Mookie Betts Trade Underscores NL West Imbalance by Brendan Gawlowski February 7, 2020 On Tuesday night, the Los Angeles Dodgers traded for Mookie Betts and David Price. Assuming the parties involved can hammer out the details, the deal obviously makes the Dodgers a better baseball team, both in the here and now and, to a lesser extent, in the future. For Los Angeles fans tired of October flameouts and agonizing World Series defeats, this is fantastic news: Betts alone is something like a five-win upgrade and he’ll make a long lineup that much more daunting come the playoffs. As far as simply reaching the playoffs goes though, Betts barely moves the needle. Of all the teams in baseball, it’s not like this one “needed” to get better, at least when it comes to maximizing its playoff chances. Dan Szymborski took great pains to express that the ZiPS projections he’s cooking up are still under-baked and not yet fit for public consumption; that caveat aside, he has the Dodgers projected to win the NL West by 12 games without Betts. With him in the fold, that jumps to 16. Los Angeles has already won the division seven times in a row; with a loaded roster, and a deep farm system, their streak wasn’t in any jeopardy this year and won’t be for some time yet. Whether or not the trade looks redundant in a competitive sense for the Dodgers, it must feel like just another body blow in Phoenix, Denver, and San Diego. Through the realities of geography, vagaries of expansion, and a league-wide desire to limit travel costs, four other franchises are stuck perpetually competing with the West Coast’s foremost superpower. The Giants have the resources to remain competitive in spite of their southern rival, but the other three teams have looked comparatively hapless. The Giants and Dodgers have captured all but one division title since 2007. In that period, the Padres, Diamondbacks, and Rockies have only reached the playoffs five times combined, never escaping the NLDS. For the little three, the Dodgers are an immovable barrier blocking any real chance of sustained success. That’s a problem in a league that emphasizes postseason glory first and foremost, particularly in a sport that is primarily consumed locally. The arbitrary unfairness of divisions isn’t a new problem. We hear about it whenever a club or two outgrows its neighborhood, most notably with the Braves at the turn of the century, or the AL East in the mid-aughts when the Yankees and Red Sox were swapping pennants while their division mates mostly failed to tread water. The point was as salient then as it is now, and the proof is in the results: Over the last 15 years, in a period where the Red Sox and Yankees each went through something like a slump by their standards, those two still managed to capture 11 division crowns and four championships. This isn’t an easy time to mount an argument against divisions, or really do anything else to address competitive balance. In an age where too many teams are willfully uncompetitive, the reflexive answer to any club crying about the big bad bully in their division would go something like “Well, have you really tried beating them?” There’s certainly no reason to feel badly for the perennially cellar-dwelling Marlins, a glorified hedge fund that happens to employ baseball players, or even a team like the Mariners, who have sporadically shown they have the financial wherewithal to compete, even as October baseball still dangles stubbornly out of reach. But that’s not really the case in the NL West. The Padres, at the very least, are battling. In recent years, the club has assembled arguably the top collection of minor league talent we’ve seen this century. That in and of itself isn’t a ticket to anywhere — the Friars headed a lot of 2012 prospect list rankings and got very little out of that core — but this system is already bearing fruit, in the form of stars like Fernando Tatis Jr. and Chris Paddack, with the promise of more on the way. San Diego has also been the rare bird active on the free agent market in recent years, having signed Eric Hosmer for $140 million prior to the 2018 season and Manny Machado for another $300 million the following winter. I don’t know if you could earnestly describe any major league club as financially “maxed out” or “all in.” But the Padres have been as aggressive as anyone lately, having combined big investments in free agency with a stellar crop of minor leaguers. And after all that, they’re probably stuck hoping for a spot in a Wild Card game some time in the next few years. It’s a similar story for the Diamondbacks. Arizona’s farm system is also one of the best in baseball, even after dealing from strength to acquire Starling Marte earlier this winter. The club has deftly moved on from the Goldschmidt era without tearing everything down, or even getting appreciably worse in the interim, and they’ve also busted out the checkbook in free agency, adding players like Madison Bumgarner and Kole Calhoun. In another division, they’d be legitimate contenders for the title. In this one, not so much. Colorado faces even greater competitive disadvantages. Rockies pitchers already have to work half of their games in the most difficult ballpark in baseball, which presents an undue burden on young pitchers acclimating to the big leagues and a significant obstacle to recruiting free agents who can help manage the load. Their hitters are also challenged by the altitude, especially on the road, when they must adjust to breaking balls dipping and spinning and dropping far more than they do at home. That they must also contend with a well-run financial behemoth like the Dodgers seems like at least one obstacle too many. That rings especially true when you compare the divisions. The Dodgers have won an average of 101 games over the past three years, and could well top that this season. The NL Central and NL East winners, meanwhile, have averaged 93 and 94.6 wins respectively over that time, with no club hitting the 100-win mark. The Central looks like a particularly flimsy division in 2020, where none of the five teams — three of which either got worse or were mostly inactive — look like a good bet to reach 90 wins. The fairness of a divisional system is predicated on an even distribution of talent, at least in the long run. That’s hard to achieve in any sport and it’s pretty clearly not a reality in baseball, where the biggest markets are densely concentrated on the coasts and a few huge teams can consistently squat atop the pile. Big franchises will always win disproportionately no matter the setup, and there’s only so much that can (and should) be done about that. But that doesn’t mean it’s fair for some challengers to have a taller hill to climb than others. The absurdity of the current setup from a competitive standpoint should be readily evident: It makes no sense to consistently handicap the Orioles and Diamondbacks with a tougher landscape than the Nationals and Tigers. The fairest fix is to eliminate the divisions. Most fans have embraced the second Wild Card, and there’s no reason you’d have to eliminate the play-in game in a new format. You’d simply line up the five best teams in each circuit, and have the fourth-best host the fifth for the honor of traveling to the league champ. The benefits are clear: It’s much fairer, and it also offers a chance to enhance the prestige of the regular season by conferring a greater importance on — and subsequently appreciation for — winning the most games in the league. Best of all, if the Diamondbacks win the third most games in the league, as they did in 2017, they won’t have to worry about gutting their way through the coin-flip round. Of course, to do this effectively you’d have to make everyone travel more, which costs time and money, something neither the players nor ownership seem likely to embrace. That’s the reality and with no shortage of pressing issues on the horizon before the next collective bargaining negotiation, divisional imbalance is not a subject likely to garner much air time. Sooner or later though, Padres fans are going to see their top farm system and big free agent outlays on one half of the division, and LA’s star-studded roster and financial might on the other, and think that there must be a better way to run things. They’ll be right about that.