Juiciest Storylines That Would Emerge with MLB's Reported 3-Division Realignment

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistApril 29, 2020

Juiciest Storylines That Would Emerge with MLB's Reported 3-Division Realignment

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    John McCoy/Associated Press

    Maybe, possibly, hopefully, actual MLB players will begin playing actual baseball games soon. If and when they do, things will look quite different.

    Nothing is official, but on Tuesday, USA Today's Bob Nightengale reported that the league's higher-ups are "cautiously optimistic" play could resume in late June or early July. The season would last at least 100 games, three unnamed executives told Nightengale, and games would be played in teams' home parks.

    The biggest revelation from the report is that the 30 clubs would be split into three divisions based on geography rather than American or National League affiliation, and they would only play games within their division.

    Per Nightengale, the divisions would break down like this:

    • West: Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies, Houston Astros, Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, Oakland Athletics, San Francisco Giants, San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers
    • Central: Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins and St. Louis Cardinals
    • East: Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, Miami Marlins, New York Mets, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays and Washington Nationals

    There are plenty of unanswered questions, including how the postseason would work and when and if fans would be allowed to attend games.

    While we await updates, let's jump on this piece of intriguing news and examine some of the juiciest storylines that could emerge from a three-division, mixed-league format.

The Universal DH Should Be in Effect and Gain Support

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    If MLB mixes the AL and NL, it's safe to assume all teams will adopt the designated hitter rule.

    If they didn't, stars such as the Boston Red Sox's J.D. Martinez or the Minnesota Twins' Nelson Cruz, who get the bulk of their starts at DH, would see severely reduced playing time. It's nearly impossible to imagine the league doing that in the name of letting pitchers swing the bat (or, often, bunt).

    The universal DH is sure to be a topic of discussion when the current collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2021 campaign. It feels increasingly like an inevitability. A full (or at least "full") season of implementation could push it even closer to reality.

    Once NL teams and their fans get a regular taste of the roster versatility, increased offense and dearth of hitting and baserunning injuries to pitchers the DH rule provides, it's tough to imagine all but the staunchest purists standing in the way.

Regional Rivalries Will Actually Matter

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    The divisional realignment Nightengale reported would preserve baseball's most storied rivalries: Yankees-Red Sox, Dodgers-Giants and Cubs-Cardinals. But it would also add fuel to some of the league's less intense regional "rivalries."

    Even with interleague play making them technically meaningful, regular-season games between the Mets and Yankees, Giants and A's, Angels and Dodgers or Cubs and White Sox don't spark the same level of excitement as long-standing historical rivalries. Geographic proximity simply isn't enough.

    Now, however, those teams would be directly competing for the same division or wild-card spots, depending on what the playoff format ends up looking like.

    Pulses won't pound over a mid-week tussle between the Marlins and Rays, but a late-season Subway Series with direct postseason implications could generate widespread interest from Queens to the Bronx and well beyond.

MLB Will Get to Experiment with New Playoff Format

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Speaking of postseason implications, MLB will have to drastically alter its playoff format. There are a number of options under the three-division format, but no matter what, it'll be vastly different than anything we've ever seen.

    The biggest change, obviously, is that the World Series could be a matchup between two American or National League teams. But this is also an opportunity for baseball to experiment with any number of new variations.

    The league has considered expanding the playoffs from 10 to 14 teams as soon as 2022 with more wild-card entrants, an added best-of-three round and a televised opponent-selection process for certain clubs.

    A restructured 2020 season, in which convention is already tossed out, would be a perfect time to try some of these fairly radical ideas and see how well they play, both practically and in terms of fan interest. 

Bryce Harper Would Play Division Games at Yankee Stadium

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    As he approached free agency, there were countless rumors and rumblings about Bryce Harper landing a mega-deal with the Yankees. One of baseball's brashest, most marketable stars—a guy who grew up a Yankees fan and idolized Mickey Mantlein pinstripes? It made too much sense.

    For all the speculation, however, Harper ended up signing a 13-year pact with the Phillies prior to the 2019 season. In fact, he said the Yanks never even contacted him.

    He's since played at Yankee Stadium as a member of the Phils and heard boos from the crowd. This season, he could see a lot more meaningful action against the club that didn't sign him.

    The Yankees might be the favorites in the restructured East, but the Phillies have some emerging young talent around Harper and bolstered their starting rotation with the addition of right-hander Zack Wheeler. They should be at least a playoff hopeful.

    The lefty-swinging Harper should get multiple opportunities to take aim at Yankee Stadium's short right field porch—and to hear some more Bronx jeers.

Mike Trout Would Play Division Games at Coors Field

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    Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

    There's no real reason to get excited about the Angels and Rockies being in the same division other than the prospect of Mike Trout seeing more action at Coors Field.

    Trout rakes in any ballpark on Earth—and probably the known universe. But like many hitters before him, he's put up cartoon numbers at Coors Field.

    In an admittedly small sample of seven games and 34 plate appearances in Colorado, Trout has hit .483 with a 1.386 OPS and three home runs. Clearly, the Mile High air suits him.

    Other clubs such as the Dodgers, Giants, Padres and Diamondbacks would also have the "pleasure" of the greatest player of his generation landing in their division. 

The Dodgers and Astros Could Battle for the West

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed a lot of things out of the headlines, including the Houston Astros' sign-stealing scandal.

    But once baseball comes back, the anti-Astros sentiment will be rekindled. Every boo and hit Houston batter will be seen through the lens of the cheating scheme that MLB and Commissioner Rob Manfred concluded the Astros utilized in 2017 and 2018.

    In '17, the 'Stros won the World Series in seven games over the Dodgers. Now, Houston and Los Angeles could be direct regular-season rivals.

    How much bad blood will there be? That remains to be seen. Dodgers players and manager Dave Roberts have been mostly measured in their response to the scandal, but things could heat up between the lines. We're talking about two teams with legitimate title aspirations and a checkered recent history on the part of the Astros, to say the least.

    Thrust them into the same division and pop your popcorn.

We'll See What Games with No Fans Look and Feel Like

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    GAIL BURTON/Associated Press

    This isn't so much a juicy storyline as it is a weird one, but it'll be fascinating to follow.

    Unless things drastically change, any games that come to pass will be played in mostly empty stadiums, at least initially. Other social distancing measures may be necessary when it comes to dugouts, clubhouses, mound visits, contact between infielders and baserunners, etc.

    But nothing will be odder than the sight of a game set to the backdrop of echoes and scattered voices rather than the cheers, boos and gasps of tens of thousands of spectators. 

    We've seen this before, in a limited way and under very different circumstances. In April 2015, the Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox played a game with no fans at Camden Yards. Protests took place, and unrest surrounding the Baltimore Police Department and the death of Freddie Gray was widespread in the city.

    The things going on outside the game were obviously more important than anything on the diamond, but the players involved said the experience was surreal.

    "There was almost this half-asleep feel because there was no energy," then-White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton said in 2016, per Eduardo A. Encina of the Baltimore Sun. "There were no people there. … There was no music. … It was almost like worse than a back-field spring training game."

    Baseball will try to avoid a similar vibe during any games played in 2020, even with the somber reality of COVID-19 playing out in the background.

    As an MLB executive told Nightengale, "This is going to be a season like we've never seen."

    In the case of spectators, that might literally be true.