Thursday, November 17, 2011

Listen Up, Bud! Expansion Can Fix It All!

Earlier today, Bud Selig announced the sale of the Houston Astros to Jim Crane.  As part as the deal, the Astros will move from the National League Central to the American League West, creating six five-team divisions and leaving the Mets as the sole 1962 expansion team left in the National League.

In addition, there will be an extra wild card team per league no later than 2013 and perhaps as early as next season.  This would increase the playoff field from eight to ten teams, with the wild card teams facing each other in an elimination game or best-of-three series, although Selig prefers the one game format.

Although the Astros' move to the American League finally ends the disparity between the two leagues, with each league now possessing an equal number of teams, it also creates the need for interleague play throughout the season.

Can you imagine if the hotly contested American League East was decided by the Pittsburgh Pirates?  What if the National League wild card winner was determined by a late season game featuring the Kansas City Royals?  It could happen, as at least one pair of teams would have to conclude their season by playing an interleague game.

One of the reasons why there are no interleague matchups after the All-Star Break is to preserve the integrity of each league's playoff races.  Teams competing for postseason berths should have as many head-to-head matchups as possible as the games dwindle to a precious few.  Having to stick in an interleague matchup in September would be a detriment to the excitement generated by late season playoff pushes.

I have a potential solution to this problem.  Can you say "expansion", boys and girls?

Without expansion, we might all be Yankee fans.  Hooray, expansion!

The first wave of expansion occurred in 1961, when the Washington Senators and Los Angeles Angels joined the American League.  Since then, the longest gap between expansion periods has been 16 years, as Major League Baseball didn't add any teams between 1977 (Toronto and Seattle) and 1993 (Colorado and Florida).

No new teams have begun play since 1998, when Arizona and Tampa Bay became the 29th and 30th franchises in the majors.  With no expansion on the immediate horizon, it appears likely that the aforementioned 16-year gap between expansion periods will be surpassed.

Major League Baseball is ready for more expansion.  North Carolina is represented in all of the major professional sports except baseball.  The NFL (Carolina Panthers), NBA (Charlotte Bobcats) and NHL (Carolina Hurricanes) have all set up shop in the Tar Heel state.  Why not baseball?  As of now, there is no major league franchise between Washington and Atlanta.  Expanding into Charlotte or Raleigh would give fans in the Carolinas their own team to root for, instead of having to settle for a team hundreds of miles to the north (Nationals) or south (Braves).

Another area that could potentially be a suitor for a major league franchise is Vancouver.  As things currently stand, Seattle is the city that is furthest from its closest geographical rival.  Every time the Mariners leave the Emerald City for a road trip, they have to travel quite a distance.  Their "shortest" trip would take them to Oakland, a mere 680.7 miles away, according to  Adding a major league franchise in Vancouver would give the Mariners a much more natural geographical rival located only 140 miles away.  Also, a team in Vancouver would give Canada its second team, filling the void that was created when the Montreal Expos became the Washington Nationals.

In addition to the Carolinas and Vancouver, other cities/metropolitan areas that could potentially become destinations for an expansion franchise include Portland (Oregon), Las Vegas, Indianapolis and Memphis.

So if baseball expands to 32 teams, what would this do to the league and divisional structure and how would this affect the postseason?

Baseball could adopt a structure similar to the one currently used by the NFL, creating eight four-team divisions.   The American League and National League would have 16 teams in four divisions, with one expansion team joining the AL and the other becoming the newest member of the NL.

Unlike the NFL, where 12 teams crash the postseason party, only 10 teams would make the playoffs in baseball.  Each of the eight division winners would qualify for October baseball, plus two wild card teams (one in each league).  The division winner with the poorest record would play the wild card team in the opening round (no more than best-of-three) and the other division winners would receive an opening round bye.  The winner of the opening round would then play the team with the league's best record in the next round, with the other division winners squaring off against each other.

By having only one wild card team per league, it would allow for fewer second place teams to potentially win a championship.  Since the advent of the wild card in 1995, only five non-division winners have gone on to win the World Series (1997 Marlins, 2002 Angels, 2003 Marlins, 2004 Red Sox, 2011 Cardinals).  A team good enough to play in the World Series should also be good enough to outperform its division rivals over a 162-game season.  By not having multiple wild card teams per league, a division winner has a better chance to reach the Fall Classic.  The World Series should always feature the best teams in the sport, not second fiddles who just happened to get hot at the right time.

Also, by having the division winner with the poorest record play an extra playoff series against the wild card winner, it creates less complacency for teams after they've clinched the division title.  Many times (see 2011 Phillies, 2011 Yankees) a team has wrapped up their division weeks before the end of the regular season.  As a result, they coast to the finish line, abandoning the style of play that helped them win their division in the first place.  If the spectre of a potential extra playoff series were to loom on a division winner, they'd play hard until season's end, giving fans competitive baseball from Game No. 1 to Game No. 162.

Starting in 2013, the American League and National League will have the same number of teams for the first time since 1997.  However, with each league having an odd number of teams (15), the need for interleague play on a daily basis will become a reality.  As a result, a division title or wild card berth in one league might be determined by what the contending team does against the other league.

In addition to the realignment of the two leagues, Bud Selig wants to create excitement and have meaningful baseball games at the end of the regular season by adding a second wild card team to each league no later than 2013.

There is one way to generate such excitement in late September and it's not with interleague baseball to determine division titles.  Major League Baseball should expand to 32 teams in the near future and create two leagues with four divisions of four teams apiece.  By putting the focus on winning a division title instead of settling for the wild card and making division leaders play hard for all 162 games by adding the possibility of having to play an extra playoff series, Selig would give fans the best product possible.  Now that's baseball like it oughta be!

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