There were a number of media reports last week that suggested MLB was discussing the possibility of realignment. Who, exactly, was doing the talking was anybody’s guess. ESPN ran one headline crediting the always safe, unnamed “sources.”
Once the initial report became public, the blogosphere was abuzz with realignment proposals ranging from the realistic to the radical, if not absurd, and everything in between. So, what can we expect, if anything, in the way of realignment? Here’s one person’s attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Even though no one in an official capacity within the sport would address the topic on the record, we can assume, based on the reports, that someone, somewhere – be it the commissioner’s office or the players’ association – is bouncing the idea of realignment off the office walls. Commissioner Bud Selig is on record as favoring increasing playoff participation by at least one team per league and combining discussions on realignment in conjunction with expanded playoffs makes sense.
While critics are quick to suggest that additional playoff teams would result in the hockeyfication of MLB, I don’t buy that argument. Even with ten teams making the playoffs, baseball would have the fewest playoff teams of any major professional sport. And as long as a discussion on realignment and adding playoff teams is on the table, why not go further and ask the more difficult questions: Should we continue with two leagues? Should the current division arrangement remain intact? Is it time to create an equal number of teams in each league by switching a team from the NL to the AL?
But regardless of who’s talking and what’s being discussed, there are certainties and speculation. Among the certainties is that even if MLB owners are in favor of realignment, a big if, no form of realignment will take place without the consent of the union. With the Collective Bargaining Agreement expiring in December, now is the time to put ideas on the table. ESPN’s Buster Olney reported that the union was actually behind the current discussions on realignment. If that’s the case, you can increase the odds of something happening, although exactly what that might look like is still nothing more than conjecture.
It is highly unlikely that the leagues will disappear, as some have suggested. Despite the prior elimination of league presidents and the merger of umpires under one roof, there’s too much history and branding tied up in the NL and AL to wipe them off the face of the earth.
Likewise, the division format will continue to exist. Divisions have proven to be effective in crating excitement among fans. The commissioner is unlikely to approve overturning that decision now. That doesn’t mean the current makeup of the divisions will continue. The odds of a team winning the four-team AL West are fifty percent greater than the odds of a team winning the six-team NL Central. If realignment happens, one goal should be an equal number of teams in each division.
That would require one team to abandon the NL for the AL. There’s no reason that shouldn’t happen. Switching leagues has been done once before, in 1998 when the Milwaukee Brewers moved from the AL to the NL. Arguments against an odd number of teams in each league include the necessity of an “interleague” series throughout the season. But interleague games – a Selig brainchild – are here to stay, so an extension of that concept in order to balance the leagues and divisions should hardly be considered radical. Suggestions that it will be unfair for a pennant contender to play an interleague series in September are baseless. Without a balanced schedule, which won’t ever be approved, any schedule is inherently unfair.
Even if there is agreement on realignment, consensus on the details may be elusive, as they were on a world-wide draft. Here’s the most we can expect: One team (the Astros?) will switch from the 16-team NL to the 14-team AL, resulting in six, five-team divisions; division alignment may be tweaked, based on geography and natural rivalries; and an additional playoff team – one with the fifth best record in the league, regardless of division (a boon to the Jays and Orioles, among others) – will be added in each league.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management and Sport Law at Eastern New Mexico University, teaches the Business of Sports at the University of Wyoming, and is a contributing author to the Business of Sports Network.
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