The other day, Jesse Spector of The Sporting News wrote about an intriguing thought experiment. One of the highlights of the 2015 season has been the development of a new division rivalry down in Texas. Back in 2013, the Astros moved to the American League and sowed the seeds for a future AL West race with their fellow Lone Star State residents, the Texas Rangers. It took a couple years to happen, given the Astros' ineptitude and the Rangers' 2014 implosion, but in 2015, it has been incredible.
Houston stunned baseball by reeling off a 15-7 April and riding that to the front of a division once thought to be assured of going to either the well-rounded Mariners (whose roundedness actually represented a black hole) or the Mike Trout - led Angels (who did not, in fact, employ many other worthwhile players). The Astros have spent 139 days in first place and at one point even had a seven-game lead on their AL West competitors. Meanwhile, the Rangers had a rough of it in April, going 7-14 and then losing 10 of 12 games at one point in July. On July 20th, they sat six game under .500 and nine games behind the Astros. Since then, they have been the second best team in baseball at 35-15, a .660 winning percentage, and just this week, they finally caught Houston to move to the top of the AL West. They toppled the Astros in the middle of a four-game series between the two teams in Arlington, and another three-game showdown in Houston looms on the horizon.
Spurred by the intensity of the this fresh rivalry, Spector suggested changing Major League Baseball to encouraged more of these local rivalries. The possibilities that Yankees/Mets and Royals/Cardinals could have offered this season would have been fantastic, and those are just two examples. Interleague play only carries the promise of a handful of a standard matchups. Instead of simply having this weekend's series against Mets be a regular Subway Series showdown between two good teams, it would have even more serious playoff implications. There are obviously arguments for and against such a dramatic realignment, but it's fascinating to ponder.
Spector outlined his suggestions for a realignment in a later article, but I would take a different spin. His ideas shifted baseball into five six-team divisions with a few Wild Card teams. I prefer the traditional two-league, three-division format, and I believe that I have found a format that could work, assuming that baseball isn't expanding anytime soon. It would allow for the playoffs to remain the same as they are right now anyway, with three division winners and two Wild Cards per conference.
Almost all possible local rivalries are incorporated into the division realignment. There are two fewer teams in the Ruth Conference, but that also helps make it possible to curtail interleague play as much as possible. Having 15 teams in each conference would mean that at least one interleague matchup would have to happen every day, and while I understand some of the ideas behind interlague play, it really isn't that important. Its existence takes a little bit (granted a very small bit) of the fun out of the World Series and the All-Star Game. If interleague play is deemed necessary, then it is fine to have one or two series per year for each team, but the option is there to avoid it entirely. Although I suppose that one conference could have the DH while the other did not, I would rather just adopt a universal DH given all the league turnover and the superiority of watching actual hitters bat. (Sorry, but the soon-to-retire Bartolo Colon and the hitting anomaly Madison Bumgarner aren't good enough reasons to keep it.)
The Ruth East maintains the zaniness of Yankees/Red Sox while also allowing for the Yankees and Mets to duke it out for a division title as well as a potential Pennsylvania showdown between the Pirates and Phillies, who are not currently in the same division. During the mid-2000s, the Mets and Phillies demonstrated how fun their rivalry can get when both teams are good, and given Philadelphia's natural rivalry with New York in other sports like football and hockey, Yankees/Phillies could get quite exciting, too.
The Ruth North is a bit of a hodgepodge with a lot of airfare, but any division with the Mariners is going to have to deal with that. There aren't too many natural rivalries in here unless Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan feel like stoking the fires, but none are particularly close to each other. It is a bit of a bummer to move Milwaukee's team away from Chicago given how close the two cities are, but there wasn't much of a historical rivalry history there anyway. Alas. My top two expansion possibilities are Portland and Montreal, so maybe one day the alignment could be altered again to allow for the intensity that Toronto vs. Montreal and Seattle vs. Portland have shown in hockey and soccer, respectively.
The Ruth Mid-Atlantic would be baseball's smallest division, but Nationals vs. Orioles could get really fun. The two teams' owners already grumble at each other for having to share the market anyway, and speaking from experience living in Baltimore, there is kind of an amusing lesser Yankees/Mets vibe between the O's and Nats. Since the O's have been around much longer, their fans tend to roll their eyes at #Natitude and the mostly unsuccessful run of their 10-year-old neighbors on the Potomac, who still battle for more fans. I can't speak too much about anything that could brew in the battle for the Ohio Cup between the Reds and Indians, but you never know. Cleveland vs. Baltimore is entertaining in another sport anyway though thanks to Art Modell, so there is that to consider as well.
Shifting conferences, the Robinson Gulf division focuses on the south and features a pair of interstate rivalries. Maybe Jeffrey Loria will flip the Marlins for profit one day to make them less of a punchline, and perhaps the Trop will be blown up in favor of a real park in Tampa Bay, too. Nonetheless, Rangers vs. Astros will be there. and for awhile, the Braves had a great rivalry with the Mets, so the possibility certainly exists of them cooking something up with their new division rivals, regardless of the distance.
Like the Ruth East, the Robinson Midwest maintains old division rivalries while setting the stage for new ones. Cardinals vs. Cubs can be quite good, so that is kept, but Cubs vs. White Sox and Royals vs. Cardinals have potential, too. Just ask A.J. Pierzynski and Don Denkinger. The Rockies are kind of thrown in here with nowhere else to go, but at least that keeps travel from being too bad. The Rockies truly are the "whatever" of baseball.
Rounding up the divisions, the Robinson West is loaded with six teams, including all five in California. Dodgers vs. Giants! A's vs. Giants! Dodgers vs. Angels! Frequest 2002 World Series showdowns with the Giants. vs. Angels! The Padres play baseball, I think! It's all there. The Diamondbacks make the most sense as a sixth team in this division given their proximity to California, and they can maintain their old NL West grumblings, too.
Like Spector's post, this is just kicking ideas around, but it is still cool to consider, even though I'm sure some teams' fans will probably decide I'm a dang fool. Feel free to sound off any criticism or put forth your own ideas in a FanPost calling me out. I probably deserve it.