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MLB Realignment, the Phillies, and You

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Eventually, MLB is going to expand. Here's a look at how that might affect the Phillies and their Division.

Commissioner Rob Manfred
Commissioner Rob Manfred
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Well, it’s official: The National Hockey League is expanding to Las Vegas. The unnamed team will begin play during the 2017-2018 season, becoming the League’s 31st operating franchise. It would be the first expansion team from any of the four major North American sports leagues since 2002.

Notably, Major League Baseball has gone the longest of the three since their last expansion, when 1998 gave us the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. But that could be changing some time relatively soon. It seems like this thought experiment is revisited every year at least once, but expansion talk for baseball has been a bit different this year.

For one thing, the league’s new Commissioner, Rob Manfred, has been remarkably explicit in his desire to see new teams join the league. Before expansion, though, Manfred wants to tackle the new collective bargaining agreement as well as solving the seemingly unending stadium troubles of Tampa Bay and Oakland. So, given that those things need to get done first, the timeline is anywhere from "sooner than you think" to "conceivably never."

So what does this mean for the Phillies?

With 32 teams, each league would contain 16 teams and either have two divisions of eight or four divisions of four. Manfred specifically mentioned that scheduling and travel time is a concern for him, which means the latter option would be ideal. Divisions of four can/should be crafted to be incredibly geographically contained.

This, obviously, would shake up things for the Phillies and their rivals, regardless of whether or not they would deal with the expansion franchise directly. Below, I have examined some options and weighed their pros and cons.

I’m operating under the assumption that in most cases of expansion, Montreal gets a team. This is for many reasons, including but not limited to the fact that they’ve already had one for several decades, they are the most prepared for one and there is a sizable movement of people itching to have them back. Manfred even listed it as one of his top two options (along with Mexico City, which I personally think is much less viable).

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NL East Option A:

Philadelphia Phillies - New York Mets - Montreal Expos - Washington Nationals

In this option, the New Expos are placed back in the National League East with two of their former division foes, the Phillies and the Mets. This is all fun and good, but they would also be facing off regularly against the Old Expos. From a marketing standpoint, this is great because you could foster some potentially fierce rivalries within a four team division.

For the Phillies specifically, they’d get to stay with the Mets, who are their best frenemies, the Nats, who have spent so much time trying to cultivate a rivalry with them that it’d be a shame for those efforts to go to waste. It would also be pretty exciting to have a brand new franchise to visit on the regular.

In the early years, the Phillies would likely be feasting on a club that it just getting its sea legs, giving them a better chance at making the postseason in a smaller division. However, we’d be losing an opportunity to exchange regular animosity with the Cobb County Atlanta Braves

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NL East Option B:

Philadelphia Phillies - New York Mets - Montreal Expos - Pittsburgh Pirates

Here, I’ve swapped the Nationals for the Pirates. This could be because it makes a tiny bit more sense geographically, since the Nationals (along with the Reds) are the closest National League teams to Miami and Atlanta.

But mostly, it’s because I really want the Phillies to share a division with the Pirates.

Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, by nature of their positions on two geographically and culturally opposite ends of the same state, have a healthy rivalry outside of baseball. We fight over what things are called, how things are pronounced and which of our convenience stores are superior.

In the NHL, the Flyers-Penguins rivalry is one of the fiercest in the league. And the Phillies-Pirates used to have a similarly robust rivalry, back when they shared a division, but it has diminished significantly since Pittsburgh moved to the newly created NL Central in 1994.

Bringing that back would give the Phillies not one but two division rivals with the potential for very strong animosity, plus a fresh new team to play. However, it would be a shame to lose our division rivalry with Washington, who aside from New York, are the nearest NL team to us.

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NL East Option C:

Philadelphia Phillies - New York Mets - Pittsburgh Pirates - Washington Nationals

Let’s say, however, that MLB wants to give Montreal an American League team instead. There would be some sense to this: the natural rivalry between Montreal and Toronto, plus they could hope to carry over Montreal’s rivalry with Boston from Hockey. Or, of course, it could pass over Montreal altogether and award a team to some western city.

So that leaves the Mets, Pirates and Nationals. Most of the benefits to this alignment have been covered above, but I think the biggest benefit of this alignment is that these teams are the closest possible combination of four in baseball (within the same league). Driving from New York to Philadelphia to Washington to Pittsburgh takes a grand total of 8 hours.

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NL East Option D:

Philadelphia Phillies - New York Mets - Pittsburgh Pirates - Washington Nationals - Expansion Team - Miami Marlins - Atlanta Braves - Cincinnati Reds

Just for kicks, let’s entertain the notion that the National League would have two divisions of eight teams, rather than four of four. This is what the East would look like. Advantages to this would be that we’d get to see a large number of teams relatively frequently. Additionally, rivalries could blossom organically, not solely based on how close in proximity teams are to each other. We’d get to see Pittsburgh more regularly without losing the benefit of getting to beat up on the Braves and the Marlins.

Also, I didn’t make the specific distinction of what the expansion team would be, because in this case any team east of Cincinnati would be included in this division. So, if instead of Montreal the league decided to go somewhere like Charlotte or Columbus, it would be included here.

However, with a larger division comes the drawbacks of lots of travel time and a larger number of teams competing for playoff spots. That’s a tough pill to swallow when the alternatives look as appealing as they do. Also, I don’t think the Cubs, Brewers and Cardinals would enjoy the travel time that comes with being members of the NL West.

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Divisional Realignment is just one of many ways that the Phillies would be affected by expansion, but until things become more concrete, there’s no way to game out what kind of implications things like an expansion draft would have for the team. Right now, we can just sit back and speculate as to what the landscape will look like when the dust settles.