There is one major difference that separates baseball from the three other major professional team sports, and that is the salary structure of the players. The NFL, NBA and NHL all have salary caps and floors which place limits around how much teams pay their players. MLB teams, however, have no such restrictions and are free to spend as much or as little on player salaries as they feel appropriate. Instead of a salary cap, Major League Baseball has a luxury tax which affects the decisions of teams in regards to salary but does not include firm upper or lower limits.
Here is a ranking of the thirty MLB teams in terms of average salary over the last three years. I pulled these numbers from the sports section of USA Today (2010, 2009, and 2008). My primary thought is to divide the teams into two tiers based on average total salaries. Of course, there could be some exceptions to factor in team performance and avoid breaking up longstanding rivalries. Please note that because teams are not required to funnel a fixed percentage of revenue into player salaries, my proposals focus on total player salary and ignores actual revenues for the teams.
In regards to the number of teams in each tier and the number of divisions in each tier, the most obvious solution is to have fifteen teams in each tier with each tier being split into three five-team divisions. I will leave the fleshing out of that proposal as an exercise for the reader. Instead, I will focus on two even more radical configurations, each including five six-team divisions. I will refer to these two proposals as the bottom-heavy configuration which has two upper-tier and three lower-tier divisions and the top-heavy configuration which has three upper-tier and two lower-tier divisions. In both cases, eight teams would make the playoffs.
Bottom Heavy Configuration
My first proposal is a configuration that has more teams in the lower tier. The top tier would contain the twelve teams with the highest average salaries. Those teams would be assigned to eastern and western divisions. The remaining 18 teams would be in the lower tier and be split into three divisions, West, Central and East. Here are how the divisions would look based on the salaries listed in the chart above.
Four teams from each tier would make the playoffs. For the upper tier, the regular season-winner of each division would play the second-place team from the opposite division with the first-place team having home-field advantage. The winners of the two first-round series would play in the upper tier championship series. If the two teams are both first-place or second-place teams, the team with the best regular-season record would have home-field advantage. The lower tier would follow the current playoff format with the team finishing second in its division and having the best regular-season record making the playoffs as the wild card along with the three division winners. Here is an example of a playoff format.
Top Heavy Configuration
In the top-heavy configuration, the 18 teams with the average highest salaries would be in the upper tier and be divided into three six-team divisions, East, Central and West. The 12 teams with the lowest salaries would be in the two lower-tier divisions, East and West.
Six teams from the upper tier and two teams from the lower tier would make the playoffs. In the first round, the winners of the two lower-tier divisions would meet in the lower-tier championship series. The team with the best regular-season record would have home-field advantage. The top two teams from each of the upper-tier divisions would make the playoffs. The division winners would be the top seeds and have home-field advantage. After the first round, teams would be reseeded to give preference to division winners and teams with better records. Here is an example of a playoff format.
It is interesting to note that in this format, there would normally not be a separate upper-tier championship series. When two upper-tier teams meet in the World Series, that series would also double as the upper-tier championship. When a lower-tier team makes the World Series, their opponent would be the remaining upper-tier team which would be the upper-tier champion by default. The only time there would be a separate upper-series championship series is when a lower-tier team defeats their upper-tier opponent in the second-round before the other second-round series is completed. In that case, the other series would then become the upper-tier championship series.
It should be easy to anticipate criticism against these two proposals. I think the primary criticism will be that teams with higher player payrolls are clearly favored in regards to available playoffs spots. For the top-heavy configuration, six out of the 18 upper-tier teams make the playoffs which is one third (33.3%). Two of the 12 lower-tier teams go to the postseason which is only one sixth (16.7%). The bottom-heavy proposal is slightly better with four of the 12 upper-tier teams (33.3%) and four of the 18 lower-tier teams (22.2%) making the playoffs. However, the current alignment is already unbalanced with four of the 14 American League teams (28.6%) and four of the 16 National League teams (25.0%) making the postseason. Since the American League has fewer teams, those teams have a better chance of making the playoffs. The inequality is magnified when comparing the National League Central Division with six teams to the American League West Division with only four.
I feel the uneven nature of my proposals would serve as motivation to teams. In a future post, I will discuss the process by which teams could transition between tiers. This will be similar to the process of promotion and relegation used by soccer leagues. Teams in the lower tier would be motivated to move into upper tier while teams in the upper tier would be motivated to maintain their advantage by remaining in their current spot.
Another criticism will be that traditional rivalries, such as Yankees-Red Sox, Cubs-Cardinals, and Dodgers-Giants, could be affected by these proposals. In a future post, I will discuss tweaking my proposal to protect existing rivalries and possibly promote new geography-based rivalries such as Orioles-Nationals, Rays-Marlins, and Astros-Rangers.
I will also try to outline how the regular-season schedule would be laid out in a future post. By the way, I personally prefer the bottom-heavy configuration primarily due to its simpler playoff format. I will be focusing on that proposal going forward.