24 August 2007

Realignment Redux

Last November I posted my thoughts on the future and legacy of Bud Selig. Selig's staying on as commish through 2009. His tenure will have been marked by controversy and polarization. Like him or not, no one will be able to say that nothing happened under Selig.

Towards the end of that post I segued to the topics of expansion and realignment. Expansion won't happen again under Selig's watch, so those in cities without a major league franchise will have to look to his successor for hope. I pitched a two-part proposal which, judging from the comments, generated a good deal of intelligent discussion. I've since tweaked the concept a bit and will now present it again - and this time there are visual aids.

The map above (click map to enlarge, click here for a PDF) shows all existing team cities plus two new ones, Portland and Monterrey. Portland could be switched out with Las Vegas, and Monterrey could be replaced by San Juan, Mexico City, or any number of southern cities such as Charlotte or New Orleans. I'm not going to debate the economic or market merits of a particular city at this point, because I'm projecting that the earliest point at which expansion could occur would probably be 2015. It's likely that by that point most candidate cities will have grown sufficiently large enough to be considered solid mid-markets. The two target cities are placeholders, with Portland representing the AL West and Monterrey the AL South.

Before I explain the plan, it's important to understand how MLB has evolved over time. Team success, regional strengths, and savvy business decisions have come together to turn the National League into a de facto "Southern League" (no, not that one). Consider these facts:
  • 11 NL teams reside south of the Mason-Dixon line (extended from the original to the West Coast), whereas 8 out of 14 AL teams are north of the line.
  • Atlanta's isolation, its status as one of only major league cities in the South when the Braves moved there in 1966, and the cultivation of a huge audience through TBS gave the team an unique regional hegemony.
  • The St Louis Cardinals also experienced domination through the Midwest and parts of the South thanks to the strength of its former flagship radio station, KMOX. And 10 World Series championships.
  • The Astros started play 7 years before the Senators 2.0 moved to the DFW Metroplex.
  • The last two rounds of expansion netted three NL teams, one in Miami and two in the Southwest.
  • The Expos became the Nationals and are tapping into Virginia and the Carolinas.
  • The Mets, who replaced the California-bound Giants and Dodgers, were an expansion team whose crosstown rival has had a 60-year head start and libraries of history to boot.

Meanwhile, the American League has the one remaining Canadian team, the only team in the Pacific Northwest, and an overhyped but still compelling rivalry in the Northeast that FOX and ESPN are only happy to exploit at every possible juncture. That makes them the "Northern League," no? Mind you, this is not meant to extract from these observations that the NL is more Southern culture or that the AL is more effete. It's purely geographical, and based on the many different types of changes made to get to this point, purely coincidental as well.

It's this distribution that creates a basis for realignment. If the teams are already grouped a certain way, why not take advantage of those regional strengths? The AL East is already an AL "Northeast" with Tampa Bay paying the price by frequently flying north. The NL West is actually the NL "Southwest" when you consider how the five teams there are situated. So why not acknowledge American/North American growth and realign in a way that effectively recognizes our regions?

As I posited in November, four divisions in each league is the way to go. It solidifies regional strengths while reducing travel costs for teams. It keeps teams a two-hour (or less) flight away from their divisional foes and at worst one time zone away. It also simplifies scheduling, which I'll explain further on Sunday.

A look at the tables above reveals that no National League teams were moved to the other league. This is extremely important since two of the newest NL teams, Arizona and Colorado, have expressed no interest in moving to the AL. During the last realignment, Milwaukee was moved to the NL Central partly at Selig's behest since he's always thought of it as an NL city. The West stays the same except for Colorado, which should benefit from its division road night games starting at 6:05 instead of 8:05. In a rather bizarre twist, three pre-expansion NL West teams - Cincinnati, Atlanta, Houston - would be united in the new NL South.

Over in the junior circuit, changes are more dramatic. Not so much in the East, which becomes the "Northeast." The AL North is really the AL Central minus Kansas City. The new AL South is the most radical change. Kansas City and Texas reunite from their old AL West days, which works well since they're less than 500 miles apart. Tampa Bay gets the opposite effect from Colorado in that all of their division opponents are a time zone earlier, putting road night games at 8:05. However, they would benefit from slightly less travel time/distance and more importantly, a better shot of winning the division. Unless revenue sharing is significantly altered, it's difficult not to see the deep-pocketed Yanks and Red Sox battle it out for the AL East crown, even in 2015. Both the O's and Blue Jays have better financial resources at hand than the Rays, so why not move to a place where you have a better shot? On the left coast the division would consist of two California teams and two Northwest teams. The recent combined success of the Angels and A's have created a sleeper rivalry that at times is just as intense as the better known Giants-Dodgers rivalry. By putting an AL team in Portland, the Northwest can develop its own great I-5 rivalry. While it would be nice to have a senior circuit team in the Northwest, there should be plenty of chances to appreciate NL ball via interleague play. The difficulty there would be determining who could be natural rivals - is Seattle-San Diego not a manufactured matchup?

The playoff system would still field 4 teams from each league, except that the wild card berth would be replaced by a 4th division winner. That's where a potential negative lies. The AL South would consist of 3 recent cellar-dwellers and an expansion team. Teams that come in 2nd in the other division races could look at the AL South and consider it weak and unworthy of a guaranteed playoff berth. But honestly, that criticism could be leveled at virtually every season, just look at the '06 NL Central. Texas could have a run to dominance because they financially outstrip KC and Tampa Bay and would presumably do the same to Monterrey. Eliminating the wild card removes the restriction that two teams can't play each other in the divisional round. A simple comparison of overall records would determine seeding.

In the previous realignment discussion, several alternatives were mentioned.
  • A 3rd New York team. Some suggested Brooklyn or northern New Jersey. I could entertain this possibility if the commissioner's office were less owner-oriented. I just don't see the Yanks and Mets giving up their territorial and broadcast rights very easily. TV rights/networks make up at least 25% of each franchise's value, and their collective control over the market translates into another large share. For a 3rd team to work in practice, the next commish would have to be courageous enough to take on the two NY teams - and by extension, all of the other big market teams. A 3rd team would also require a willing ownership group, something that shouldn't be too difficult to find in the area. Cablevision/MSG would be a likely bidder. By 2015, the franchise fee for such a team could fetch $1 billion, netting each team $31 million. In addition to that, how much of a payoff would it take for either existing team to allow a new kid on their block?
  • Other locales. Vegas is always a popular mention, but as we've seen from current events the perception problem that gambling represents is a difficult odor to remove. Southern cities such as San Antonio, Charlotte, Memphis, Nashville, and New Orleans may be overextended to varying degrees with their existing teams. The short and long-term viability of Portland and Monterrey have to be questioned as well before a team could be awarded to either city. It really comes down to choosing one team in the West and one in the South.
  • A return to the 154-game schedule. Yes, the season is too long, especially when you include the postseason. A reduction of 8 games would shorten the season 8-10 days, which would perfectly fit the divisional round. Unfortunately, the revenues are too great for the owners to go along with it. A quick computation of gate revenue (128 games x $22 per ticket x 32,000 seats) shows that the teams would lose $90 million alone at the turnstiles. That's more gate than the average team pulls in for an entire season.
  • 2 divisions of 8 teams per league. There are two reasons given for this type of alignment. The chief rationale is that the pennant races would have meaning again as only two teams in each league would qualify for the postseason. We've passed a point of no return on that front. The money's too great with expanded playoffs and many fans like the wild card for the hope it represents. The other rationale is that teams could be realigned into divisions based solely on geography, eliminating the AL/NL relationship altogether, as suggested in the Radical Realignment concept. I'm no purist, but MLB is not like the other three major sports. The DH is the obvious difference. How does that get addressed? It wasn't too long ago that the two leagues had different umpiring crews. The aforementioned D-Backs and Rockies don't want to move to the AL. Why would a solely geographical distribution fly with the owners? It's been said that Peter Magowan would sue MLB if they tried to realign in this manner.
Coming Sunday: Scheduling.


anthony dominguez said...

How about making a Portland team NL West and moving the Padres to the AL West? Portland would then have a geographic/interleague rival in Seattle, and San Diego gets a somewhat-geographic/interleague rival in Arizona. Also, the Padres and Angels could develope a nice little Camp Pendleton/I-5 rivalry. Lastly (Rob's going to love this one), you'll soon have to change the "Oakland" on your map to "San Jose."

Anonymous said...

Once they become the San Jose A's, I'll be a fan for life! If they call themselves anything else I guess there's always the Seattle Mariners.

Ken Arneson said...

Another problem with the four four-team division scenario is that you'll probably end up with sub-.500 teams making the playoffs relatively often.

This year, for example, none your three AL South teams are anywhere near .500.

So I'd add a simple rule: a division winner must have a .500+ record to make the playoffs. If a division fails to produce such a team, a wild card team from another division would be taken instead.

That'll let the networks still dream of some more Red Sox-Yankees playoff matchups.

Zonis said...

You can't do that. If a division leader can't make the playoffs, then the system is worthless. You can't just eliminate the teams you don't like. If they win their division, they get in.

The Cactus Leaguer said...

Great stuff as usual R.M. (and thanks for the Portland props... although by 2015 who knows what the landscape will hold - I predict Portland/San Antonio, but at least seven other metros could have a good shot at that time),

I have a suggestion to get around the loss of the wild card... have two wild card teams, then have the worst two division winners play a single game playoff (or maybe best of 3) against the wild card teams. Here are the advantages:

1. A very short first round series is more likely to be watched;
2. Giving the better two division winners a short rest gives them a huge advantage for the second round because they can set their rotation while the other teams can't (I would also consider other perks for those teams like an extra home game, etc.).
3. Between the divisions and the wild card chase there are more teams and more reasons to watch in August/September.
4. The 154 game schedule gives this a chance to work without running the season into November.

anon-a-mouse said...

I'd vote for just killing the wild card. You're going to increase excitement in more cities with more divisions anyway, so there's no real reason to go through a bunch of gyrations to keep it alive.

I'm also not worried about a sub-500 team in the playoffs. Sure it can happen, but I think it will be relatively rare. You have to remember the Tampa's of the world will have fewer games against the Yankees and Red Sox and more against the other crappy teams in their division. One of them is bound to beat up on their weekling neighbors enough to get at least 82 (or 77 if they shortend the season) wins.

Ken Arneson said...

I don't see why a .500 threshold would make the system worthless; wouldn't seeing the Royals (14 games under .500) win the World Series this year make the whole regular season even more worthless?

But I like the Cactus Leaguer's suggestion of a play-in better than mine, anyway. So I'll concede. The point is, it should be very hard for the worst division winner to win the World Series. There should be value and rewards for playing well in the regular season.

gedward said...

There's also the potential that Greater Los Angeles -- as with NYC -- may eventually be looked upon for a third team down the road as well.

The Inland Empire, east of LA, has recently passed both Orange and San Diego counties in population (4.0 mil vs. 3.8 mil each for OC and SD). And, as such, is already among the top-15 most-populous metro areas in the nation.

BigMac1212 said...

I'd love to do the minor league realignment/expansion.

BTW, nice idea.

Marine Layer said...

I'd love to be of assistance, but my knowledge of minor league ball is really only skin deep.