Over at the Athletic, Jayson Stark wrote about the future of Major League Baseball. Specifically, the inevitability of 32 teams, realignment, eliminating the leagues, shortening the schedule, and eliminating the DH. You know, the little things.
Please, if you haven’t already, read Stark’s article. I’m not sure if there’s another baseball writer alive who loves the sport more than him, which makes him the perfect messenger for an article that’s 2,500 words of “Everything you know about baseball will be different. Which might be kinda cool, right? Right? Maybe?” He makes some great points, lays out a whole bunch of different scenarios, and gets you prepared for the likelihood that it‘s all going to happen.
Or, rather, that something is going to happen. It‘s our job as baseball fans to freak out over the mere mention of radical changes. If baseball changed the color of rosin bags from white to green, you’d better believe I would have an article up within the hour, so it’s only natural to freak out over this.
Except some of these proposals seem natural. Some of them seem absolutely fine. Which means it’s our duty to rank them.
From best to worst, here’s the future of baseball, ranked:
1. Expanding to 32 teams
It’s so obvious. The only reason this hasn’t happened is that the A’s and Rays need to get new stadiums, so there’s no sense taking away two different ways for them to hold their breath, turn blue, and extort a new ballpark. And to be fair, most of the scuttlebutt around both teams is that they’ll largely use private financing because it turns out that ballparks can be a wise investment for a team, even if the county or municipality doesn’t just give it to them like dummies. Imagine that.
Once the A’s and Rays are in place, baseball will gladly accept the sweet, sweet cash that comes from two expansion fees. In 1997, the Diamondbacks and Rays paid $130 million each, which would be closer to $205 million after inflation. But that was in a post-strike, pre-McGwire world. The Dodgers sold in 1997 for $350 million; they’re probably worth closer to $3 billion now. Based on that, it’s not unlikely that a new expansion fee would be closer to a billion dollars, which would either go toward a living wage for minor-league players or directly to the ownership groups of the current 30 teams. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.
For our purposes, though, all that matters are two 16-team leagues and balanced divisions. No daily interleague. Eighty extra jobs to dangle in front of the MLBPA. Two new, fun teams to follow. The chance of a uniquely awful franchise name that we can’t even fathom yet, like the Portland Crunch.
Again, the only reason it hasn’t happened yet is that MLB needs all the Portlands they can get for leverage. Otherwise, considering the health of baseball and the inherent imbalance of 30 teams, it makes nothing but sense.
2. Geography is king
Back when the original “radical realignment” proposal was released in 1997, I was ready to march on the league offices with a pitchfork. Now that I’m older and wiser, and I don’t sweat the small things, I can say with more certainty that it really was the dumbest idea, just so incredibly stupid, and the people responsible should be banned from ever watching baseball again. They can watch Superman 64 speed runners on Twitch for three hours a day for 162 days every year. Vote for me for commissioner.
The Reds, Phillies, and Braves in the American League. Get the hell out of here.
But the idea was sound. Lessen travel. Make time-zone conflicts less of a problem, especially in the postseason. While Stark’s column also serves to mess around with the leagues too much — putting the Giants and Dodgers in a different division, and doing the same with the Red Sox and Yankees, seems like an absolute non-starter — he also comes up with an elegant solution:
(*- expansion team)
(**- changed league)
This wouldn’t work quite as well with Montreal instead of Charlotte, and I have no idea how it would work with a team in Las Vegas, but you can see something of a sustainable framework. The Rockies and Rays probably wouldn’t like it if they switched leagues, but tell it to the Astros and Brewers. I think it’s perfectly fine to have other teams experience the wonder and joy of Coors Field for a spell.
There are still issues with time zones — the Mountain Time Zone will always make sure of that — but it’s a much easier travel schedule for everyone involved. And it’s much, much, much better than the miserable radical realignment bandied about in 1997.
3. 154 games
In retrospect, 16 games makes more sense. Dammit, NFL, you got us. One game every week, with Max Scherzer throwing as hard as he possibly can in all of them. Can you imagine the “quarterback controversy” that would exist for a team like the Astros? We wouldn’t even have to mention sample size again, and the MVP of any given season could be, like, Austin Romine. You blew it, baseball’s forefathers.
But the season is almost certainly too long. Not just for us poor writers, but for the players and the fans. It’s so easy to check out in May and pick the season back up in September if needed.
Now, 154 games wouldn’t help baseball seasons seem that much shorter, but it would allow more postseason games, which people do pay attention to. We’ll get to the specifics of those extra games much lower on this list, but more rest for the players is probably a good thing for the quality of play.
Oh, right, and the quality of baseball players’ lives. Which is probably important or whatever.
4. Four divisions in each league, with four teams in each division
While it’s an improvement that every division has an equal number of teams now, there’s still weirdness with three divisions of five teams in both leagues. With an extra team in each league, this seems like a natural solution.
Ah, but it’s not that obvious. Tracy Ringolsby wrote about expansion and realignment in the middle of last October, and the thinking then was that two divisions in each league, with eight teams each, would be the plan. Assuming this would still come with at least four postseason spots, and possibly five or six, the division race would be eliminated, effectively. Nobody would care about the division winner. Might as well call it the “top-seeded wild card.”
With four teams, there would almost certainly be a reason for most teams to care about the division. Sure, there would be some runaway winners in a division or two every season, but thinning out the divisions a little bit would bring back some tension in each divisional race.
(Preferably if the wild cards are eliminated, but we’ll get to that.)
5. Portland and Charlotte being expansion frontrunners
The expanded-brain opinion is that the success of the Vegas Golden Knights and the fanaticism of their home crowd is evidence that the city is ready for a baseball team.
The galaxy-brain opinion is that the Portland Timbers have been doing that for years.
While the Mariners would be a little surly about losing part of the Pacific Northwest, they would enjoy at least a few games with easy travel, and there are built-in rivalry possibilities. Right now, Seattle has the toughest travel schedule in baseball, and ditching both Arlington and Houston to make room for Portland is a definite improvement, even if the schedule isn’t quite as unbalanced as before.
The only reason this section doesn’t rank higher is that I’m big on Montreal. MLB sucked the Expos’ dry and left its desiccated corpse on a pike outside the New York offices as a warning to others. It would be a beautiful thing if amends were made.
6. Expanded postseason
The first five categories are more or less fine. Like the shorter season and the 32 teams. Give me a team in Portland, even out the divisions, and make everyone happier when it comes to travel. Fine with all of that.
Please, please don’t give us eight playoff teams in every league.
Please, please don’t give us wild cards for the sake of wild cards, especially if it includes convoluted solutions like two different sudden-death games in each league to see who gets to the second Divisional Series, or two best-of-three series to figure that out, with the best record in baseball taking an extended hiatus while it all gets sorted out.
Four divisions. Four postseason teams. Don’t outthink yourselves.
One of the benefits of the wild card(s) is that it keeps teams in contention for longer. So would four divisions in each league. One of the benefits to an expanded postseason is that there are extra games with the wild card. A solution to that would be to make the LDS a best-of-seven, which would be possible with a shorter schedule.
There wouldn’t be a great reason to go for a gimmicky solution just to keep the second wild card. The second wild card has been around for six years, now. We’re not that attached to it, I promise.
Before that, there were four postseason teams in each league. It worked.
7. No DH
There’s no sense in rehashing this argument, but I’m fer pitchers hitting, dang it.
(Please finish this article before beginning that more entertaining video, thank you.)
8. Completely rejiggering the leagues
That would be the same as the hated radical-realignment proposal, and it’s completely distasteful. In 50 years, nobody would care that the Mets and Yankees were in the same division. Current baseball fans would do an awful lot of yelling in the meantime, though.
Are the geographical fixes with the all-geography realignment so great that it’s worth getting rid of Red Sox-Yankees or Cardinals-Cubs? Not even close. And once you start folding those traditional rivalries back in, what’s the point? Stark’s alternative is clearly superior.
But for an opening discussion about realignment, this is a good start. The key is adding those 31st and 32nd teams, which won’t force MLB to mess with the current AL/NL distribution too much.
Schedules aren’t as hard on the teams.
There’s a nice balance in the divisions.
This could work.
It’ll probably take years and years to approve, considering that it’s no small tweak to get two expansion teams into the league. But this is the future of baseball, and we should probably get ready for it. Turns out that it might not be that scary after all.