Throw It Like a Ballplayer

providing baseball commentary and ponderings since April 2010

Realignment? How far can we go?

Posted by dannmckeegan on May 24, 2010

After one full weekend of play, the interleague record is tied at 21 wins each for the National and American Leagues. Meanwhile, the Pirates and the Braves went quietly about their business, oblivious to the specialness of Bud Selig’s grand project. The Braves took 2 of 3 from their National League counterpart, outscoring host Pittsburgh 13 to 5. Everyone gets in on the fun of juggling either a pitching staff or a ninth hitter…except for the fans of those two teams. With the CBA expiring in the upcoming years, MLB and the MLBPA need to negotiate ways in which they might alter the composition of the league.

Barring expansion, they need to talk real realignment.

Floating Realignment

This radical idea emanated as a rumor out of Bud Selig’s 14-person panel commissioned to explore issues of competition in today’s game. Instead of fixed divisions, teams could “float” from season to season based not only on where they call home, but also how much they plan to spend on payroll and what expectations they have of contention.

Maybe the Twins want to rekindle old AL West rivalries with Seattle, Texas, the Angels and the Athletics. They move to the AL West and financially benefit from the extra games played against a big market team in Los Angeles. Tampa Bay then sees Minnesota’s exit as a chance to escape the Yankees and Red Sox for a year. They hop to the Central and lick their lips for KC and Cleveland. It’s radical thinking, something I doubt would be amenable to the majority of fans.

The Neyer Plan

Rob Neyer of ESPN wrote about realignment on his blog a few days back, mentioning that the general topic is one of many that often comes up during his lunches with retired ballplayer and Big League Chew inventor Rob Nelson. Nelson has tossed out tweaking the two leagues to fifteen teams apiece, eliminating both the unbalanced schedule and divisions in general, and having five teams make the playoffs. The bottom two would have something like a play-in game or three-game series.

Neyer’s own preference is also for league standings without interleague play. He believes in having those standings divided into thirds. That way, the wild cards (or whatever one would call it) would maintain interest and the fifth spot would be wide open late into the season.

A Modest Proposal

Personally, I believe MLB does need to make some changes to its structure. Barring expansion, the American League will always have a competitive advantage over the National. This does not mean the AL will be a better league.
Rather, it simply means that an AL West team could make the playoffs having only been ahead of two teams. Meanwhile, a team in the cellar of the NL Central has five other teams at which it must look up. This spreads to the other divisions as well, as the AL teams face non-division opponents much more often than their NL counterparts. There is no reason for Philadelphia to play Boston more times in a year (6) than the Cubs will be playing Colorado (5). It’s absurd.
So what is the first step in making a modest change? There will be no one changing leagues. No teams will be expanded or contracted. The playoff structure won’t change from its current 8-team structure. No, the first step will simply be the nullification of the realignment from two divisions to three that occurred after the Rockies and Marlins debuted. This would re-set the situation to the following:

American League National League
West East West East
Chicago Baltimore Atlanta Chicago
Kansas City Boston Cincinnati New York
Los Angeles…of Anaheim Cleveland Houston Philadelphia
Minnesota Detroit Los Angeles Pittsburgh
Oakland Milwaukee San Diego St. Louis
Seattle New York San Francisco Washington
Texas Toronto +Colorado +Florida

Fourteen in the AL, twelve in the NL, some nonsensical geography because of relocation and, I presume, longstanding tradition. Then the Marlins and Rockies showed up to balance things out. The next additions to MLB necessitated not only a new team for each league, but also the switching of an established team from AL to NL. The goal for the Arizona/Tampa expansion was to prevent the one-league talent dilution of the expansion draft. So the Rays joined the AL East, the D’Backs the AL West, and the Brewers the NL Central. Three divisions formed:

American League National League
West Central East West Central East
Los Angeles…of Anaheim Chicago Baltimore Arizona Chicago Atlanta
Oakland Cleveland Boston Colorado Cincinnati Florida
Seattle Detroit New York Los Angeles Houston New York
Texas Kansas City Tampa Bay San Diego Milwaukee Philadelphia
no one Minnesota Toronto San Francisco Pittsburgh, St. Louis Washington

Six in one, four in another. Unbalanced schedules. Some with great proximity, others with lots of Frequent Flier miles. A barely functional system exists holding together 162 games’ worth of baseball. Contrived and convoluted seem to be apt adjectives for the sales tactics of a used car salesman, which of course falls right in line with Mr. Selig’s past. What if we simply undid the three-division alignment and made the 1998 expansion happen with the old structure? Wouldn’t it look something like this?

American League National League
East West West East
Baltimore Chicago Arizona Atlanta
Boston Kansas City Chicago Cincinnati
Cleveland Los Angeles…of Anaheim Colorado Florida
Detroit Minnesota Houston Milwaukee
New York Oakland Los Angeles New York
Tampa Bay Seattle San Diego Philadelphia
Toronto Texas San Francisco Pittsburgh
no one no one St. Louis Washington

Hmmm…it’s a decent first draft. But the divisional shifts – especially the Cards and Cubs to the “West” just feels downright wrong. But who is to say that already arbitrary longitudinal divisions should govern alignment? Why couldn’t we focus instead on changes in latitude? The obvious issue is time zone differences, but with a rebalanced schedule, that would already be dealt with somewhat. Here is a potential revision:

American League National League
East West South North
Baltimore Chicago Arizona Chicago
Boston Kansas City Atlanta Cincinnati
Cleveland Los Angeles…of Anaheim Colorado Milwaukee
Detroit Minnesota Florida New York
New York Oakland Houston Philadelphia
Tampa Bay Seattle Los Angeles Pittsburgh
Toronto Texas San Diego St. Louis
no one no one San Francisco Washington

So we can leave the American League alone for now and flip the NL on its side. The Giants and Rockies remain “south” simply because it makes more sense for them to maintain current divisional rivalries than shoehorn the Nats (let’s be honest – Expos) and Cardinals out of their history, as well. So this is a definite step closer to a workable solution, and one that would be rather easy to implement.

I would hardly claim this to be a be-all, end-all. However, I think that some level of structure is necessary. A non-divisional route is foolish. A single list of all teams in a league would make the standings a painful read for many fans. This would almost certainly result in declining sales for the stragglers. Symbolically, it feels better to be fourth out of five than eleventh of sixteen. At the opposite end is a four-team divisional system like in the other major sports. The playoff structure of those leagues, though, lends itself to smaller divisions and the immediate impact of their respective draft in overcoming their rivals.

Baseball is in the middle.

An eight-team playoff has proved largely effective. In a two-league/two-division format, this would be retained with four overall wild card berths in addition to the four division winners. Rather than awarding wild cards simply to the second place teams, the two wild cards in each league would be rewarded to the top two non-division winners. That could be the second place teams, or it could be the second and third place teams of one strong division. It would give all the teams a much greater level of control over their own fates.

Immodest Thoughts, Not Yet Propositioned

MLB also should consider some cross-league realignment. The distribution of the media markets and the importance of local rivalries might make local competition undesirable. Likewise, traditional league relationships might be hard to break. But there ought to be some consideration of making some considerable changes to the make-up of the two leagues. This isn’t the 1950s anymore. Change is good. Consider a four division league that looks like this:

Western Division: Mariners, Rockies, Giants, Athletics, Dodgers, Angels, Padres, and Diamondbacks

Midwestern Division: Twins, Brewers, Cubs, White Sox, Cardinals, Indians, Phillies and Pirates

Eastern Division: Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Orioles, Nationals, Blue Jays, and Tigers

Southern Division: Rangers, Royals, Astros, Rays, Marlins, Braves, and Reds

Consider each division individually:

-Geographically, the West makes sense in terms of travel, time zones, and rivalries. It also matches markets of different sizes and teams of different ages (from the 12-year-old Diamondbacks to the century and a quarter of the Brooklyn Bridegrooms and New York Gothams. All of those teams have shown the ability to compete at a high level, with each of those teams having made the playoffs in the last decade.

-The Midwestern division would offer some of the best regional rivalries. Chicago and Philadelphia, being two of the top media markets in the country, will command attention for themselves and the rest of the division. Other than the Pirates, all of the teams know how to be good. And despite this, one can still see a competent and interested Pittsburgh ownership and management guiding them back to respectability.

-The Eastern division initially looks like the “Superconference” or, at least, a top/bottom mismatch. However, we have seen that Detroit at times can build a good team and put money into it. The Nationals, Jays and Orioles are at different stages of rebuilding/youth movements that might allow them to reinvigorate skeptical fan bases. And we have seen the Mets struggle to be competitive, too. The Yankees and Red Sox are largely old and expensive, a dangerous combo, even for such large markets.

-The Southern division would allow for a lot of the smaller markets and/or franchises with less successful histories to grow up. The Reds, obviously, seem a little out of place here as an original NL team that is located away to the north. However, this grouping is similar to the West in terms of opportunity.

This rough draft – combined with a rebalanced schedule – would help to provide competitive balance without requiring salary changes or anything like that. While there are large and small markets mixed together, there is also an intentional opportunity built into the plan. The playoffs are “come as you are.” A good team in a “stronger” division, but from a smaller market (e.g. Orioles in the East), could make the playoffs as the third-place team if they could have more wins than the #2 in the other division in their league.

It’s yet another crazy idea to dump on the pile. I’m a fan of a team that moved its opening day starter to the pen, then decided to pull him back, and signed Bob Howry to take his place. I guess mad science is rubbing off on me.  Ramblings and ravings of madmen are sometimes worth listening to…hell, look at the careers of sabermetricians…

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