The prospect of expanding Major League Baseball from 30 to 32 teams has become increasingly likely in recent years, with even MLB Commisioner Rob Manfred suggesting potential expansion cities. Baseball writers such as Jayson Stark for the Athletic (the article is behind a paywall, but is outlined on SBNation) and Tracy Ringolsby for Baseball America have written about what a 32-team baseball league might look like. Since I like thinking about these things, I figured I’d take a stab at where MLB may expand, and how that could change MLB for the better through realignment.
A History of Growth and Change in Major League Baseball
Baseball historians recognize the National League – founded in 1876 with 8 teams – as the first true Major League. For its first quarter century, the National League fluctuated between 6 and 12 teams, with many teams relocating, folding, or being expelled over time. The NL faced competition from three competing Major Leagues during that time, but was able to survive while other leagues collapsed until the birth of the American League in 1901. The NL and AL champions met in the first World Series in 1903, but perhaps even more remarkable is that year was the first in an incredible string of consistency where the two leagues operated with 8 teams each with no relocations, withdrawals, or expansion.
For 50 years the same 16 teams played in the same 10 cities in the Northeast and Midwest. By the 1950s, growing cities – especially in the West – were frustrated by their inability to crack the MLB hegemony, while the teams in the older cities found themselves struggling with attendance. The Boston Braves finally broke the seal, moving to Milwaukee to start the 1953 season. The St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore to become the Orioles in 1954, and the Philadelphia Athletics ventured west to Kansas City in 1955. The biggest shocker came in 1958 when the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers – two of the National Leagues most popular and successful teams in America’s most populous city – packed up for San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively.
The desire for New York to have another team alongside the Yankees, and for cities like Minneapolis, Denver, and Toronto to get their first major league teams, lead to the announcement of the Continental League in 1959. This third league never played a game, but convinced the National and American Leagues to create 8 expansion teams over the next decade. The American League expanded first in 1961, putting a team in the Los Angeles market, and new Senators team in Washington, to replace the old Senators who were simultaneously moving to Minnesota to become the Twins. The National League followed suit in 1962 with expansion teams in Houston and New York.
The peripatetic Braves left Milwaukee for Atlanta in 1966, and the Athletics completed their trip across the continent by moving from Kansas City to Oakland in 1968. Each league expanded by two teams again in 1969. The National Leagued added teams in San Diego, and the first Canadian franchise in Montreal. Meanwhile, the American League returned baseball to Kansas City and a new team in Seattle. In 1969, the two leagues were also split into two divisions each with a playoff series added before the World Series.
The Seattle Pilots lasted only one year before packing up to fill the baseball gap in Milwaukee and becoming the Brewers. Washington once again lost their Senators who resurfaced in Texas as the Rangers in 1972. The American League expanded once again in 1977 to 14 teams, giving Seattle a second chance and breaking into the Canadian market in Toronto. The National League chose not to expand, and the leagues remained unbalanced for the next 16 seasons.
In 1993, the National League finally grew to 14 teams by expanding to Miami and Denver. The following season the leagues were split into three divisions adding a Wild Card and another round of playoffs, albeit a player’s strike canceled the 1994 postseason, so the expanded playoffs would debut until 1995. In 1997, Major League Baseball scheduled interleague games between American and National league teams for the first time. The following season, MLB decided to add two more teams, one to each league, with the NL getting a team in Phoenix and the AL entering Tampa Bay. This would mean that each league would have an odd number of teams – 15 each – but since MLB wasn’t ready to schedule interleague games every day of the season, Commissioner Bud Selig moved his team, the Milwaukee Brewers, from the AL to the NL.
The Montreal Expos struggled financially and with attendance after the 1994 strike, and MLB even took over the franchise. In 2005, for the first time in 33 years a MLB team relocated, coincidentally returning to the last city that lost a franchise, and the Expos became the Washington Nationals. In 2012, MLB allowed a second Wild Card team to qualify for the postseason, adding another round to the playoffs. And in 2013, MLB decided that they were ready to schedule interleague games every day and balance the two leagues at 15 teams apiece. But instead of returning Milwaukee to the American League, they moved the Houston Astros from the NL to the AL.
And that is where we stand today…
25 North American Cities That Could Host an Expansion Team
Here are 25 potential candidates for MLB expansion. For each city listed, I took into account the city and surround region’s population, the history of baseball in that city, and other big sports teams currently based in those cities.
- Buffalo -The home to the NFL Bills and NHL Sabres for decades, Buffalo is still without a MLB team. The city was home to three different major league baseball teams – all named the Bisons – in the early days of pro baseball, most recently in the Federal League in 1915-15. Even in the minor leagues, the Bisons have been enormously popular. In the late 80s the team outdrew some major league teams, and their ballpark built at that time remains the largest in the minors. The ballpark was built to be enlarged if Buffalo got an expansion team, but the 1993 expansion passed over Buffalo and the city received even less consideration in 1998. With other markets growing more swiftly, Buffalo’s best chance for an expansion team seems to have passed but it remains a dark horse candidate.
- Charlotte – A growing market that is already the nation’s 17th largest city, Charlotte is home to the NFL’s Panthers, NBA’s Hornets, and NHL’s Hurricanes. The Charlotte Knights have been a successful Triple-A team since 1993 and recently moved into a new ballpark (albeit one too small to expand to MLB size). Charlotte is also located in a part of the country that’s quite a distance from existing MLB markets. Assuming that a location for a new ballpark could be found, Charlotte would be a front-runner for MLB expansion.
- Columbus – The 14th largest city in the United States (and the largest city in Ohio) is home to the NHL’s Blue Jackets and charter MLS club Crew SC, not to mention the Ohio State Buckeyes’ football team. The Columbus Clippers have been a successful Triple-A team since 1977. The biggest challenge for Columbus is that Ohio is already divided between two baseball fan bases that were established over a century ago.
- Havana – This one is a long shot due to political realities, but more plausible since the restoration of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba. Havana is home to more than 2 million baseball-loving sports fans and the 55,000-seat Estadio Latinoamericano has a larger capacity than any MLB ballpark except Dodger Stadium. The Havana Sugar Kings were a successful minor league team in the 1940s and 1950s prior to the Cuban Revolution. Perhaps sometime in the distant future, Havana will have a place among North American ballclubs once again.
- Indianapolis – The capital of Indiana has been home to the Indianapolis Indians, the second oldest minor league franchise, since 1902. Major League teams played there in the 19th century, and today the city is home to the NFL’s Colts, the Pacers and Fever basketball teams, and the world-famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway. An Indy MLB club would slot into natural rivalries with teams in neighboring Ohio and Illinois. Indianapolis is the 16th most populous city in the US, so really it would come down to the ability to finance a major league stadium.
- Las Vegas – Once considered a tourist destination, Las Vegas is one of the most rapidly growing American cities. The NHL’s Golden Knights were an immediate success in their first season, and the NFL’s Raiders are scheduled to move to Vegas in 2020. The big question is if there’s enough of a permanent population to come out and support a MLB team over 162 games. A new ballpark is under construction for the city’s AAA team meaning the money to build or expand a ballpark to MLB standards (which almost certainly would need to be in a climate-controlled building with a movable roof) will not be available in the near future. Legalized gambling is obviously no longer scaring away sports teams from Las Vegas, but MLB tends to be more conservative in regards to gambling.
- Louisville – Hillerich & Bradsby have been producing the famous Louisville Slugger but the city hasn’t had a major league team since the NL contracted after the 1899 season. Louisville is the 29th largest city in the US and the fourth largest city with no big league teams. Louisville could develop a swift rivalry with the Cincinnati Reds if they gained an expansion team.
- Mexico City – The largest city in North America looks like an obvious market for MLB to want to break into. The problem is, Mexico City doesn’t have a lot of history of supporting baseball where fútbol is king. The city would also be a long road trip away from existing MLB cities, and the value of the peso to the dollar could make it challenging to compete financially. MLB still might want see if can find a fan base in the city (and be Mexico’s team by proxy) but it’s not a slam dunk.
- Monterrey – This Northern Mexican city is less populous than the capital, but it has the advantage of being closer to MLB teams in the US, and in the heart of the Mexican region that most actively supports baseball. The Sultanes are one of the most successful teams in the Mexican League, and their home, the 22,000-seat Estadio de Baseball, has hosted regular season MLB games. The city tried to purchase the Expos in 2003, so it may be time for Monterrey to get a MLB franchise.
- Montreal – The city in Quebec was home to successful minor league franchises dating back to the 1800s, and in 1969 became home to MLB’s first team in Canada. Since the Expos left for Washington after the 2004 season, there have been calls to return baseball to Montreal. An expansion team would face the same problems as the Expos, though. Stade Olympique is a money pit that was never a good ballpark and hasn’t aged well, so financing a new stadium would be key. The exchange rates of the Canadian dollar also make it a challenge for a Montreal team to compete for the best players. Still, every other city that lost an MLB team after 1900 has been able to return to MLB, so Montreal has to be in the running as an expansion favorite.
- Nashville – The Music City is another rapidly growing city, and its right in a part of the country where there isn’t an existing big league baseball team nearby, so it could be a good place for MLB to break ground. The city is currently home to the Tennessee Titans of the NFL and the Predators of the NHL, with a MLS team coming soon. The Nashville Sounds have been the city’s minor league team since 1978, playing at the Triple A level since 1985. The team recently moved into a new stadium with a capacity of 10,000 which may be a roadblock to building a MLB stadium in the city in the near future.
- New Orleans – This historic and unique port city is home to two big league teams: NFL’s Saints and NBA’s Pelicans. It’s also the largest city along the Gulf Coast in a big gap between MLB teams in Tampa Bay and Houston. New Orleans has been home to a Triple-A team since 1993, but would fans come out on soupy summer nights to support a MLB team? The Superdome would be inappropriate to retrofit for baseball so the biggest obstacle would be funding and finding a place for a retractable roof ballpark.
- New York City – Wait, you may be thinking, New York already has two teams! This is true, but in the past it was home to three teams and could host more. Consider London, England, a city with a similar population to New York currently has six football clubs in the Premier League. NBA’s Nets have put Brooklyn back on the sporting map, so maybe it’s time to bring baseball back to Brooklyn? Another possibility in the New York metropolitan area is Northern New Jersey, a densely populated region that is already home to the two “New York” football teams and the NHL Devils.
- Norfolk – The Hampton Roads area of Virginia is the largest metropolitan statistical area in the United States that does not already have a big league team in any sport. Norfolk and Virginia Beach are close enough to Washington and Baltimore to build a rivalry, but far enough away to establish their own fanbase. On the downside, the population is spread out over a wide area and a large military presence may mean that people are too transient to establish a longtime fandom.
- Oklahoma City – America’s 27th largest city recently entered into big league sports when the Seattle Supersonics of the NBA relocated and began playing as the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2008. The city has been home to a Triple-A team since the 1960s and also hosts several annual collegiate tournaments. Like Charlotte and Nashville, Oklahoma City is distant from existing MLB cities presenting the opportunity to tap a fresh market of fans.
- Orlando – Like Las Vegas, Orlando was once only thought of as a tourist resort, but has rapidly grown into a major city. The city is home to the Magic of the NBA and has the Orlando City SC MLS team has quickly gained a devoted following. Orlando also hosts college bowl games and the NFL’s Pro Bowl. Florida’s other two baseball teams have struggled at attracting fans, and with transient populations and blistering hot summers, a third Florida team may be a tough sell. On the other hand, if the Rays can’t find a good place for a new stadium in Tampa Bay, Orlando might be an inviting alternative.
- Portland – The Rose City is growing in population and prestige and seems a natural destination for a new MLB club. The MLB’s current most isolated team, the Seattle Mariners, would be an automatic natural rival. The NBA’s Trailblazers have called Portland home since the 1970s and the MLS Timbers and NWSL Thorns soccer teams are among the top draws in their respective leagues. Soccer is so popular in fact that the long-time home of the city’s Triple A team was converted to soccer specifications. There hasn’t been a minor league team in Portland since 2010, although a Single A team plays in the suburbs. The question is, will Portland welcome a new baseball team at the major league level, and where would they play?
- Sacramento – The capital of California is overshadowed by the Golden State’s other large cities, but ranking as the 35th largest city in the U.S. it is more populous than almost half of the existing MLB cities. The Kings have played in the NBA since 1985 and the city has hosted a Triple A team since 2000. The biggest obstacle to Sacramento as an expansion city is that two teams already play in the Bay Area just two hours away. But if the Athletics continue to struggle in Oakland, Sacramento could become their new home.
- Salt Lake City – This is the smallest city to make this list, but the greater Salt Lake City metropolitan area has the advantage of no competing markets being anywhere remotely close to it. Thus Salt Lake City has been able to be be to the Jazz in the NBA and Real Salt Lake in MLS. Salt Lake City have had several teams in the Pacific Coast League over the past century, the most recent playing since 1994. The Bees play in the largest stadium in the PCL and have set attendance records for that league. Still, I’d consider Salt Lake City a longshot for MLB expansion.
- San Antonio – America’s 7th largest city is home to a successful NBA franchise, the Spurs. Surprisingly, despite the city’s size, San Antonio does not have a top level minor league team, with the Missions currently operating in Double-A baseball. That will change in 2019 when the Triple-A Colorado Springs franchise will relocate to San Antonio and adopt the Missions nickname. This means it may take some time for San Antonio to ready to make another jump to MLB level. Austin, Texas, while not as large as San Antonio, is the 11th largest city in the United States, and the largest city without a big league team in any sport, so it may get the jump on San Antonio.
- San Jose – Much like Sacramento, San Jose is a large city attempting to define it’s own sporting identity in a state that already has five major league baseball teams. The NHL Sharks and the MLS Earthquakes already call the tenth largest city in the U.S. home, and the NFL’s “San Francisco” 49ers play a few minutes away in Santa Clara. The Athletics tried to move to San Jose but were legally blocked by the San Francisco Giants. If they won’t give the A’s permission to move into San Jose, it’s unlikely that the city would get approval for an expansion team.
- San Juan – The capital of Puerto Rico is home to nearly 400,000 people and the center of an urban area of over 2 million. Puerto Rican players have excelled in Major League Baseball and the island’s World Baseball Classic team has also performed well. Major League Baseball has expressed a lot of interest in San Juan, hosting regular season games there, including several “home” games for the Montreal Expos in 2003 and 2004. The Expos ended up moving to Washington instead of San Juan. The economic realities of Puerto Rico – especially as it continues to recover from Hurricane Maria – will mean that a MLB franchise will not be a priority for San Juan for the foreseeable future.
- Santo Domingo – Baseball is the most popular sport in the Dominican Republic, and many Dominicans have become major league stars. The nation’s capital and largest city – which also the largest city in the Caribbean – is home to nearly a million people. But much like Puerto Rico, the economic realities of the Dominican Republic and competing financially with teams in the United states would seem to make expansion to Santo Domingo to be frivolous at this time.
- Vancouver – Canada’s third largest city, and only major city on the West Coast, is also the fifth most densely populated major city in North America. Vancouver is home to the Canadian Football League’s BC Lions, the NHL’s Canucks, and the Whitecaps FC in MLS. The city also hosted the Winter Olympics in 2010 and the Women’s World Cup final in 2015. While home to a Single Season A team in minor league baseball now, Vancouver was home to a Triple-A team from 1978 to 1999. Like Portland, Vancouver would be a natural rival to the Seattle Mariners.
Realignment and scheduling
Once two more cities are selected, then Major League Baseball would have to decide where to fit them in the existing league structure and how to adjust the season schedule for the new teams. Most likely each league would get one new team to bring them up to 16 teams each, and then those 16 teams would be aligned in four regional divisions of four teams each.
But I hope not. The tiny divisions of four teams will inevitably increase the number mediocre teams winning their and going to the postseason while more talented second place teams in other divisions will stay home. The necessity of an unbalanced schedule in divisional play will also increase the uncertainty of what teams are really the best and which ones just have easier schedules.
What I would propose instead is to bring an end to the American and National Leagues as we know them. They’d be replaced by four leagues of eight teams aligned by regional proximity. Interleague play would end and the eight teams would face one another 22 games each over a 154-game season.
There would be several advantages to this realignment:
- Long road trips over multiple time zones cause a lot of wear and tear for the players contributing to reduced performance and injury. Regional leagues would reduce traveling and make for happier and healthier ballplayers.
- Regional rivalries (such as Red Sox-Yankees, Cubs-Cardinals, and Giants-Dodgers) are among the biggest draws in MLB. The regionally aligned leagues would allow for more of games of these existing rivalries while also creating new rivalries among teams that share a city, state, or region.
- The closer proximity of all the teams in the league means that fans who follow their teams to road games will have the opportunity to go to more games close by, increasing overall attendance.
- There would no longer be road trips to distant time zones, meaning East Coast fans would no longer have to stay up past midnight watching their team play West Coast teams, and West Coast fans won’t have their team’s road games starting before they leave work. More consistent start times would improve broadcast ratings.
- The balanced schedule would make it far more clear to judge which teams are the best in each league while maintaining some mystery of how they’ll match up in the postseason.
Abandoning the league structure seems like a radical break from tradition but I’d argue that the National and American League differences have been eroding for some time. The advent of interleague play in 1997 ended the separation of the two leagues for good, and now interleague games are played everyday of the season. The movement of the Brewers and Astros between leagues also chipped away at that history. In fact, the two leagues ceased to exist as separate entities in 1999. The only difference now is that the AL has a designated hitter and the NL doesn’t. It’s long past time to adopt a consistent rule that all pitchers must hit or all teams may use a DH (although there is another alternative).
My proposal offers a lot for traditionalists. Eight team leagues playing a 154-game schedule was the standard until 1960. No interleague games in the regular season is also tradition and my realignment would preserve the best of interleague play (Mets-Yankees, Cubs-White Sox, et al) while eliminating yawners like Twins-Padres or Mariners-Pirates. But mostly I think this alignment sets up the future of Major League Baseball for new traditions, new rivalries, and new pennant races that will make baseball history.
Here’s how I’d align the teams in the four new leagues, using Montreal and Charlotte as the expansion teams. Different expansion teams would require tweaking the leagues a bit, but it would be the same basic structure. In order to preserve the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry, I placed St. Louis in the Lakes League even though Cincinnati would fit better geographically, but I think the Cardinals and the Reds would not be adversely affected by this alignment.
(3 AL, 4 NL, 1 expansion)
(5 AL, 3 NL)
Chicago White Sox
(4 AL, 3 NL, 1 expansion)
(3 AL, 5 NL)
Los Angeles Angels
Los Angeles Dodgers
A purist would insist that only the four league champions qualify for the postseason or maybe the top eight teams, but the larger postseason tournament has been a trend for some time and I don’t think it’s going away. So, I propose that the top 3 teams of each league advance to the playoffs for a total of 12 teams. This would be 2 more teams than are in the playoffs now, while the number of teams that don’t get into the postseason remains the same at 20.
The first place teams are seeded 1-4 by regular season record, second place teams are seeded 5-8, and third place teams are seeded 9-12. By virtue of having the best record over a grueling 154 game season, the first place teams will be awarded their league’s pennant, reviving the tradition practiced from 1876 to 1968. The pennant winners will also be rewarded with a bye in the opening round of the playoffs.
So the playoffs would go as follows:
- Opening round, best of five series (5 v 12, 6 v 11, 7 v 10, and 8 v 9)
- Quarterfinals, best of five series (survivors of opening round reseeded so it’s 1 v 8, 2 v 7, 3 v 6, and 4 v 5)
- Semifinals, best of seven series
- World Series, best of seven series
So that’s my plan for expanding Major League Baseball to 32 teams and rethinking the paradigm of how top-level baseball is contested. But I have another plan in which baseball would expand to 48 teams, with the possibility to grow even further. But for that, you will have to wait until next week.