A month ago, we had a spirited argument over the idea of “floating realignment” — a basically impossible-to-implement notion by which teams would be able to choose which division they wished to play in. It signaled that Major League Baseball recognized the current alignment of teams is flawed, particularly because of the Yankee/Red Sox domination in the AL East.
Now, courtesy of Yahoo’s Jeff Passan and NBC’s Craig Calcaterra, we have a new idea: “unalignment.” Delete all divisions. Eliminate unbalanced schedules. The top four teams in each league advance to the postseason. As it was before the advent of the division era in 1969, playoff placement would depend entirely on won-loss record, not on who shares your division.
The plan has a few obvious things to recommend it, simplicity and fairness chief among them. Unbalanced schedules have been controversial since they were introduced, an attempt by Bud Selig to nurture baseball rivalries and boost revenues — and of course nothing boosts revenues more than a few more Yankees-Red Sox games every year. They also are patently unfair: the Blue Jays play 50-60 games a year against the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays, while the Tigers play 50-60 games a year against the Royals, Indians, and White Sox, and the Cubs play 50-60 games a year against the Astros, Pirates, Reds, and Brewers. It’s a lot easier to win games when you can beat up on the weak, whether you’re the Yankees or the Twins.
And it’s a lot harder to win games when you’re trapped in the same division as baseball’s two wealthiest teams, as recently measured by Forbes. As Joe Posnanski writes, “The Yankees’ revenue stream is so enormous, it will give them a gigantic competitive advantage that should make them the favorites to win every… single… year.” So it seems doubly unfair to punish the Blue Jays, Orioles, and Rays for the Yankees’ structural advantages by forcing them to try to leapfrog the richest team in baseball, every… single… year.
The plan’s main drawbacks? The thing is, the divisions and unbalanced schedule aren’t all bad, as many of Calcaterra’s readers point out. Because the divisions are generally geographically aligned, the unbalanced schedule means that teams play a greater number of away games in the same time zone as their home city. It does make for a more exciting stretch run for each team to have to play its division rivals more than others. Getting rid of divisions might increase fairness, but it’s not clear that it would make the stretch run more exciting: “No one wants to watch a tenth place team,” writes David Pinto. Because of their infinitely deep pockets, the Yankees and Red Sox will still be at the top of the heap, and it likely won’t be any easier for small-market and mid-market teams to make it to the playoffs. The ones left at the bottom, meanwhile, will be depressingly further down.
The thing is, any realignment solution is bound to be unsatisfying, because ultimately they’re all workarounds for the real problem, which is baseball’s underlying asymmetry of revenue. The Yankees will always be richer than everyone else, no matter what. Passan defends his own plan by saying that it’s the best solution “short of a salary cap, to which the players’ union will never agree.” This is a workaround solution that doesn’t address the true structural problems of baseball’s revenue, all in order to benefit the Orioles and Blue Jays while possibly adversely affecting teams in the other five divisions in baseball. It just doesn’t seem worth it.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.