Sunday, February 27, 2011

Imagining baseball realignment with 4 divisions of 7 teams each--Bill Madden

2/26/11, "In a few weeks, baseball's labor poobahs will sit down together and begin talks on a new collective bargaining agreement. The principal issues - revenue sharing, cost containment in the draft - are a prelude to bigger ones down the road, specifically: Schedule inequities, the seemingly hopeless stadium situations in Tampa Bay and Oakland, the fate of the designated hitter
  • and Bud Selig's longtime musing, geographic re-alignment.

While none of those latter issues is on the labor agenda, people all over baseball are talking about them. Orioles manager Buck Showalter says he stays up nights configuring Realignment scenarios that would solve a lot of baseball's problems.

"It's just not right the way it is with teams in the same divisions not playing the same schedules," Showalter said, in reference to interleague play in particular, which has created a myriad of inequities such as the St. Louis Cardinals drawing the Orioles, Blue Jays and two series with the Royals this year while the Cubs, in their same division, have to play the Yankees, Red Sox and two series against their intracity rival White Sox. "Why not," asked Showalter,

  • "have everyone in baseball play everyone the same amount of games - three home, three away?"

Showalter acknowledged that to do this, baseball would have to contract two teams and then form four seven-team divisions. Each team would play six games against all 27 opponents. That works out to 162 games. There are also inherent problems with every team playing each other. One is travel and the other is it defeats the purpose of geographic re-alignment, which is to play as many games as possible in your own time zone.

  • Still, four divisions of seven makes for easier schedule scenarios.

"Going to four divisions of seven would also force us to make a decision on the designated hitter," Showalter said. "Either everybody has it, or nobody has it. It's really dumb, the leagues today playing with two sets of rules."

While Showalter chose not to be specific about contraction, other than to reiterate how 28 teams is a much more workable number when it comes to scheduling and re-alignment, there is a growing sentiment for it throughout baseball, especially in regard to the Rays and A's. At least three baseball executives targeted those two teams as the most logical ones for extinction. "It's pretty clear," said one, "that neither of those teams can continue to operate in those facilities." Added another exec: "How much longer can you expect all the other teams to subsidize two teams, in futile situations, with revenue sharing to keep them afloat?"

  • A third exec was even more emphatic: "The biggest mistake we ever made was expanding into Florida.
  • The Rays are hopeless, and I have serious doubts about the Marlins surviving in that new stadium of theirs."
And according to one high-level baseball source,
  • both Rays owner Stuart Sternberg (whose efforts to move the team out of the Tropicana Field dome in St. Pete to a retractable roof facility in Tampa are meeting the two-fold obstacles in the depressed Florida economy and the intractable St. Petersburg bureaucrats), and
have told Selig they are not prepared to continue operating under the present circumstances. Translation: "If we can't get new stadiums, buy us out."

According to the latest Forbes team values figures, the A's and Rays are worth approximately $320 million each. Figuring $700 million as the price for contracting them both,

  • it would cost each approximately $25 million to buy them out.

MLB can unilaterally contract teams but must collectively bargain the effects of contraction with the union - specifically the loss of those 50 jobs and what becomes of those players. Those issues could be resolved, however, by the expansion of the rosters from 25 to 27 players, and having the approximately 250 players from the two contracted organizations redistributed among the 28 teams by virtue of a draft.

  • Those players with guaranteed long-term contracts would have the right to be exempt from the draft and opt for free agency. If they chose the former and were not drafted, MLB would then have to make good on their contracts out of its central fund.

Another related inequity which baseball has failed to address is the expansion of the rosters in September, in which there is currently no limit to the number of players a team can call up. With rosters expanded to 27, September call-ups could be limited to three players per team - but with the stipulation only 27 could be active for each game.

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who is on Selig's 14-member baseball study commission, said that, while he has known nothing but the 25-man roster his entire life, considering how pitching has evolved, with clubs routinely carrying 13 pitchers (as opposed to nine-10, years ago), he can see the merits of adding a couple of extra players to the roster.

  • "If you have the DH, you don't need that much of a bench," La Russa said. "But if you get rid of the DH, and you're carrying 13 pitchers, that really straps you, especially since one of your four bench players is the back-up catcher."

Using a consensus of the half-dozen managers and executives surveyed for this exercise, here's how baseball could evolve over the next 10 years:

  • Geographically realigned divisions: Seven teams, four divisions

Designated hitter: Grandfathered for three years under the new four-division format,

  • then goes away.

Rosters: Expanded to 27 with a limit to three September call-ups and the stipulation that only 27 players, to be designated by the manager before each game, can be active.

For the now, however, look for the biggest changes coming out of the next collective bargaining agreement to be a bonus slotting system in the draft and the ability of clubs to


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