Big changes afoot for MLB

Baseball is often described as the most staid of our major sports. But if that’s truly the case, why are so many decidedly progressive proposals still scattered about the bargaining table between Major League Baseball and the players’ union?

Based on remarks by MLB commissioner Bud Selig and union chief Michael Weiner at the All-Star Game this week, we should expect a second wild-card team in each league beginning with next year’s playoffs. Selig’s exact words were: “I like its chances.”

Considering how long it’s been since the NFL, NBA or NHL expanded their postseason structure, this qualifies as a major development on the American sports landscape.

And it could be just the start.

Baseball’s next collective bargaining agreement — which should be completed (without a work stoppage) during the next several months — could include multiple changes that pique the curiosity of casual fans. A move of the Houston Astros from the National League to the American League, while far from certain, remains very much in play.

Selig had a number of candid moments during his annual midsummer session with the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, even holding court on hypothetical conditions for hypothetical changes — the sort of freelance riffing that doesn’t fit public caricatures of the 76-year-old commish.

Selig disclosed that he’s heard more support for a one-game wild-card playoff than he originally anticipated. That’s a crucial piece of information, because the layoff between the end of the regular season and start of the Division Series was seen as one significant roadblock to expanding the postseason. If the wild-card “play-in” takes only one day, then it won’t cross purposes with the stated desire for a tighter postseason schedule that ends before November.

For his part, Weiner voiced no displeasure with the one-game wild-card round, saying only that the union wishes for postseason competition to resemble regular-season competition. That mostly has to do with reducing the number of off days in October. He added: “Regular-season baseball sometimes does come down to one game.”

So, it appears MLB and the MLBPA share plenty of common ground when it comes to playoff expansion. Frankly, I’m beginning to see the wisdom in that format, too. By forcing the two wild-card teams to play a one-game playoff, baseball would incentivize winning division titles — which guarantee passage to the best-of-5 Division Series.

If that rule had been in effect last year, the Rays and Yankees would have focused their efforts on winning the American League East, rather than setting up their pitching rotations in relatively meaningless late-September games.

Meanwhile, the sides have continued dialogue on another revolutionary concept — the prospect of moving the Astros to the American League.

Weiner said realignment to 15 teams in each league is “unlikely” to occur in time to amend next year’s schedule. But he sounded optimistic about the chances of it happening in 2013, and Selig has not voiced any opposition to the idea.

In his news conference with baseball writers this week, Weiner laid out the commonsense case for evening the leagues: The competition for the wild card(s) and division titles would be fairer, and the interleague schedule would be easier to balance. Yes, there would be interleague games in September, but that’s a small price to pay for awarding the postseason bids fairly.

I’ve written it before, and I’ll repeat it here: Each team should play 18 interleague games, 11 against each team in its division, and 10 against the other 10 teams in its league. Standard. Simple. The best route to 162.

Of course, at some point, Selig must ask the Houston Astros what they think about all of this. And that’s when the hardball — the political kind — could begin.

You see, Jim Crane agreed to purchase the Astros from Drayton McLane for $680 million on May 16. At the time, team officials expected the commissioner’s office to approve the transaction within 60 days. Well, Friday is the 60th day. And Selig has yet to (a) formally approve the deal or (b) say precisely when that will occur.

In the meantime, the Astros have busied themselves by playing — by far — the worst baseball in the major leagues this year. They had one representative at this week’s All-Star Game, outfielder Hunter Pence. Six years after the Astros appeared in the World Series, the franchise’s national profile is virtually nonexistent.

McLane told the Houston Chronicle this week that discussions about moving the Astros to the AL weren’t “part of the deal” he struck with Crane. That is accurate, based on what my sources have said. Besides, the new collective bargaining agreement — the document that would stipulate such a change — remains in the formative stages. So, why would anything about realignment have been written into the purchase agreement?

There are a lot of smart people involved in these CBA discussions, both on the MLB and union sides. They know that the Astros are vulnerable — not only because losing has eroded their brand, but because Selig holds the gavel when it comes to approval.

So, what if Selig, Weiner and their respective lieutenants hammer out an agreement that secures continued labor peace while adding excitement to the postseason and ensuring a more equitable regular season? And what if the final piece in this massive document is a “yes” from Crane, who is eagerly waiting for his set of keys to the worst team in baseball?

Do you really think Jim Crane wants to begin his stewardship of the Astros by being the guy who said “no” to the commissioner’s office, the union, and the 29 other owners who would like to sign an agreement and get on with their multibillion-dollar industry?

I don’t. I think change is coming to Major League Baseball.

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