With MLB choosing to realign to two 15-team leagues this season and introducing year-round interleague play, it has created the sentiment that a holy war is coming over interleague play and the adoption of the designated hitter. To some, the realignment is seen as the move that set in motion the inevitable adoption of the DH by the National League. However, those who inexplicably enjoy watching pitchers hit have proposed that the Junior Circuit take their DH and shove it.
There is a middle ground here that is slowly starting to emerge: expanding the league to two 16-team leagues and abandoning interleague play. That is a fair and sensible compromise that should make fans on both sides happy. Alas, such a solution appears to be too good to be true.
Expansion always seems like a cool idea because it means new teams in new cities and new things are fun. The last few round of expansion were very well received because they created teams in states that were seemingly primed, if not starving, for a team of their own. Colorado, Florida and Arizona were obvious fits for MLB franchises and the decisions have mostly worked out well.
This is where the first problem with expanding crops up. There just isn't a market that is screaming for a ballclub right now, much less two markets. There are a few markets that are mentioned with varying degrees of regularity, but each has significant drawbacks:
- Montreal – We all know they once had the Expos for a long time, so the theory is that they could once again support an MLB franchise, but with how things ended there, the earth might scorched, making it an uphill battle to win back fans much less get financing for a new stadium.
- Norfolk – They nearly landed the Expos when they left Montreal and the city has been desperate to attract a pro franchise of any kind. It won't be an MLB team though as there is no chance that the Nationals and Orioles will allow a third team to horn in on their already contentious territorial rights dispute.
- Sacramento, New Jersey and San Antonio – While we're talking about territorial rights, you can rule out these three potentially lucrative markets because there is no way the A's and Giants, Mets, Yankes and Phillies and Rangers and Astros are going to allow any new franchise to move in on territory they are already sharing with someone else.
- Mexico and Puerto Rico – Expanding into Latin America is no doubt a very intriguing idea for MLB, however there are several obstacles, not the least of which is that the median income in Puerto Rico and, especially, Mexico is significantly lower than any American market. The issues regarding exchange rates, international travel, security and, most importantly, lack of local support from major corporations make these markets borderline non-viable, at least not for the next decade or two.
- Las Vegas – Some pro sports league is going to move into Vegas, eventually. MLB might be best positioned to make entree into the market since they already have a Pacific Coast League team located there. Like most leagues though the gambling issue would be difficult. Not only would they have to get MLB games removed from the Vegas sports books, but one would think that the league would want any and all associations to the casinos strictly prohibited so as not to do anything to remind people of baseball's historic gambling scandals like the Black Sox and Pete Rose. Those incidents are ancient history, but gambling has always been a third rail with MLB as a result. That issue aside, Vegas is still a questionable market due to the size of the TV market and how sensitive the area is to shifts in the economy.
- Portland – This is arguably the city most capable of hosting a franchise. The market is big enough, though still on the small side, and long been hungry to bring in another pro franchise to co-exist with the Blazers. There is little doubt that the fan base would be rabid supporters though corporate support might be lacking. There are also some territorial issues with the Mariners, but likely not significant enough that they can't be overcome.
If it was a matter of just selecting one of those markets, the league could probably figure out an expansion plan, but picking two expansion cities from that list (as well as dark horse candidates like Salt Lake City or Charlotte) is where the plan really starts to go off the rails. The ultimate deciding factor could well just be whichever city is desperate enough to have a sports team that they serve up a sweetheart stadium deal, but in the wake of debacles like Marlins Park and a general movement against publicly-financed arenas and stadiums, that could be near impossible to find, at least not until the American economy takes off again and who knows when that might happen.
Complicating matters further is that geography actually plays a major role here. The league just balanced all the divisions, so they'll have to expand each league to four four-team divisions to maintain that balance. They could also do two eight-team divisions but if you thought traditionalists hated the idea of the DH in the National League, just wait until you see how they react to their being three Wild Card teams. Crafting those divisions in a way that makes geographic sense for travel and scheduling purposes is a real challenge though. Here is a sample of what the leagues would look like after expansion:
|AL EAST||AL SOUTH||AL NORTH||AL WEST|
|New York||Tampa Bay||Detroit||Seattle|
|NL EAST||NL SOUTH||NL NORTH||NL WEST|
|Pittsburgh||St. Louis||Colorado||San Diego|
There is so room to play around here, specifically in the National League, but already you can see that at least one team in the current NL Central is going to pretty pissed off about there new division. But what thing that it does reveal is that the two expansion teams that get selected will have to be selected to fit into a specific geographic regions so as not to disrupt traditional rivalries or have a team playing in a division that makes no sense for them. which this format already has a little bit of already (boy, does Colorado screw everything up for everyone). Barring any teams switching leagues, which is highly unlikely after all the arm-twisting it took to get Houston to jump to the AL, the expansion team options get limited further in that one needs to be a West Coast friendly location and the other needs to be Southeast region friendly (maybe Northeast if you move Washington to NL South).
But all of those logistical factors, and we haven't even talked about the dilution fo the talent pool, might pale in comparison into the difficulty of convincing the league to give up interleague play, which is the main point of this whole scheme to begin with. As MLB loves to tell us every year, attendance and TV ratings for interleague series, as a collective, are well above normal series standards. A lot of that comes from high profile interleague matchups like the Yankees-Mets, Cubs-White Sox, Angels-Dodgers and so forth, so not every owner is going to bemoan the loss of their "traditional rivalry" (see Mariners-Padres and Rockies-Twins), but there will surely be enough resistance to make it a tough conversation. Now, the expansion fees can go a long way towards off-setting that, but that is a one-time infusion of money rather than an annual boost in income that interleague provides.
None of these factors are problematic enough on their own merit to kill the idea of expansion, but add them all together and it sure seems like a lot of trouble to go through with maybe not nearly a big enough pay off to make it worthwhile, especially when the problem they are trying to solve is one that can be easily taken care of with one simple change to the rulebook.
If the league really wants to expand because they think it makes economic sense, go for it. But using it as some incredibly complicated way of getting people on both sides to stop complaining about the inequity of the DH-rule would be the league cutting off its nose to spite its own face.