After nearly 14 years of imbalanced leagues, it appears that Major League Baseball is giving serious consideration to a realignment plan.
While this talk is nothing more than generalities and suggestions at this point, the basic principle is that one of the National League teams would make the move to the American League, evening the two at 15 teams apiece. The last time the leagues had the same number of teams was the 1997 season.
More recently, former Reds and National GM Jim Bowden floated the idea of geographic realignment, a bold plan that would no doubt meet with plenty of opposition among traditionalists but one that nevertheless makes some sense.
However, there's an opportunity for baseball to implement fixes that go well beyond eliminating past geographical errors. If MLB is going to do something as drastic as changing a team's affiliation or altering the divisional structure, why not take it one step further? Why not make the changes that the sport actually needs?
Among the ideas being discussed is the rather radical notion of removing the divisions entirely. As Rob Neyer mentions here, one prospective plan has two leagues stripped of divisions with the top five in each making the playoffs. Of this, Neyer says:
"In fact, it's that latter possibility that particularly intrigues me. I think it'll be a lot of fun, seeing the standings presented that way, with the top five teams -- the first division, just like in the old days -- highlighted, and the second division teams fighting their way toward the first division."
This would clearly be a dramatic break from what most of us have known our whole baseball—watching lives. And yet I find myself supporting the idea. More than that, I like it. A lot.
Divisions have contributed to baseball's competitive imbalance problem, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the AL East. Boston, New York and Tampa have been three of the league's better franchises in recent years, but we know that each season at least one will miss the playoffs.
The third or even fourth-place team in the East could well be as good as or better than a division-winner from the Central or West and still fail to see the postseason simply because of where they play.
If anything, we should be rewarding teams that play in competitive divisions, not holding them back. This idea of removing divisions from the equation would do just that.
I do, however, have one major reservation about this plan. It is inarguable that in its current state, the sport favors a handful of wealthy teams in bigger markets. There are plenty of confounding factors playing into that argument, such as irresponsible management among the smaller-market clubs, cheap owners and poor player development.
However, the basic truth is that there is indeed a significant gap between the baseball-rich and the baseball-poor.
If we remove divisions, that gap would only widen. Think about it. If there was nothing stopping the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays from making the playoffs and taking up to 60 percent of the slots, how many other teams would have a realistic chance to compete year in and year out?
But don't worry. Because there is a solution. And if MLB is indeed interested in a philosophical shift of this magnitude, if it is indeed pondering the creation of division-less baseball, then it has the perfect opportunity to go all-in.
Let's fix baseball.
1. Implement a hard salary cap and salary floor. This would put all teams on a far more level playing field and would require skinflint owners to stop using their franchises as profit engines. Instead, every club would have to invest in baseball operations, which would mean better player development, better management and a higher quality of competition across the board.
2. Firm up rookie salary slots. This, along with the cap and floor, would minimize issues of signability, preventing the financially stronger teams from monopolizing the highly skilled draftees whose contract demands are occasionally beyond the reach of the small-market clubs.
3. Have the regular season count the same for everyone. This is where the removal of divisions comes in. Under the current system, some teams in some divisions know in the backs of their minds that 10 games over .500 will keep them in the mix. In the stronger divisions, that record wouldn't get within sniffing distance of the postseason.
It's time to make all team compete for the same goal on the same level.
Of course, there are other issues in play that could be addressed if MLB really wanted to clean house. Better and more comprehensive drug testing for one. Isn't it time to put some money and thought into how to remove HGH use from the game?
The DH rule for another. Is it finally time to get both leagues playing by the same rules? If we're going to shake up the sport, then I say yes.
I'm not certain which league's standard I would favor. Do we want all pitchers to hit, or do we want to see sluggers get some extra at-bats. Or, staying the radical mindset, would we be willing to consider a third option?
Having an eight-man lineup sounds crazy, and the MLBPA would surely balk. But it wouldn't have to reduce roster sizes. It could simply take the DH vs. pitchers issue off the table. Let pitchers pitch, let position players bat. While it would be a significant alteration to the game, it's also a pretty simple solution.
To be clear, this is just a thought. Not necessarily what I would prefer. But as I said, if MLB is going as far as some of these ideas, why not go all the way?
In reality, MLB is likely to take this process slowly. We will probably see baby steps, beginning with the 16th NL team switching to the junior circuit. Whether it's the Brewers moving back, or a new team coming over, it is a good idea.
And I sincerely hope that MLB doesn't stop there. It's time for sweeping change.