MLB in ideal position to make key alterations

Gonzalez: MLB in ideal position to make key alterations

MLB in ideal position to make key alterations
We tend to think negatively every time the topic of collective bargaining comes up. We think of things like labor strife, lockouts and work stoppages.

But what about the good stuff -- you know, like the opportunity it brings to change the sports we love for the better? When you experience what the National Football League just did, or go through what the National Basketball Association is currently dealing with, that's a tough mentality to take on.

It shouldn't be for Major League Baseball, though.

MLB has achieved such a level of labor peace that it should actually look forward to hammering out a new Collective Bargaining Agreement this offseason. Baseball -- always so careful when tinkering with its deep-rooted traditions -- has a real chance to make changes that can vastly improve its game.

It starts with divisional alignment, scheduling and playoff structure ...

• Five teams per division, with the smoothest transition involving a move to the American League West for the Houston Astros.

• Five playoff teams per league after the addition of two Wild Card entrants, with the Nos. 4 and 5 seeds of each league to play a best-of-three postseason series.

• A semi-balanced schedule, one that would have teams play 10 games against each of the other 14 clubs in their league, plus an additional 22 Interleague contests.

Perfection is impossible when trying to accommodate so many different entities with so many different needs. But of all the ideas thrown around all year -- from eliminating divisions to changing the number of teams to blowing up baseball's entire landscape -- I believe this is the best structure for many reasons.

Perhaps the most important reason of all: The divisions stay put.

Rallying cries to eliminate them have been made mostly for two reasons: Some teams -- mainly AL East clubs not named the Red Sox and Yankees -- have an unfair disadvantage because of the division they play in, and it creates the possibility of less-deserving clubs making the playoffs.

Incorporating a more balanced schedule and increasing the number of playoff teams should help ease those issues, though.

And we can still maintain some of the charm of divisional play.

MLB is the only major sport where winning a division still actually means something, not just because of the current regular-season and playoff structure, but because of the rivalries fostered through it.

If we eliminate divisions, many of those historic rivalries -- like Yankees-Red Sox, Cubs-Cardinals and Dodgers-Giants, just to name a few -- would lose a lot of their luster.

And teams would lose money.

It's hard to sell tickets for a club that has to jump 10 spots to make the playoffs as opposed to four, but that's the scenario two 15-team leagues would often create.

Since winning a division guarantees a playoff spot, keeping them increases playoff scenarios, maintains those still-intriguing regional rivalries, makes for more tight races down the stretch and, thus, increases viewership.

As for that additional Wild Card? That's a no-brainer.

MLB can never become the NBA, where eight teams in each conference -- many of them undeserving -- make it to the playoffs. Baseball has to keep the number of postseason participants small enough so that the regular season still matters significantly, but large enough to give more deserving teams a chance to win it all.

Ten is a perfect number here.

"I could make a case for 10," MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said during his annual chat at this year's All-Star Fan Fest in Phoenix. "No more than 10, but I could make a case for 10."

With 10, the top three teams, record-wise, in each league rest for three or four days while the Nos. 4 and 5 seeds battle it out. Then, the playoffs would resume as normally structured.

Three games can make a world of difference. It provides extra incentive to finish with the highest seed possible, gives additional teams a chance, gets more fans excited and, once again, increases interest.

Playoff expansion is an easy decision.

Balancing the regular-season schedule is where things get a little tricky.

An odd number of teams in each league means Interleague Play has to take place all year round, but that isn't really a problem. Interleague Play may have lost some of the magic it carried when it first began in 1997, but it can still be intriguing if executed properly.

By spreading it out over the course of a whole season, three things can be accomplished: It would seem like less of an event and more of a regularity, which is what it has become after so many years anyway; more Interleague rivalries would have a chance at national exposure; and we can avoid that scenario where an AL team plays two straight series in an NL city and goes without its designated hitter for a week.

For those 22 Interleague games -- up from 18 -- MLB should take a page from the NFL: Teams would play a home-and-road series against the three teams in the other league that finished in the same place in their respective division the previous year. For example, the Tigers finished third in the AL Central in 2010, meaning this season they would've been slated to play the third-place Marlins (NL East), Brewers (NL Central) and Rockies (NL West) six times each.

The four remaining Interleague games would pin two teams for two-game series at each other's venue, and MLB would decide. That's how those intriguing matchups would continue to exist.

Maybe it's Cubs-White Sox, or Cubs-Red Sox; maybe it's the Yankees and the Mets, or the Yankees and the Dodgers -- whichever Interleague matchup is most appealing for each club in a given season. Sure, perhaps for four games out of the year, the schedule isn't completely fair for all 30 teams. But Interleague Play can be both useful and fun this way.

Not a perfect system, perhaps, but a vast improvement.

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.