My thoughts on baseball realignment

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As of July 19, the Tampa Bay Rays and Pittsburgh Pirates had identical 50-44 records. Both teams were dreadful for the first half of the last decade. And that’s where the similarities end.

With all due respect to the Pirates, their 50-44 record and the Rays’ 50-44 record were not created equally. With their 44th loss, the Rays fell 6.5 games behind New York in the wild card, all but ending any hope of their competing for a playoff berth. The Pirates, in contrast, not only wrested first place from the Milwaukee Brewers with their 50th win, but gained much-needed momentum by beating a division contender, albeit one with a losing record to-date (the Cincinnati Reds).

The Rays had outscored opponents by 34 runs as of July 19. Those opponents included the Yankees nine times and the Red Sox eight times and they play those two 19 more times this summer. The Pirates had played 12 games against the lowly Houston Astros and nine against the Chicago Cubs, but had outscored their opponents by just 14.

Based on the unbalanced schedule, one could make a case that the five best teams in baseball (Philadelphia, Boston, the Yankees, Atlanta and the Rays) all play in eastern divisions this year (though Rangers fans may take issue), and that the Rays would be seven or eight games up if they played in the NL Central, while the Pirates might be fighting the Baltimore Orioles to stay out of the basement in the AL East.

But that case is no fun. In the real world, the Pirates lead their division and have a reasonable chance to make the playoffs for the first time in almost 20 years and that’s probably the best story in baseball in 2011. They have a long and storied history, play in the best park in the league, and have great fans.

The Rays, meanwhile, have one of the game’s worst parks, a small fan base in one of the smallest metropolitan areas with a baseball team and no real history prior to 2008. Their sympathy factor is low as well, as they’ve made the playoffs two of the last three seasons.

What’s most fair isn’t always the most fun or the most entertaining.

This brings us to the realignment strategies everyone’s throwing around. Major League Baseball has decided, for some reason, to add a second wild card team from each league to the playoff mix. The impetus for realignment seems to be the notion that teams would be competing for the same playoff spot on an uneven playing field, as if that hasn’t been the case for years. NL Central teams have to finish ahead of five teams to win their division, while AL West teams only have to best three other teams. Somehow, the popular solution is to move the Astros (or the Brewers or the Diamondbacks) to the American League, so that each league has three divisions of five teams competing for five playoff spots.

In reality, adding a second wild card team mitigates the effect of the division size inequity. Teams gunning for the final playoff spot would be competing not against their divisions, but against their leagues, and the difference between 14 and 16 teams is unlikely to affect many playoff berths. Throw in year-round interleague play, and moving an NL team to the AL can’t possibly be the best solution.

If fairness is the reason for realignment, the answer is not moving one team to the tougher league, immediately decreasing that team’s chances of making the postseason. The answer is eliminating the divisions, balancing the schedule such that each team plays substantially the same slate, and sending the five (or four, which has worked pretty well) best teams in each league to the playoffs. Only then does a team like the Toronto Blue Jays or Orioles have the same chance to reach the playoffs as the Los Angeles Dodgers or Colorado Rockies, each of whom has made multiple trips this decade, while the Blue Jays and Orioles have been shut out despite similar resources.

If the divisions were eliminated, as many fans and writers have pointed out, baseball would lose the thrill of multiple pennant races. Sure, there may be a good fight for fifth place, possibly featuring three or four teams, but there would be little incentive for first- and second-place teams facing off in late September to ride their starting pitchers deep into games in an attempt to win the division.

Red Sox fans know very well that baseball isn’t about fairness. Baseball was most fair from 1903 to 1968, when there were no divisions and the best team in each league went straight to the World Series. What happened then? The Yankees won it all. Just about every year, it seemed. In the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals and Pirates and Reds stole a pennant here and there, but the New York teams won more than their share. Baseball was more predictable and less exciting when it was fair.

Baseball’s current alignment is particularly harsh on the Red Sox, but it’s hard for a team with a $170 million payroll to complain. As grueling as it is playing 18 games a year against the Yankees, substantially all of the gains the franchise has made since John Henry’s group bought the Red Sox in 2002 can be attributed to direct competition with the Yankees.

If the Bronx Bombers hadn’t played in the previous four World Series, winning three (thank you, Luis Gonzalez), and ratcheted their payroll up to nearly $200 million, almost twice what any other team spent at that time, the Red Sox could have built a team the same way the Giants and Rangers have, by pinching pennies and hoarding prospects until it’s time to strike with a few big-ticket free agent signings. Would the Sox have won two World Series titles and become perennial contenders under a plan like that? Doubtful.

The best answer, if you ask me, is to change nothing. Baseball is making millions, fans are watching games, and nine different teams in nine different cities have won the last 10 World Series, with only our Red Sox winning twice. A fifth playoff team won’t stall that progress and may add intrigue down the stretch, but it will water down the playoffs some (for better or worse), giving sometimes-unworthy teams a reasonable chance to steal a championship from any of several superior teams.

If I could change one thing about baseball, I would reconsider the unbalanced schedule. Baseball doesn’t need to be completely fair, but we don’t need 18 Red Sox-Orioles games every year either. I could take or leave interleague play, but if its a part of baseball, teams should play similar interleague schedules (maybe a three-game series against each team in the other league).

Sometimes change is good, even when it’s not demanded by a specific shortcoming. Another wild card team could spice up baseball’s playoffs and add intrigue to the regular season. Let’s just not pretend baseball is broken and go wild dreaming up solutions. The Astros might never forgive us.