As a baseball official says, ask five people for opinions on realignment, and you’ll get six ideas.
I’m not going to pretend that change would be easily accomplished. I’ve devised three proposals, and it’s impossible to make everyone happy.
Baseball, to achieve greater competitive balance, needs to blow up its divisions and maybe its leagues.
Specifically, it needs to blow up the AL East, which threatens to disintegrate into the Yankees, Red Sox and three baseball versions of the Washington Generals.
I know the Rays reached the World Series in 2008; I was one of many who heralded their achievement as proof of the sport’s improved competitive balance.
I also know that the Orioles are slowly returning to prominence and possess the resources to spend at a higher level.
But let’s not kid ourselves.
The Yankees and Red Sox will remain financial super-powers for the foreseeable future. Even scarier, both teams have become so efficient, they eliminated any intellectual edge that certain low-revenue teams had gained.
If all clubs possess similar brainpower, then dollars become decisive, dooming the AL East also-rans. A cynic might suggest they would be better off pocketing revenue-sharing money than trying to compete. The current collective-bargaining agreement, which produced nearly $450 million in revenue sharing last season, goes only so far.
The next CBA, coming after the 2011 season, will not produce the necessary solutions, either.
Forget a salary cap; the players’ union, which remains the strongest in professional sports, will never allow one.
Forget increased revenue sharing; the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets and Cubs — who account for approximately 90 percent of the contributions, according to one executive — are tired of funding low-budget competitors that fail to put the money to proper use.
The biggest likely change in ’11 — a restructured amateur draft — will do little to slow down the financial super-powers and not enough to boost low-revenue clubs.
A more fundamental change is in order.
Commissioner Bud Selig is not keen on returning to a balanced schedule, believing teams should not play more games outside of their division than inside.
He also opposes an NFL-style schedule that promotes balance by giving the best teams the most difficult opponents.
Realignment, though, is on his mind.
“Do I have some positive thoughts on realignment? I do,” Selig said in a telephone interview this week. “But there’s nothing on the table right now.”
Chances are, there never will be.
Owners get pretty selfish about this stuff. For all Selig’s success at building consensus for his other innovations — expanded playoffs, inter-league play, revenue sharing, etc. — realignment is his version of health care.
Selig got nowhere the last time he pushed for a restructuring, following the 2000 season. His plan was for the Diamondbacks and Rays to switch leagues, the divisions to be reorganized and the NL to drop the wild card. The owners balked.
Nearly a decade later, Selig will need to be convinced the battle is worth renewing. In his mind, the rich-man, poor-man setup of the AL East might be less than persuasive.
Only three of the 30 teams are adversely affected. And baseball, despite the nation’s economic downturn, generated a record $6.6 billion in revenues last season, according to the bizofbaseball.com.
It ain’t broke . . . but it’s still worth fixing.
For the big-money teams, realignment would be more painless than other solutions.
The Yankees and Red Sox violently oppose the most obvious way to level the economic playing field — by putting a third team in New York and second team in New England. They will howl if they are asked to give a dollar more to penny-pinching teams such as the Marlins. But neither could protest too strongly if baseball assigned them to separate divisions.
Both teams draw well at home regardless of who they are playing; reducing the number of games between them would have minimal impact financially and benefit both competitively. The Yankees and Red Sox could forge easier paths to the postseason if they did not play each other so often. Fans love Yankees-Red Sox games. The sport’s television partners, including FOX, love the ratings that the rivalry produces. Still, it’s not as if the teams would never play under an unbalanced schedule, and the networks are more concerned with the postseason, anyway.
Both the Yankees and Red Sox are such strong draws, giving them additional road games against other teams would bring more money into the system. Indeed, the only reason to mess with a good thing is for the greater benefit of all.
Under a modest realignment, one of the teams from the AL Central, perhaps the Tigers, would be sent kicking and screaming into the East.
Under more radical proposals, the current division and league boundaries would disappear, forcing the sport to either adopt or abandon the designated hitter entirely.
No plan is perfect, but why can’t the present one be improved?
The unbalanced schedule creates inequities in determining the wild card; teams from different divisions play meaningfully different competition when competing for the final playoff berth in each league.
The math, too, makes little sense; a member of the four-team AL West stands better odds of winning its division than a member of the six- team NL Central.
Baseball frets that going to two 15-team leagues would require an inter-league series to be played at all times, including during the September pennant races. Well, if inter-league play is too frivolous for September, then it shouldn’t exist at all.
I’m not in love with wrecking the two leagues, but baseball already has taken the first step toward that end, eliminating league offices and league presidents. The tradeoff could be a greater number of geographic rivalries, the kind that fans cherish in inter-league play.
There are so many possibilities to consider, including an English soccer-type system in which teams are promoted and demoted between divisions at different levels.
Blow it up and find a better way.
In this scenario, the Red Sox and Tigers switch divisions, and the
Astros move to the AL West. Each league would include 15 teams rather than the current 16 and 14, requiring an inter-league series to be played at all times.
Advantages: • The Yankees and Red Sox are broken up, creating better opportunities to reach the postseason for other teams in the East: the Rays, Orioles and Blue Jays. • The Yankees and Red Sox would play each other fewer times under an unbalanced schedule, increasing the odds that each would reach the postseason — and satisfying MLB’s television partners, including FOX. • The Astros would play in the same division as the Rangers, their in-state rivals.
Disadvantages • The Tigers would be sacrificial lambs for competitive balance, moving from a division without an economic super power to one that includes the Yankees. • Fans of the Yankees and Red Sox would lament the change in their historic rivalry.
The current leagues and divisions are completely torn up, with geographic rivalries receiving a greater emphasis. Each league would include 15 teams.
AL Great Lakes
Advantages: • The best of the inter-league series (the regional and intra-city rivalries) would become a staple of the regular season. • The idea of playing an inter-league series at all times would be less offensive; the old league boundaries would be gone. • The Red Sox and Yankees would be split, with each inheriting a new high-revenue division rival: the Phillies would play in the Red Sox's division, the Mets in the Yankees'.
Disadvantages • The historic integrity of the leagues would be lost. •Combining teams from both leagues would require MLB to either use the designated hitter for all 30 clubs or abandon it completely. • The All-Star Game would carry less meaning and likely would need to be restructured. • The two Florida teams would remain at a competitive disadvantage, playing in the same division as the Red Sox and Phillies.
Teams are grouped in greater accordance to their revenues and geographic considerations.
NL Great Lakes
New Jersey A's
Advantages: • Most low-revenue teams would stand a greater chance of reaching the postseason. • The big-money teams in the northeast would fight it out with one another. • New York would gain a third team, cutting into the economic might of the Yankees and Mets.
Disadvantages • The historic integrity of the leagues would be lost. • Several low-revenue teams still would play in the same division as high-revenue clubs. • The postseason would be less appealing with poor teams facing the rich. • Combining teams from both leagues would require MLB to either use the designated hitter for all 30 clubs or abandon it completely.