|Rendering of TVA Arhitects' Proposed Portland MLB Stadium|
THE PROCESS OF selecting Major League Baseball's 31st and 32nd franchises reminds me an awful lot of Joe Lunardi's Bracketology each March — namely the Bubble Watch. Those college basketball teams with a strong-enough (yet weak-enough) record to find themselves on that "First Four Out" line get told the same thing each and every year: Handle your business down the stretch and root hard for every nationally-ranked favorite, playing in a one-bid league, to handle theirs.
If you are the MLB expansion group in Portland or Charlotte, this "win and get some help" situation is the one you currently find yourself in. Las Vegas and Nashville are going to Major League Baseball's equivalent of the "Big Dance." Full stop. You just have to hope and pray they don't steal away your one and only method of joining them.
What We Know:
If the Oakland Athletics do not get their Howard Terminal Project — a 34,000-seat waterfront stadium — approved by the end of this calendar year, their ownership group will relocate the club to Las Vegas. This has long been conjecture, but was recently confirmed. The ripple effect of that becoming reality: An expansion spot opens up to the field as Las Vegas' application would obviously be withdrawn.
The second thing we know is that Nashville remains the strongest contender in expansion talk — arguably more so than Vegas. Music City Baseball has the best funding proposal, best vision for a stadium, they fit a geographic need, and are in a city that continues to boom. With Nashville SC joining Major League Soccer (MLS) in 2020, the Tennessee capital is now home to three of the five major professional sports leagues in North America. One way or another, the Nashville Stars will exist in Major League Baseball by the year 2030.
Where Things Get Interesting:
What if the Rays can't secure a new stadium deal in either side of Tampa Bay? Could Nashville be the relocation destination? I don't see why not. If I were looking for the softest landing spot, I'd start with the most viable expansion candidate nearby. In that, Nashville is "only" 700 miles due north and maintains a somewhat geographic synergy with the American League East. It sure beats the Rays' cockamamie plan to split time with Montreal.
With these two plausible storylines on the Wheel of Hypothetical Outcomes, the potential exists that both Expansion Candidate 1 and 2 pull their name out of the running — as they would gain access through another channel (relocation). Step right up... hmm, who exactly is #3 and #4? It's time to investigate that MLB Bubble Watch.
What Gets Overlooked In All This Expansion Talk:
There's much written about the qualities that distinguish the cities vying for future MLB franchises. To many, population (current size, recent growth, and media market) is the key factor that separates contenders from pretenders. And while I may agree, I do so with a caveat. The awarding of new franchises cannot be done in a data vacuum of economic development fact sheets and feasibility studies. Thankfully, if history tells us anything, it won't.
Logistical variables — i.e. travel, competitive balance, and the symmetry of teams per league/division — are going to heavily influence the decisions made by an expansion committee, plus the commissioner (Rob Manfred or his heir). Simply put: The gears that presently make the league tick have to benefit from adding two more to the machine. Sheer size of the city isn't much of a guarantee here.
In this, I hate to break it to folks in Montreal and Mexico City, San Antonio and Orlando... you're not getting a Major League Baseball team. And it has nothing to do with your population or tourism projections.
Remember, the "point" of getting to 32 is to help a league arrive at an easily-divisible quantity for scheduling and Postseason purposes. It works well in the NFL (two conferences; four divisions of four). The NHL is still working through how 32 truly makes the on-ice product better. For now, it seems like addition for the sake of addition. And that reason cannot be brushed aside. It serves as a cautionary tale.
Recent expansion undertaken by the NHL (from 30 to 31, now 32) and MLS (from 28 to 29 next season) had flimsy foundational justification. There was very little value-add when it came to providing balance and ease to league operations. If anything, it created more headaches. Fair or foul, these particular franchise injections were viewed as not much more than cash grabs; propping up the value of all other ownership groups and paying back early investor debts.
As I said on this site years ago, ad nauseum, if Major League Soccer truly cared about the maximization of organizational functionality, they would have capped growth at 27 franchises. More isn't always more. It waters down the talent pool, adds to the quantity of fan bases in dismay over not winning (still only one champion crowned in each of these leagues per season), and creates "more mouths to feed" from a total revenue perspective.
And that last part is important. There clearly needs to be a financial "penalty" to pay the others that are letting you into their exclusive club so far down the timeline. You miss out on all the pain points of a league in its infancy and reap all the revenue-sharing benefits of contemporary times.
With a speculative MLB expansion fee of $2.2 Billion, it is tough to argue that it is not the biggest catalyst for owners to vote "yes" on clubs 31 and 32. That price tag — merely to buy a seat at the table — is more than the net worth of 20 current big league clubs. $4.4 Billion added to the kitty can sure go a long way for the small-market clubs.
However, I'll give Major League Baseball more credit than the NHL and MLS (and likely soon, the NBA). Their "why" surrounding 32 actually has a leg to stand on. The commissioner's motives fall more in line with those the National Football League possessed at the turn of this century. I'd never call it altruism, but it's not forcing the new kids at school to buy your lunch all year, either. After all, the whole system's gotta work or it's not worth doing (for any amount of money).
People are quick to forget how sloppy NFL alignment was at the beginning of this century. As recently as 2001, there were 31 teams, split into six divisions. You had the Atlanta Falcons still playing in the NFC West. The Arizona Cardinals called the NFC East home. The NFC Central had all these teams from the Upper Midwest... plus Tampa Bay?! The winner of the AFC Central had to best five divisional opponents; all other divisions only had four. In this case, an increase to 32 franchises (adding Houston in '02 and switching to eight total divisions) had much more to do with getting their house in order vs. expansion fees subsidizing fellow billionaires.
The NFL was chaotic to manage and impossible to provide equal opportunities for playoff inclusion. Travel was unfair. Schedules never offered competitive balance. They needed simple and neat, and expansion gave the league office a perfect inflection point to Etch-A-Sketch it all and start anew.
Not that Major League Baseball is in comparable disarray, but there are comparable benefits in getting to 32 — and plenty of clubs on Forbes' World's Top 50 Most Valuable Sports Teams to say the league isn't crying poor. This particular decade is providing as good a reason as any to make any/all sweeping changes to the league (and sport). Manfred might as well push for everything he wishes to alter while the walls are stripped down to the studs.
How It Will Go Down:
The first thing to consider is how the league office would want to sub-divide its 32 teams — with the obvious "American" and "National" split done 120+ years ago. While the initial fork on the family tree is easy, that next one could certainly spark fiery debate. How many divisions will each league possess?
For a sport full of purists, my answer should be satisfying: Two.
This takes the game back to that "Pre-Central Era" I vaguely remember as a child. There's an East and a West. The end.
Without question, this arrangement will get crushed on social media. The cleanest versions of the criticism shall include "old-school" or "setting the game back four decades." But I'm here to tell you: There are many in the baseball-loving community that still push back at the very premise of a division — and a "Postseason" for that matter.
My father's demographic can fondly recall the days of winning the league or bust. Sure wasn't fun to be 12.5 games back by the end of May, but the objective was clearly understood by all parties: Finish atop the AL or NL and you earned that World Series berth. I'm suggesting we spin the dial, but perhaps not that far into the past. We'll also take some good parts from the here and now. Can't have all my fellow millennials mad at me.
Historical Context On MLB Expansion:
There had been plenty of iconic/gut-wrenching relocation stories in Major League Baseball's past, but their first foray into expansion didn't come about until 1961. The American League needed to respond to the successes both New York National League franchises were experiencing in California. The creation of the Los Angeles Angels was designed to be that shot across the bow of the Dodgers.
That same off-season saw the Washington Senators move to Minneapolis-St. Paul to become the Minnesota Twins. So the American League wasted no time playing the second expansion card in their hand... on a new iteration of the Washington Senators. What? And you thought Cleveland getting the Browns "back" via expansion happened quickly. It only took D.C. four months.
Could you imagine Oakland receiving a brand new team the minute the A's leave for Vegas? A confusing decision made many years ago; one that I'll have to research further at a later date.
The very next year, the National League responded with growth to ten clubs of its own. In doing so, the days of 162-game schedules became a permanent fixture in both leagues. The expansion cities were a taste of old world and new. Yankee-hating New York baseball fans — still reeling over the loss of their beloved Giants or Dodgers — were encouraged to "Step right up and greet the Mets." Meanwhile in Houston, the franchise known today as the Astros was born; originally branded the Colt .45s.
In 1969, four new teams (the Kansas City Royals, Seattle Pilots, Montreal Expos, and San Diego Padres) began play and subsequently spawned two divisions in each league. It was official. The nation had outgrown the pleasant setup of 16-20 teams placed into single columns in the newspaper standings. However, it was the only format anyone had known for 68 straight years; one hell of a run for anti-change continuity lovers. It would only take 28 more before league commingling was acceptable.
When the jump to 24 teams did occur, fans had to be introduced to a League Championship Series and there were multiple playoff participants (gasp). If you ask me, this was the sweet spot in MLB history worth replicating.
Note: Expansion, like an organ transplant, doesn't always take. The Seattle Pilots lasted only one season in the Pacific Northwest before being sold; they were moving to Milwaukee for the 1970 and playing as the Brewers. The buyer? None other than Allan H. "Bud" Selig.
To be fair, the Pilots financial/stadium problems were not all their own. They were originally not set to start play until 1971, along with the Kansas City Royals. However, the date was moved up to 1969 under pressure from Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri. Professional baseball had been played in Kansas City — in one form or another — from 1883 up until the A's left for Oakland after the 1967 season. Symington threatened legal action against Major League Baseball's antitrust exemption if Kansas City had to wait three years for baseball to return. The American League would not allow only one new team to enter the league. This meant Seattle had to rush to match Kansas City's readiness. Long story short: They did not.
In 1977, MLB expansion once again grew in an less-than-ideal way. The American League added two clubs (Toronto and Seattle's second try), but that curmudgeonly ol' National League stayed at 12 clubs for the next seventeen years. In 1993, the NL finally capitulated — adding the Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies to balance things back out.
The following season was figuratively and literally a "Wild" year for Major League Baseball. The modest formats of yesteryear clutched their pearls. Six total divisions, eight playoff entrants... two Wild Cards. What the hell is this?!
And like Marty McFly playing "Johnny B. Goode" in Back to the Future, the world wasn't ready for it — as evidenced by the strike that cost us all a World Series — but "your kids are going to love it." It wasn't perfectly divisible, but we had a balanced East (5), Central (5), and West (4) in both leagues. When the expanded Postseason finally got a chance to debut in 1995, it flourished and hasn't looked back.
1998 saw two more teams (Tampa Bay and Arizona) ushered into the mix. It gave the top tier of professional baseball 30 members and that is where it still sits to this day. If expansion does reappear until 2027 or 2028, Major League Baseball will go 30 years without adding a franchise; the second-longest period of consistent quantity Major League Baseball has ever known (1901-1960). Despite its age, relative to other American sports leagues, it's not really a league with a rich history of expanding.
For starters, it began with a much higher volume than most. 16 teams is more than the original 11 teams in the NBA (BAA), inaugural 10 of the NFL (APFA), founding 10 of MLS, and blows the doors off the "Original Six" of NHL lore. So it never really had to grow by all that much; not reliant on mergers to add bulk like most. MLB was already at 24 members by 1969. For perspective, the NBA didn't reach 24 franchises until 1988 and that involved an era of contraction (down to eight teams) from 1955-61. Thus, Major League Baseball is the outlier for always adding/never subtracting, not requiring the assistance of another association to join forces, and keeping the total waves of expansion under seven ('61, '62, '69, '77, '93, '98).
Another commonality is that it has always grown in pairs, even if it was rushed to avoid legal ramifications in 1969. There's never been a season with an odd-number hanging out there because of expansion — like the Vegas Golden Knights (NHL) from 2017 to 2020, or how St. Louis City SC (MLS) will begin next season as club 29 for some indefinite amount of time. In this, Major League Baseball is good about being calculated, intentional, and measured when it comes down to growth.
Additionally, American League/National League/joint-MLB expansion committees have a solid reputation of choosing stable markets that eventually thrive. Of the fourteen expansion franchises, eight have won a World Series — accounting for 12 titles since 1969. Those "Amazin' Mets" — along with the Blue Jays, Marlins, and Royals — have two rings bearing their names. The Diamondbacks, Angels, Colt .45s/Astros, and Expos/Nationals each have one.
For your next Trivia Night: The Senators/Rangers, Pilots/Brewers, Padres, Mariners, Rockies, and (Devil) Rays are the six franchises that have not yet reached baseball's summit. Everyone but the Mariners have had their shot. Texas and Tampa Bay have been the closest most recently; both falling in the World Series on two occasions over the past 14 years.
By comparison, 12 NFL franchises have never won a Super Bowl — four failing to even play in "The Big Game." Eleven in the NBA have never lifted Larry O'Brien Trophy. And now 12 NHL clubs have never passed around the Stanley Cup (a little unreasonable to ask that of the Kraken, though the Golden Knights almost pulled it off). Put it all together and it means some combination of Nashville/Las Vegas/Charlotte/Portland/Montreal/San Antonio will, statistically speaking, have a better shot at winning a championship than Franchises 31 and 32 in any other sport.
The lucky MLB cities should have nothing to worry about on the field... at least until that first ballpark begins to look tired and worn. Historically speaking, the American and National Leagues bigger problem is putting the kibosh on relocation. It is a notorious track record that spells worse news for the Oakland A's and Tampa Bay Rays than any of the newbies.
The noteworthy thing about those six decades (1901-1960) in which Major League Baseball tacitly prohibited expansion is that the settled quantity was 16. The reason? That math — a number divisible by two and four — worked too damn well for anyone to want to change it. Something to think about when lobbying for 32.
Once It's Right, Don't Mess With It:
All I know is it better be another 59 years before this expansion process comes back around. Yes, kids, a time before ubiquitous Interleague Play was a thing. And in this part of the story, it killed Major League Baseball's perfect symmetry. These unbalanced days of the past should serve as cautionary tales to never get starry eyed over thoughts of 34 or 36.
Upon the completion of the 1997 season, a move was necessitated to keep the peace. Though the era of AL and NL working independently was rapidly dissolving — with the trial run of Interleague Play successfully completed — Major League Baseball wasn't yet equipped to handle 30 franchises, split 15 and 15. One league had to have 16 and the other 14, for even numbers in laying out a schedule. Now the two expansion teams (Arizona and Tampa Bay) could have entered into the same league. After all, there was precedent in '61, '62, '77, and '93. Instead of those being glowing case studies, however, they were exactly what owners didn't want to have happen again.
Typically, freshly-minted teams perform very poorly in all sports. Expansion Drafts don't necessarily fetch athletes at their career pinnacle in filling out a brand new roster. A lack of chemistry and growing pains are a lot to overcome in order to win much Year 1. Thus, established teams salivate to play expansion teams. The Toronto Blue Jays (59-102) and Seattle Mariners (56-104) had a combined win percentage of .358 in their inaugural season of 1977... both in the American League. Five AL clubs put up over 800 runs that season; the highest quantity since 1938. In particular, the division-winning Yankees and Royals feasted on that expansion-level pitching. And those good times lasted quite awhile. It was 1983 before either Toronto or Seattle produced a winning record.
They were hardly the worst MLB expansion duo, however. In 1962, the Mets and Colt .45s propelled the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers each over 102 wins — in part because of how awful the late arrivers were out of the gate. New York and Houston's summated record: 104-216 (.325).
The highwater mark for an expansion twosome was turned in by the Washington Senators 2.0 and the Los Angeles Angels; that pair put up 131 wins in 1961. If you can believe it, this dubious "record" was equaled — right on the number — when the Marlins and Rockies joined the National League. Florida and Colorado combined for a 131-193 record during their maiden voyage. They did lose the tiebreaker on win percentage (.407 to .404), though. No champagne was popped so that detail went unknown to all those involved.
Clearly, presenting two instances of "fresh meat" to one league (and none to the other) was not ending well. There's no secret as to why this was a point of emphasis for 1998's crack at expansion. Even though the Rockies made the playoffs in 1995, and the Marlins had risen to World Champion status in just four years, the results were viewed as outliers. The Rays and Diamondbacks had to be split up.
In order to make the system work, acting commissioner Bud Selig volunteered the Milwaukee Brewers he owned as tribute — sending the club from the American League to the National. Shockingly, the NL continued on with 16 up until 2013, when it was finally apparent 15 and 15 was workable from an "Interleague All The Time" standpoint. Curiously, the Houston Astros — not a return of the Milwaukee Brewers — were the club sent back the other way.
My two cents: Now that we have the scales leveled, don't play around with it. Add a single National League team and a single American League team and be done forever. 32 is perfect.
What To Do With The Regular-Season & Postseason Format:
2012 marked the addition of a second Wild Card. The format was sold as expanded opportunities for contending teams, but its one-game nature was really designed to cut down a second-place team from equal Postseason footing as the division winners. It was fluky and fun; a gimmick, but one that worked well from an entertainment point-of-view. Ultimately, there simply wasn't enough protection granted to teams that amassed as many as 106 wins (Los Angeles in '21). The entire run could end in a single game.
So now, partly because a Covid-shortened 2020 season flirted with additional participants and partly because of the NFL's success with the format (though even they have moved on to more more more), we now have a two-bye/six-team bracket in both leagues. The structure gets its debut this 2022 season, so we shall see how it works. My early opinion is that it pairs better with 32 clubs, and I'll show you why.
For starters: Two byes and three divisions is clunky. If anything, I feel like this format change was made because expansion is closer than we may think. Establish it in the mind of the casual baseball fan a few seasons in advance, show its imperfections, and then a two-bye/two-division-winner system will fit like a warm glove to a frigid hand. We'll be longing for OCD satisfaction on par with Noah's Ark (two for every two) — so much so that any pushback regarding divisional contraction should fall by the wayside.
Hopefully my Cleveland
Indians Guardians can hang on to win the American League Central this year. In doing so, they'll have the same credentials as the Yankees (likely winners of the AL East) and the Astros (running away with the AL West). The glaring difference will be in the win total; Cleveland won't be in the same stratosphere as New York and Houston. If they get in at all, it will be as the third-best American League division winner. Their reward for equaling the feats of the Yankees and Astros would suddenly be no better than the top Wild Card.
Since 2001, the NFL has had a minimum of two division winners (per conference) playing in their Wild Card Round. With a format tweak in 2020, this number has grown to three on each side of the bracket. Major League Baseball is oddly singling out one and only one; surrounding them with a bunch of runners-up. This means a club like the Guardians has to escape a best-of-three series (albeit exclusively at home) that no other American League division winner has to.
What I'm about to say next might surprise you, however. I'm not going to scream about such a predicament being unfair for Cleveland. I don't think it is at all. It is a case of poor optics and bad branding, though. The Guardians aren't division-winner material this year, period. So shame on Major League Baseball for laying out too many lifeboats for them to snag one. Call the Guardians what they are: The fourth best team in the American League that plays east of the Mississippi. Trim it down to two divisions and this issue takes care of itself. New York and Houston run off with 100-win seasons and the only byes available.
Cleveland as a five or six seed in an American League Wild Card round (exclusively filled with "Wild Cards") suddenly doesn't bother me at all. The Postseason match-up would change; the road team for all three (*if necessary) games in the play-in round. Their odds to advance to an ALDS would likely be comparable — minus the expectation and label of being some crowned champion of anything already. Those types of regular-season titles will start requiring 95-win seasons once again.
The current 3 seeds (St. Louis and Cleveland) would host the 4 seeds (Atlanta and Tampa Bay) in the Championship Series — if the Yankees, Astros, Mets, and Dodgers all get bounced immediately after their byes. On its surface, this doesn't make much sense. Atlanta is six games better than St. Louis in the standings; the Guardians have the sixth-best win percentage in the American League. Being handed Games 1, 2, 6, and 7 of the NLCS/ALCS at home, against a superior team from a tougher division, doesn't add up. All because of geographical alliance? A return to two divisions rights this wrong. The Cardinals and Braves would both be viewed as Wild Cards and the seeds would flip. Same would be true for the Guardians and the Rays.
This year's AL Central, and its inevitable 88-win champion, might feel a tad embarrassed by its record compared to the six overall Wild Cards in the field. That said, I won't hesitate for a second to buy up that "2022 Postseason" merch (as long as its devoid of that stupid "Splitfinger G" logo). The main reason would be to mercilessly troll the White Sox for thinking Tony La Russa would do anything but sink their much better ship. So let's not begin moving the goal posts on playoff qualification standards that would allow dumpster fires like this Chicago team to sneak in.
Twelve out of 32 (37.5%) making the playoffs also feels on the nose — in terms of Postseason Inclusion Percentage (PIP) among North American professional sports. The 40% of this year's new system is undeniably too much for Major League Baseball standards; encroaching on the 43.8% of the NFL's newest seven-team AFC/NFC brackets.
Don't even get me started on the NHL or NBA. Why have the 82 regular-season games? At least the NHL is trending in the right direction; down to 50% thanks to recent expansion. Counting the Play-In Tournament, however, the NBA has grown out of control; 66% of their teams get in. Leave that nonsense for the sports without 162 opportunities for the cream rise to the top. Hopefully this contemporary MLB format is here to stay, even as a Las Vegas, Nashville, Las Vegas, Montreal, Portland, or Charlotte joins.
My only qualm with the current configuration is a five-game Division Series. Since the NBA switched its first round from best-of-five to best-of-seven in 2003, Major League Baseball has become the one applicable holdout in North American sports. The only issue with such a proposal for baseball is time. We're already creeping deep into the frigid November calendar as is. However, watching a team with a bye get eliminated after three losses doesn't seem right either.
Some leagues view playoff duration as a point of pride. It is a grind and a gauntlet that always crowns the most-deserving champion. The NHL not only embraces its "Second Season" moniker, but markets it as such. While the playoff quantity never truly comes close to a second full helping of 82 games, teams could end up playing a schedule that is 34.2% the length of the regular season. With a new play-in game for the NBA, an 8 seed could end up playing 30 games after their traditional 82. That is an insane 36.6%. Baseball is a relative sprint by comparison; a maximum of 13.6% for those that require the Wild Card Series. Is the answer more playoff baseball games? The fan appetite and weather don't seem to suggest "yes."
This isn't to say that the general public finds Postseason baseball games less exciting than playoff NHL match-ups. More of the former is definitely welcomed by all; October baseball is high drama and fun to be a part of. The key difference between sports is in total quantity of games from Opening Day to trophy presentation. Even with four full rounds — and a maximum of 28 additional games — the NHL's potential total can only ever get to 110. Baseball's 162 plus 21-23 (depending on bye status) teeters on excessive. No one is here for watching/playing 185 games a year. Perhaps it is the regular-season quantity that needs the change.
Slimming down to 156 (or so) would certainly retain the importance of the regular season. If anything, it might change a club's sense of urgency and make for more consistent attendance figures. And a continued inclusion of twelve participants prevents a majority of MLB teams from being sellers at the Trade Deadline. Those with the extreme position of "win your division or you're not truly a World Series caliber team" should be happy with a few skipping an entire playoff round. The AL East and West, NL East and West Champions would only need 12 wins to hoist the Commissioner's Trophy. Everyone else would be required to post 14. That disparity alone should make division winners champions more often.
Those saying "Bring on the parity and as many Wild Cards as you want" should be satisfied with my modifications, too. For the first time in baseball history, a fifth-place finisher in a division could potentially make the playoffs. Think about that. Very progressive and growth oriented.
As it stands now, the 2020 Brewers are the only fourth-place finisher to ever play in the Postseason, and that gets a major asterisk. Because of the Covid-shortened regular season, eight teams per league made it in that year. I, for one, don't want to live to see the day where there is another 8 seed in a Major League Baseball playoff bracket. This is not the NBA or NHL where everything resets and damn-near everyone gets to participate.
For what it's worth: The 2013 Reds, 2015 Cubs, 2016 Orioles, 2017 Rockies, and 2021 Yankees finished third in their respective divisions but qualified. The 2022 Blue Jays or Rays should join the group, in what will become far more common year after year. Outside shot to the 2022 Orioles sending four AL East teams to this Postseason, with only one representative from the other two divisions.
The other recent headline that suggests change is a-comin' focuses on future schedules. Move over, "at least one interleague series is happening at all times." That's so 2013. The new trend is straight out of the NBA and NHL playbook: Play everyone in the professional ranks every single season.
In modern times, Ballclub X has traditionally played 76 of its 162 games against division opponents. It really allowed that score to be settled on the field. You want that commemorative year placed on your outfield wall next Opening Day? Here are plenty of chances to earn wins against those you're chasing (or trying to keep at bay) in the divisional standings.
Beginning next season, however, that quantity dips to 52 — the lowest its ever been in MLB history. Is this good for the growth of the game? Was 76 tremendous overkill? Could this move somehow backfire? All too early to tell. My suspicion is that 52 is a tad low. Much like in the collegiate ranks, the thought process of a clubhouse full of baseball players is to win the micro first. Win your conference (college); win your division (professional). Doing so automatically qualifies you for the next gauntlet, so preseason aspirations have to begin there. Even with newer (and abundant) ways to sneak in, this primary objective has to be reflected in the schedule.
Here's a chart of regular-season options I believe Major League Baseball has at its disposal when 32 teams rolls along:
So which one has your vote? What you select says a lot about what you value in a Major League schedule. Do you care if the total slate eclipses 162? Is coming back to the days around 154 more of a goal? Either way, we're going to have to be okay letting go of some 162-game based records. There's not a way to make any logical sum equal the status quo. And that's fine. I don't want to be beholden to that number. The competitive balance inside the formula is far more important.
Three of the options present a club with more than the current 76 divisional games. Choosing one of those shows you care about winning the division above all else. If such a distinction is tethered to a bye, then a surge in these type of games has some serious validity.
But isn't the new initiative to play every single club in MLB every single year important, too? I mean, I'm all for seeing some fresh faces more than once every eight year cycle. Is the frequency of Option 5 the perfect compromise? Cleveland, for instance, would play four games (two at home, two on the road) against the entire National League West in odd years and then the same thing with the NL East in even years. Your entire division would do the same, so it would be equitable.
You'd have balance against your Interleague partners rather than some arbitrary Detroit vs. Colorado rivalry warranting an extra game. It would up that Interleague frequency that Manfred & Co. are clearly pushing for at present. But it doesn't force the issue, either. Knowing I get to play in San Diego and their young stars get to come to Progressive Field in the same season is exciting, even if I have to skip a year for such a proposition to come back around. That next season I'd get treated to Citi Field as well as Francisco Lindor's return.
The only trouble with this particular proposal is the threat of dipping too low into the regular-season quantity. Would owners give up the revenue of three home games compared to the current 81-game guarantee? I know my friends would sure enjoy a shorter season, and the idea of starting the playoffs in warmer weather.
If you're into the opposite — seeing the calendar lengthen as expansion takes shape — then I believe Option 1 is the best beyond 162. I say this because of logistical reasons. A 12-game allotment with your divisional foes are easier than 11, but it's not impossible. It also takes that value to 77 games — one off the traditional 76. Likely 15 two-game series. That would be a pain in the butt for travel and if any of them rained out.
Needing to play five games against eight opponents is tricky in the way the league calendar operates. There aren't any [intentional] five-game series on the books. Since MiLB moved towards an experimental six-game series, perhaps by the time expansion comes around, most young big leaguers will be accustomed to playing longer stretches than four consecutive games against a single opponent. But even if you could, you are knocking out all of your games against a team from the other division in one ballpark, in a single week. That doesn't seem like a tenable solution.
Personally, I like the concept of Option 3 and 159 games. Despite a great disparity in total games on the slate, it has a college football (home one year, road the next) feel to it. The nine divisional games could be broken down into a four-game series at site X, with a three-game and quick two-gamer at site Y. Every year, this 5:4 ratio of home/road would flip. It would be like having the hammer in a curling match: "This year we've got that extra home game against the Twins!"
The six crossover match-ups are easy three here, three there; the modern standard. The interleague tilts would be placed on an annual rotation — at Colorado in 2030, vs. Colorado in 2031. The decrease in total regular season games isn't a gut punch to the purists, and it gets those newer Wild Card Series done before the old regular season ended. That half a week in calendar shedding might not seem like a lot, but weather in the north can turn on a dime come October.
Here's to hoping we have a future Opening Day lineup that looks something like this (notice all the warm-weather/dome hosts):
Traps To Avoid:
Going with four divisions of four teams, like the NFL, will fail in Major League Baseball. For one, football has only 10% of the regular season games available to them vs. baseball. They have to keep the rivals each team must play home and away to a minimum. Secondly, it doesn't add anything but fatigue for baseball. Sure, you'd have a really nice Great Lakes Division in the American League — Toronto, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago. But they'd play far too many series against one another; a problem MLB just tacitly admitted to by shrinking divisional games and expanding the league crossover opponents to fans. It would also be super kitschy and difficult to name each division uniquely (and without sounding like you stole from mid-major college conferences). National League Heartland: St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Colorado. American League Atlantic: New York, Baltimore, Boston, Tampa Bay (which is on the Gulf side). See... doesn't work.
If anything, the course correction in the sports landscape the past few years has been to take away protections from those that don't deserve it. The optics of a 7-9 Carolina Panthers team hosting an NFC Wild Card match-up with the 11-5 Arizona Cardinals, back in 2014, aren't great. Sometimes over dividing your total into too small of clusters is a problem.
Go back to two divisions with byes the reward for winning. There would be fewer occurrences of a second-place team finishing above everyone else in the league. That, or seed every single playoff team on overall record and be done with it. Beginning two years ago, the NBA rescinded a vow it used to make to division winners — no longer guaranteeing them seeds 1-3 in each conference. The Utah Jazz, winners of the Northwest Division in May, were the West's 5 seed.
Point is, even in a lopsided/topsy-turvy year, you could never call anyone that stands atop a division with seven names below theirs a "fluke." The same isn't true in clusters of only four. Sure, there's a "Group of Death" every World Cup, but there's also a group that — purely on merit — shouldn't see any of its members advance to the knockout round. Only having to be better than three others leads to weak resumes slipping through. Over the course of the division's realigned history, winning the NFC [L]East has had folks questioning "Why do any of these four teams get to play football in January?"
The trap here is falling in love with how well a Los Angeles, San Diego, Arizona, San Francisco division could be. It could become too much of a good thing. The schedule would reflect a need to play them even more, at a risk of overplaying rivals. And for every solid top-to-bottom division that shows up annually, there could be a Minnesota, Kansas City, Texas, Houston group (The Prairie Lands Division, or some shit like that) where no one is .500 or better. It would be an unsavory mess on all fronts. Baseball doesn't need eight "Division Champions" banners raised each off-season.
Moreover, don't fidget with the playoffs. That case study on "leave well enough alone" is the the National Hockey League. It is still the most exciting playoff tournament in sports, but since 2015, the absolute worst structure as to how it operates. The mandate that a third-place team in a division gets some sort of pass (even if they are the traditional 7 or 8 seed in the conference in the old days) is a joke. And worse, they get the protection of playing someone from their weaker division in the first round. It's stupid, don't get me started about it any more than I have. Long story short, Major League Baseball better not get any ideas.
The World Series doesn't need to bleed into November on a consistent basis. And the number of rounds does not need increased. I'm a tad skeptical about this year's version of Division Winner #3 potentially hosting Wild Card #3 for three straight days. It doesn't make as much sense as it would if we are dealing with all Wild Cards in this pre-Division Series play-in round. 3 vs. 6 and 4 vs. 5 works much better when none of them got a cap and t-shirt for winning something in the regular season. It would then look more like the NBA's new play-in and I think that really works/incentives the teams right on the cusp — especially at trade deadline time. Again, this also is another reason to steer clear of four divisions of four per league. It negates the clear-as-day "if/then" statement: If you are playing prior to the NLDS and ALDS, then you came in second or third (or even fourth) in your division.
So, now that we understand the variables at play, let's run a few scenarios:
Option 1 (New Stadium in Oakland and Tampa Bay/St. Pete)
American League East
American League West
Las Vegas (top choice among western candidates)
National League East
Nashville (top choice among eastern candidates)
National League West
This setup corrects a glitch in the old East/West format. The St. Louis Cardinals ("Gateway to the West" and all) and Chicago Cubs were members of the National League East from 1969-1993, while the Cincinnati Reds (350 miles east of STL) and Atlanta Braves (also in the Eastern Time Zone) were part of the NL West. Note: If you really wanted to get nostalgic, you could flip flop them on my list and I wouldn't oppose. It would be stupid, and no one under the age of 50 would understand it, but whatever. #NotMyHillToDieOn
I'd rather see all parties move to the one division they haven't been in before. The Cardinals could add a banner for National League West Champions and complete the set; already the owners of eleven for winning the NL Central and three for winning the NL East. Same is true for the "Big Red Machine", winners of seven NL West titles and three more modern Central crowns. Even the Cubs could match the feat: owners of two East and six Central titles. The crosstown White Sox, if moved as prescribed, would round out this unique quintet. They haven't ever called the AL East home, but have two West and four Central Champions currently to their credit.
Atlanta doesn't need to go anywhere. They skipped right over the Central in 1994 and have dominated the NL East ever since — 16 titles in 27 years.
To me, this is such a nice return for some classic 1969-1993 division arrangements — especially in Pittsburgh. Winners of nine National League East titles and zero(!) as a member of the National League Central is a painful reminder of how these past three decades have been for a proud club. Cleveland and Detroit would also return to their respective East Division. Minnesota and Kansas City would go back to their roots in the West. After the Brewers relocated from Seattle in 1969, they remained in the American League West for two more seasons. They played in the American League East from 1972 until their flip to both the National League and its newly-created Central Division. With my proposal, they would be going back to their Western days, too, albeit in the other league.
As a Cleveland diehard for 28 years running, I love the Central. The creation of and transition to it brought about a shift in winning culture to the town. That new division coincided with a new ballpark, new uniforms, and a fresh new roster. I wouldn't trade that era for anything. Since its 1994 inception, Cleveland has won the American League Central a record ten times. No one can take that away, nor change the name of the team that accomplished it. But they aren't the Indians anymore. And, in recent years, that division gets picked on as the weakest of the six in The Bigs. For those reasons, I welcome a clean sweep on change and a return to the East — while maintaining a hatred for Detroit and Chicago.
Option 2 (Oakland Relocates to Las Vegas; New Stadium in Tampa Bay/St. Pete)
American League East
American League West
Las Vegas (relocated from Oakland)
Portland (top choice among remaining western candidates)
National League East
Nashville (top choice among eastern candidates)
National League West
I could be way off, but I feel geography is going to matter in this. For that reason, you can begin making assumptions like a logic puzzle (one of those "Sally and Ms. Green went to the grocery store" types, with X's to cross off contradictions). You know that Sally's last name isn't Green in the same way you can deduce that Portland — should they somehow become a Major League city — will not be a member of the National League.
Conversely, Charlotte's odds really drop off the board when you realize they can only become an MLB city if the Tampa Bay Rays leave Florida for Tennessee (just as the Oilers left Texas so many years ago). Based on my assumptions, their one shot is as a National League East franchise; unfortunately the same predicament of too many competitors in the expansion field. The third-best expansion bid in the East (Montreal) might be better than any in the West... and we may never get to find out.
Nashville or Charlotte or Montreal/National/East and Las Vegas or Portland/American/West does a subtle job of responding to the selections made back in 1998 — Major League Baseball's last round of expansion. By that I mean, the East franchise went to the American League (Tampa Bay Devil Rays) and the West franchise went to the National League (Arizona Diamondbacks). A selection of these two provides a pattern or formula to something that was completely happenstance.
Option 3 (Oakland Relocates to Las Vegas; Tampa Bay Relocates to Nashville)
American League East
Nashville (relocated from Tampa Bay)
American League West
Las Vegas (relocated from Oakland)
Portland (top choice among remaining western candidates)
National League East
Charlotte (top choice among remaining eastern candidates)
National League West
Taking A 30,000 Foot View & Re-Centering The Map:
It's funny, I've never viewed Portland as Major League Baseball town at all — even with the NBA's Trail Blazers there. If I'm solely handicapping this on eye test and what feels right, Portland is fifth below Nashville, Las Vegas, Montreal, and Charlotte. But you don't have to squint very hard to see how they could pull off an upset.
Oregon's largest metropolis doesn't need to be "better" than Charlotte or Montreal. It simply needs to exist in a different part of the country — one that the league is dying to stitch together with the establishment of new clubs. Portland checks that box. It takes a Seattle, toiling around in isolation, and gives it a link to those further down the West Coast.
Again, not handicapping on the obvious — population (26th), metropolitan statistical area (25th), or television market size (21st). And actually, the Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro MSA is larger than entrenched MLB communities like Pittsburgh (27th), Cincinnati (30th), Kansas City (31st), and Cleveland (34th). It is even bigger than the highly-sought-after Las Vegas (30th) and Nashville (35th) MSAs.
Add in TV Household data — where Portland ranks 21st; Nashville 29th, Las Vegas 40th — and I've definitely been forced to reevaluate some things. My preconceived notion was that Portland would not score well on the metric side, but make it up in charm/weirdness and geography — namely it isn't in the heart of Atlanta fandom or across the Canadian border in a French-speaking province.
I'm finally starting to value the city's insertion as a front-runner. I mean why not? If Oakland has one foot in the Vegas door, let them go. Moving MLB center of mass westward is a smart play. And Portland's resume is much stronger than I think the average person realizes; at least those that have lived East of the Mississippi for a large majority of their life.
Now, there would still be many hurdles for PDX's bid to climb, whether they have Russell Wilson's backing or not. Most notably is a tangled web of television contracts. Root Sports, co-owned by the Seattle Mariners, televises Portland Trail Blazers basketball games and holds rights to broadcasting athletic events in Oregon. Would Root Sports continue to air games of their local rival? Would Portland be forced to create their own network — on top of $2.2B in expansion fees? Could the Mariners (and Kraken) sell off a portion and work a deal like the Nationals and Orioles have with MASN? Could a streaming giant like Hulu or Amazon be the answer? Using Portland as a testing ground for entry into local TV rights deals could be the next cord-cutting wave. These are all little details, but little details can sometimes derail grand plans.
Furthermore, Professional Development Licenses (PDL) handed out to current Minor League Baseball clubs — as part of MLB's takeover and trimming down to 120 affiliates — are scheduled to run for ten years. Will this delay expansion; seeing how the frontrunning candidates (Las Vegas Aviators and Nashville Sounds) are currently locked into Triple-A by these agreements? Does this bolster Portland's shot at promotion earlier than the rest? If that logic is true, then Montreal and Mexico City — untethered from any MiLB legalese — suddenly see their stocks rise as well.
Along those lines, what will become of Triple-A after as many as three of their 30 current teams disappear in an instant? In theory, you could have Nashville, Las Vegas, and Charlotte all up in The Bigs. Take a glance at the attendance figures for 2021 and those are your 1st, 2nd, and 9th best markets, respectively. Best believe there will be a multi-million dollar invoice slipped in with any moving vans, MiLB will want compensation for their loss.
There are territorial rights at stake in the wake of all this expansion talk. It may seem trivial, but the Butterfly Effect of "simply at two Major League franchises" could be felt in smaller communities coast-to-coast. The good news for places like West Virginia and Montana — states that just lost all affiliated baseball in Winter of 2020 — is that 32 MLB clubs equates to a need to fill eight new MiLB rosters... if they would even want to go back. Jilted Lover Syndrome is real in the corporate world, too.
While some lawsuits and difficult decisions would take years to get fully sorted, other realignment will be easy. The Reno Aces, currently in the Arizona Diamondbacks family, would undoubtedly slot in as Vegas' Triple-A; right of first refusal as franchises in the same state. That move would officially kick off a rousing game of MiLB Musical Chairs.
The D-Backs could pull a page out of the Twins, Astros, and Yankees 2021 playbook — go completely off-menu and bring in an "Indy Ball" team as an affiliate. Rather than look hundreds of miles away, Minnesota offered the neighboring St. Paul Saints (of the independent American Association) their Triple-A PDL invitation. Houston did similar with the Sugar Land Skeeters (of the independent Atlantic League of Professional Baseball; renamed the Space Cowboys this season). The Yankees used their promposal on a Double-A affiliate; selecting the Somerset Patriots (also of the Atlantic League) over a very disgruntled Trenton Thunder organization.
This method of picking MiLB clubs from outside the "fraternity" sent shockwaves through the sport. No one was safe any longer. For all anybody knows, the Diamondbacks could easily pick the Tucson Saguaros of the independent Pecos League without recourse. The common theme with each of these "outsider" selections has been proximity. Management at the big league level wants that Triple-A partner as close as possible. Look for places like Richmond (currently Double-A for San Francisco... yes, that San Francisco) to jockey for position as a Triple-A affiliate for someone closer to home. Fresno — once a stalwart in Triple-A but banished to Low-A in 2021 due to threats of legal action — could see themselves rise from the ash and fill the void if Portland is in need. It could be a mad scramble across the board.
Nashville would likely want the Charlotte Knights to switch from White Sox Triple-A to theirs, even though the two are bitter International League and MLB expansion rivals. It's the closest and best-run affiliate the Stars would be able to find. But talk about serious salt in the wound over one getting an expansion team and not the other. Yikes.
I suggest that move because I don't feel Chicago would be too aggrieved. 1) Charlotte has been an affiliate of the Marlins, Indians, Cubs, and Orioles; this ain't the business to get wedded to one partner and think it's lasting forever. 2) In an era where distance matters, 750 miles is an eternity. Chicago has three members of the American Association (Chicago Dogs, Gary SouthShore RailCats, Kane County Cougars), and three of the Frontier League (Joliet Slammers, Windy City ThunderBolts, Schaumburg Boomers) all within an hour drive from the South Side. The precedent is now established; take your pick. Birmingham could also see itself promoted from their Double-A outfit. They've been with the White Sox since 1986, have an amazing ballpark (built in 2013), and the Alabama city is booming (50th-largest MSA in the country; bigger than Triple-A cities like Rochester, Worcester, Omaha, Albuquerque, El Paso, Allentown, Des Moines, Syracuse, Toledo, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, and Reno). They just aren't as close to home as the trendsetters would like.
As you can tell, these types of lower-level selections are equally as exciting to me as the MLB expansion versions. Too far down the rabbit hole. I'll try my best to resurface and stick the landing with this last bit.
Portland getting the expansion nod in Las Vegas' stead would be a shock, but is not as far out of the question as I had previously thought. Perhaps they embrace it like they have the Timbers of MLS. Not having all the major professional sports leagues works well in smaller towns; creates a hungrier fan base with fewer overlap seasons. It's not like the city is without a long history of baseball (the documentary with Kurt Russell is a must-watch). And it not having a Minor League Baseball in its town is strangely appetizing rather than a knock against it. Charlotte, for instance, would have to crush its wildly popular Triple-A scene and build a whole new stadium in order to get "promoted" to The Show.
Has to feel a little uncomfortable for "MLB To PDX" supporters to know they need another city's dream to die in order for theirs to be realized. But like the Bracketology analogy at the outset, if two of those higher quality candidates find alternative routes into the field before selection time rolls around, the door opens up nicely for those on the bubble. As you punch your ticket, you never cry for the others that didn't.