Earlier this week, news broke that Major League Baseball owners were considering moving a National League team, rumored to be the Houston Astros, into the American League in order to balance the divisions at five teams each and the leagues at fifteen teams each.
This is a terrible idea.
The last time realignment occurred was before the 1998 season, when the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Tampa Bay (then Devil) Rays were set to enter the league.
The Diamondbacks were set to enter the National League and the Devil Rays were tagged for the American League, which would have kept the number of teams in the AL and NL even. However, interleague play was in its infancy, having been used in regular season games for the first time during 1997. Commissioner Bud Selig realized the issues that would arise from having interleague play spread throughout the season, and realized a team needed to change leagues to keep an even number in each league.
After the Kansas City Royals turned down a chance to move to the NL Central, the Milwaukee Brewers accepted the opportunity, creating a six-team division. The NL West added the Diamondbacks, the AL East added the Devil Rays, and the AL Central compensated for the loss of the Brewers with the addition of the Detroit Tigers from the AL East, which was a much more logical fit geographically.
Now there are owners, players, and unfortunately sportswriters suggesting that moving a team back into the American League would be the best thing for baseball. Here are some problems with this train of thought.
First off, under the current plan (henceforth referencing the Astros moving to the AL West), interleague play would evolve from 18 games (fewer for a handful of NL teams) in a season to taking place over the entire league schedule. Interleague matchups are already a touchy subject among even casual baseball fans.
While some fans enjoy the novelty of seeing AL managers having to overthink and NL managers having to underthink, others despise the handful of times that their team has to cross league lines for games. Additionally, interleague matchups aren't always fair to the teams involved.
For example, look at the Milwaukee Brewers, who are half a game up on the St. Louis Cardinals as this is being written.
Both teams only play five interleague series this year, and the Cardinals already played one of theirs, taking two of three from the Kansas City Royals. St. Louis will draw Kansas City again this weekend while the Brewers will get two series against Minnesota. Both teams are at the bottom of the AL Central, so the disparity is small there.
However, each team will also have three sets against AL East teams.
The Brewers get to play the Red Sox and the Yankees on the road while playing Tampa Bay at home. The Cardinals host Toronto and visit Baltimore and Tampa Bay. If the Cardinals have a strong record against their weaker AL East foes while the Brewers struggle against better competition, leading to the Cardinals winning the NL Central by a slim margin come late September, Brewers fans will be up in arms over the unbalanced interleague schedule.
While there's certainly something to be said for winning the games on your schedule (a common argument in NFL scheduling, which has 14 of 16 games set years in advance based on a rotation, but that's another story), there is also something to be said for the constant imbalance seen in interleague play. Fans of interleague play would almost certainly agree that a full season involving interleague play would be detrimental to baseball.
Secondly, we arrive at the issue of the designated hitter. Ever since Ron Blomberg recorded the first plate appearance for a DH in 1973, the position has been debated by AL and NL fans. AL fans prefer the added burst of offense that a DH can bring, while NL fans argue that the lack of a DH forces a pitcher to have at least some knowledge of how to hit and that managing a National League game is a more involved process, as managers need to constantly utilize their bench, bullpen, and the double switch to gain advantages on the mound and at the plate.
If realignment were to occur, the designated hitter would either be abolished or used by the entire league due to the added influence of frequent interleague games forcing managers to retool their thinking on a fairly regular basis. Changing the current status quo of the DH would potentially alienate fans who are used to the managerial styles of their favorite teams and wouldn't want to see the lack or forced use of the DH.
Third on the list is the new playoff system. MLB officials are already looking into adding a second wild card to the current playoff system, which would lengthen the season by about five to seven days by having a short series between the wild card teams to determine who would advance to face the top seed.
With a realigned MLB, people supporting the change would want to see twelve teams in the postseason. Major League Baseball would no longer be the league that allowed the smallest percentage of its teams into the postseason (the NFL, allowing 12 of 32 teams in, would take on that crown), but its season would be stretched out.
The most logical format in a 12-team system would be the one that the NFL uses, where the two best teams in each league would receive a bye to their respective division series (or whatever they would be renamed) while each league's division champion with the worst record and the three wild cards from each league would play, most likely, five game series to advance.
This would add anywhere between seven to 10 days to the postseason schedule. Commissioner Selig sacrificed the traditional Monday Opening Day this season in order to start games earlier in the year to try and prevent the World Series from stretching into November. Realigning the leagues and applying this sort of postseason structure would immensely devalue what Selig did this year to try and keep baseball an April to October sport.
There are certainly more negative things that could be said about realignment, but feel free to add your opinions below. This writer supports leaving things just the way they are—slightly unbalanced, but more balanced than an AL and NL with 15 teams each could ever be.