Please pardon this break from playoff-related content.
Writing for Baseball America earlier this month, longtime baseball scribe Tracy Ringolsby reported there’s “building consensus” that MLB is soon headed toward expansion and a 32-team structure and perhaps a 156-game schedule.
There have been rumblings of expansion for some time.
As a guest in the Rockies’ broadcast booth back in August, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred was asked about expansion. He again suggested that the stadium issues in Oakland and Tampa must first be resolved. But once those situations are put to rest, MLB seems committed to expansion. Manfred has said baseball is, ultimately, a “growth industry.” Manfred then, during the broadcast, mentioned other incentives for expansion that this author hadn’t previously heard the commissioner address.
“I think 32 [teams] would help us from a schedule and format perspective,” Manfred said. “It would really be an improvement. Even numbers. Getting rid of the [five-team divisions] would really be a good deal for us.”
So expansion would largely be motivated by a desire for growth, but it would have a significant ancillary benefit, too: the addition of two more clubs would allow the league to restructure dramatically the way its divisions are aligned, its playoffs are structured, and the way its season is scheduled. Reshaping divisions could also reduce travel for players, which would please the MLBPA. The relentless demands of the schedule and the travel it requires are both increasing concerns for players. Ringolsby addresses those issues in his Baseball America piece. He also proposes radical geographic realignment with four, eight-team divisions, as follow:
East: Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Miami, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, and Washington.
North: Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Minnesota, Montreal, both New York franchises, and Toronto.
Midwest: Both Chicago franchises, Colorado, Houston, Kansas City, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Texas.
West: Anaheim, Arizona, Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle.
Montreal seems like a favorite to land an expansion team. As for team No. 32? There are many options. Portland is perhaps an increasingly popular one, and the city made a bid to lure the Expos in 2003, as Jay Jaffe noted in a deep dive on the subject last week for Sports Illustrated.
An increase to 32 teams would force a split to two or four divisions per league, and this author suspects MLB would favor the later. The introduction of eight separate four-team divisions would increase would create even better odds for clubs, however arbitrary and manufactured those divisions might be. Either four- or eight-team divisions would likely result in a playoff expansion, an extra division winner, or extra wild cards. (When has a playoff format ever contracted?)
But this author suspects the sport would benefit from four divisions rather than eight. Eight-team divisions would place even more importance and prestige upon regular-season success. With larger divisions and perhaps more balanced schedules, there could be a benefit in playing different intraleague teams more often. There would be more schedule diversity and the chance for more rivalries to emerge organically. In the present arrangement, teams play only a home and away series with each non-division league foe per season. The adoption of a four-division system would also possess an advantage over the eight-division one in that such a structure reduces the possibility of a mediocre or even a sub-.500 team, of reaching the playoffs.
The following is a guess from this author on what four, eight-team divisions would look like:
|NL WEST||NL EAST||AL WEST||AL EAST|
Basically, it would look like the pre-1994 divisions with expansion teams added.
Nor does this address the advantage for Major League Baseball of operating with an even numbers of teams — namely, in that it would liberate baseball from the tyranny of odd numbers. Specifically, it would allow the league to stop worrying constantly about the state of interleague play.
In fact, this author will argue that the game would be better off without interleague play and with more geographically focused divisions.
Having some experience in covering college football, I was able to observe the effects of geographic proximity on great rivalries — Alabama-Auburn, Florida-Georgia, Ohio State-Michigan, South Carolina-Clemson, UCLA-Southern California, etc. Baseball, too, could benefit from allowing geographic proximity heighten and create rivalries, which would ultimately increase interest and promote business. And if there’s a future with less interleague play, it might make sense to pair the best of the interleague rivals together in the same division so that they play more frequently.
More Mets-Yankees, more Cubs-White Sox, A’s-Giants, Dodgers-Angels, and Orioles-Nationals wouldn’t be bad for the sport. Maybe the owners of the No. 2-ranking franchises would feel differently. In any case, I made some modest proposals of my own earlier this year.
As for possible roadblocks to such an arrangement, here’s Jaffe again:
The MLB Players Association was said to oppose seven-or eight-team divisions due to the stigma of finishing so low in the standings, and teams in two-team cities voiced concern. … Would the tight-fisted Mets and White Sox want to compete in the same markets with the free-spending Yankees and Cubs?
If the players are reluctant, that represents an obvious impediment; however, this author isn’t so sure that, in the cable and internet area, there’s a need for a major city (New York, L.A., Chicago) to have an anchor in each league. Wouldn’t the game be better off with those rivalries in the same division? The MLBPA would be better off, I’d think, with the new alignment fostering more incentive to compete, thereby increasing payroll spending.
There’s also this: without interleague play, both the All-Star Game and World Series would become more interesting — and perhaps produce greater TV ratings — because they’d offer the novelty of players and clubs that hadn’t faced each other during the regular season. There’s something to be said for an element of mystery.
And perhaps it would be more equitable for Wild Card qualification, as well, featuring a higher concentration of games between the teams fighting for those final spots. Shouldn’t Wild Card races be determined more by head-to-head meetings and intraleague play?
When the 31st and 32nd teams are added — and it seems like MLB is intent on adding them — baseball must change. With change comes opportunity. Expansion will offer a chance to schedule and align in a smarter, more interesting, more efficient, way.