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More Teams May Stand To Lose Than Gain From MLB Realignment

Changes are coming to Major League Baseball. That's inevitable. The real issue is, exactly what form those changes will take and how will they impact small-market teams like the Kansas City Royals?

Kansas City Royals
Kansas City Royals

As far as embracing progressive change and innovation and continually looking for new ways to go about its business, the game of baseball falls far right of center. Although Major League Baseball has undergone changes in scale, structure and even rules changes to the game itself, these alterations - or what some people prefer to call adjustments - have come about more through evolution than revolution.

In the last 50 years, Major League Baseball has added 14 expansion teams and changed league alignments twice. Many would say that is a welcome sign of progress, which is good for the sustainability and viability of the major-league franchises and the livelihood of the league itself. The problem is, baseball executives don't measure the current and future success of the major leagues so much on progress. It's the other "P" word they are interested in: profits.

Growing revenue and profits - or protecting same, depending on which side of the table you're on - will be at the center of the labor negotiations between the players and the owners when Major League Baseball's current collective bargaining agreement expires after this season. That's not necessarily that big a deal except when you consider the nightmare sports scenario that by that time we might have three of the four major professional sports leagues temporarily out of business, the result of work stoppages in the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball.

The odds of labor strikes going on in those three major professional leagues at the same time is probably very low, but the way things look at the moment in the NFL negotiations, the chances of such a perfect storm still very much looms on the horizon.

Looking at Major League Baseball, which with the NBA Finals and the NHL Stanley Cup now having reached finality enjoys the national sports spotlight all to itself for a couple of months, MLB commissioner Bud Selig has made it widely known that he favors expanding baseball's playoff format from four to five teams in each league. An even broader discussion has emerged from that one and has been getting plenty of ink of its own in recent weeks.

Realignment of the two leagues, something that hasn't happened since 1998, when the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays came into the National and American Leagues, respectively, is one of the central issues already under discussion as part of labor negotiations between MLB representatives and the players. The main element of the realignment discussions is bringing MLB's two leagues into balance at 15 each.

Currently, there are 14 American League teams and 16 National League clubs. When Arizona and Tampa Bay made their major-league debuts, it would have created two 15-team leagues then. But when MLB officials started working through the details of the expansion and the effects on scheduling and other issues, it was quickly discovered that having an uneven number of teams would result in giving teams many more days off than in the past or having to play an interleague schedule that would extend throughout the season instead of just a couple of concentrated weeks around the middle of the season.

The Milwaukee Brewers subsequently agreed to move from the American to the National League so the number of teams in each league would remain an even number and retain the status quo insofar as scheduling. But as many of you Kansas City baseball buffs may recall, that was only after the Royals' franchise, the first choice of the commissioner's office, declined to change leagues. It was less of a cultural shock for the Milwaukee club because Milwaukee previously was a National League city when the Braves played there.

The lords of the game reasoned at the time, however, that baseball was not ready for a full-season of interleague play and all the other issues that would come along with it.

At this point, it appears that, along with a new collective bargaining agreement, we can expect to see the number of playoff teams increased to five in each league. Much support also is lining up in favor of balancing the two leagues, which this time would require a National League team to move over to the American League. The Houston Astros or the Arizona Diamondbacks are the most likely NL candidates to make such a move, and both franchises have floated their interest in doing so. There was even one report that Arizona had wanted to become an American League city originally

Although either Houston or Arizona would be an ideal fit for the AL West, which currently has only four teams, including the Astros' in-state interleague rival, the Texas Rangers, there is also talk about doing away with the divisional format altogether and going back to the way the two leagues were aligned prior to the late 1960s. That would not be good news for the Kansas City Royals and other teams that are not consistently among baseball's so-called power elite. If the no-division concept were to become a reality, teams like the Royals would be pushed even further down and out of playoff contention than they are in the present league structure.

If Arizona were to move over to the AL, Houston most likely would move from the NL Central, where there are currently six teams, the most in any division in either league, to the NL West to replace the Diamondbacks and even out even the three NL divisions at five teams each. This assumes, of course, that the MLB powers that be elect to keep the division format in tact.

Another major change that would be necessitated by an MLB realignment structure creating two 15-team leagues, as cited previously, is the construction of the season schedule. There is no way Major League Baseball is going to abandon its daily slate of games, which has long been a hallmark of our national pastime, especially in the late spring and summer months, when it is virtually the only game in town. Therefore, to continue interleague play - which not everyone, fans and players alike, is in favor of, mind you - games would have to be played throughout the year, from April right on through September.

Where the interleague issue could become a big problem is later in the season, in late August and September, when the games become of increasing importance. Imagine, for example, the Royals being in serious playoff contention a year or two from now and having to play the Philadelphia Phillies or St. Louis Cardinals in the National League city in, say, September and not being able to have a designated hitter, which would bench one of the AL team's better offensive threats, in the lineup. Talk about a disadvantage at potentially the most inopportune time. That brings up a whole different discussion about what to do in the future with the current designated-hitter rule, which probably isn't going to be subject to any change anytime soon.

So while change and continuous improvement can be very good in most things, it rarely affects all affected parties the same way. That's why you have to be careful whom and, most importantly, what you cheer for.