What Would a Post-Expansion MLB Look Like?

Baseball will grow again.

In the modern era, there never has been a longer expansion drought.

Perhaps once the stadium situations involving Oakland and Tampa Bay are settled, baseball will consider expanding for the first time since admitting the Diamondbacks and Rays in 1998. (It’s possible that teams like Tampa or Oakland would relocate, but research by Craig Edwards earlier this week revealed how infrequently MLB teams change addresses.) Perhaps now that baseball owners have cashed in some of their investment in MLB Advanced Media, expansion talk will become more serious in the coming years. Having a new CBA agreement could also help.

Wherever, whenever baseball expands, at some point, every business seeks new markets to enter.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred expressed interest in expansion last year and is in favor of targeting international markets like Mexico City and Montreal . There are also domestic contenders often cited like Charlotte, Las Vegas, Portland, San Antonio. Some believe a third team would do well in the NYC market, though territorial rights – among other issues – complicate matters. Back in 2012 for Baseball Prospectus, Maury Brown used a thorough methodology to rank expansion candidates.

Given the game’s history in Montreal (the Expos drew 2.1 million or more fans four times in five years from 1979 to -83), and the recent successful exhibition games there, I suspect Montreal is a favorite to land a team. Who wouldn’t love to hear more of this:

Assuming the sport reaches 32 teams in the not-too-distant future, assuming one team is placed in each league for an even 16-16 split, MLB then would be met with interesting logistical issues. Baseball could perhaps remain with the status quo of three divisions in each league, but having unbalanced divisions seems awkward and unfair to teams in those divisions. Asked about division setup, Manfred indicated it’s unlikely the sport would remain with the three-division setup following expansion.

“From a technical perspective it would be easier to divide the schedule up by four. Having five teams in the divisions is problematic from a scheduling perspective.”

So with expansion, baseball will have have to redraw its maps, and there would be some interesting issues to work through.

Issue No. 1
Are four-team divisions in each league optimal or two eight-team groupings?

Issue No. 2
Should MLB expand the playoffs to six teams per league, or keep the field at five?

Issue No. 3
Should MLB realign teams by geography, or try and preserve as many of the rivalries and division arrangements as possible?

Issue No. 4
Should MLB keep interleague play or abolish it? (With teams evenly distributed in leagues, interleague play is no longer a scheduling necessity.)

There are other issues to consider, but for the purposes of keeping this post manageable, I will stop there. While we on the outside ultimately have little influence in how these decisions will play out, it’s still fun to play baseball czar regarding the issue. We can try and predict what we think will happen versus what we think should happen.

What Would Likely Happen

Here’s how I suspect the leauge would address each of the issues cited above.

Issue No. 1
I suspect MLB, as Manfred hinted in the story mentioned earlier, would divide the league into eight, four-team divisions. The more division races, the more potential interest down the stretch. Also, assuming an unbalanced schedule, players would be in favor of a format that reduces total travel time and miles. Splitting leagues into four divisions also levels the field to a degree, as larger coastal markets would generally be grouped together.

Issue No. 2
In something approximating sporting law, almost all playoff formats expand over time. While I think baseball will be careful not to turn the postseason into NBA- and NHL-style affairs, the sport is probably headed toward a six-team field in each league, with two teams receiving byes and four teams participating in play-in rounds. (Whether that remains one game or multiple games is a subject for another post.)

Issue No. 3
Baseball’s traditional element still carry value, so I believe most significant rivalries would be protected in any realignment discussions.

Issue No. 4
I suspect interleague play would remain, though perhaps in a lessened and modified way.

What Ought to Happen

As noted above, playing the role of baseball czar has its pleasures. Here are my own contributions.

Issue No. 1
I’m in favor of four, eight-team divisions. I fear the sub-.500 division champion that a four-division setup will occasionally allow, and I like the idea of division championship being meaningful and attached to a first-round bye in the postseason. Moreover, eight-team divisions could allow for more rivalries to develop as teams would play more diverse – and equitable – schedules.

The following are some modest proposals for realignment.

This proposal is a hedge between trying to create some better geographic fits while respecting traditional rivalries.

A Modest Proposal for AL Realignment
AL WEST AL SOUTH AL NORTH AL EAST
Angels Rangers White Sox Yankees
Mariners Astros Tigers Red Sox
A’s Royals Indians Blue Jays
Rockies Twins Brewers (Montreal?)

 

A Modest Proposal for NL Realignment
NL WEST NL SOUTH NL NORTH NL EAST
Giants Braves Cubs Mets
Dodgers Marlins Cardinals Phillies
Padres Rays Reds Nationals
Dbacks Expansion 2 Pirates Orioles

In going to eight, four-team divisions, some teams become awkward geographic fits and some organizations might benefit from switching leagues. Baltimore sits between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., two potential natural rivals. The Rockies could benefit by switching to the DH league, and the Mariners would welcome replacing Texas-based teams with a Denver-based team to reduce some travel mileage. It might make some sense to group the Florida teams together with Atlanta.

The following is an eight-team division proposal without any teams jumping leagues:

A Modest Proposal for Four-Division Realignment
NL WEST NL EAST AL WEST AL EAST
Giants Mets Angels Yankees
Dodgers Phillies Mariners Red Sox
Padres Nationals A’s Blue Jays
Dbacks Pirates Twins Orioles
Rockies Braves Rangers Indians
Cardinals Marlins Astros Tigers
Cubs Reds Royals Rays
Brewers Expansion NL White Sox Expansion AL

Issue No. 2
With an even number of divisions, an increased playoff field almost certainly requires an even number of playoff teams whether that be four- or six- per league. I’d love to see a best-of-three, play-in series that featured eight teams vying for four spots determined in the first weekend of October. Baseball would have its own, truncated version of March Madness.

Issue No. 3
I’d be fascinated to see a geography-driven realignment.

Here’s a radical proposal to make four-team divisions largely based upon geography:

A Radical Realignment (AL)
AL WEST AL SOUTH AL CENTRAL AL EAST
Mariners Rangers Reds Yankees
Rockies Astros Tigers Mets
Dbacks Brewers Indians Red Sox
Padres Twins Pirates Blue Jays

 

A Radical Realignment (NL)
NL WEST NL SOUTH NL CENTRAL NL EAST
Dodgers Braves Cubs Nationals
Angels Rays Cardinals Orioles
A’s Marlins White Sox Phillies
Giants Expansion 2 Royals Expansion 1

Why not place both New York, Chicago, Bay Area and Los Angeles teams in the same division? There could be a true Rust Belt division in the AL. The NL East, Central and West look like a lot of fun. This regional realignment focus could add, improve and strengthen rivalries and fan interest. It is through regional rivalries that college football derives much of its interest and passion.

Issue No. 4
Let’s end interleague play, which would add an element of unknown, curiosity – and viewership – to the All-Star Game and World Series.

Feel free to play commish for the day in the comments section. For now, it’s a fun thought exercise. But it will perhaps become a real exercise for baseball decision makers in the not too distant future.

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Brad Johnson
Member
Member

AL South: Twins

Minneapolis is either the third or fourth northernmost venue. +1 if you include Montreal.

White Jar
Member
White Jar

Also a missed opportunity for a new Twins/Brewers rivalry. I think if both teams are in the AL, they should really be in the same division.

Edit: Looks like he took care of this in his radical realignment.

Lanidrac
Member
Lanidrac

It’s like how the Braves and Reds were in the original NL West just because the whiny Cubs couldn’t handle a bunch of west coast trips and the Cardinals naturally insisted on staying with the Cubs.

ottoneu
Member
ottoneu

I think the biggest problem there there need to be more Texas teams. Or at least some kind of a bridge. Sending the Cubs, Braves, or Reds to the West is bad.

If the NL added an OKC team into the mix, or even a further West team, they could flip the Astros and Brewers, make the Astros an NL West team, make Kansas City an AL West team and it should pretty much work.