Game Changers: Realignment of divisions
Debate goes on about potential impact of shifting teams
With divisional play in Major League Baseball having entered its fifth decade, there has been a developing discussion about another round of realignment for those divisions, and this time it revolves around the game's greatest rivalry.
The Yankees and the Red Sox, the two behemoths of the American League East, have so cornered the market on playoff spots that something must be done, some suggest.
Competitive balance can be addressed only so much through economics, so addressing it structurally by rearranging baseball's six divisions somehow is necessary, some say.
Others contend that it is not broken, so don't fix it, and that any changes would cause new issues.
One thing is clear: Realignment remains a subject that stirs debate, and it's one that reportedly was raised in discussions held by the Special Committee for On-Field Matters appointed by Commissioner Bud Selig late last year.
Without pushing a specific course, Selig said this spring that he's considering the possibilities of what would be the first round of realignment since 1998.
"I do believe in some realignment because I do believe it can work, just as I believed in the Wild Card, Interleague Play, revenue sharing," Selig said during Spring Training.
"It's something that I want to keep thinking about. When I'm on long airplane rides and travels, which are a lot lately, I'll fiddle around with divisions and things. But one thing about it, you can come up with a hundred different [scenarios]. So we'll just see how it works out."
Indeed, ideas and opinions did flow once rumbles of realignment started up again in earnest earlier this year. Whether it's freeing up the other AL East teams or breaking up the two big bullies to spread out their collective dominance somehow, the subject gets people's wheels turning.
One of the ideas reportedly being discussed is so-called "floating realignment," which would allow clubs to change divisions for years at a time. As first reported by SI.com in March, the Special Committee for On-Field Matters had "very preliminary" talks about the concept, which would allow teams to swap spots based on economic and competitive factors while maintaining geographic sensibilities.
Whether it's that or any other manner of mixing things up, realignment is a real issue on the docket, and addressing the dominance of the game's biggest rivalry is at the center of it.
However, not everyone believes it's a move that has to be made any time soon or even at all. Count Giants and ESPN broadcaster Jon Miller, this year's recipient of the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting excellence at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, among those unconvinced realignment is a must.
"I think this whole thing about it's too difficult for teams that are in the division with the Red Sox and Yankees is a bogus issue, unless you're just going to have everybody in divisions except the Red Sox and Yankees," Miller said.
One burning question about this round of realignment discussions: Would baseball actually consider breaking up the Yankees and the Red Sox and put them into different divisions? It would be a historic move, no doubt.
Through decades of change within baseball, through expansion and realignment into two and then three divisions per league, one of the constants has been that the Yankees and the Red Sox have directly competed for the right to reach the postseason every year.
So, yes, messing with the Yankees and Red Sox would be a significant step.
Besides, realignment isn't exactly something that baseball does every time people talk about it. Since the AL and NL each split into two divisions -- East and West -- in 1969, the divisions have been altered only a few times. The first truly radical change occurred in 1994, with the leagues going to three divisions, including the advent of the Wild Card for a fourth postseason berth in each league. Once Arizona and Tampa Bay arrived in 1998, the Brewers switched leagues to the NL Central and the Tigers escaped the AL East for the AL Central, marking the last time the structure was altered.
As key members of the American League for decades to their presence in the AL East since '69, the Yankees and Red Sox certainly have had their October moments over the years -- but never with more success as a tandem than in recent years, dominating the playoff berths in the Wild Card era.
They have claimed three of the past six World Series titles while each has missed the playoffs only once during that time. One or the other has been in the postseason each of the 15 years since the Wild Card was introduced, both of them in eight of those years, so they account for 23 of the 60 playoff spots won in the American League during that time.
The Rays of 2008 -- and perhaps 2010 -- notwithstanding, that has left the rest of the AL East to wonder why the playoff cupboard seems bare every year. Certainly, the Orioles and Blue Jays have a big hill to climb to reach the playoffs, if or when their attempts to develop winning organizations again reach their goals.
Under the concept of floating realignment, those clubs might be able to escape the AL East, at least temporarily. Orioles president Andy MacPhail, a member of the Commissioner's special committee, discussed the possibility of division realignment during the team's FanFest in January, and in an interview with The Washington Post in March, he said the idea of not having to deal with the Yankees and Red Sox every year has its appeal.
"On a purely selfish basis, [the idea is] hardly going to get any opposition from me," MacPhail told the Post. "But those things are not things that are on the immediate horizon, or even close to it. Complaining about the division, I worry that it becomes an excuse for not improving the team. Let's improve the team. We'll let someone else worry about that other stuff. Let's just make the Baltimore Orioles better."
The way Miller looks at it, it's on other teams to find a way to beat the Yankees and Red Sox, not on baseball to help them work around them.
Miller points to other factors affecting competition for playoff spots, such as inequities in the Interleague Play schedule, and contends that player development, not just spending, has been vital for the Yankees and the Red Sox.
Besides, Miller asks, what would be accomplished by moving other teams out of the AL East?
"So take the Blue Jays and the Orioles out of that division, and who goes in? The White Sox? The Indians?" Miller said. "Who do you send in there?"
In one example in the SI.com report in March, which cited an industry insider as its source, the Indians would take their rebuilding process to the AL East and perhaps gain more revenue with the Yankees and Red Sox visiting more often, while Tampa Bay or Baltimore could move to the AL Central for a potentially better shot at a playoff spot. As part of the floating realignment concept, the number of teams in divisions would change, teams could change leagues and there would be Interleague Play through the season, the SI.com report said.
The revelation of that concept spurred other ideas throughout baseball media and fan discussion, including splitting up the Yankees and Red Sox perhaps even into different leagues, setting up divisions based on revenue or just abolishing the division system altogether, making Interleague Play the norm. Perhaps there's some version of the English football league system, which promotes and relegates teams to and from the premier league based on performance, or something else that can be borrowed from one of the other American professional sports leagues.
Or maybe doing nothing is the best realignment plan.
When it comes to realignment, the stars really have to align to make it work. There's a lot of history and an uncertain future involved, so it's not something to be taken lightly.
But with baseball's two biggest planets dominating the postseason sky, realignment is back in view.
John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.