March 2015

With Manfred Thinking Perhaps of International Expansion, What a 36 Team MLB Might Look Like

ON this blog some months ago, I wrote about how MLB in theory could expand today to 36 teams and the impact would be no more than what happened during the 4-team expansion of 1993 and 1998. I believe that the impact could be less significant because of the much greater pool of available baseball talent. IN addition, a growth from 30 to 36 franchises would be equal in scope to the growth from 20 to 24 in 1969 in terms of the 20% growth of the industry and still less than the 25% growth during the expansion from 16 to 20 franchises in 1961-62. Today’s baseball more than ever has an international flavor, with several player s from South Korea and Australia now on big league rosters. IN 1995 when the last expansion teams were announced to begin play in 1998, no one could have envisioned the leap forward in the ability for MLB teams to obtain talent from Japan and we are now entering a similar era of growth with talent imported from Cuba. Only three Australian’s were in the league in 1995, Graeme Lloyd and Dave Nilsson with the Brewers and Craig Shipley with the Astros. Chan-Ho Park had yet to make his name as the most significant player from South Korea to play in North America’s top league and that was the same year a Japanese pitcher named Hideo Nomo took baseball by storm. Couple that with MLB’s efforts to grow the game and increase the talent pool of black American players, development efforts in Canada, a future pool of talent potentially in parts of Europe and you have a sport that is in prime position for expansion.

Bottom line, the time is right for MLB to expand. Forces in other sports leagues may ultimately drive this, with the NHL strongly hinting at a round of expansion to as many as 34 teams and with rumors of future expansion that could be coming to both the NBA and NFL, baseball would certainly want to make sure it was capitalizing some new markets before other sports leagues take a dominant foot hold in territory that still has room for expansion of its major league sports landscape.

Given the recent comments by the commissioner concerning future expansion involving Canada and or Mexico, let’s examine the most liberal expansion plan. This plan would put two more teams in Canada in Montreal and Vancouver, it would place a team in Monterey, Mexico and it would leave three slots of expansion sites to be decided between a variety of markets. One of the battles would be between Mexico city and San Antonio. Most would argue that Texas should have a third team and since Monterey is the Mexican city most prepared to support a big league team given its business climate, Mexico would get only one and not two teams. Canada clearly has had a prior history in Montreal and signs grow stronger each day that at some point, baseball at the big league level will return to French Canada. The question, does western Canada receive a team in Vancouver? One could certainly argue that a team in Vancouver would be a logical fit and if the team was in the same league with the Mariners, Seattle would have a shorter road trip finally on its schedule. Of course the mariners have a fan base in Vancouver and the Blue jays might not want to give up the Canadian television market share they have in western Canada either. Montreal having a prior history in terms of Canadian television is an easier sell. So one clearly could see the road to 32 teams going to Montreal and Monterey, but clearly MLB has other US territory it might want to consider, which makes the odds longer for Vancouver and longer still for Mexico City, both by the way were long shots for the 29th and 30th franchises when baseball announced it would expand in march of 1994, following the success the Marlins showed in their first year and the record setting response achieved by the Colorado Rockies.

Baseball of course has potential relocation worries still hanging over the Tampa Rays if a stadium situation is not resolved for that franchise and long term questions remain with the Oakland Athletics. Baseball surely would want to keep the A’s in California if at all possible, so if the club ever does leave Oakland, a bidding war would exist between San Jose and Sacramento. While the former is considered part of the Bay Area, the ladder is in current Athletics territory and is only 80 miles away, a portion of the Athletics fan base has Sacramento roots and Sacramento opens a new market in terms of local TV and radio. San Jose is largely blocked from getting the Athletics because of the Giants, but if the Athletics did go to Sacramento, nothing would stop San Jose from attempting to get an expansion team or relocating say, the Rays? The Rays have been speculated as a potential relocation to Montreal for months now and if the Tampa stadium efforts falter again, a lot of French may be heard on the sunshine coast. If Montreal did land the Rays, MLB could of course go back to Tampa if it built a stadium, but now we are looking at a lot of what if scenarios. Let’s just assume for this purpose that no team gets relocated and let’s give Montreal and Monterey automatic qualifying status if the focus of expansion is international. Vancouver would clearly be battling with Monterey for that second franchise, unless MLB truly wants to focus outside the US, in which case one easily can argue for all three cities having teams. Mexico city is clearly in 4th place here and it would have stiff competition from the borders to the north as well.

My view is that in addition to locks for Montreal and Monterey, Vancouver clearly gets a franchise and Charlotte is a city that should be granted a franchise given that a large region of the southeastern US does not have a local team and Charlotte fits nicely between Cincinnati, Atlanta and the Washington-Baltimore region. Las Vegas can make a similar argument and here, we are talking about a city that is likely in the near future going to be home to the NHL and perhaps soon after the NBA. Baseball has a long history of deep discomfort with gambling and so one cannot help but wonder how that hurts Vegas. Portland like Vancouver would be a great site for future teams as well, but I can’t see MLB going to both cities at the same time, Unless MLB is more comfortable with Portland over Vegas. I think baseball will let other leagues gamble on the Nevada desert and Portland joins Vancouver, Charlotte, Montreal and Monterey, leaving the question about the 36th franchise between two cities, San Antonio and Indianapolis.

Both cities have had history of very successful NBA franchises and Indy has in recent years proven to be a great football market. But I view San Antonio as the leader here because of its greater size, the fact that it is part of a vastly growing region with Austin just 80 miles north and more and more people and thus potential fans are moving south every year.

Assuming thus no relocations, here is my latest idea of a super 36 team MLB based on the recent comments by Commissioner Manfred, as I assume MLB would not expand just north and south of the border.

The AL East would add Montreal while the AL Central would add Charlotte and the west would add San Antonio and Portland, Houston would move back to the senior circuit.

Pittsburgh would move from the NL Central to the East, the vacated slot in the Central would go to Houston and Monterey would be added as the sixth franchise, while in the NL West, Vancouver gets the sixth position. Below are listed what the new alignments would look like.

AL East: Tampa, Boston, Baltimore, Yankees, Toronto, Montreal.

AL Central: White Sox, Minnesota, Detroit, Cleveland, Kansas City, Charlotte.

AL West: Texas, San Antonio, Angels, Oakland, Portland, Seattle.

NL East: Miami, Atlanta, Washington, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Mets.

NL Central, Cubs, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Houston, Monterey.

NL West: Colorado, Arizona, San Diego, Dodgers, San Francisco, Vancouver.

Would this happen any time soon, not likely, but these are all cities that have been talked about before when the discussion of expansion and relocation has come about over the past two decades. Baseball is more regional than the NBA and NFL because of how its teams are concentrated in various markets, so by adding teams in these particular markets, especially Monterey and Charlotte, you are truly expanding baseball’s geographic footprint. All the new franchises would be within reasonable travel distances to nearby cities, with Vancouver having the longest trip, one cannot see all three Pacific northwest cities in the same division. Monterey is relatively close to Houston and the state of Texas by air and San Antonio is an obvious fit here. Charlotte would be within reasonable travel distances to other cities like Atlanta, Washington and Baltimore and Montreal would have close connections by train or air to Boston and Toronto.