Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Robalini's MLB Realignment Plan

Robert Sterling

There's been a lot of talk of realignment in Major League Baseball, and not all of it is good. The simplest talk is to move one team from the National League and put it in the AL, so both leagues have 15 team. This looks like a done deal, with either the Houston Astros or Arizona Diamondbacks moving to the American League West (with the Astros moving to the NL West if it's the D-Backs so there's 6 five team divisions.) Though the Texas Rangers want it to be the Astros to have an interstate division rivalry, the Astros are balking at the idea, so I'm betting on Arizona. Either way, this would be a pretty harmless move, with the biggest change in having interleague play all year round.

A more radical option would be to have two 15-team leagues, but have no divisions. Then, the top four teams (or five, with the final two teams in each league playing a one game playoff) making it to the postseason. This plan is a step entirely in the wrong direction, essentially killing off the excitement of the pennant race.

This is the elephant in the room few are acknowledging: having a wild card in baseball's postseason has been a failure as an experiment for MLB. The one thing the wild card allowed was for Boston and New York meet in the postseason, and their epic 2004 series is probably baseball's most shining moment over the last decade. But no matter how enjoyable that series was (at least for non-Yankee fans) it in no way makes up for the loss of excitement in pennant races. For the most part since the wild card was introduced in 1995, many exciting potential pennant races (especially between the Yankees and the Red Sox) have been nullified since both teams were headed to the postseason either way. The move to add a second wild card in each league that will have a playoff with the first is merely a bandaid, an attempt to add some benefit in winning the division that isn't there.

The answer to the problem isn't to add wild cards, but rather to create four divisions in each league. You still would have eight teams in the postseason, but they would all have to win their division or go home. This creates eight pennant races each season, with the likelihood of more than a couple being rather close.

To create eight divisions, ideally you need four teams in each division, which would require two expansion teams. Here's how I look at the expansion city options, while adding two teams to the mix:

* This is the easy one, moving the Oakland Athletics to San Jose, something which appears likely to eventually happen anyway, whenever the San Francisco 49ers get a stadium built at Great America in Santa Clara. Oakland is just not a major league city anymore, and San Jose being the heart of the Silicon Valley makes it a marketing winner.

* The Tampa Bay Rays, like Oakland, just can't hold its own as a baseball market. It has more to do with the location of its stadium than anything else, but when an organization puts together such a good team and attendance still flounders, it is clear that a city isn't ready for primetime.

This leaves openings for three more teams. Here's my picks:

* Portland. The US city with the largest independent metropolitan area without a MLB team. Has a long history of minor league baseball, and would be a perfect Pacific Northwest rival to both Seattle and San Jose.

* Las Vegas. I don't say this just to be a home town booster. Vegas is one of the biggest metro areas without a baseball team, and even with the economic downturn, all the other options lack the style and flash of Sin City. No ballplayer will complain about visiting here. Also, a team called the Area 51s would be an awesome addition to the MLB.

* Charlotte. If you use the combined statistical area, it's actually an even bigger metro area than Portland. Further, there is room for baseball to grow in the Southeast, and the hi-tech area of North Carolina is a logical pick.

Here's my view of the other options, and why they wouldn't work:

* Montreal: Yes, it's a bigger metro than any US city without a baseball team. But it's had a team already and failed. Let somebody else have a try.

* San Juan or Mexico: With the world economic crisis, it just is too risky to have any team in Mexico. Maybe someday, but not now. Likewise, though Puerto Rico would have huge attendance, there are big economic issues there, and players would balk at the extra travel distance.

* Sacramento, Orlando, or Virginia: The problem with all these areas is there already are teams in the same state or metro region. Sacramento has the Athletics & Giants, Orlando has Miami and (for now, at least) Tampa Bay and Virginia has the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles.

* New Jersey or Brooklyn: New Jersey or Brooklyn (or anywhere in Metro NY) would be a perfect place for another baseball team. But the Yankees would block any such move. End of story.

* San Antonio, Indiana, Oklahoma City, Nashville & New Orleans: San Antonio's only strike is that it too is in a state with two teams, who don't want competition for TV deals. Otherwise it would be a perfect fit. Indiana and Oklahoma City are on the cusp, but Charlotte has better arguments than they do. Nashville is not quite on the MLB level yet, and New Orleans is still recovering from Katrina. In any case, all these teams are good options after Charlotte for a team in the southern region.

That said, here's how the divisions would like in my plan:


St. Louis


Los Angeles
San Diego
San Francisco

New York



Kansas City
Las Vegas

Los Angeles
San Jose

New York

The main problem with this plan is that Baltimore & Toronto are still stuck in the same division as the two-headed beast of the Yankees-Red Sox. But it seems whoever shares a division with Boston or New York would be left with the short end of the stick. I think the best plan is to keep division races as regional affairs, but to have schedule based on team salary. Each league would have teams put into four groups each season based on their total salary, and their schedule would be weighed towards their salary level and not by division. I believe that would be a more effective way to balance team salaries than a cap.

Of course, the other complaint of this plan is that it forces Boston and New York to both compete for the same postseason opening, and would sometimes mean the team with the second best record in the league would be out of the postseason. But I consider this a virtue. For example, right now the Yankees and Red Sox are separated by a mere half game in the standings. Without a wild card, the battle to win the division would be a major story, but instead there is little attention to it. It's better to have a system that creates more excitement than one that rewards a very good team that didn't close the deal.

For more info on expansion team options:

Ranking the Top 10 Markets for Relocation or Expansion
Maury Brown
Tuesday, 05 August 2008

Re-Ranking the Top 10 Markets for Relocation or Expansion
Joe Tetreault
Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Metropolitian population statistics:

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