Although there areand big name trade candidates on the block, we are currently in the middle of the slowest period on the baseball calendar. Spring training is a few weeks away and the most important hot stove moves have already taken place, in all likelihood. This is a good time to forget about baseball for a few weeks.
Me? I'm a weirdo who can't stop thinking about baseball, and recently I caught myself thinking about the long-term future of the game, as in what will it look like 10 years from now? Think about what baseball looked like 10 years ago. The Nationals were a laughing stock, Frank McCourt was using the Dodgers as his personal ATM, and Josh Hamilton was the MLB leader in WAR. Yeah.
As I went through this thought exercise, as pointless as it may have been, it occurred to me there could be a confluence of events in the same year that reshape baseball going forward. A league-wide overhaul in one year. That year: 2028. Granted, this was a result of me having too much time on my hands, but the possibility for a new-look MLB in 2028 exists.
Because we're all sick of reading about theand the same group of free agents, I present to you my master plan for MLB's overhaul in the year 2028. Come with me, won't you?
The Rays relocate
Rays have been unable to gain any traction on a new ballpark site in the Tampa area. and, as far as we know, there are currently no leads on other possible ballpark locations. The franchise is no closer to getting a new stadium today than it was five years ago.and the
The Rays are locked into their Tropicana Field lease through 2027. What happens after that? Who knows. Given the club's ongoing attendance issues -- they drew 1.18 million fans in 2019, second fewest in baseball -- and inability to find a new ballpark site, I think relocation is the most likely answer. MLB and the Rays have seven years to figure it out. (Less than that, really.)
Montreal stands out as a potential landing spot given the club's interest in playing games in the city, though ballpark issues exist there as well. Austin, Charlotte, Las Vegas, Nashville, Portland, and San Antonio are other possible destinations. I'd call Montreal the favorite to land the Rays right now, but it's hardly a lock. Point is, Tampa's stadium issues are the springboard for our 2028 plan.
MLB adds two teams
Did you know we're in the middle of the longest expansion drought in MLB history? We've never gone this long between expansions since the expansion era began in 1961. Here's a quick timeline of MLB's expansion history:
- 1961: Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators (now the Texas Rangers) join the American League.
- 1962: Houston Colt .45s (now the Astros) and New York Mets join the National League.
- 1969: Seattle Pilots (now the Milwaukee Brewers) and Kansas City Royals join the AL while the Montreal Expos (now the Washington Nationals) and San Diego Padres join the NL.
- 1977: Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners join the AL.
- 1993: Florida Marlins (now Miami) and Colorado Rockies join the NL.
- 1998: Tampa Bay Devil Rays (now just the Rays) join the AL while the Arizona Diamondbacks join the NL.
It has been 22 years since MLB last expanded and, because there is no serious talk about adding more teams at the moment, it'll be another few years before MLB expands again. It's entirely possible MLB will go 30 years -- 30 years! -- between expansions.
Personally, I have a hard time believing we'll go through the entire 2020s without expansion. There's too much money to be made. The NHL's Seattle franchise, which will begin play in 2021, paid an expansion fee of $650 million. Based on that, I suspect the expansion fee for an MLB franchise would be close to (if not more than) $1 billion, and MLB would be adding two teams, remember.
Expansion is a win-win scenario. The existing 30 owners get a huge influx of cash, MLB gets to bring the game to two new markets, more jobs are available for players, and fans get to follow more teams. I guess that makes it a win-win-win-win scenario. It has been more than two decades since MLB last expanded. I'd bet the farm against the league going another decade without it.
"I hope I'm around long enough to see us expand. I think 32 (teams) would be great for our sport," commissioner Rob Manfred said in 2018. "Portland, Las Vegas, Charlotte, Nashville in the United States. Certainly Montreal -- maybe Vancouver -- in Canada. We think there's places in Mexico we could go over the long haul."
Relocation and expansion don't always happen at the same time (the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966, the Senators moved to Texas and became the Rangers in 1972, the Expos moved to Washington and became the Nationals in 2005, etc.), but, in this case, the timing could work perfectly. Consider this possible timeline:
- Dec. 2021: MLB, MLBPA agree to a new collective bargaining agreement*, which puts the expansion wheels in motion.
- 2022-26: MLB solicits and accepts expansion bids, ballpark plans are finalized, construction begins, etc.
- Dec. 2026: MLB, MLBPA agree to the next collective bargaining agreement*, during which expansion draft rules are laid out.
- 2027-28 offseason: Expansion draft!
- 2028 season: Rays relocate after Tropicana Field lease ends, two expansion teams begin play.
* Consider me optimistic we'll avoid a work stoppage during the 2021-22 and 2026-27 offseasons.
In the last expansion draft each team's protected list included 15 players, with certain exemptions for recently drafted players and impending free agents. Each team could protect an additional three players after each round and could only lose one player per round. The two expansion teams selected 35 players (14 in Round 1, 14 in Round 2, and seven in Round 3).
Keeping those rules is simple enough, though the NHL modified its expansion draft rules to help their most recent expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights, be competitive right away,. MLB could do the same to avoid having the two expansion teams field 110-loss rosters in 2028. Perhaps that means teams could only protect 12 players in Round 1? Not sure.
Either way, the point here is MLB is overdue for expansion. The entire process takes a very long time because there are so many logistics to work through ---- and the eight years between now and 2028 is ostensibly enough time for it all to happen. Two new teams means it's time for ...
Two expansion teams gets MLB to 32 teams total, or four four-team divisions per league. Nice and tidy. I suppose we can't rule out two eight-team divisions per league, but that seems a tad excessive. We're going to focus on four four-team divisions per league.
To sort out the divisions, we have to pick expansion cities. I'm going with Portland and San Antonio. San Antonio is the largest city in the country without an MLB team -- San Antonio has a larger population than 24 of the 30 current cities -- . Portland and San Antonio make sense to me and it's my post, so my rules.
With Portland and San Antonio joining the league, and the Rays moving to Montreal in our hypothetical, the eight new four-team divisions could be laid out like this come 2028:
|AL East||AL North||AL South||AL West|
|NL East||NL North||NL South||NL West|
Realigning the divisions isn't easy! MLB will want to keep the historic division rivalries intact (Cardinals-Cubs, Dodgers-Giants, Red Sox-Yankees, etc.) but also make travel as easy as possible. Feel free to yell at me Orioles, Reds, and Royals fans. I deserve it. This is just my first pass at realignment with two expansion teams and one relocated team in cities I selected somewhat arbitrarily.
Point is, with two new teams, MLB can even up each league at 16 teams apiece -- no more daily interleague play! -- and split them up into four equal divisions. That's certainly preferable to four five-team divisions and two six-team divisions, is it not? The Rays moving and MLB adding two expansion teams would force realignment and potentially cut back on travel, something everyone (players, reporters, broadcasters, owners, etc.) would love.
Of course, going from three divisions per league to four divisions per league means MLB would have to ...
Revise the postseason format
Let's begin with this: the Wild Card Game is not going away. The Wild Card Games have been highly entertaining overall and it's a great marketing tool for the sport. With four divisions per league, it's so very easy to take all four division winners to the postseason and declare them the four League Division Series teams. I think the Wild Card Game is here to stay though.
"When we went to the one-game wild card, we did it for two fundamental reasons," Manfred said in 2018. "We wanted to make sure that we did everything possible that teams played hard through our 162-game season. We take great pride in the fact that our regular season is meaningful and we always want it to be meaningful ... (teams are) going to be trying to win every single game to avoid that one-game wild card. I'm pretty good with how it all looks."
The Wild Card Game has been so successful overall that I expect MLB to add a second Wild Card Game the next time it revises the postseason format. How do we design a postseason bracket with four divisions and two Wild Card Games? I think this is the solution:
- Wild Card Game 1: Non-division winner with best record hosts non-division winner with second best record.
- Wild Card Game 2: Division winner with worst record hosts Wild Card Game 1 winner.
- LDS 1: Division winner with best record hosts Wild Card Game 2 winner.
- LDS 2: Division winner with second best record hosts division winner with third best record.
Six postseason teams (four division winners plus the two non-division winners with the best records) and winning the division no longer equals an automatic spot in the LDS. You have to win your division and have one of the three best records among the four division winners to advance directly to the LDS. The fourth division winner gets stuck playing a Wild Card Game. C'est a la vie.
Our hypothetical postseason format accomplishes two things. One, it brings a sixth team into the postseason picture, giving more clubs a shot at October glory (and postseason revenue). That said, non-division winners would have to win two Wild Card Games to reach the LDS. That makes winning the division that much more valuable. Now you have to get through two one-and-done games.
And two, it gives division winners an incentive to win as many games as possible. Oftentimes we see division winners take their foot off the gas in September and rest players, knowing their LDS spot is locked in. Now that's not possible. Well, no, it is possible, just not advisable. You need one of the three best records among division winners to avoid that win or go home Wild Card Game.
I admit the two Wild Card Game scenario could be a logistical nightmare. Perhaps it's not feasible and the best solution is a single Wild Card Game, with the division winner with the worst record hosting the best non-division winning team. I think MLB would try hard to find a six-team postseason format that makes sense though. Maybe play Wild Card Game 1 at the Wild Card Game 2 park to cut down on travel?
Either way, four divisions per league means the postseason format would have to be revised. The Wild Card Game is too ingrained in the sport now to kick it aside and take only the four division winners to the postseason, even though that would be the easiest and perhaps most sensible solution. I think two Wild Card Games is much more likely than zero Wild Card Games going forward.
The 154-game season
In this grand hypothetical MLB is relocating one team, adding two new expansion teams, realigning the divisions, and revising the postseason format. It is as good a time as any to shorten the season from 162 games back to 154 games as well. The American League went from 154 to 162 games in 1961. The National League followed suit in 1962.
"I think that's why as we continue to move forward here, and guys continue to be asked to do more and more, (a 154-game season is) something that we have to look at significantly," MLBPA head Tony Clark told USA Today's Bob Nightengale in 2015. "We're at a point in time where perhaps there are any number of things that guys are being asked to do that's directly affecting the way they play. And that's not beneficial for anybody."
The MLBPA has been pushing for a 154-game season because it means less wear and tear on the players and because hey, who doesn't want to work fewer days? It is my understanding the single biggest hangup on MLB's side is not necessarily each team forfeiting four home games (the owners will make up that revenue by raising prices on the other 77 home games).
The biggest obstacle is the billion-dollar television contracts that include minimum broadcast requirements and things like that. Eight fewer games equals fewer advertising dollars for television networks, and that won't make them happy. Sorting through the regional television deals will be a headache. The national broadcast deals are ostensibly easier to solve.
MLB's contract with Fox runs through 2028, though they extended the previous deal two years before it was set to expire, so it stands to reason the two sides will begin discussing their next contract well before 2028. That gives them an opportunity to sort out the 154-game season logistics. Same with ESPN and TBS. There's eight years to figure the broadcast deals out.
On the field, 32 teams and four four-team divisions per league makes divvying up a 154-game season surprisingly easy. I thought this would be the most difficult part of this exercise, but nope. Each team could play the following schedule:
- 18 games vs. each division opponent (54 games total)
- 6 games vs. every other team in the league (72 games total)
- 6 games vs. each team in an interleague division (24 games total)
- 4 games vs. geographic interleague rival
Even though the leagues again include an even number of teams, interleague play is not going away. It's too powerful a marketing tool and interleague series still have a certain buzz. The unbalanced schedule isn't going away either, hence all the games against division rivals. I don't see MLB eliminating interleague play or the unbalanced schedule if (when?) it switches to 154 games.
Most geographic rival pairings are obvious. Angels vs. Dodgers, Athletics vs. Giants, Cubs vs. White Sox, Mets vs. Yankees, so on and so forth. Some are a bit more strained -- who doesn't get excited for the annual Mariners vs. Padres matchup? -- but that's life. Go with the obvious pairings whenever possible and improvise when necessary. Not much more MLB could do.
Interleague matchups would rotate through divisions each year like they do now, so instead of seeing each division in the other league once every three years, it's now once every four years. That'll add a little spice to the matchups because you have to wait a little longer to see, say, Dodgers vs. Yankees. And every fourth year you get 10 games vs. your geographic rival, so that's cool.
There are logistical hurdles to clear (i.e. make the networks happy) before MLB can chop eight games off the schedule, but it is something that is being discussed during current collective bargaining sessions, and the various national television contracts expire right around our 2028 benchmark. The timing works very nicely. Everything is converging on the same year.
The NL adopts the DH
Folks, it's going to happen. I know the purists hate the idea, but eventually the National League will adopt the designated hitter. It's good for baseball overall -- pitchers have never been worse at hitting than they are right now -- and owners want to protect their investments. . No one wants something like that to happen again.
I'm not saying the NL will adopt the DH next year, or even the year after, but it's coming, and sooner rather than later. Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak recently said he expects it. "I would imagine in the future it has the potential to happen. ... Ten years ago I said it has no chance. The game is changing," he told Ben Fredrickson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
As noted earlier, there will be two rounds of collective bargaining between now and 2028. The current CBA expires in December 2021 and, assuming the standard five-year term, the next CBA will expire in December 2026. The next CBA, the one taking effect in 2027, is when I expect the NL to adopt the DH because by then we'll know two expansion teams are coming and realignment is necessary.
Bringing the DH to the NL creates a uniform set of rules and that could make realignment easier. I know the Astros moved from the NL to the AL not too long ago, but you don't want to shift teams between leagues all that often because the rules are different, and teams have to build their rosters accordingly. With one set of rules, switching leagues is much more straightforward.
Perhaps that means the Braves wind up in the AL South and the Orioles in the NL East in our proposed divisions above, making travel much easier for every team in those divisions. I dunno. I do know the DH is coming to the NL at some point. It is inevitable, and I think the next round of expansion and realignment would be the most obvious time to do it.
This all started as a thought about the future of the Rays given their current lease situation. One way or another, they'll be out of Tropicana Field after the 2027 season. That led to me thinking about relocation, and then expansion, and if MLB expands, they'll have to revise the divisions and postseason, and if you're going to do that, might as well chop the season down to 154 games too. On and on I went.
What started as a simple little thought ballooned into all these events -- some of which are dependent on each other -- converging in one year, 2028, when Major League Baseball could undergo a radical facelift. Will it happen? Probably not. But eight years ago we'd yet to see a Wild Card Game and Turner Field was still pretty new. A lot can and will change between now and 2028.