Last week, the prospect of expansion in MLB – and the attendant realignment – made the rounds on the interwebs thanks to a report that indicated there was “building consensus” about the desirability of adding another couple MLB teams.
From where I sat, the possibility of moving to 32 teams was a compelling one, not because MOAR IS ALWAYS BETTER, but because it can balance the schedule, improve the playoffs, aid in player rest and travel, etc. Suffice it to say, I am very on board with expansion to 32 teams and thoughtful realignment (you can read my full post here for the gist).
Among a number of logistical and scheduling questions, though, is how exactly you deal with realignment to accommodate two more teams and whatever playoff setup you deem appropriate. To me, eight divisions of four teams each sounds exciting, though that could lead to a challenging postseason setup and the loss or diminution of some long-standing rivalries.
At FanGraphs, although Travis Sawchik concedes MLB would probably prefer eight divisions of four teams, he makes the argument that four divisions of eight teams would actually be better for the sport. His piece is worth a read, and digs into both the rationale for only four divisions (placing more “prestige” on the regular season is among the reasons, and I can see the argument there) and how realignment could work.
Among the things he wonders about: if interleague play is reduced when there’s an even 32 teams, would it make sense to place geographic rivals in the same division to amp things up a bit? He mentions the Cubs and White Sox, specifically.
I asked about this last week on Twitter, and the response was an overwhelming “no”:
Curious your thoughts: if there was dramatic realignment, would you want to see Cubs and White Sox in the same division?
— Bleacher Nation (@BleacherNation) October 17, 2017
Cited reasons mostly rested on the fact that things are already pretty tense between the fan bases in Chicago, and the thought of them actually competing for the same division crown each year could be ugly.
In any case, pairing the Cubs and White Sox is not actually how Sawchik sees four divisions actually shaking out. Instead, here’s what he puts forward, using the pre-1994 divisions as a starting point:
You’ll note that, although the pre-1994 divisions were used as a starting point, the Cubs actually wind up kicked out west in this version, together with the Cardinals, since you cannot split those two up. Cannot. MLB: you cannot.
On first blush, I see the immediate, significant problem with eight-team divisions: the travel would be utterly brutal for some teams. And in this case, it sure looks like the Cubs, Cardinals, and Brewers would bear the brunt of it. By placing five true “out west” teams in the NL West with the “in the middle” clubs, the Cubs, Cardinals, and Brewers would have to travel much farther, in the aggregate, than the other five teams. Think about those West Coast road swings the Cubs have faced in recent years. Now imagine having six or seven more of those each season, and they’re much longer, to boot.
No, I can’t quite see the Cubs actually ending up in a “West” division, and, since they will not be separated from the Cardinals, that leaves two teams from the “East” having to swing into the West to make these divisions work, and … nope. Pretty darn brutal for those teams.
Although having only four divisions in total may make for some advantages, the logistics alone may totally bar that possibility.
Of course, as I start sketching out four-team divisions, I run into logistical problems, too (for example, one of the five teams currently in the existing NL West would have to be in a division with teams considerably farther east). Moreover, you’re definitely going to lose some rivalries (for example, if it were the Rockies getting booted into a hypothetical NL North (or Midwest, or whatever), you could include the Cubs and Cardinals, but then only one of the Brewers, Reds, or Pirates).
In short, this remains complicated stuff, but no less desirable in my view. We, and the league, will have to just keep talking things out in the coming years.