MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has openly pined for expansion, and it seems highly likely, now that a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is in force, that steps toward that end will soon commence. MLB will almost certainly add two teams, and Montreal, Portland, Charlotte, and Mexico City seem like the leading contenders at this still reasonably early hour.
Speaking of which, veteran scribe Tracy Ringolsby of Baseball America has some compelling details on the rather radical plans MLB may be hatching on this front. Dig it ...
There seems to be a building consensus that baseball will soon be headed to a 32-team configuration. It will lead to major realignment and adjustments in schedule, which will allow MLB to address the growing concerns of the union about travel demands and off days.
One proposal would be to geographically restructure into four divisions, which would create a major reduction in travel, particularly for teams on the East Coast and West Coast, and add to the natural rivalries by not just having them as interleague attractions, but rather a part of the regular divisional battles.
First off, you're going to want to click through and give Ringolsby's story a full read. He's got the details on which city may be emerging as an expansion frontrunner among frontrunners, and he's lays out what a four-division league might look like. The most interesting hypothetical is MLB's getting rid of AL-NL distinctions altogether and divvying up all 32 teams into four divisions of eight teams each, sorted geographically. Presumably, such a move would entail a move toward rules uniformity insofar as the designated hitter rule is concerned. Since it's hard to imagine that the DH will go away (for the MLBPA to sign off on losing the DH, it would require major concessions elsewhere on the part of team owners -- concessions that owners are unlikely to make), the days of pitchers hitting would likely be over under this scenario.
With that tantalizing possibility laid out, we ask: What should expansion and the restructuring that flows from it look like? Thankfully, this scribe is hear to tell you how you should feel about all that. Will what follows be broken up into easily digestible sections for today's busy executive? Yea and also verily ...
Keep the leagues
Since Bud Selig was in the middle years of his lengthy tenure, the two leagues have been gradually sloughing off the differences that defined them for so long (notwithstanding the DH issue). The two leagues no longer maintain separate offices, the interleague-play Rubicon was long ago crossed, and we even saw two teams switch leagues while Selig was in power. That said, doing away with the leagues entirely is a bridge too far. There's too much history wrapped up in AL and NL as dueling entities, and the distinctions, though winnowed down, are still stronger than what we see in, say, the NFL or NBA. So let's keep what remains of the AL-NL delineations.
Lose the divisions
Divisions didn't exist in baseball before 1969, so there's a healthy precedent for operating without them. When MLB expands to 32 teams, let's scrub away the divisions and operate with a 16-team NL and a 16-team AL. MLB operated as a 16-team league from 1901 through 1960, so this arrangement has a bit of a "throwback times two" feel.
Re-balance the schedule and shorten the regular season
With the divisions now gone and teams in each league competing for the common goal of league-wide playoff berths, it's time to lose the unbalanced schedule. Now, teams play teams within their division 19 times or so in a season. With teams' competing across divisions for wild-card berths and seeding, it creates some inequities in the schedule. On another level, seeing rivalries like Red Sox-Yankees, Dodgers-Giants, Cardinals-Cubs, and Astros-Rangers take up more than 10 percent of the schedule dilutes the appeal of those blood feuds, at least in my opinion. Let's scale it back. Under this proposal, we go back to a 154-game regular season, which is what was in place from 1920-61. Under the revived 154-game slate, a given team plays the other 15 teams in its league 10 times apiece. That gets each team to 150 games. What about those remaining four tilts? Glad you asked ...
Limit interleague play to regional rivalries
Look, interleague play isn't going away. It's been around for 20 years, and, rightly or not, owners perceive it as a moneymaker. It's entrenched, and we must proceed from that reality. So let's keep each team's signature interleague series (such as it is, in some instances) and snuff out the rest. Those four games left on the schedule will be devoted to a pair of home-and-home two-game series between interleague rivals. Here's how they pair up ...
- Mets vs. Yankees
- Cubs vs. White Sox
- Dodgers vs. Angels
- Giants vs. Athletics
- Reds vs. Indians
- Cardinals vs. Royals
- Nationals vs. Orioles
- Brewers vs. Twins
- Marlins vs. Rays
- Phillies vs. Red Sox (maybe?)
And the rest you sort out, depending in part upon where the two expansion franchises are located (an NL team in Montreal would pair up with the Blue Jays, for instance). Obviously, not all of these are going to yield plausible rivalries, and if you want you could rotate the 12 teams who aren't naturally paired up with another squad. Whatever. Get interleague play down to four games so it regains some novelty appeal and doesn't corrupt the schedule as much.
Make the Wild Card a best-of-three series with a twist
With the regular season whittled down to 154 games, we have time on the calendar to stretch the playoffs a bit. I would do this not by expanding the number of teams that make the playoffs (baseball still has the most meaningful regular season among major sports leagues because of the limited number of postseason berths) but rather by making the wild-card round a best-of-three affair.
The top three teams in each league get a bye past the wild-card round, which will be played by the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds. That keeps the total playoff field at 10 teams. Anyhow, making the wild-card round a best-of-three ensures that fans of each playoff team will get to see their team play at least one home game in the postseason. After watching their team slug it out for 150-plus games and earn a spot in the playoffs, yeah, those fans should get to enjoy at least nine innings of playoff baseball at the hometown yard. The current system, of course, offers no such guarantee for rooters of the road team in the Wild Card Game.
As for the "twist" teased above, here it is ...
- The lower wild-card team hosts the first game of the best-of-three Wild Card Series.
- The higher seeded wild-card team hosts the second game of the Wild Card Series. If the series is tied 1-1 after those first two, then Games 2 and 3 become a double-header on that same day. Make it a twi-night doubleheader if you want the same set of ticketholders to see both games (probably easiest from a logistics standpoint). Or make it a day-night affair if you want to sell additional tickets. Either way, the uncertainty adds an element of intrigue, and the doubleheader with championship implications would make for compelling viewing. As well, the "fatigue as punishment" element of the Wild Card Game is still in place, and teams have plenty of incentive to play for the top three seeds in order to avoid that extra postseason series.
- The winner of the Wild Card Series in each league advances to play the top overall seed in their respective league in the LDS. The No. 2. and No. 3 seeds in each league play in the other LDS.
- If there's room on the schedule and the will to make it happen, then the LDS can be expanded to best of seven. Either way, the 154-game regular season should be leveraged to wrap up the playoffs within the month of October -- for purposes of tradition and playable atmospheric conditions in the north.
Anyhow, change is coming, and the challenge is to come up with a suite of changes that's both palatable to stakeholders who want to see the sport evolve and traditionalists who stand athwart most ideas to that end. Does the above do that? Haha of course not, but it's my idea, and I like it.
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