Bauman: Realignment a radical idea
Shifting divisions unlikely, but could help competitive balance
The revenue disparity among baseball franchises is always open to discussion, but one of the solutions put forward this week would change the structure of the game in a truly fundamental way.
Everybody cannot be the New York Yankees when it comes to financial resources, but some clubs have to compete head-to-head with them on a regular basis. The AL East, with the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, is an uphill fight for everybody else, even teams with substantial histories, such as the Blue Jays and the Orioles, or a team with a recent history of accomplishment, the Rays. How can competitive balance be improved in the face of clubs that are both so consistently wealthy and good?
This week, in a story written by Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci, one of most credible journalists covering the contemporary game, one novel solution to this problem was suggested. Verducci reported that Commissioner Bud Selig's Special Committee for On-Field Matters was discussing the concept of "floating realignment."
Under this concept, Verducci reported, clubs would not be assigned to a fixed division, but could shift divisions year to year, based on geography, payroll, and their perceptions of whether they were contending teams. No team would be able to move to a time zone more than two hours apart from its own.
The examples used by Verducci included the Cleveland Indians moving to the AL East. The idea in this case would be that the Indians, for the moment at least, were considered to be in a rebuilding mode. They wouldn't be winning the AL Central, either, in this mode, but in the East they would have 18 lucrative home dates with the Yankees and the Red Sox.
On the other hand, the Orioles and Rays, rather than banging their heads against the brick wall represented by the Yankees and Red Sox, could move to the AL Central, where they would have an improved chance of qualifying for the postseason.
A Major League Baseball official said Thursday that there was no chance such a measure would be adopted. That is a safe bet, but the fact that this concept, a radical proposal, is under public discussion at any level indicates the depth of the problem and the potential need for unconventional approaches.
As Verducci pointed out, in the 15 years since the advent of the Wild Card system, the Yankees and the Red Sox have accounted for 38 percent of all American League postseason berths. That may be understandable, but it isn't parity. And there is little reason to suspect that either of these clubs will soon begin to be either less successful or less wealthy.
Baseball has already greatly increased the amount of revenue sharing and has introduced the luxury tax on payrolls in an effort to reduce the revenue disparity among franchises. By any reasonable measurement this has increased the level of competitive balance, although it has obviously not created a level economic playing field.
Further increases in both revenue sharing and the luxury tax will be sought, but both will be subject to collective bargaining in the next contract talks between the owners and players. Baseball will probably not be able to reach the National Football League's level of economic parity, because in pro football the single largest source of revenue, from national broadcasting rights, is shared equally among all NFL franchises. The disparity in baseball revenue comes in large part from the differences generated by local broadcasting revenue, which are dictated by market size.
For non-economic answers, maybe a "rotating realignment" could be the solution, with teams taking turns appearing in the AL East. This would be better for competitive balance, although it wouldn't do much for historical continuity. On the other hand, there is nothing particularly sacrosanct about the current divisional alignments. It is not as though the current structure has been in place since the dawn of time.
The Commissioner's special committee was given a "no sacred cows," mandate. The discussion of this entire topic may well fit that open-ended agenda. But in the end, "floating realignment" is probably not the ultimate answer. Left to their own devices, the number of other clubs that would choose to be in the AL East with the Yankees and Red Sox might well be zero. Baseball probably does not want to march into the future with a two-team AL East.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.