Must MLB Realign Divisions to Improve Competitive Balance?

Major League Baseball’s competitive balance has improved steadily over the past decade, but the AL East has — with the exception of the 2008 season — been a race between the Red Sox and Yankees. If Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal has his way, that will change.

Because of the financial disparity between the teams in the AL East — the Yankees’ 2009 payroll was $207 million, and the Rays was $65 million — Rosenthal believes that the league’s divisions should be realigned to give smaller-market clubs a better chance of contention.

For teams like the Rays and Athletics, innovative advantages are now more difficult than they were in the pre-Moneyball era, and the possibility of MLB becoming an entirely money-driven sport looms large. To temper that threat, Rosenthal offers three realignment proposals. Each one carries significant implications for the Yankees and Red Sox.

Rosenthal’s “modest” suggestion would simply trade the Red Sox into the AL Central, and move the Tigers into the East, while also moving the Astros from the NL Central to the AL West to even out the divisions at five teams apiece. However, he acknowledges two significant shortcomings of this possibility — the end of the historic rivalry between New York and Boston, and the use of the Tigers as “sacrificial lambs for competitive balance.”

Instead, a more radical plan could be in order. Under this idea, the Red Sox would shift into the NL East, while the Mets would form a crosstown rivalry with the Yankees in the AL East. Meanwhile, the Pirates, Reds, Dodgers and Giants would shift into the Junior Circuit, while the Angels, Athletics, Royals and Rangers would supplant them in the Senior Circuit. Unfortunately, the disadvantages only increase in severity, because rivalries across the league would be broken up, the Florida teams would remain financially dwarfed by the Yankees and Red Sox, and the designated hitter rule would either need to be expanded to all 30 teams or fully abolished.

Finally, the possibility of realigning the teams based on their payroll capacities is worth considering. The Yankees and Red Sox would welcome the Mets and Phillies as well as the Athletics, who would trek across the country and set up shop in New Jersey to form the AL Money division. However, this plan would diminish the excitement of the postseason, because the majority of the matchups would feature financial behemoths against tight-budget teams.

Nonetheless, Rosenthal believes that one of these proposals — or another similarly driven one — should be implemented. He concedes that sacrificing “historical integrity” for competitive balance is a risky undertaking that will be unpopular with many fans, but also notes that supporters of teams that currently are seldom in contention would find the increased parity more appealing.

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