Every so often, baseball writers and fans will consider the possibility (inevitability?) of the expansion and realignment of Major League Baseball. And why not? It’s a fun thought exercise! Especially when the season is winding down and writers have more time on their hands.
The recent round of expansion talk was kicked off by a Baseball America piece published yesterday that has some good ideas and some terrible ideas.
Let’s start with the good: their scenario includes giving a team back to Montreal and expanding to a second city in the Pacific Northwest (Portland, in this case). Some compelling arguments are offered for both of these places, and I will accept them into my framework moving forward. Additionally, they suggest shortening the season by 6 games to 156, which would keep travel costs down and allow the players more days off without stretching the season too far in either direction. I’m sold on this.
What I’m not sold on is their realignment scheme or their playoff format. The suggestion that we do away with the leagues is something I could theoretically be open to, but not like this.
East: Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Miami, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Washington.
North: Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Minnesota, Montreal, both New York franchises and Toronto.
Midwest: Both Chicago franchises, Colorado, Houston, Kansas City, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Texas.
West: Anaheim, Arizona, Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle.
There’s… a lot going on here. I think the main thing I object to is the separation of the Phillies and the Mets. Or the inclusion of both teams in two-team markets in the same division. Or having the Twins share a division with the Red Sox, but not the Brewers. Or it could be that I prefer smaller divisions to larger ones. Or... etc.
Here’s their Playoff Format:
Fan interest could be maintained by allowing for the four first-place teams in each division to advance to the postseason, and having play-in games against the eight remaining teams with the best records.
The winners of the four wild card games would advance to the Division Series, which would feature a wild card team against each division champion.
Those four winners would advance to the Championship Series, and the winners of that round would meet in the World Series.
Listen, I love the winner-take-all Wild Card Games. But to have four of them is a bit much.
But enough of me complaining about this post. Let’s get into my ideal scenario:
My two main touchstones when desigining these divisions were to first make sure the big rivalries were kept in tact, then to prioritize geography.
Upsides: Currently, there are four divisions made up of teams from different time zones. The AL West is the worst of these, comprising of three teams from the Pacific Time Zone and two teams from the Central Time Zone, which have a two hour difference from each other. My format only has three divisions with a team in a different time zone from their rivals, and none of these are more than one hour away from each other.
Downsides: It probably makes more sense for the Rockies and the Diamondbacks to be in the same division, since they are the only two that play in their time zone and they are pretty close to each other. Also, I’m sure a lot of Floridians would be unhappy with the fact that teams from the Northeast wouldn’t be visiting as frequently.
Regular Season Schedule: Ideally for me, in order to meet a total of 156 games, the schedule for this format would consist of a team playing: each of their division rivals 15 times (45 games), each team in the rest of their league 9 times (108 games) and one interleague series (3 games). I think interleague play is necessary for two-team markets or cross-state rivalries, but aside from that I hate it. A single interleague series would give that matchup more meaning. Teams without obvious interleague counterparts could rotate.
Playoff Format: As someone who loves the Wild Card Game but absolutely hates the idea of having four at a time, I was at a loss for how to work out a playoff format with the divisions set up this way. Then, someone pointed me in the direction of the Korean Baseball Championship Format: Five teams make it to the playoffs: the team with the best record instantly earns a spot in the final round, while the remaining teams compete in a step ladder playoff system. The 4th & 5th seeded teams play each other in a two-game Wild Card, with the higher seed having a built in, one-game advantage. That means that the 5th seed would need to win two in a row against the 4th to advance, while the 4th would only need to win one. The winner of the Wild Card would challenge the 3rd seed, and the winner of that would challenge the 2nd seed, and the winner of that faces the 1st in the final.
Applying this to each league (so that the final, in this case, is the League Championship Series) would mean that each Divison Leader advances, plus the team with the next highest record in each league. The Divison Leader with the lowest record would be forced to take on the Wild Card team.
There is of course a drawback to this, which is that the higher seeds have to spend extended periods of time not playing. However, I love that this substantially rewards the team with the best record and encourages Divison Leaders not to simply phone it in if they have their division on lock.
This entire conversation, of course, assumes that Montreal and Portland are the cities being chosen for expansion. They’re good candidates, for sure, but there are a hell of a lot of other cities that could make compelling cases, including some outside the U.S. and Canada.
In the end, there is never going to be a perfect solution. Hell, we’re not operating from a place of perfection even now. I’m not arrogant enough to claim that my plan is the best out there, but I can confidently say it’s better than the Baseball America plan.