What if MLB expanded to 32 teams and adopted NFL-inspired divisions, playoffs?
Sunday afternoon, Tim Brown from Yahoo Sports reported that Major League Baseball has pitched a 154-game 2021 schedule that would delay the season by a month and expand the league's postseason field to an undisclosed number of teams, to the players' union for consideration.
The players would receive the same pay as they would for a full 162-game season, and if accepted, it could spell the end of a 162-game tradition the league has enjoyed since 1961. If it were to become permanent, an eight-game reduction would not be welcomed by all fans, but it should be an easier pill for old school fans to swallow than other proposed changes in recent years (i.e.: universal designated hitter, "robo-umps", extra innings alterations, etc.). Prior to 1961, both the National and American League played 154.
A delayed season makes sense for owners. Just two months out from Opening Day, it remains unclear as to how many fans, if any, ballparks will be allowed to host at games. Some states have proven to be less strict regarding COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions, while others states are still under tight lockdowns. Delaying the season would buy time for local governments to lift bans and restrictions, and hopefully allow for more fans to attend games this summer. This would be a win for seemingly everybody. Players miss playing in front of fans, fans miss going to games, and owners miss making a killing off ticket sales.
While a delayed, shortened season isn't ideal, it would be something I could get on board with. Expanding the playoff field once again, however, would not be.
One of the things that makes baseball so special is its emphasis on regular season performance. Before 1969, there were no playoffs. The NL and AL's two best teams would win the pennant by accumulating the best regular season record, and book a one-way ticket to the Fall Classic. As Major League Baseball expanded, it properly expanded its playoff field. The playoffs would then consist of four teams, before beginning the Wild Card era in 1995. Then, after building a 30-team league, MLB added a second wild card spot to each league in 2012 and introduced the hotly debated Wild Card Game. Since, 10 of the league's 30 teams have been included to play October baseball, appropriately one third of the league.
As it stands right now, baseball doesn't need more playoff teams. Playoff spots are earned, not given. 2020's experimental 16-team playoff included 53% of the league's teams. Why should a majority of the league's teams make the playoffs? As a result, a 29-win, below .500 Astros team came within two games of a World Series appearance. Looking back, we were extremely fortunate that the league's two best teams somehow made it through last fall's unconventional playoff system. The Dodgers and Rays, who, 60 years ago would not have needed to win their league's pennant, had to win three playoff series' — only one of which they played at home — just to get to the Fall Classic.
Baseball is a fluky sport, and watering down the competition would inevitably yield lackluster results and undesirable World Series matchups. Major League Baseball should let the playoffs be, for now.
The National Football League, prior to recently diluting its own postseason, had the perfect blueprint for Major League Baseball to follow. There are currently 30 MLB franchises. Unfortunately, having an odd number of teams in each league forces there to be interleague play at all times. Interleague play was once a novelty. As a kid, I loved the special showcase series' that came around in early summer. I once saw the Red Sox play at Wrigley for the first time in 80 years. The few weeks of interleague play generated a special buzz and a fun sneak preview of potential World Series matchups. Now, interleague play isn't special, as it happens all the time. Adding two more MLB teams could fix this problem and provide opportunities to expand the league's playoff field.
There are a number of good places for MLB to look in to placing expansion teams. Buffalo has a loyal, rabid fan base and proved to be a good host for the Blue Jays in 2020. I've heard Portland, San Antonio, Montreal, Las Vegas and Austin all floated before. But for the sake of this exercise, I settled on two southern cities that would conveniently fit my new division model. Nashville is already campaigning for an expansion team, and Charlotte has one of the biggest minor league fan bases in the country. Both cities would make a lot of sense for the sake of this exercise. Tennessee is littered with Braves fans, so in this exercise, we'll make the Nashville Expansion Team the American League team, and the Charlotte Expansion Team can be our NL team.
Just as the NFL did in the early 2000s, we'd be killing off the 'Central' divisions and adding a North and a South division in each league. 16 teams. Four divisions. Four teams in each league.
Of course, some divisions are naturally going to be more competitive than others. The NFL has now had two sub-.500 teams make the playoffs, and with some divisions containing teams with higher payrolls than others, we'd probably get a similar result. But at the very least, winning the division would be both important and obtainable. If the league office is unhappy with the number of teams rebuilding and choosing not to spend money, competing against three teams and adding an extra playoff team would theoretically incentivize more teams to go for it.
As I formed my new divisions, I did my best to not mess with geography or throw away old school rivalries. Ideally, the divisions shouldn't look differently from the way they do now. I also chose not to move any teams from one league to the other. I don't want to muddy the National League with the designated hitter, and I believe in sticking to league traditions.
New York Mets
Pittsburgh Pirates (formerly NL Central)
The core of the East stays intact, and loses its two southern teams, while picking up the Pittsburgh Pirates, who get a chance to renew their state rivalry with the Phillies.
Chicago Cubs (formerly NL Central)
Colorado Rockies (formerly NL West)
Milwaukee Brewers (formerly NL Central)
St. Louis Cardinals (formerly NL Central)
Three former NL Central teams move to the NL North, while adding the Colorado Rockies. Though the Rockies aren't exactly right next to the other teams in the North, they aren't particularly close to the teams in the NL West either. In fact, Miller Park in Milwaukee, the furthest NL North team from Coors Field is actually geographically closer to the Rockies' home than any of the NL West teams are. The Rockies are on a bit of an island in the mountains, but it's more convenient for them to travel to the Midwest than it would be to force the Diamondbacks to travel to Miami for a divisional series. Besides, a Coors vs. Miller beer rivalry could be a lot of fun.
Atlanta Braves (formerly NL East)
Charlotte Expansion Team
Cincinnati Reds (formerly NL Central)
Miami Marlins (formerly NL East)
The NL South would pair two of the National League's oldest teams (Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds) with two of its newest teams (Miami Marlins and Charlotte Expansion Team).
Los Angeles Dodgers
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
The NL West is pretty cut and dry. It remains the same, minus the Rockies.
Boston Red Sox
New York Yankees
Toronto Blue Jays
Similar to the NL West staying intact, the AL East does the same, sacrificing its least-storied franchise in Tampa, who finds a more fitting home in the South.
Chicago White Sox (formerly AL Central)
Cleveland Indians (formerly AL Central)
Detroit Tigers (formerly AL Central)
Minnesota Twins (formerly AL Central)
The AL North essentially becomes the second installment of the AL Central, losing the Royals.
Houston Astros (formerly AL West)
Nashville Expansion Team
Tampa Bay Rays (formerly AL East)
Texas Rangers (formerly AL West)
The Houston Astros have already moved all over the place. They've competed in the NL West, NL Central and AL West. Now, they find a permanent home in the AL South, and they're joined by their old friends, the Texas Rangers, along with the Tampa Bay Rays and Nashville Expansion Team.
Kansas City Royals (formerly AL Central)
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
The Royals, like Kansas City's football team, would now be competing in the West. This one isn't perfect, as a Midwest team's divisional opponents would all reside on the West Coast. In fact, the Rockies are further west than the Royals. The Royals and Rockies could trade places, resulting in a National League North Royals team and a American League West Rockies team, but I didn't want to mess with either team's league. It would open the door for others to move out of their original league and worse, encourage a universal DH! We can't have that, now can we? I've also included a map for those that struggle with geography.
The playoffs would be pretty simple. Four division winners and two wild card teams in each league. Top two records in each league get a bye. The wild card round would be a best of three series, while the Division Series now becomes a best of 7. We don't want the league's best teams getting rusty and getting bounced in round one. Moving from a best of five to a best of seven series gives the better team a better chance of winning. The team with the better record also maintains a hard-earned advantage as teams in the wild card round might have to use their best three starting pitchers before advancing, while the higher-seeded team can rest and line up its starters. Past the Division Series, nothing changes.
It's only a matter of time until Major League Baseball adds a pair of expansion teams; hopefully it can wait to expand its playoffs until then.