MILWAUKEE -- Get those "Travis Hafner to Houston" Hot Stove rumors ready for next winter, because the Astros are packing up and heading west -- as in, American League West. The AL Astros announcement, which was made a condition of the sale of the club from Drayton McLane to Jim Crane, was one of several major upcoming changes made public by Commissioner Bud Selig as the General Managers and Owners Meetings drew to a close at the Pfister Hotel here Thursday -- a day Selig said will prove to be "historic." With expanded Wild Cards and a one-game play-in also on the horizon -- perhaps as soon as 2012 -- the sport is about to go through another round of the monumental changes that have defined Selig's tenure at the top. And as baseball fans, we'll all adapt to the new reality in which winning your division and avoiding the do-or-die dilemma of a play-in game will have profound prominence. We'll get used to an Interleague schedule that is not bunched together in May and June but spread out over the course of a season.
Baseball is, after all, a game of adjustments, as any coach will tell you. But in this situation, nobody has to adjust quite like the Astros and their fans. A change in leagues in this sport, after all, is a distinct change in identities. Just ask a Houstonian named Adam Dunn. Make no mistake: The changes unanimously approved by the owners were necessary for the sake of divisional and scheduling symmetry. Having six teams in the National League Central and four in the AL West was nonsensical, made all the more so by the upcoming Wild Card additions. Having some teams playing 15 Interleague games and others playing 18 is silly strategy, and that's another wrong that will be righted. But the Astros, of course, are the casualties of correction, for they and their fans will have to adapt not only to a new league but a more daunting one. "It's going to be tougher," said Joe Torre, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations, "to go from the National League to the American League." Put it this way: There are plenty of AL executives who would be happy to do the reverse. "Not that anyone has asked," White Sox GM Kenny Williams said with a smile, "but if they need a team to one day go to the National League ... we can volunteer for that." As part of their move a year from now, the Astros will have to find a designated hitter, and their travel will become more challenging, with three West Coast clubs soon to be among their division rivals (the Mariners probably aren't in love with this scenario, either). Also, when you consider the Wild Card factor, the Astros will add the perennially payroll-aided Yankees and Red Sox to their list of rivals for a playoff berth. Intimidating issues all, so it's little wonder Crane reportedly received a $70 million discount on the purchase price. Keep in mind, though, that the money wasn't what swayed him to switch leagues. MLB made this move a condition of the sale all the way. "The first order of business," Crane said, "is to go back to Houston and start evaluating our team and make decisions to improve the team." It doesn't take an in-depth analysis to note that a team that lost 106 games and traded away its two biggest stars this season has plenty of room for improvement. That's why, challenging as it might be, this is the perfect time for the Astros to make an imperfect leap. They are rebuilding, and now they can build a club fit for AL confines. They'll also, of course, have a chance to build a natural intradivision rivalry with the Rangers. "I've said all along that I grew up an Astros fan and I look at the Astros as a National League team," Rangers president Nolan Ryan said. "But I understand the desire to balance out the two leagues ... and I think that if both teams are competitive in a given year, it'll create a good rivalry within the state. I think there's a lot of pluses from our perspective." And trust me, Astros fans. No matter who fulfills the DH duties, watching him at the plate will be preferable to, say, Bud Norris. Now, historians -- or just those with a good memory -- will note that this restructuring would not have been necessary had baseball stuck with its initial plans for the 1998 expansion teams. When the D-backs and Rays joined MLB, the original idea was to put Tampa Bay in the AL West. Had that notion been finalized, the Brewers would have remained in the AL Central, the Tigers would have stayed in the AL East and the Rays would have become the fifth team in the West, leaving each league with 15 clubs spread across three five-team divisions. A brilliant balance, with the same scheduling shortcoming -- Interleague Play every day -- that we're going to have now. Alas, even those who flunked geography know that St. Petersburg is west of Orlando and little else. And ultimately, that geographic reality led MLB to go with the 16/14 arrangement we have today. Fourteen years later, the 16/14 setup is viewed negatively, and it's time for another team to move. "At the time you do it [in '98], you have reasons to do it," Torre said. "Then when you decide to do something else, you have reasons to do that, too." There are many reasons why this is the right move for the game. Under the current scheduling format, teams play anywhere from 15 to 19 divisional games and anywhere from five to nine games against other teams in their league. NL teams play either five or six Interleague series with all AL teams playing six. Those disparities might sound small, but they are, in fact, much too wide to be considered competitively fair. It was only a matter of time before MLB addressed them with a fitter format. So now we'll have at least one Interleague series taking place at any given time -- including Opening Day and the final day of the season. Not ideal, but so be it. At least teams won't have to play their Interleague series in blocks, a format that often led to the strategic disadvantage of AL clubs having to play long stretches without their DH and NL clubs playing long stretches with a DH spot they are less-prepared to fill. Will the all-season Interleague Play somehow take away from the World Series? "Other sports have the same thing," Selig noted, "and it doesn't water their championships down." True. And while the obvious response is that the other major sports don't have fundamentally different sets of rules in their two leagues, the fact remains that MLB has had its clubs adapt to the other league's rules in-season since 1997. All this will do, essentially, is spread out the same number of Interleague games over the course of the season. USA Today proposed a schedule arrangement in which each team plays 64 games against its division foes (16 against each one), eight each against the other 10 teams in the league and 18 Interleague games, including three each against the five teams from a specific division each season and three against a designated rival. That's a sound solution, as it would maintain the weighted influence of divisional games while providing better balance overall. It remains to be seen how MLB goes about it, exactly. "It will be interesting to see what their approach is," Ryan said. Whatever the approach, it will be an improvement. In next year's schedule, the Braves face the Yankees six times, while the Phillies don't face them at all (they'll play the Twins and Rockies instead). Raise your hand if you think that's fair ... and put your hands down, Phillies fans. The added Wild Cards are another topic entirely. Some will complain that they rob us of the potential for another night like Sept. 28, when both Wild Card spots came down to the wire. But that night was such once-in-a-blue-moon stuff to begin with, that it's unfair to consider it the norm. If anything, two more playoff berths increase the percentage possibility of such drama on an annual basis -- and the one-game play-in will simply be must-see TV, which is only good for the game. All of this -- the scheduling improvements and the added Wild Card spots that likely would have been opposed, had the leagues remained at 16/14 -- was only possible if an NL team made the move. The Astros bit that particular bullet. They have truly taken one for the team.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.