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Are MLB divisions doomed?

Reflecting on league alignment and competitive balance

World Series - Texas Rangers v Arizona Diamondbacks - Game Three Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

We’re hoping that a lot of things about the Yankees season will be different in 2024. One thing that won’t be changing, though? The composition of their division — and the fact that winning it is likely to be a nasty fight. In either other division in the AL, the Yankees might be the favorite — or at the very least fighting for the top spot. Hopefully, they’ll be doing that in the East anyway, but few will project it; They’ll have to show it.

That kind of hard edge doesn’t exist everywhere, though. I’ve been thinking lately about how eye-popping the gap in talent and quality between the AL East and AL Central is. It was a running joke that throughout much of last season, the East’s last-place team would have been good enough for first place in the Central, and it’s not a new phenomenon. Since Cleveland’s 102-win juggernaut in 2017 — wonder what happened to those guys — it’s taken between 87 and 93 wins to bring home the division crown in four of five full seasons, consistently the lowest threshold in the game. Moving farther down the standings, it’s the most uncompetitive division in the league by a landslide. While the NL Central doesn’t spit out 100-win All-Star squads like the East and West divisions do, they at least bring some competitiveness to the party, having at least three teams finish .500 or better in four of five seasons since 2017. The AL Central hasn’t done it a single time.

MLB: SEP 22 Angels at Twins
87 wins was enough for the Minnesota Twins to take the crown in 2023
Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I’ve been thinking about it because it doesn’t seem like it’s getting much better. The White Sox and Royals are afterthoughts. The Tigers are trying, but it’s been nearly a decade since they sniffed .500. The two teams that appear built to win in the near future, Cleveland and Minnesota, have yet to make a real addition to their major league roster this offseason. Meanwhile, over in the AL East, you have fans of teams that made the playoffs last season and/or acquired arguably the best hitter on the market all offseason in something close to meltdown mode because it seems that their rosters, as is, aren’t the best in the gauntlet that’s their division.

None of this is fun for anybody. Few fans enjoy feeling like the odds are unfairly stacked against them. It’s maddening to know that one of those aforementioned AL Central teams is as likely as not to stumble into a playoff spot with 88 wins while a team that ponied up for Aaron Judge and Gerrit Cole and Giancarlo Stanton and now Juan Soto might very well be on the outside looking in. And at the same time, fans of those aforementioned teams deserve to feel the excitement of adding good players and, you know, seeing their teams actively try to win. The competition of the East isn’t always pleasant, but it bears a stark contrast to much of the league, where it seems like any given division race is as likely as not to have been all but decided t by the All-Star Game. All in all, it makes for a highly uneven fan experience. I’m not here to tell anyone what’s “good for the game” or not — or what that even really means — but that unevenness doesn’t feel like a positive thing.

As misplaced as it is, the chorus whinging about “fairness” in the wake of the Dodgers sending the Brinks trucks for Shohei Ohtani, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, and Tyler Glasnow isn’t coming from nowhere. I sense a broad feeling of shakiness about the structural landscape of the league. Despite the tinkering with the season and playoff structure, the leagues’ current alignment feels almost untenable at times.

Los Angeles Dodgers Introduce Yoshinobu Yamamoto Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

A sea change may be coming, perhaps sooner rather than later. We’re coming up on 30 years since the post-strike realignment, and with the Astros’ league-switching being the only other change since Arizona and Tampa Bay entered the league, the last 25 years have had more league stability than any period since the end of the Original 16. The labor relationship between the league and players is work-stoppage-level strained, and the new agreements in the last CBA haven’t lessened feelings among both players and fans that the majority of the league simply isn’t putting in enough effort. Nonetheless, expansion is on the horizon, with Nashville seemingly certain to get a team in some manner or another by the end of the decade, and at least one other market – wherever the A’s aren’t playing, perhaps – in contention for a second.

There’s no easy solution, but it seems inevitable that a shuffling of the deck is in order if anything is to be done about the number of teams seemingly opting out of competition. The AL Central is nearly 20 percent of the league, but the sheer convenience of location and having wound up in the AL together has allowed them to collectively operate almost as if they have tacit noncompete deals between themselves. There is parity in some ways — the variety of World Champions produced over the last few decades is quite good, relative to the dynasties produced by the NFL and NBA — but variance in outcomes is part of a different conversation than broader competitive balance, I think, and there’s an imbalance in the current divisional and playoff structure that has yet to be resolved.

The current Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and the Players Association expires after the 2026 season. It’s a bit of a wait, but if we’re going to get answers, that’s probably when it’ll be. Until then, let’s enjoy the baseball we’ve got in front of us all the same.