Sure, relegation in baseball is a fantasy. Still, after a season like the White Sox have had and an even worse-looking immediate future, fantasy is about all we have to go with, so let’s do it.
What the heck is relegation?
For one thing, a really cool word. But more importantly, it’s a system where the worst teams at one level of a league get sent down a rung, and the best on the lower rung climb up. It’s used widely in countries with soccer teams in multiple levels, and right here at home, it’s common in all sorts of amateur sports, where the team at the bottom of the B League one season starts the next one in the C League — softball, bowling, probably even pickleball these days.
It’s not possible in pro baseball because of the way ownership and minor league control are structured, but it could really improve things if it could be done, because it would give ownership a massive incentive not to just sit back and rake in the money from MLB income sharing.
OK, how would it work, if it could work, which it can’t?
Any number of ways are possible, but since we’re just fantasizing. let’s pick one and go with it. In our system, we’ll start with relegating three teams from each league, placing them into what we’ll call for now, the Purgatory League. Not a great PR name, admittedly, but it’s just a working title.
The idea is to not only punish teams for tanking, but to keep things exciting in September for fans of even the worst squads, such as, er, uh, the White Sox, as they try to keep out of Purgatory. The system creates important races at both the top and the bottom.
In the first year of our relegation system, we take the bottom three teams in each league and send them to Purgatory.
While there were some very tight races at the top of both leagues this year, there weren’t at the bottom, so in the NL, the Rockies, Nationals and Cardinals head there. In the AL, it’s the A’s, Royals and White Sox, all clinching bottom-threedom long ago.
Off those six teams go to Purgatory, or to save space, the PL.
That leaves 12 teams in each of the AL and NL, perfect for two divisions of six teams each. The Central Divisions would be abolished (should have happened to the AL Central long ago), and those teams sent East or West.
In the AL, two of the teams would move to the West, because it’s losing one team. It works out this year that geography and balance match, since the team going East would be, as of this moment, Cleveland, and the Twins would help the West catch up with the East a little.
In the NL, with each division relegating a team, two would head each direction. It could either be by geography, which works out because it would send the Cubs and Brewers to the slightly weaker West (East’s record +37, West’s -1).
Voila! It’s all set!
Oh, yeah. The players in the PL would still get full pay and service time and their career records would count, because the PL is just a lesser major league, not a minor one. The losers would be the people mostly responsible for the ineptitude: the owners, who would get their share of MLB distributions cut in half while they’re in Purgatory.
But what happens next?
The PL teams wouldn’t be completely shut out from the rest of MLB, They could play four games against each AL and NL team, so fans could see every team every year, for a total of 48, and 22 or 23 games against each other PL team, for 114 ... 162 games total. They would not be eligible for postseason play.
The teams still in the shrunken AL or NL carry on as before. With 12 teams per league, they could play the six PL teams four times each, for 24 games ... three games with each team in the other league plus one for their designated rival, for 46 ... 12 games each against their own division for another 48 ... seven or eight each for the other division for the final 44 ... bringing us to 162.
And after that?
In future years, relegating six teams might be too many, as you’re getting to better teams, so the number would be adjusted downward, depending on how teams from the PL perform. Generally, though, the idea would be to relegate three new teams, and move the top three PL teams back up. That would create the possibility of, say, two NL teams going down and two AL teams coming up, but with so much interleague activity, minor realignment of the two leagues would be no big deal.
What about expansion?
Just adjust the numbers. Make it eight teams in the Purgatory League and play with the games-per-opponent levels a bit. Expansion teams tend to be lousy, so they could begin in the PL and work their way up.
Would this system always be fair?
No more so than sports or life in general. A team that just has really bad injury luck could end up getting relegated, but it would have an excellent chance to bounce back up the next year.
Got it all figured out, eh?
Yep. Except for the part about making it anything but a fantasy.