Expansion and Realignment Are Not As Easy As They Look

In the past two weeks, several sports outlets ran articles about comments made by commissioner Rob Manfred regarding the possible expansion of major-league baseball. While Manfred did not say that expansion was imminent, he did add that the stadium situations in Oakland and Tampa would have to be rectified before any expansion could take place. Manfred went on to explain that with expansion could come realignment and a change in the playoff system. Here is just one short interview he did on CSN with Steve Stone and Jason Benetti.

Manfred has listed four possible sites in conversations this year. In the above discussion, he listed Montreal and Mexico City as international sites. He has also discussed possibly expanding to Charlotte, Las Vegas, and Portland as future venues for major league baseball. I am just speculating, but I think Nashville and San Antonio would also be in play.

As a teacher, I am closing in on 30 years in the profession. As a result, I tend to drift off during faculty meetings. I cannot begin to count how many times I have realigned major-league baseball just doodling in a notebook while waiting for the meeting to end. And I cannot begin to tell you how many times that I have tried, but there is no perfect solution to geographically align the divisions. Here is a Google Sheets spreadsheet of a few possible realignment scenarios.

There is always one team that messes it up every single time and it is always the Colorado Rockies. While technically not a Pacific team, it is not a Midwest team nor a Southwest team. It has more in common with Kansas City that it does with nearby Arizona. It would be nice if one new team would join each league, but it geographically doesn’t work that way and a lot of that has to do with current constructs rather future ones.

Here are Some Issues in Expansion and Realignment
1. Divisional Size – With 32 teams, MLB divides nicely into two 16 team leagues with either two 8 team divisions or four 4 team divisions. Either way, there would be two leagues of 16 teams. I, for one, would not be opposed to one giant league either. However, we tend to like to have our sports teams compartmentalized. How big or small remains to be seen.

2. Talent Pool – Anytime there’s an expansion, there are always concerns about the talent pool getting watered down. I think with the size of the major league now at 800 players, another 50 is not going to have the effect that say it did when it went from 16 to 20 teams in the 1960 (400 to 500) or even the 1990s when the league went from 26 to 30 teams. Since 1998, MLB has been at 30 teams.

3. The Designated Hitter/Roster Size – When it comes to the designated hitter, that is also going to have to be decided. Are you going to have 16 teams play one way or all 32 to play the same? If the DH is added to the National League, would the rosters expand to 26 as a compromise? Or could that roster spot be used for an extra pitcher to not wear out a bullpen?

4. The Playoffs – Either way realignment goes, you could expand the playoffs to six teams in each league or 12 total. You could go with the two division winners and four wildcard or four division winners and two wildcards. I prefer the latter. If it were two divisions with eight wildcard teams in both leagues, it would not be a good thing if MLB immediately eliminated four of the teams in the playoffs after just one game. Therefore, the four divisions with two wildcards would make the most sense. The top two teams would get byes and the first round would be a best of three series as two division winners would have to face off. I would hate to see a division winner being eliminated after just one game.

5. Established Rivalries and Imagined Ones – The biggest challenge in expansion and realignment will be in maintaining rivalries that are decades or even centuries old. Some teams are just going to have to switch leagues to make it fit geographically. I am not a fan of the Mets playing the Yankees 20 times a year, or the Giants playing the A’s. And don’t get me started on the Cubs and the White Sox. The biggest thing that doesn’t get talked about is how expansion also cuts into the TV market. Orioles owner Peter Angelos is not going to want to share any sort of revenue with the Nationals if they play 20 times a year.

I have been around long enough to know that things change. The Cubs used to be in the NL East with rivals like the Mets and Expos while the Reds and Braves were somehow in the NL West for the 1970s. I remember the Astros Killer B’s of Bagwell, Biggio, and Berkman being the Cubs’ NL Central rivals just 10 years ago. If baseball does change, so, too, will the Cubs and whomever their new rivals are.

Expansion and realignment will not be an easy process, but it is one that could help MLB’s brand grow. I like Manfred’s slow approach and his ability to prioritize current MLB clubs’ needs before adding new ones. Each time baseball has expanded, it is very exciting as new fans are added to the league and the game grows.

Lead Photo of Rob Manfred courtesy of the Associated Press (AP).

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1 comment on “Expansion and Realignment Are Not As Easy As They Look”

I’m a contrarian on many subjects, and that includes the subject of MLB expansion. Many people believe expansion is inevitable and that it would be a good thing. You yourself see it as a way for baseball to “expand its brand”, but for the life of me I don’t see why baseball NEEDS to expand it’s brand. It’s a monopoly for pete’s sake and it has billions of dollars of revenue, so why does it need to grow? Bigger is not always better.

Expansion dilutes the product. Adding teams generally means that each team will see some other teams less often. For example, years ago the Giants played the Phillies 22 times a season. Then it went down to 18, and then 12. And last year they met just 7 times!! It’s hard to develop rivalries with teams whose stadiums you only visit once a season!

Expansion also means fewer head to head opportunities for stars to face each other (Trout vs Verlander, Harper vs Kershaw, Bryant vs Arrenado, Justice vs Altuve, etc). And adding additional playoff spots makes the regular season even less meaningful than it is already. It also increases the chances that the World Series will feature mediocre teams.

There’s an old tale about killing the golden goose that I think applies to baseball. If greedy owners keep voting for expansion they are likely to drive away more customers than they will create,
in my opinion. Expansion devalues both the regular season (since having the best record isn’t that important anymore) and the playoffs, since the best teams are usually knocked out before the World Series begins.

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