Major League Baseball Realignment: 5 Plans Baseball Should Consider
Late last week, ESPN's Buster Olney reported that Major League Baseball was considering plans for realignment. The discussion is part of on-going labor negotiations between MLB and the players union. Any plan would have to be approved by both entities.
Baseball last realigned in 1998, when the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays were added to the league. That realignment was unique because for the first time in almost 90 years a team, the Milwaukee Brewers, moved from the American League to the National League. A number of other teams, like the Detroit Tigers, shifted divisions.
Previous baseball realignments happened in 1969 and 1994.
The continued discussion of baseball realignment both in labor negotiations and amongst fans suggests an unhappiness with the current system. Every few years, someone comes up with a new plan to realign baseball. This is my attempt at such hubris.
2 Leagues of 15 Teams Each, No Divisions, 5 Teams Make the Playoffs
This is the scenario Buster Olney reported last week that got everyone interested in realignment again.
We get interleague play throughout the year.
An additional team from each league makes the playoffs. Presumably this will generate interest from more fans and increase the number of teams competing for the playoffs.
The unbalanced schedule is a thing of the past. Each team would now presumably play the same schedule within its league.
The format is a throwback to baseball’s original format from 1901-1968.
It's been suggested that the fourth and fifth seeds would play a one game playoff to advance. While this might generate some excitement, it goes against the spirit of a sport that plays a 162 game season to establish the best teams. If they play a five game series, then we just extended the postseason a week to 10 days. Welcome to mid-November baseball!
Teams at the bottom of each league won’t have a lot to play for. Under the current system, mediocre teams in poor divisions still have a shot to make the playoffs. St. Louis won the NL Central with 83 wins in 2006 and went on to win the World Series. Right now Oakland is only six games back in the NL West despite being just 30-40. Without a division format, teams will fall out of the race quicker and this will likely reduce interest amongst their fans.
There’s not much suspense at the top of the leagues. With the top five teams making the playoffs, there’s more room for error among the top teams. If the top teams pull away from the pack, there’s little reason to follow them down the stretch run.
Having no divisions does not necessarily mean more competition. Under this format, only six teams would have been competing for the playoff spots in the AL last year, and all five NL spots would have been pretty secure entering the season’s final weeks.
This was the last scenario we heard baseball seriously discussing. It was recommend by Bud Selig's "Special Rules Committee" in March 2010.
It essentially says that the teams with the three best records in each league cannot be placed in the same division the next year. The team with the best AL record is placed in a division with only three other teams. The teams with the two best records in the NL get the divisions with four other teams, the third gets the division with five teams.The remaining teams are divided for that each division has approximately the same winning percentage.
We can call this the Red Sox/Yankees (and occasionally Rays) plan because it assures they won't be in the same division.
The power balance in each league would presumably be fairer. Each division would be well balanced and thus hopefully assure us of close division races.
There would be more interest during the offseason as baseball minds try to deduct who will be realigned where and what that means for each team.
There are tangible rewards, beyond home-field advantage for having the best records in your league.
Like in the first case, rivalries will suffer if teams are moving around and don't play each other as much.
There's no continuity from year to year. Nothing to hang your hat on if you expect to be in competition with the same teams each year.
It doesn't necessary fix competitive imbalance. The best teams still get easier divisions with fewer teams, the worst teams could still suffer in divisions with strong teams.
How does baseball balance this geographically? If they give up on the importance of location that could hurt teams that are playing with teams on the other coast. If they keep it, it will damage baseball's ability to realign based on winning percentage.
Teams will still complain about having too many good teams in their divisions. It's a refrain you will never silence.
2 Divisions in Each League, Division Winners Make the Playoffs and That's It
This was the way baseball existed from 1969-1993, when each league featured an Eastern and Western division.
By reducing the number of playoff teams to two, we cut a round of the playoffs and move the postseason out of November and late October. There's no playoff fatigue and no baseball played under late fall weather conditions.
We get rid of the silly five-game playoff or a play-in game between two wild card teams.
Since we move right into the LCS, interest immediately peaks.
The pennant race re-enters the world of baseball. This is something fans who don’t remember pre-1993 have forgotten about. Today, when two great teams are competing against each other for a division title, like last year’s Tampa Rays and New York Yankees, there is no suspense. The team that finishes second still makes the playoffs. It was not always this way. Some of baseball’s greatest seasons involved fantastic division races: 1969 Mets vs. Cubs, 1978 Yankees vs. Red Sox, 1987 Tigers vs. Blue Jays, 1991 Braves vs. Dodgers and 1993 Braves vs. Giants.
This would have generated a really exciting race between the Yankees, Rays and Twins last year.
More teams in each division makes it harder for one team to run away with the division.
Fewer teams make the playoffs.
A team can still run away with a division, like the 1984 Tigers, and generate no interest in the pennant race.
Bad teams fall out of the race faster.
In recent years many teams, like the Angels of 2002 and Red Sox in 2004, have won the World Series as Wild Card teams. This is not to say the Red Sox would not have made the playoffs in 2004. They only finished three games behind the Yankees, but had the Wild Card wrapped up with two weeks left in the season. They didn't have much to play for at that point.
Do It Like They Do It in the Olde Country: Relegation Style
In the English Premiere League there are 20 teams. At the end of each season, the bottom three teams are relegated to the 2nd tier league, the Football League Championship. The teams that finish fourth and fifth to last play a one-game playoff, for which the loser also suffers relegation. The top three teams from the Football League advance to the Premiere League for the next season, while the fourth and fifth place team play a one-game playoff to also advance.
There is no real playoff system. The team that wins the league is declared the champion. The top four teams do advance to play in the European Championship. Baseball could either keep this winner take all format or play a playoff with the top two or four teams.
Baseball could adapt a system like this. It could have two divisions of 15 teams or three divisions of 10 teams each.
With the threat of regulation, every game matters—even for the second or third division teams. Teams will not want to fall into the second division, and teams in the second division need to play hard all year to make it into the first division.
In essence you still have three pennant races: The teams at the top of the first division, the teams at the bottom of the first division trying to stave off relegation and the teams at the top of the second division trying to advance to the first division. If you had three divisions, you'd have five races.
The best teams are rewarded by playing in the first division, and the ones who can’t keep up are relegated.
Because the best teams are in the first division, the likelihood for a close race at the top is increased.
There's a distinct motivation to succeed and not just get buy. Getting to the first division means better teams coming to town, a chance for the playoffs and thus more fan interest and revenue.
Teams in the second or third division obviously have no chance to win the league title.
There would likely be a rotating, unbalanced schedule. You play the teams in your division twice as much as you do the teams in the other division. As a result, rivalries could suffer.
The American and National League, which have existed together since 1900, are no more.
One group of people is going to be unhappy because the DH is either going to become universal or disappear completely.
If you sink to the bottom of the second or third division it might be hard to generate fan interest.
Obviously this is a foreign concept for most American sports fans. It might put off the casual fan and take time for others to adjust to it.
Expand and Expand Some More
If baseball added two more teams, it could split each league into four divisions. This is the way the NFL is set up. Baseball could either have each division winner make the playoffs or have six teams from each league and run a bye system like the NFL does.
Two additional teams enter the league, creating two new fanbases and two new markets for baseball. Las Vegas, Portland, Indianapolis, New Orleans, San Antonio, Columbus (Ohio), Charlotte and El Paso could easily support a major league team—each city is in the top 20 of most populated American cities.
Copying the format of the nation’s most popular sport is probably not a bad idea.
The use of a bye for each league’s top two teams would provide a strong incentive for the league’s top teams to continue to play hard until the end of the season.
If we operate under the bye system with 12 teams, the playoffs are now extended even longer into November.
Weak division winners can make the playoffs over teams with superior records. This was clearly demonstrated by last year’s Seattle Seahawks who qualified with a 7-9 record over teams who won 10 games.
More teams, and thus more players, theoretically means a decrease in the caliber of player in the major leagues. After the addition of Florida, Colorado, Tampa Bay and Arizona in the 1990s, this was one of the reasons blamed for the increase in offense.