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A Grand Realignment Plan

Rumblings and grumblings continue to percolate that Major League Baseball may or may not expand the playoffs. It's pretty clear that there is momentum to add a wild card team to both leagues. However, it is everything else that makes this so complicated. While it seems inevitable that MLB will add playoff teams, it now appears just as inevitable that other dominoes must fall to make the change a reality.

That's fine by me.

Baseball is doing okay as is, but I've never been a fan of the unbalanced leagues. Adding playoff teams only exacerbates the problems with the current arrangement. It will become even easier to see that it is easier to make the playoffs in the American League, plain and simple. There are fewer teams, and the same number of slots up for grabs. 'Nuff said.

Somewhere near the start of the summer, a realignment idea hit me that makes a ton of sense - to me, at least. It's about time I threw the idea out there to the blogosphere to see if it resonates or not. Warning (if you only have a few spare minutes), there is a bunch of writing after the jump, to explain all the interconnected changes.


REALIGNMENT

Part of the reason I have waited so long to post this is because I haven't been sure where to start. I might as well begin with the realignment/expansion. Here are my proposed divisions. The image can be clicked on to view larger:


A number of things in this plan are significant departures from the way things are right now.

For starters, there are two new teams - one in Charlotte, and the other in Nashville. The cities are negotiable, as long as they are in the south. Adding two teams in the south works out very nice geographically in this set-up. Plus, I think it just makes sense to expand in an area where there has been steady population growth.

As an added bonus, there is a strong tradition of baseball in the south. The SEC and ACC are always very strong college baseball conferences. Many southern minor league teams, such as the Birmingham Barons, have long histories too. While maybe the teams and names would be new to the sport, this wouldn't be like the NHL expansion to the south. Baseball is a known and supported commodity in the region.

The eight-team divisions are a significant change, but the two-division look, and bigger divisions in general, are more in line with most of baseball's history. 1995 was when each league split into three smaller divisions. Literally, roughly 85% of MLB history has occurred with the larger divisions like the ones featured in this plan.

Moreover, the East divisions in both leagues have rather historical geographic footprints. In the National League, St. Louis returns to being the gateway to the west. In the American League, all of the "original" franchises are once again united in one division. History wasn't my primary motivation, but it is interesting how radical realignment in some ways brings back parts of the game's rich history lost through the decades.

Of course, I've ignored the two white elephants in the set-up: the AL South and NL West. These are the divisions where the big shake-up can be seen. They were driven almost entirely by geography. The west coast works out so nicely when everybody is in the same division. With added teams, the south works out well too, which I think is a huge benefit. It struck me how in the prep and college ranks, the south is such a dominant region in baseball, yet there is no analogous division in the majors. I think it would be good for MLB to have a region that such a talented region can call its own.

Furthermore, this alignment restores some of the luster lost between the AL-NL rivalry. Why? Because between free agency, interleague play, and the proliferation of television coverage, the two leagues have become more and more homogenous. I'm too young to remember "the old days," but I think the two leagues felt much more like separate worlds than they do today. With this proposed realignment, the two leagues have noticeably different footprints. It would be the first step taken since the inception of the designated hitter to make the two leagues more different.

Lastly, the Marlins are changing their name to "Miami Marlins" anyway, so I changed it here. With Oakland and San Francisco in the same division, I figured the battle over San Jose would die away, so the Athletics could go there. If that doesn't work out, Las Vegas is also an interesting option. Really, I don't know why I bothered thinking in somewhat realistic terms, because in real life there is no way six teams would agree to shift leagues.

REGULAR SEASON SCHEDULE

Not surprisingly, all the changes to alignment necessitate major changes in the schedule. Is still prefer an unbalanced schedule. I heavily emphasized geographic proximity when I sliced up the divisions, so it likely does not come as a surprise that I also wanted to emphasize regional match-ups with the schedule. Here is the breakdown:

  • 12 games against each opponent inside a team's own division (6 home, 6 away)
  • 6 games against each opponent inside a team's own league, in the other division (3 home, 3 away)
  • 3 games against 8 teams from the other league, 4 from each division
That comes to a grand total of 156 games, and it also splits up games in such a way that every series is 3 games long. This was intentional; it means that, while the season has fewer games, it will last just as long. What will happen is that every team is guaranteed one off day every week. I think this is a change that players would welcome with open arms. It might even increase the quality of the game, because fatigue should become less of an issue. We might see bullpens shorten up again as well, which I would  welcome.

Interleague play would look very different in this schedule. It would work on a four-year rotation. There are 16 teams in each league, so every team would play every team in the other league in a two-year span. However, since they only play a given team 3 games a year (1 series), they will only face an interleague team at home or on the road in a given year. So, in the third and fourth years of the rotation, the teams would be the same, but the sites of the series would flip.

From a fan's perspective, they would see every team in baseball come to their home park at least once every four years. From a team's perspective, the mix between divisions guarantees roughly the same travel demands every season (which does NOT happen right now). I think it all adds up to a winning combination.

The biggest drawback is that interleague play loses the "natural rivals." Most notably, the Cubs and White Sox won't play every year, and the Mets and Yankees also face the same predicament. However, they still play every other year, and frankly, these teams found ways to survive the majority of baseball history without ever playing each other. A shrewd MLB scheduler would stagger the Chicago and New York series so that we get one of those each year. Plus, other "natural" rivalries (LA, Bay Area, Texas) are now part of realigned divisions, so they are actually amplified significantly. Overall, losing the natural rivals is a bit of a hit, but not enough of one to outweigh the benefits in my estimation.

Overall, the larger divisions make scheduling much nicer. The unbalanced schedule is not nearly as unbalanced as it is currently, because there are more teams to play within a team's own division. Whereas teams play other division opponents 15-20 times a year right now, that number goes down in this schedule. That makes the schedule more fair than it currently is, and also more interesting for fans. Now, a team makes no more than two trips to a city, and teams farther away geographically only make one, guaranteed. The variety should keep a schedule feeling fresh.

Since I am a Mariners fan, I'd like to point out that this schedule guarantees that 120 out of their 156 games happen in either the Pacific or Mountain time zones. Given that Seattle is baseball's outpost, other teams should be in even better shape. Region-centric scheduling just makes sense. It's good for the fans, and good for marketing. Games in prime time are easier to sell, which is ultimately why I think the unbalanced schedule is here to stay for good. The cross-country road trips are marketability zappers, thanks to the awkward 4:05pm and 10:05pm local start times they tend to generate.

PLAYOFFS

The playoffs would expand under my expanded/re-aligned/rescheduled Major Leagues. Every division winner would make the postseason, and each league would also have four wild card slots. That may sound excessive, but it's not. There would be a total of 12 teams making the playoffs, and 8 currently make it. For comparison, the NFL has 12 teams make the playoffs out of 32, which would be the exact ratio for MLB in this set-up.

Another piece of the NFL playoff system is borrowed under my proposed system: first round byes. There would be a true wild card round, where the two best wild card teams would host a three-game series against the bottom two wild card teams. The winners would then advance to the Division Series, and at that point the playoffs would work just like they currently do.

For my taste, this structure strikes the perfect balance between inclusion and exclusivity. The first round bye would be a huge advantage, because the time off amounts to a second All-Star break. That's not too long to get rusty. Perhaps more importantly, it should be just long enough to set a pitching rotation exactly how a team wants it, whereas their wild card opponent will not be able to do that at all. With how much baseball varies from game-to-game, there need to be significant advantages given to teams that prove themselves to be better over 156 games. Those differences may not show up in a short series, so building in advantages to the playoff structure help counteract that problem.

More than anything, this playoff system improves access to the postseason a remarkable amount. For instance, take a team like the Orioles. Under the current system, they must beat out the Yankees or Red Sox to make the postseason, all while playing those two roughly 35 teams during the year. Under this system, Baltimore would not have to beat out either of them to make the playoffs, and also only have to play both of them 24 times a year.

Doesn't that make contention for middle and small market teams more realistic?

If we take this year's current standings, and transplant them into this theoretical alignment (which of course is a bit ridiculous, given how different each team's schedule would look), a number of cool things would happen.

In the American League, the Yankees and Red Sox would be in a tense pennant race, instead of just playing out the rest of the season as they currently are. Atlanta would lead the AL South, though Texas would be within striking distance. Tampa Bay and Detroit would have control of the remaining wild card slots, but the race for the final home field slot would be really close.

The National League would be even juicier. The Phillies and Brewers would be locked in a pennant chase in the east, while the Diamondbacks, Angels, and Giants would all battle for supremacy in the west. The final wild card slot would go to the Cardinals, though a .500 Reds team would pose a bit of a threat.

Wouldn't this set-up make for a more interesting pennant chase? Legitimately great teams would still be rewarded (arguably more than they currently are), and more teams would be in the playoff hunt.

CONCLUSION

This theoretical plan will never happen. I probably should not have spent an evening on a plan that I know is a pipe dream, but that's what baseball does to me. It doesn't matter how realistic something is, as long as its baseball.

The reason(s) it won't ever happen are rooted in realignment. The Giants would never allow the A's to move to the NL. I doubt the Dodgers would be happy to see the Angels switch leagues too. I wonder what the Braves would think of a league switch, particularly since that franchise has been in the NL for roughly a century now (though in different cities). There are too many important question marks where the real-life answer is likely "NO."

Still, how far-fetched is this idea? It could happen. I don't see anything that would keep the players from approving it. Smaller market teams should prefer it to the current set-up too. There is preservation of history and tradition, with an eye looking towards the future. Wouldn't there be some momentum for it?

Would you be excited about a realignment package like this one?