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Monday, February 1, 2010
An outside-the-box plan for realignment

By David Schoenfield
ESPN.com

In this article, I explained why baseball's competitive balance is better than you realize, actually on par with the NFL's.

This does not mean baseball is "fair" and it certainly seems most fans desire the sport to be more fair. And what makes baseball unfair, mostly, is the New York Yankees. As you probably know, the Yankees spend a lot of money and win a lot of games. They don't win it all every season, but they won it all last season, so now everybody is again hyper-concerned about fairness in baseball.

Adam Jones
The Orioles would seem to have a better shot to make the playoffs if they played in the AL Central.

(For those who argue that the Red Sox are the new Yankees, well, consider this: the Pirates were closer in payroll to the Red Sox in 2009 than the Red Sox were to the Yankees.)

Of course, leveling the playing field is a difficult task. How do you do it? The NFL revenue-sharing model won't work for baseball, because the NFL shares its national television money; so does baseball, but the amount is nowhere near the same. If you created a salary cap of $88 million -- the average MLB team payroll in 2009 -- several franchises would likely go bankrupt or possibly relocate. You could force the "rich" teams to provide even more revenue sharing, but good luck with that. You could institute a rule like the NFL will have this offseason (when it will likely play under an uncapped system): the final eight playoff teams are not allowed to add any new players through free agency except to replace those they lose.

Now, I'm not exactly sure how that will work, but a similar system in baseball wouldn't have prevented the Yankees from signing Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett -- remember, the Yankees had missed the playoffs in 2008. Plus, do you penalize teams like the Rays or Cardinals, who may make the playoffs even though they aren't "big-market" teams?

So, yes, it's a complicated situation without an easy (or realistic) solution. That's why I'm here. I have one.

Change the divisions. Each season.

Why does baseball have to keep the same division format every year? Why should Tampa Bay and Baltimore always have to beat out the Yankees and Red Sox while the AL Central teams duel each other to 87 wins? Why should the Angels only have to beat out three teams instead of four in the AL West?

So the plan is to realign the divisions after every season. For the American League, there would be three basic rules:

1. The Yankees and Red Sox always remain in the AL East. It makes sense and it's good for the game.

2. Tampa, Toronto, Baltimore, Detroit and Cleveland can play only in the AL East or AL Central. All five cities are in the Eastern time zone and having them play in the West creates logistical and television issues.

3. The Angels, Seattle and Oakland always remain in the AL West. This makes sense for logistical reasons, as well.

Now, how do we disperse the remaining teams? Simple. MLB holds a big telecast two days after the World Series ends. We put all the team names in a big ball like during the NBA lottery selection show. Teams send their general manager and a star player and Hall of Famers like George Brett and Reggie Jackson draw out the team names. You wouldn't watch this? You wouldn't love to see Dave Dombrowski throw up in his mouth when the Tigers draw the AL East? You wouldn't get excited to see Andrew Friedman high-fiving Evan Longoria when the Rays draw the AL Central? You know you would watch this.

So, here's how it theoretically would work. Each division would rotate as the four-team division once every three years. The Red Sox, Yankees and West Coast teams are locked into place. The other teams are drawn until the divisions are properly filled out.

Here are the results of my own mock draft for the next three seasons:

Aren't things suddenly a lot more fair? Sure, the Yankees still have their big payroll advantage, but at least a team like the Orioles wouldn't be completely screwed by having to compete with New York every season. Tampa Bay, with its plethora of young talent and low payroll, would suddenly be the favorite to win the AL Central in 2010 and 2011. The AL West would have more competition with the White Sox or Twins joining the division.

The National League hasn't had the same disparity, primarily because the biggest spenders (the Mets, Cubs and Dodgers) haven't been as successful. But you could certainly do something similar; for example, the Cardinals move to the NL East for a season with the Marlins moving to the NL Central (where they become the favorite to win the division).

No, this wouldn't solve all of baseball's problems. But it is a realistic solution to increasing fairness. It provides more hope for more teams. And it's fun. It's time for the sport to think outside the box.

David Schoenfield is a senior editor for ESPN.com.