MLB Realignment: Floating and Other Suggestions

Matt PoloniCorrespondent IMarch 13, 2010

PHILADELPHIA - OCTOBER 27:  Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig listens to a question from the media after explaining the rules involved with suspending game five of the 2008 MLB World Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Tampa Bay Rays till 8:00 pm (EST) on October 28 at the earliest of the Philadelphia Phillies at a press conference on October 27, 2008 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

Major League Baseball’s think tank has come up with a new idea. That idea is the radical suggestion of floating realignment.

Basically, the idea is that a team can change what division it’s in based upon geography, payroll, and whether or not they’re “rebuilding.” Of course, in an effort to keep some sort of order with respect to geographic lines, no team could join a division more than two time zones outside of its own.

The reasoning behind this is well-meaning: a team that doesn’t plan on contending could benefit from opting into a division with teams that draw well so that they could boost attendance and, by extension, revenue.

The additional revenue would (hopefully) go towards improving the team, so that they could field a team that draws spectators on its own merits, rather than those of its opponents. In addition, smaller market contenders could move to a less competitive division so that they have a better chance at contention.

Well, that’s how I understand it based on everything I’ve seen and heard. If I’m misinterpreting this, feel free to correct me.

Unfortunately, the idea fails to reach a level of coherence that would warrant any positive press coverage. I’m sure it sounded good at some point in its development and that all involved in its development are very smart people (one need only look at the think tank’s roster ), but this is one suggestion that should have died a quick and painless death.

Fortunately, we can learn from its mistakes.

The first thing that popped into my head was how this idea would affect every single aspect of how a Major League Baseball organization is run.

Schedules need to be created well in advance of the season and divisional alignment is a fairly large part of piecing together the puzzle that is the MLB master schedule. Seeing as many teams are still figuring out whether or not they are trying to contend after the trading deadline, it might be a little difficult for teams to say that they will or will not be contending when they haven’t even finalized their Opening Day roster yet.

Factor in that payroll is one of the key factors in the process and you have another problem on your hands. The decision on what division a team wants to be in would have to come while the free agent pool was still saturated with talent.

Teams would have a few choices: make the decision based on a vague outline of what payroll might be, give up on signing the big-named free agents altogether, or assume that they will sign the big names their going after.

You may have noticed that that scenario creates another problem. I’ll walk you through my thought process.

Which teams would be most likely to assume that they will sign the big names? The ones that could afford to do so (i.e. the Yankees and Red Sox).

Which teams would be most likely to give up on those players? The smaller market teams that can’t afford to make that leap of faith.

What happens as a result of these situations?

The teams with the most money would be the only ones even attempting to sign the best players. Parity falls to the wayside and there becomes a bigger disparity between large market and small market teams. As time progresses, since there is a smaller pool of teams bidding against each other for the best players, the salaries for these players will only go as high as necessary (just out of the reach of smaller market teams).

As the disparity between large and small market teams decreases further, the uppermost salaries will decrease, but the savings will not pass on to the lower-tier players. The players union will see the trend and raise a stink at the following CBA negotiations, leading to one of two scenarios playing out: a huge labor dispute or the re-evaluation of the league’s alignment.

There is one workaround that I can think of that would avoid all that, though. It’s a little radical in its own right, but we’re already working out on the edge, so we might as well set up camp.

The only way to make the situation fair to all teams would be to shorten the offseason with a deadline by which to set their rosters and having a subsequent dead period leading up to the season where no transactions could be made.

This has its own glaring problems.

If you think contract negotiations are unfair now (in either direction), wait until you see what happens when you drastically reduce the time that the two sides have to reach an agreement. Actually, while we’re at it, think about the exact same effects being transposed onto trade negotiations.

It’s not pretty.

It would also make the managers’ jobs almost impossible to perform and make the early portion of the season a crapshoot (for all intents and purposes).

As if that wasn’t enough, there are a plethora of other problems, too.

For one, who would get preference in realignment? Small market teams? Losing teams?

After all, it is possible to win as a small market team. The Athletics have put together impressive strings of success during Billy Beane’s reign and the Rays made it to the World Series just two seasons ago.

And it’s also possible to lose as a large market team. The Mets had the second-highest payroll in all of baseball last year, but finished the season with a 70-92 record.

How many teams get to decide what they want to do?

One of the popular examples going around is this:

Cleveland, which is rebuilding with a reduced payroll, could opt to leave the AL Central to play in the AL East. The Indians would benefit from an unbalanced schedule that would give them a total of 18 lucrative home dates against the Yankees and Red Sox instead of their current eight.

A small or mid-market contender, such as Tampa Bay or Baltimore, could move to the AL Central to get a better crack at postseason play instead of continually fighting against the mega-payrolls of New York and Boston.

This scenario would require that New York and Boston have no say in the matter. So how far would this option extend?

Also, the geographic restrictions either don’t accomplish anything or discriminate against teams in the Pacific and Eastern time zones.

For instance, if the NL West is defined as being in the Pacific and Mountain West time zones, then the Marlins are two time zones away and can move to that division.

If, on the other hand, the NL West is defined as being in only the Pacific time zone and the NL East is similarly defined as being in only the Eastern time zone, then the Marlins couldn’t join the NL West, but the Cubs could join the West, join the East, or stay in the Central. How is that fair?

Another option would be to limit the restrictions to the two closest time zones in relation to the team’s time zone.

Of course, that would require divisions based on one time zone each and covering each time zone, which creates a whole new set of problems. I’ll walk you through my logic once again.

There are four time zones, which means there would need to be four divisions.

If you align like the NFL does, with four divisions in each league, you would either have to have two AL divisions with only three teams or expand the league to 32 teams. Then, no matter which route you choose, you either have to expand the playoffs or eliminate the wildcard.

Bud Selig brought the wildcard system to baseball, so I highly doubt he would want to eliminate it. But Bud has also continually said that the season and playoffs are as long as they should ever be and that he is looking to shorten the calendar length of the playoffs as it is.

With both of those options rejected, the league would have to eliminate the American and National League split to become a singular league with four divisions and four wildcard entries and forcing Bud to decide on the designated hitter once and for all.

Basically, no matter which way you slice it, the situation stinks, which leads me to one last question: if something as convoluted as this is getting the attention of Major League Baseball’s commissioner, then why shouldn’t I take the proposal that I’ve been asking people about privately for years and put it out there for public consumption?

I know…what a shocker: an amateur sportswriter critiquing an idea from some of baseball’s greatest minds, only to shell out his own scheme in the end. Nobody saw that one coming.

But you’ve already come this far and read almost 1500 words of what I thought about floating alignment, so why not ride this out a little farther? It’s actually a fairly simple idea, just let me set it up first.

The National League came into being in 1876 as one entity without any divisions of any kind. The American League came into being in 1901, also as one entity without any divisions of any kind.

The two leagues had various agreements over the years, but it was only in 2000 that the two officially joined together and became the singular legal entity of Major League Baseball.

In the era of divisional play, we have repeatedly seen the scenario play out where one team gets into the playoffs with a worse record than another team who did not, simply because the former was in a weak division and the latter in a strong one.

In recent years, there has even been the thought that one league (the American League) is superior to the other (the National League) due to the lopsided nature of the All-Star Game, World Series, and interleague results. In fact, the same was true for the National League over the American League from the '60s to the early '80s.

With the idea that choosing a champion is heavily dependent upon having the proper teams in the playoffs, I have come up with my own idea for realignment. Depending upon its execution and you’re perspective, it either eliminates all divisions (i.e. American/National, East/Central/West) or gives them the most minimal of roles possible.

For scheduling purposes, there would be two portions of the season: the first 145 games and the final 15 to 17 games. Those of you that are good with numbers have probably already figured out where I’m going with this.

The first 145 games would be played as 29 five-game series, one against each of the other 29 teams in the league. Teams would alternate home and away each year.

The final set of games would be against three rival teams (or teams in close proximity, if the team is lacking a rival or two) at the site opposite of the series from earlier in the season.

I would suggest making it three five-game series for the sake of symmetry, but the final series could easily be extended to seven games to keep with the current 162-game season. The final series of the season would preferably match up the biggest rivals.

The current eight-team playoffs could be kept, but the top eight teams would be chosen rather than some arbitrary assortment of teams over .500.

The first portion of the season provides good balance to the season, but the final stretch provides excitement.

For instance, consider this: under this system (assuming that win-loss records would have remained the same) the 15th best team in the league record-wise last season (Tampa Bay) would have been only four games out of the playoffs instead of the eleven games they finished behind the Red Sox for the wild card.

While they were fighting for a playoff spot, they would have most likely been playing the Marlins (10th, one game out), Yankees (first), and Red Sox (third). The former would also have been fighting for a playoff spot and latter two would have both been fighting for top seeding.

Eight teams that wouldn’t have made the playoffs would have finished no more than five games out, meaning that over half of the league would have likely had something to play for going into the final three series. That also means that even if your team wasn’t in contention, they would most likely have the chance to upset at least one rival (and a decent chance at two) trying to make the playoffs.

True, it’s not a perfectly balanced schedule and teams with tougher rivals are going to have a tougher time getting into the playoffs, but it’s fairer than the current setup or floating realignment. It brings both the big draws and the cellar-dwellers to every team in the league at least once a year.

If you still think the system isn’t fair enough, there is a small way to make it fairer. Have the tiebreaker for the final playoff spots be each team’s record through the first 145 games (the balanced portion of the schedule). That would likely reduce the chance of needing a tiebreaker game or of having any three-way (or greater) ties by a large margin.

If floating realignment is getting attention, I see no reason why this idea shouldn’t.


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