Exploring MLB Expansion and Relegation

Portland is one of many cities hoping to land an MLB franchise someday. (via Steve Morgan)

Major league expansion — a concept filled with imagination and limitless possibility for sports-loving, yet sports-empty American cities. Portland already has a group lobbying to bring a major league team to town. So does Raleigh. I’d argue Montreal deserves a team more than any other city on the continent, and Las Vegas, for being such a hotbed of major league talent, in addition to the league’s new gambling interests, merits a serious conversation. Nashville, Austin, San Antonio, Mexico City, New Orleans: all cities mentioned when expansion is on the table.

As long as expansion stays an idea, but not a reality, all of these cities can dream that one day they will have a team, too. But the reality, as much as one can use that word for years-away plans, seems to be that only two cities will receive expansion teams.

But what if that weren’t the case? What if there was a way for every expansion-oriented city to receive a team and alleviate baseball’s competitive balance issues all in one go?

Allow me to introduce the brand new Major League Baseball Championship League, the second-tier division of major league baseball.

Instead of expanding the major leagues to 32 teams, with reimagined divisions and perhaps a new playoff system too, let’s create a new, second-tier, 20-team league and get rid of divisions altogether. This new system of course raises many logistical questions, so let’s address them, from most to least resource intensive.

Creating the Championship League

Of the cities mentioned above, four presently have no affiliated baseball. They are Portland, Raleigh, Montreal, and Mexico City. (Mexico City does have a Mexican League team, but we’ll leave the Mexican League be.) The other four have Triple-A teams or at least a Triple-A team within a reasonable distance of the city. So to create our 20-team league, we will give the four baseball-less cities professional teams and blow up Triple-A as we know it.

For the remaining 16 teams, the existing Triple-A teams with the highest annual attendance will be repurposed as major league teams, with a few caveats. This realignment allows much of the new league to begin with a built-in fan base and infrastructure.

From highest to lowest, the nine Triple-A teams with the best attendance are the Charlotte Knights, Indianapolis Indians, Round Rock Express, Nashville Sounds, Columbus Clippers, Lehigh Valley IronPigs, Buffalo Bisons, Albuquerque Isotopes, and El Paso Chihuahuas. All nine will receive a Championship team; conveniently, two of our previously mentioned expansion cities — Nashville and Austin via Round Rock — are included.

Now, the caveats: Neither the Las Vegas 51s (now the Las Vegas Aviators) nor the New Orleans Baby Cakes finished in the top 25 of Triple-A attendance, much less the top 16. (They were 26th and 29th respectively.) New Orleans, in fact, is losing its team after the 2019 season, as the Baby Cakes are moving to Wichita, Kansas. The Triple-A team formerly known as the Colorado Sky Sox has become the San Antonio Missions for 2019. The Sky Sox were 29th in average attendance in 2018. Despite attendance woes, all three cities have been mentioned as possible expansion sites and they’re respective media market desirabilities warrant their inclusion.

The Triple-A teams that lose out on a new Championship League team would be the Sacramento River Cats (10th in attendance), Durham Bulls (11th), and Toledo Mud Hens (12th) by virtue of their proximity to existing major league teams. To round out the 16, the Iowa Cubs, Salt Lake City Bees, Oklahoma City Dodgers, and Louisville Bats would join the Championship, leaving a league looking like this:

At a glance the addition of a second league would create both new geographical rivalries, such as Nashville vs. Louisville and Charlotte vs. Raleigh, and potential future geographic rivalries, such as Portland vs. Seattle or Buffalo vs. Toronto.

Of course, essentially making Triple-A a professional league of its own necessitates a massive rethinking in how teams minor league systems are organized.

Realigning the Minor Leagues

First, the minor league system as we know it will be condensed. All current major league teams will retain their Double-A teams as the highest level before the pros. The major league clubs can also choose to retain one of their class A levels, either advanced or low-A. The Reds, for example, would likely retain the low-A Dayton Dragons given the long-term relationship the two clubs have, as opposed to the more recent Chattanooga Lookouts.

With 15 minor league teams gone to the Championship, the other 15 Triple-A teams will become the highest minor league level teams for the new Championship clubs. For example, the Rochester Red Wings would affiliate with the Buffalo Bisons, the Toledo Mud Hens with the Columbus Clippers, and the Memphis Redbirds with the Nashville Sounds.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Of course, just as they are now, minor league affiliations can be changed. If the Redbirds would rather stay with the Cardinals, the Sounds could pick up the Cardinals Double-A affiliate or any other unaffiliated minor league team.

The non-retained Single-A clubs would likewise have to align with the new Championship teams, leaving every team in both the original major league, hereafter referred to as the Premiership, and the Championship with two minor league teams. Any additional minor league clubs would work like short season class-A and Rookie leagues work now — retained at the team’s discretion.

At present, teams on average carry seven minor league affiliates, allowing them to have a maximum of 290 players under contract. Under this expansion scenario, teams would lose two affiliates, accounting for about 70 players. While current major league teams certainly wouldn’t want to lose those affiliates, nothing would stop them from creating new minor league teams to replace them. The Yankees currently have nine affiliate teams, allowing them to carry a maximum of 360. The Bombers took full advantage of those extra spots, carrying around 340 players at the midpoint of last season.

As such, the loss of every Premiership teams’ higher levels can be spun as a competitive balance. The Yankees lose some small edge by logistically not being able to just employ more players than everyone else at the lower levels, instead forcing the team to funnel its players upward quicker. Would that balance last? No, but it would give all other teams in both tiers a chance to catch up.

By creating the Championship league from Triple-A, the Premiership teams’ player development system isn’t destroyed, just stunted. The setbacks would create a small gap for Championship teams to ramp up their own player development systems and compete with the bigger, more storied teams.

Drafting the Expansion Teams

Stocking 20 new teams from a crop of existing players is a tall order, no matter how you spin it. Luckily, the 1997 expansion draft works as a template.

The draft will begin with a randomized order, and will be conducted across three rounds in snake fashion. In the first two rounds, each expansion team will be able to select one player from any level of each of the existing major league teams, totaling 30 players added to each expansion team across the first two rounds. A Championship team can not select a player from the same Premiership team in both rounds. For instance, if the Nashville Sounds selected a Red Sox player in round one, they would not be able to select a Red Sox player in round two. As a result, the Premiership teams would each lose 20 players. This format largely mirrors the 1997 version.

Of course, the teams in the Premiership would have the opportunity to protect some of their present players, just like in 1997. Because the scope of this draft would far exceed the 1997 draft, each Premiership team could choose to protect 40 players across all levels. Unlike the 1997 draft, those teams are not allowed to add additional protected players after each round.

For the third round, each Championship team would select five additional players, with no Premiership team allowed to lose more than five players. For instance, if the Padres had eight enticing players remaining by the third round, but five of those eight were drafted before the end of the round, the remaining Padres players would be exempt from the draft. In total, Premiership teams would lose between 20 and 25 players while Championship teams would gain 35.

Of note, in this hypothetical expansion draft, free agents would remain free agents, welcome to sign with whatever team in whichever tier they please. Players under contract with a Premiership team who had earned 10/5 rights automatically would be among the 40 protected players.

Following the expansion, MLB could choose to address its new amateur player problem in one of two ways. First, all amateur players are welcome to negotiate with any team. The draft would be done away with in its entirety, allowing players to sign for the most money, to stay close to home, or whatever other reason they may have. In other words, open free agency for all. The European soccer world uses this model, allowing teams to find and development their own talent without a formalized entry process.

While open free agency would put more money in the player’s pockets, it also would likely create a scenario similar to the Big 6 of the English Premier League. Imagine the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox and Cubs signing every top amateur player because they have the money to outspend any other team. A permanent Premiership class based simply on financial might would exist as a result.

Alternatively, the amateur player draft could remain in place, but instead of the worst Premiership team having the first pick, the worst Championship team would. The Championship would pick in reverse order of finish before any Premiership team, meaning the best draft position a Premiership team could hold would be 21st. (This idea will be revisited later with a small twist.)

While this second option takes away a good deal of mobility and agency from amateurs, it does discourage tanking as a mechanism for Premiership team development. By giving Championship teams first pick on highly touted amateurs, those teams in the second tier would have a small player development advantage to assist in the quest for promotion. Imagine if Alex Bregman had come up with the Louisville Bats instead of the Astros or Bryce Harper with the Columbus Clippers instead of the Nationals.

The logistics of this expansion dictate that the quality of play in the Championship will be lower than that of the Premiership at first, but really that’s the point. Championship English football is of a lesser quality than Premier League English football after all. But unlike the European tiered-league model, the teams in the Championship will have a small advantage in player development, assuming the draft model is adopted.

Reconceptualizing the Playoff System

I’ve written for these pages before about ways to change the current postseason to better incentivize winning in the regular season and introduce more uncertainty into the postseason games themselves. Surprisingly, this suggestion is much simpler.

The main change the current major leagues would undergo is a return to pennant-based playoffs. The top five teams in both the National and American Leagues makes the playoffs, with the fourth and fifth teams playing the Wild Card game. It’s simple, it’s familiar, and it forces the team in Cleveland try a bit more than have been of late.

On the other end of the spectrum though, we introduce relegation and promotion. Yes, the Yankees could indeed face a sending down.

In this scenario, the Premiership team with the worst winning percentage is automatically relegated to the Championship for the following season. For 2018, that would be the Orioles. In tandem, the Championship with the highest winning percentage automatically makes the jump to the Premiership for the following season.

But wait, there’s more. The next four lowest winning percentages — the Royals, White Sox, Marlins and Tigers in 2018 — compete in a short tournament to determine the second team relegated. The highest winning percentage of the four (Tigers) plays the lowest (Royals) in a single game, while the other two teams do the same. Win and stay in the Premiership. The two losing teams, let’s say the Royals and Marlins, then play a best-of-five series at the same time as the Division Series to determine who is relegated.

In the Championship, the inverse occurs, with the second through fifth finishers playing a postseason to determine the second team promoted. Those series could be longer — best of five then best of seven — because the Championship season would be shorter on the basis of having 10 fewer teams than the Premiership.

The promotion/relegation system incentivizes teams to field the best team possible so as to avoid the threat of relegation and the lesser profits that inevitably come with it. It’s a different country with a different economic scale, but relegation from the Premier was estimated to cost teams $50 million in 2018. In MLB, teams that are relegated would lose revenue sharing from the Premiership and presumably the team’s ticket sales would drop as well.

And, more joyously, baseball fans would get two World Series! Two different formats, each with their own momentous stakes played without competition from the other. The Championship postseason would occur during the September doldrums of the Premiership, and the Premiership postseason would start once the Championship had finished. More baseball for all.

Tying Up Odds and Ends

Fifty baseball teams, two tiers, one baseball utopia. With one fell swoop, expansion has disincentivized tanking, created a more competitive free agency market, and freed Iowa from its blackout hell. Also, expansion has allowed for more playoff baseball and more of the geographic rivalries on which the game thrives. It seems like a perfect system if I do say so myself.

But what hasn’t been accounted for? Well for one, teams in the Premiership and Championship would have to play balanced schedules for this to work. Also, the contracted minor league system will certainly have a diminishing effect on the quality of play, as more players simply unable to hit a Max Scherzer pitch or strike out Mike Trout become regulars. And as for the previously mentioned twist in the draft system, the two relegated teams would pick before the two promoted teams, giving them a slight consolation for falling out of the Premiership.

More than anything though, this change would mess with baseball’s history. How do you vote for the Hall of Fame when considering a second league? Do only Premiership stats count? Wouldn’t that disincentivize players from potentially taking more money from a Championship team? If Bryce Harper decided to join the Las Vegas Aviators instead of the Phillies, and helped earn his hometown team to promotion and an eventual World Series title, does that look better on a resume than just winning with the Phils? What if, during this heroic Las Vegas triumph, Harper spent most of his prime hitting 50 home runs a year off of Championship pitching? Our understanding of historical achievement would have to be recalibrated.

As with every other proposal that thrusts relegation upon major league baseball, this one will never come to pass. The owners stand to lose too much if relegated and will never agree to any system that allows for it. But it’s fun to dream.

I, at least, will always prefer to imagine a world where baseball teams are owned by people more intent on winning and fielding fun rosters than bottom lines. A world where teams can sink to even lower lows than the Orioles of today, and still climb back out to win the Series.

Football was invented in England, and as such, its fandom is passed down from parents to children like ratty clothes or heavy brows. Football is the English’s parochial game just as baseball is ours. But where their sport still feels communal, ours has slipped from the typical American’s interest. Maybe taking a cue, albeit a big, drastic one, from the English will help make baseball feel like it’s for everyone again.


Wes Jenkins is a staff writer at Redleg Nation and freelances when he can. You can follow him on Twitter @_wesjenks or check out more of his writing on his website, wesjenks.com.
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Nats Fan
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Nats Fan

A MLB franchise in Mexico City would be Yankees level profitable!

Nats Fan
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Nats Fan

But adding this many teams would dilute the talent level far to much. Pitching is already to thin across baseball as we speak.

SnowLeopard
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SnowLeopard

There would be a great fan/revenue base in Mexico City, but there are also issues – long flights from any other MLB city, air is smoggy and not ideal for sports, altitude makes physics of baseball weird like Denver does, and safety of players and fans.

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

Don’t forget about the toxic Mexican water supply. Bottled water isn’t always available for everything.

NCPhilly
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NCPhilly

Very thorough, interesting proposal, and exciting to dream about.
My biggest concerns would still have to do with money. Current MLB (future Premier) league teams have more money to spend and theoretically should be able to attract premier talent with that money and the fact that they are the highest echelon level. The Championship teams are for the most part in smaller markets, and in most cases would need to expand their stadiums to accommodate being a Premier league team and trying to get the revenue thereby to help compete with Premier league markets.

okccowan
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okccowan

I love love love this idea!!!!!

Barney Coolio
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Barney Coolio

I think that any new Montreal team should have a name other than “Expos.” Firstly, the Expos have come and gone. and secondly, do we still need to commemorate the 1967 World Expo?

I understand that A) Any Montreal team wants a name which makes sense in English and French, and B) Their traditional name, The Royals, has been taken by Kansas City, but let’s retire the Expos name.

NCPhilly
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NCPhilly

Montreal is home of the Cirque de Soleil. Embarking on some free association, I propose Montreal Clowns.

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

Agreed. Washington finally abandoned the Senators name, after all.

Joe Don
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Joe Don

Serious question, I have no stake in the matter, but – why do people think Montreal “deserves” a MLB franchise when they lost their original franchise through inept ownership and lack of fan support? Why would a new franchise fare any better?

Paul G.
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Paul G.

I would see two major issues with this. First, to be in the Premiere League would require having a stadium of Premiere League quality and a major league stadium is not cheap. I’m not sure how you would convince, say, Indianapolis to fund such a thing without any guarantees of getting promoted. And it’s not like you can just build a new stadium upon promotion, at least not in a timely manner. Second, there is the risk of the league becoming geographically lopsided. Through a series of unfortunate events, you could end up with one or two teams on the… Read more »

MRDXol
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MRDXol

the New Orleans team badly needs a better name than the “Baby Cakes”, which i can assure you is unanimously panned by NOLA locals

Eminor3rd
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Eminor3rd

They’re losing the team anyway. Moving to Wichita.

SnowLeopard
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SnowLeopard

I can see that this article is about a dramatic, complex proposal to alter huge aspects of the professional baseball in America. But it gives me a reason to post something I gave some thought to and did some writing about a few years ago, which is simple basic MLB expansion. Of all of the municipal areas that I had heard under consideration for expansion, here is how I ranked them in terms of viability (leaving aside issues of existing teams’ claims to geographical areas, politics, or actual likeliness – the is just based on overall logicalness based on factors… Read more »

NCPhilly
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NCPhilly

As a Raleigh resident I am happy to see them highest (with Charlotte) on your list of likelihoods. Despite viability, I would love to see more teams in the sparsely populated (double meaning there) southeastern U.S. or in the middle of the country, which is why a place like Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, Oklahoma City, or one of the cities in your 15 spot would be nice to add for geographical diversity and distribution. Montreal for the same reasoning.

Johnnie T
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Johnnie T

Your list points out the biggest problem with expansion right now: the larger U.S. cities on that list have metro area populations between the sizes of Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Does baseball really need more teams in markets this small, especially ones that, unlike Baltimore and Pittsburgh, do not have strong MLB traditions? They need another decade of growth to be viable. Meanwhile, on the other end, baseball needs to worry about some of the smaller markets becoming non-viable. Milwaukee, KC, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh are not that large now and are not exactly booming… how much longer can those cities… Read more »

SnowLeopard
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SnowLeopard

Good insightful thoughts, Johnnie.

frangipard
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frangipard

The metro area isn’t what matters most — Baseball economics are driven by local TV deals.

A team in Charlotte, say, would get as a market all of NC, some of SC, Richmond and Norfolk, VA, Knoxville, TN … add all that up and it’s considerably larger than a hemmed-in market like Baltimore or Pittsburgh. The same goes for places like Vancouver and SLC, where you’d a huge territory.

On the other hand, it works against places like NYC (TV market already split among 2 teams), and Vegas (good sized city, but surrounded by nothing)

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

Attendance still matters just as much if not more than TV money. How often are people in the rural outlands going to be able to attend a game even if price was no issue? MLB requires larger markets than any of the other major team sports in North America (especially the NFL), because they have to draw for 81 home games each season.

Johnnie T
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Johnnie T

You have a point that the Carolinas would offer a large hinterland for cable deals and that would somewhat mitigate the fact that the metro market itself is just not quite large enough. I can’t agree with some of your other points; metro NYC along with much of upstate NY and parts of Connecticut and PA have a TV market of 20m long-time enthusiastic fans, which might not have a lot of land but sure has enough numbers, even for 2 teams. And Salt Lake has lots of land around it, but Utah’s total population (2.3 m) is still less… Read more »

timprov
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timprov

I have full confidence that in this scenario MLB would institute separate blackout regions for each league and make that problem even worse.

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

Sorry, but a tiered Major League system just sounds stupid.

Besides, most of these supposed expansion locations simply don’t have the market size and/or fan base available to support a Major League team for 81 home games, second tier or not. The two Florida teams already have enough trouble with attendance. Do you really think places like El Paso will draw any better? Even top potential targets like Portland and Las Vegas may be unable to properly support an MLB team, especially since Vegas recently got a hockey team it now has to support.