MLB should expand a lot. To, like, 40 teams

March 13, 2022

When Major League Baseball forced several teams out of affiliated Minor League Baseball, I understood it as a craven power grab with stated motivations that made little sense — the obvious reason the game’s overlords did it was because they saw an opportunity to enhance their control over the minor leagues, cut their expenditures, and thus make more money.

Of course, those moves were short-sighted. Perhaps the Chicago White Sox save a few ducats by paying only six teams’ worth of professional baseball players rather than seven, but I argued then, and still believe now, that those ducats were exceptionally well-spent even beyond what they contributed to player development because they ensured professional baseball was played in more places around the country, which I strongly suspect was a real contributor to creating more baseball fans. That is, in the long term, MLB decided to actively give up opportunities to create and cultivate more fans.

Upon news that MLB and the MLB Players Association had reached agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement, ending the owners’ 99-day lockout and prompting them to schedule a full 162-game season, it occurred to me that many of the ills that plague MLB — both real and imagined — could be addressed by more baseball.

For about six decades starting at the beginning of the 20th century, the National League and American League were each eight-team leagues. In that time, the Pacific Coast League rose to nearly major league status, and before integration, the Negro Leagues employed some of the best ballplayers in the world, but the major leagues’ supremacy remained intact. In 1961, the American League expanded to 10 teams, and in 1962, the National League followed suit. In 1969, four more teams were added. In 1977, two more teams. Sixteen years later, in 1993, two more teams. In 1998, two more.

MLB has not expanded since 1998, nearly a quarter of a century. It’s the longest the majors have gone without expansion since that six-decade run that ended 61 years ago.

Among others, Craig Edwards has covered a lot of why MLB should have plenty of reason to expand and now, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, might actually have some will to add more teams because owners might be more willing to accept millions of dollars in the short term in exchange for more competition in the future. While I think that’s a good summation of the blunt financial motivations, I think his point about how expansion would affect the game on the field deserves a lot more attention.

This new CBA includes several rules changes and adds a provision that MLB may change rules with 45 days notice, rather than the previous CBA’s provision that they give one year of notice, and several of those rules changes are aimed at combating relatively recent shifts in how players and teams have been approaching strategy and performance. Already, there will be bigger bases, soon MLB may institute rules limiting where fielders may position themselves, there may be a pitch clock, and other changes, all with the intention of encouraging more balls in play, more running, more apparent action.

Those goals are fine and good. Say we accept that we want fewer strikeouts, more balls in play, and more aggressive baserunning, the real question is if changing the rules like this is the best way to accomplish those goals. I don’t think so. Instead, I think dramatic team expansion is the best way to do it.

Adding more teams would significantly dilute the MLB talent pool. Through one lens, that means a bunch of pitchers who can’t strike guys out and a bunch of hitters without the ability to hit a bunch of dingers would suddenly be in Major League Baseball. Through another lens, it means teams would be incentivized to find different ways to win given the players who are available. Think of college football versus the National Football League. In the NFL, there’s some variation in play style, but it pales in comparison to college football, where a few teams barely run, a few teams barely pass, and even within those broad descriptors there are rainbows of different approaches to offense and defense because the talent levels are so different that teams must figure out their own ways to succeed. In MLB, the differences might not be quite so stark as Army’s option offense versus Mississippi State’s Air Raid, but we might see things like teams actively cultivating base-stealers again, or building around low-power, good-OBP, *amazing* fielders, and pitchers whose primary skill is not walking anybody, like the 1980s Cardinals.

Put another way, MLB teams currently focus on finding and developing players with ever-narrowing skill sets, and expansion would force teams to find ways of deploying hitters and pitchers with a greater variety of skills simply because they would run out of guys who fit the current molds of desirability. Moreover, owners would get a big infusion of cash, MLB would need a bunch more minor league teams to serve those new MLB teams, and therefore professional baseball would be in more places, contributing to creating more fans.

I’m not going to pretend I know how this would work, but Edwards’s piece suggested MLB could sell the new teams at prices that would net current ownership perhaps $25 million per new team. Thus, expanding by two teams, to 32 total, would give each ownership group about $50 million. Expanding by four teams? $100 million. And if MLB did something completely over the top, like expand by 10 teams? $250 million for each existing team. Also, not for nothing, but 10 new MLB teams would require 40 new domestic minor league teams in Class-A and up, plus a couple short-season teams, which basically matches the 42 teams that were unaffiliated from MiLB in the recent purge.

Please forgive this next bit of galaxy-brained pontificating, because I spent way too much time thinking about it, but... I think expanding to 40 teams would work particularly well, both by bringing in a ton of money and for creating an interesting schedule.

MLB could make it work expanding to any even number of teams, but the schedule math works a lot more elegantly with 36 or 40 teams than it does for 34, or 38, so long as we’re keeping the season to around 162 games and assuming the universal designated hitter and everything else we’ve seen indicates the AL/NL split is numbered and MLB is headed for a conference realignment that lessens travel by grouping East and West teams more closely. That’s because 34 and 38 aren’t divisible by four or six, making division breakdowns messy.

It would be good to expand to 36, because the league could break down into six divisions of six teams each, with 14 games against five divisional opponents (70 games), six games against the 12 same-conference non-divisional opponents (72 games), and four games against six opposite-conference opponents (24), rotating by division like interleague play does now, for 166 total regular-season games. Assuming we’re staying at 12 total playoff teams, six from each conference, I’d have the three division winners in the playoffs, plus the teams in each conference with the three next-best records, seeded by record, regardless of their division-winning status.

But it would be even better to expand to 40 teams, for all the reasons laid out above, and also because I like how the divisions might break down: Use East/West conferences with eight total divisions, each with five teams. Play 12 games against four divisional opponents (48 games), six games against each of the 15 teams in the other three same-conference divisions (90 games), and six games against the five teams in an opposite-conference division (30 games), which, again, would rotate, for a total of 168 games. This would have the added benefit of pretty heavily weighting games against divisional opponents.

I know I know I know, this isn’t happening, but bear with me for one more flight of fancy that bulldozes through MLB’s “territory” system because, again, I’ve thought about this way too much. Here’s my proposed radical realignment for MLB with expansion teams in ALL CAPS, broken up into eight new divisions.

Western Conference

San Francisco
Los Angeles Dodgers

Los Angeles Angels
San Diego


Kansas City
Chicago White Sox

Eastern Conference

St. Louis
Chicago Cubs

New York Yankees

New York Mets

Tampa Bay

There you have it. MLB expansion to 40 teams, and radical realignment into East/West conferences with divisions of five teams each. If you’ve made it this far, I assume you’re as obsessive as I am, and I will gladly listen to your objections to this setup or anything else you may have to poke holes in it.

[Photo: “Vladimir Guerrero follow through Washington Nationals vs. Toronto Blue Jays at Nationals Park, July 27, 2020 (All-Pro Reels Photography)” by All-Pro Reels. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license. The last time MLB expanded, Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. wasn’t born yet.]