to 32 teams. The way I’d do it is simple: Have the top two teams in each of the eight divisions qualify, and the first round would be a “divisional playoff,” a best-of three series, then the eight remaining teams would move on to a division series round as they do now. With a shorter season, the postseason starts earlier so it could still be wrapped up by early November. Teams would lose three home dates compared to now, which wouldn’t be too much of a burden, I wouldn’t think.

I have no doubt that MLB wants to reduce the regular season and expand the postseason, because they can extract more money out of TV networks for postseason games.

What do you think?