A few weeks ago, Tom Verducci of SI.com reported on a new development from Bud Selig’s “special committee for on-field matters”. According to Verducci, the committee is discussing the merits of a concept they call “floating realignment”, a scheme that would allow teams to elect to switch divisions based on their aspirations for the coming season. The example given centered around the Indians swapping with the Rays. The Rays would get the benefit of moving into the easier AL Central and, theoretically, the easier road to a division championship. The Indians would sacrifice playing in an easier division but benefit from the additional gate receipts that would come from more home games against the AL leviathans, the Yankees and Red Sox.
There are hidden costs in this plan, most particularly in lost gate receipts. Using the same example, how many Cleveland fans would be happy to see their club give up and take the gate receipts instead of the easier path to the postseason? Probably not that many, and I suspect that the Indians would think twice about alienating their fan base before the season started. So, while I’m not ready to write it off, I think this proposal needs a little more work.
That being said, it made me think. Is there any way Major League Baseball could address the log jam created by the Twin Titans in the AL East without radically changing the salary structure of baseball? I’m no expert, but one idea struck me as sound: eliminate the divisions altogether and have one pennant winner and three Wild Cards in each league.
As you know, baseball currently has two leagues, the American and National, that are split into three geographically-oriented divisions. The three division winners make the playoffs along with the Wild Card, the non-division winner with the best record. My question is this: why do we need divisions at all? Why can’t we have one pennant winner and three Wild Cards?
Here’s some context: playoffs were a foreign concept for most of professional baseball’s history: the pennant went to the team that won the most games. Post-season baseball was born after the American League debuted in 1903 and the World Series was created but was limited to the two pennant winners. for 66 years (the term “second division” was coined to identify teams that finished fifth or lower). Actual divisions weren’t used until 1969 and there were only two in each league until 1994, when the current format was installed.
What I’m proposing is a bit of a return to baseball’s roots. Get rid of the three divisions and restore balanced schedules within the leagues. The club with the best record wins the pennant and has the first seed in the playoffs. The next three highest finishers fill out the bracket, regardless of geographic location. It wouldn’t have changed anything last year but it would have changed things in 2008: the Yankees would have made the playoffs (not exactly a selling point for the small market clubs, I admit). But it’s easier than realigning the divisions each year and it’s positively enticing for an ugly inevitability: playoff expansion.
I already think the season is too long, but I can read the writing on the wall: the playoffs are a cash cow and extending them is too profitable to ignore. My “One Division” solution facilitates expansion while still keeping an emphasis on the regular season with one simple tweak: byes. Let the pennant winner and the second place finisher sit out the first round. Then, let the pennant winner select who they want to play after the first round . Those two caveats should give clubs plenty of incentive to finish first and might (especially in the AL) create an interesting phenomenon: the two top clubs (read: Yankees and Red Sox) battling down to the wire for the right to pick the easiest path to the World Series.
Hey, it’s not perfect. For one, there are only 14 teams in the AL (vs. 16 in the NL). That needs to be rectified, preferably without expansion. Perhaps Houston could be convinced to switch over. Maybe Pittsburgh would be interested (Detroit and especially Cleveland are close geographic rivals) or maybe San Diego. That being said, the most likely (and ugliest) alternative is expansion. The market for Major League cities is tight, though I can see eight plausible alternatives. Here they are, as I see it (in descending order of likelihood): Portland, OR, Charlotte, NC, San Antonio, TX, San Juan, PR, Mexico City, MX, Las Vegas, NV, Vancouver, BC, and Montreal QC.
In my mind, adding two teams would totally suck. It would dilute the overall talent level and exaggerate the competitive imbalance enjoyed by large market teams even further…unless they dropped a team in Hartford (take that Yankees and Red Sox!). Regardless, I think the “One Division” model makes way more sense than “floating realignment”. For that matter, I think it makes more sense than our current arrangement. I’m sure that the folks in Selig’s committee have thought of it by now. I just hope they don’t ignore it’s benefits in the hopes of “making their mark on history” by selecting a more radical change. Only time will tell.