Per Buster Olney, discussions in the labor negotiations have included talk of balancing the leagues so that 15 teams are in both the American and National Leagues. One consideration is also eliminating divisions, so that all 15 members would compete for 5 playoff spots (presumably using the top 3, and teams 4 and 5 in a short playoff, in place of the proposed wildcard round). In some ways, this would roll it back to how it used to be, prior to 1969 when Kansas City, Seattle (soon to be Milwaukee), Montreal and San Diego joined and baseball first went to divisional play. In other ways, it is a change from that earlier time–more teams competing, far more playoff spots as pennant winners went straight to World Series, and consistent interleague matchups.
Switching to balance between the leagues and an odd number of teams in both would require at least one interleague series every time. So, which team would switch to the American League if such a change was made? The early favorite is Houston. Richard Justice of the Houston Chronicle thinks it would be a great move for the Astros. They are currently in the NL Central, the only team in that 6 team division that is not located in the Midwest. They would be natural rivals for the Texas Rangers, but such a move would make more sense if the two leagues stuck to a divisional format. It seems unnecessary to add a 5th playoff team–the offered premise being to make winning a division more valuable–if there were no divisions.
I actually would be in favor of some change. The imbalance in divisions and league size is a competitive advantage and is more concerning to me than 1 interleague series every cycle. Assuming all teams are equal over time, An AL West team in the current format has a 32% chance of making the playoffs in a given year, compared to 22% for a NL Central team. (In actual results, 31% of AL West teams have reached postseason versus 23% of NL Central teams since 1998, when Arizona and Tampa Bay joined league and Milwaukee moved to NL).
If neither expansion or retraction are possibilities, then I think I prefer balanced 15 team leagues. I also wouldn’t be opposed to keeping the league sizes the same but going back to a two division format so that at least divisions are balanced within leagues. That would require something like Cleveland and Detroit going to the East in the American League, and Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati in the NL.
But I would like to hear what you think as well, to get a gauge. Four choices: current format, current league sizes but two divisions, switch to 15 teams in each league but keep same divisions (move someone like Houston to AL West), or switch to 15 teams in each league but eliminate divisions.
[photo via Getty]