By Patrick Brewer, Lead National League Writer
New commissioner Rob Manfred is nearing the end of his first year on the job and it has been a year filled with good progress and good discussions about many aspects of the game. Pace of play initiatives have gone over well and sped up the game, instant replay has taken another step forward with further improvements to come, and attendance is seemingly getting better every year. Business is booming. With that being said, Rob Manfred still has a lot of work to do and a lot of ideas are being considered. With the inclusion of the second wild card, and discussions on expansion to more than thirty teams, both the divisional set ups and playoff set up are coming under further discussion and further changes should be considered
While the focus in his first year as commissioner has been on pace of play initiatives and working out the kinks in the instant replay system, Manfred has started a discussion on further expansion of the league. Many different cities have been discussed from Portland, to Charlotte, to Las Vegas, to the former home of the Expos in Montreal as well as many more. This talks are clearly still in the preliminary stages and it could still be many years before these talks come to fruition and any number of teams are added to either league.
Despite these just being preliminary talks, it is never too early to discuss possible changes this expansion will cause or perhaps even some changes even without expansion. As it currently stands there are two separate leagues, the National League and the American League, that each have three divisions of five teams, the East, the Central, and the West divisions in both leagues. This has been the setup since the Houston Astros moved from the NL Central to the AL West a few years back in order to even out each division and allow for year round interleague play and a more balanced schedule. Prior to that, there were six teams in the National League Central and only four in the American League West.
With this in mind, it begs the question, what will happen to the current divisional set up if more franchises are added to each league? Will one division in each league have six teams or will the divisions change completely? In recent years there has been an increasing conversation about whether or not the MLB should do away with the divisions completely and have a similar set up to other sports leagues.
As it stands, a divisional realignment for the MLB can go one of three different ways. First off, the MLB could go the way of the NBA and keep the divisions the way they are but expand to include more teams with the top seeds going to divisional winners as it currently does. This is an interesting idea that would make sense in monetary terms but would have to be accompanied by a shortened season to accommodate a longer and more strenuous playoff schedule. A second possibility is a realignment of the divisions in a similar way to what the NHL just did recently. The NHL now has two divisions in each league where the top three teams in each division as well as the two teams with the next best record all make the playoffs. Finally the MLB could do away with divisions completely and have each individual team play a balanced schedule against every other team to promote complete parity and to allow the best teams to make the playoffs. This holds the advantage of being the most balanced and fair option but would also require quite a bit of restructuring.
These questions have come to mind given the current setup of the divisions and how each divisional race is playing out so far this season. Currently both the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates hold the two wild card positions in the National League despite both having better overall records than four out of the other five divisional leaders. The only divisional leader that these two teams are not better than is the Kansas City Royals who themselves have run rough shot over the entire American League. It seems unfair that the Pirates/Cubs would have to play a one game playoff to even make it to the divisional round simply because they have the bad luck of playing in a division with the juggernaut that is the St. Louis Cardinals. An elimination of the divisions would allow each of these teams to hold a better playoff position and would allow them to both avoid a one game playoff (with one of them having to go on the road despite a record better than a majority of the rest of the divisional leaders).
Beyond a restructuring of the current divisional format, the MLB could also use a restructuring of the current playoff format. While including two wild card teams in each league has allowed for more parity league wide and has allowed more teams a chance to make the playoffs, a one game playoff seems unfair for teams like the Pirates and Cubs who really deserve to make it to the divisional round. A possible restructuring could involve a format similar to the playoff format of the NFL. There could be three division winners and three wild card winners (or simply the six best teams making the playoffs if the divisions are eliminated completely) with the top two seeds getting a bye in the first round similar to the NFL playoffs. In this first round the four teams in each league without a bye could play in a three game series in order to avoid the unfair nature of a one game playoff. This allows the top two teams to be rewarded for having the best record and allows the other four teams the chance to prove themselves in a series rather than just a single game.
In his first year on the job Rob Manfred has done a lot of good work for Major League Baseball. From improving pace of play to working out any kinks in the instant replay system, Manfred has taken many big steps so far on the job. It seems the next logical step for Manfred is focusing on the prospects of expansion of the league as well as a possible realignment of the current divisional format or even an expansion of the playoffs. With attendance doing well, and interest in baseball seemingly at an all time high, now is the time to address these questions and make the MLB as strong as it can be. This is the next step for Rob Manfred as commissioner in 2016 and beyond.
Patrick Brewer is the Lead National League Writer for Call to the Bullpen. You can find him on twitter @PatrickBrewer93, or join in the conversation @CTBPod, in the comment section below or on our Facebook page.