Astros’ best shot at winning is AL West

When the Milwaukee Brewers switched leagues in 1998, some viewed it as a return to the way baseball was supposed to be. The National League left town with the Braves after the 1965 season. Three decades later, it came back.

“That was the reason so many people embraced the change,” Phil Garner said over the phone on Sunday. “And that’s why I think it would be a little harder in Houston. It would take a little more of a marketing effort to get people here to love AL baseball.”

Garner isn’t on a Major League Baseball committee to study realignment possibilities, but perhaps he should be. He was the Brewers’ manager when they moved to the National League over a decade ago. More recently, he spent three-plus seasons managing the Houston Astros, who could move to the AL next year, according to an ESPN report.

Garner is right: A move to the AL could be complicated for the organization and its fans. But if MLB is interested in creating the most equitable route to the postseason for all 30 franchises, then the Astros must join the AL West under the new collective bargaining agreement.

It’s not clear how seriously MLB and the players union have discussed the possibility of evening the leagues at 15 teams apiece. But if that’s going to happen — and it should — then the Astros are the clear choice to cross over.

Incoming Astros owner Jim Crane has not made public his position on switching leagues. And he grew up in St. Louis, a National League town. Here’s my view on the issues at work:

1. The divisional structure must remain in place.

Let’s get this one out of the way right now: To strip away baseball’s divisions would be some combination of foolish and blasphemous.

The NBA and NHL have de-emphasized division titles under their current structures, and not for the better. Baseball has long had the most meaningful regular season among the four major sports, due in large part to the significance of winning division titles. Flying a flag at your ballpark is a really big deal. Why take that away?

I will acknowledge that the champagne celebrations after clinching playoff berths have become a bit excessive in recent years. But if anything, those suds represent the difficulty of baseball’s six-month grind. The most heated divisional rivals (Red Sox-Yankees, Cubs-Cardinals, Dodgers-Giants) have been competing with one another for more than a century. Baseball should do all it can to highlight that history, not downplay it.

My suggestion: Keep six divisions. Houston moves from the NL Central to AL West, leaving each division with five teams. Division champs earn automatic playoff berths, along with two wild-card teams in each league. Simple.

2. If realignment is going to happen, Houston is the only logical candidate.

Let’s not make this too complicated: The origin of the current imbalance is that the NL Central has six teams and the AL West has four. So, MLB should move one team from the NL Central into the AL West. That team is Houston.

Any other scenario involves multiple clubs switching divisions, and there’s no reason to do that. I can hear the argument coming: The Colorado Rockies are an AL team by reputation, so why not send them there for real? Sorry. That wouldn’t help. You would need to find a replacement for the Rockies in the NL West … and that would probably be the Astros. Might as well keep the Rockies right where they are.

The travel impact would be favorable for the other AL West franchises, who could spend a week in Texas and knock out two division series. Meanwhile, the Dallas-Houston dynamic would turn the Rangers into the division rival that the Astros presently lack in the NL Central.

Still, as Garner pointed out, the Astros would need to convince their paying customers that the change is worthwhile.

“I hope it doesn’t happen,” Brad Ausmus, the Astros’ former Gold Glove catcher, said when asked about the possible switch. “Houston is an NL city, and the fans know their league.”

3. The 15-team leagues will standardize two of baseball’s more successful innovations: interleague play and the wild card.

Let’s revisit the plan I advanced in Behind the Seams on May 23.

Each team should play 18 interleague games, 11 against each team in its division (44 more), and 10 against each of the other 10 teams in the league (100 more). That’s about as balanced as the schedule is going to get, as long as interleague play is around.

This arrangement should quiet the critics who say (correctly) that it’s harder to win the wild card coming out of the AL East than the AL Central. It also evens the overall number of interleague games played, which isn’t the case right now.

Of note: Under my proposed schedule, the AL Astros would play no more than 17 games on the West Coast against the Angels, Athletics and Mariners. This season they are scheduled to play 21 games at NL West opponents. So, the move could be a wash for the Astros and their broadcast partners, who generally prefer games in the local time zone (or close to it).

4. Concerns over interleague games in September are misplaced.

I want MLB to maintain the DH rule exactly as it is. And I’m all for the preservation of divisional competition, as I stated above. But I’m far from a traditionalist when it comes to interleague play.

First of all, it’s absurd to suggest that interleague play shouldn’t be allowed to determine postseason berths. It already has. Last time I checked, an interleague win in June counts the same as a heat-of-the-race September walk-off.

I wouldn’t cringe if a division title were clinched with an interleague win in Game 161. Think about it: When the Bears and Jets played in Week 16 last year, were there any objections to an NFC and AFC team meeting at such a crucial juncture? Of course not. And it would be a similar non-issue in baseball.

Worried that AL teams would be at a particular disadvantage in NL parks during the month of September? Fear not: Expanded rosters would help managers navigate the double switches.

5. The Astros, a rebuilding team with a new owner, are uniquely situated to make the move.

Crane agreed to purchase the club from Drayton McLane last month, and MLB owners are set to vote on final approval of the sale later this summer. He’s inheriting a franchise that has faded since 2005, when the Astros won their first (and only) NL pennant. At 24-42, they have the worst record in the major leagues. So, a shift in focus, NL to AL, could prove more helpful than disruptive.

Former Astros left-hander Joe Sambito, now a player agent with SFX, believes the combination of circumstances — new owner, enhanced rivalry with the Rangers, annual visits by the Red Sox and Yankees — would make this “a very exciting change” for the team’s fans.

Not to be overlooked: In the near term, the Astros wouldn’t have to fret about finding a designated hitter. Outfielder Carlos Lee has looked like a DH for several years. Perhaps he can finally become one — albeit at a salary of $18.5 million in 2012.

“As far as switching leagues, it’s not that big of a deal,” Garner said. “It’s tougher going to the NL. I don’t think it’s all that tough to make an NL club into an AL club: You get an old guy who’s the DH.”

For MLB, the players union, and the Astros, there’s every reason to believe this should be as simple as it sounds.