On Tuesday, SI’s Tom Verducci reported that a Bud Selig-chartered committee has begun to discuss a principle of “floating” realignment, whereby teams could choose their division of choice on a yearly basis “based on geography, payroll and their plans to contend or not.” The committee is largely made up of senior managers, front office personnel, and corporate executives — so they aren’t exactly teenage Bolsheviks. (Notably, there are no players on the committee, which means the union would be another hurdle if MLB ever decides to move forward.)
Rob Neyer was quick to point out the extreme logistical impracticality of it all: because of the Byzantine complexity of the baseball schedule, teams would have to decide “their plans to contend or not” months ahead of time and coordinate them with the team they were going to swap with. The basic tradeoff: a team (like the Orioles) might want to move from the AL East to an easier division, but they would be foregoing the revenue injections that come from 18 home games a year against the Yankees and Red Sox. A smaller-market team (like the Indians) might want to increase revenues by facing the juggernauts more often, but it might lose a few more games. The notion of a team willingly admitting that it has no “plans to contend” seems a bit hard to swallow, but the “rebuilding” euphemism is used all the time, so it’s quite likely that fans could come around.
The real issue is fairness. Ever since the beginning of divisional play in 1969, postseason play has not necessarily been awarded to teams with the best postseason records, but rather to the teams that ended the year at the top of their division. Famously, the 103-win 1993 Giants
tied the NL West, lost a one-game playoff to the Atlanta Braves, and watched the rest of the postseason from home, while the 97-win Philadelphia Phillies won the NL East and went on to win the World Series. The Wild Card was meant to allow a good team in a strong division to make it into the playoffs, but even the Wild Card can’t change the fact that the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays are stuck in an essentially unwinnable division, with three strong teams, two of which are the richest teams in the game. Thanks to the unbalanced schedule, they play a third of their games against those three teams, which Neyer notes isn’t fair either.
The AL East has been broken for some time now. The five teams finished in the exact same order for seven straight years from 1998-2004; since the beginning of the three-division era, either Boston or New York won the division every year from 1994-2009, with the exception of the Orioles in 1997 (the following year, they had baseball’s highest payroll!) and the Rays in 2008. The thing is, no one’s going to move heaven and earth to make life more convenient for the O’s and Jays. Floating realignment is a fascinating solution to the structural disparity in the AL East, and the fact that it’ll never happen doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Historically, realignment has been tied to expansion, but we’re not getting a 31st team any time soon. Periodic realignment may not be such a bad idea, though, especially considering that the NL Central has 6 teams and the AL West has 4, bizarrely handicapping those teams’ relative postseason chances. Especially if baseball is going to continue to operate without a payroll cap or payroll floor, other solutions like this need to be considered in order to ensure that every team has a fair shot at October. Baseball’s inequality need not be iniquitous.
(An earlier version of this blog post messed up the entire chronology of 1993. The Giants lost the NL West and the Phillies lost the World Series.)
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