COMMENTARY | The 2013 season is still two months away, but baseball already has a different look. The Houston Astros, formerly of the National League Central, will begin playing in the American League West in 2013, perhaps bringing an end to realignment in baseball as we know it.
The move was completed to create more of an equal playing field, as the National League featured two more teams than the AL, crafting a more difficult scenario for NL squads to reach the postseason.
Originally, it was the Milwaukee Brewers in the same shoes as the Astros in 1998 when the Brewers moved from the AL Central to the NL Central to accommodate the two expansion teams entering the league -- the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks.
In 1994, baseball added one more division to each league when the playoff system was expanded, shifting the Brewers from the AL East to the AL Central, and the Astros from the NL West to the NL Central.
Flip-flopping on realignment
It was necessary in the mind of commissioner Bud Selig to keep an even (as opposed to odd) number of teams in each league. Otherwise, interleague play would have to take place throughout the entire duration of the season, which wasn't in the best interest of baseball at the time. Instead, interleague play was bunched together in the middle of the season with two NL teams constantly forced to play a series.
It turns out that train of thought has run its course. One of the stipulations in the recent sale of the Astros was that the new owner would have to agree to move the team to the American League. That way, there would be 15 teams in both the American League and National League.
While this means interleague play will take place throughout the season, it also means one-third of each league will make the postseason beginning in 2013. The move creates equal opportunity and now, just like the NFL and NBA, will include play that squares teams off from opposite leagues from start to finish.
One downside to this decision will be how it affects the way some teams prepare for interleague play. Because of the designated hitter, National League clubs would often times add an extra bench player to the roster. But with the now-sporadic nature of interleague play, roster moves won't be as likely, which could be more of a disadvantage for the NL.
On the flip side, season-long interleague play can be viewed as a breath of fresh air for baseball -- an intriguing change that creates more excitement while breaking down a barrier of sorts between the two leagues.
Making the adjustment
Houston's departure brings an end to the 15-year run of the six-team NL Central. It's only the third time since the AL-NL merger that an organization has been the victim of realignment, and many Astros fans feel like victims in this whole ordeal. They are faced with arguably a more challenging task in a very competitive AL West while adjusting to a new style of play with the inclusion of the designated hitter.
That's not to mention that the Astros have essentially hit rock bottom, losing over 100 games in each of the past two seasons. To continue the rebuilding process when consistently facing teams like the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels could prove to be a daunting task.
Back in the late-'90s, it was Houston that was in a position of power when the Brewers were assigned to the NL Central. The Astros were four-time champions of the division, including in the first two years of Milwaukee's membership. The Brewers had to undergo the strategic learning curve in the National League when it came to the inclusion of the pitcher in the lineup, pinch-hitting and double switches.
It also didn't help that the Brewers -- like the Astros of today -- weren't any good.
The Brewers didn't win more than 74 games in the NL before 2005, the first year the team was under the new ownership of Mark Attanasio. From there, Milwaukee slowly became a force in the division, reaching the playoffs twice in the last five years while winning its first Central Division title in 2011.
Milwaukee may have been in a rough spot back in the late-'90s and early-2000s, but there was still a feeling of hope around the city because of the construction of a new ballpark and making the switch to the National League, returning Milwaukee to its roots. Once upon a time, the Braves played in Milwaukee as an American League club.
As heightening payrolls became problematic for small markets like Milwaukee, expenses continued to spiral out of control after the Brewers took flight for the National League. In 1998, spending was distributed relatively evenly as five teams from each league made up the top 10 payrolls in baseball, with the difference between No. 1 and No. 10 roughly $22 million. Last season showed the same AL/NL split, except five of the top six teams played in the American League, and the difference between No. 1 and No. 10 was an alarming $100 million.
That is the competition Houston will be faced with in its inaugural season in the Junior Circuit, not only in its own division with the spending of the Angels and Rangers, but in the entire league with the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays and Detroit Tigers.
The Astros had the third-lowest payroll in the MLB at the start of the 2012 season, and it will be dropping even lower in 2013 as they continue to take a long look at their young players while building their farm system.
We're not so different, you and I
For as bleak as the immediate future looks for the Astros, they, like the Brewers in '98, have reasons to be hopeful, and it begins with new owner Jim Crane.
Making his riches in the freight business, the 58-year-old Crane may have deep pockets, but frantic spending isn't in the immediate plans of the Astros and their second-year 45-year-old general manager, Jeff Luhnow, who prefers to use analytics and scouting to build a successful team. But moving to the American League is sure to bring in some extra revenue for down the road thanks to visits from hot tickets like the Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers and Angels.
Comparatively to the Brewers, Houston will be getting a head start in rebuilding when it comes to management; it took Milwaukee five years after its switch to hire current general manager Doug Melvin, and seven years to come under the ownership of Attanasio. It was four years later that the Brewers would become a playoff team under Attanasio, but the framework was built by Melvin as the Brewers improved from a 56-win team to a .500 team in Melvin's first three years.
Can the Astros expect a similar rebound after hitting rock bottom like the Brewers? Like in Milwaukee, it will certainly take time using a strategy of building through the draft and swapping stars for prospects once becoming playoff contenders. The Astros have four top-100 prospects, according to Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com, and that doesn't include some of the players whom have been forced to fill the vacancies on the 25-man roster due to the recent fire sales executed by the front office.
If Houston can continue to draft well and develop its prospects, it could be in a similar situation to Milwaukee. The Brewers were able to build around players they drafted like Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks while trading prospects for big names like C.C. Sabathia and Zack Greinke. Whether the Astros will use trades to get over the hump or trust its young players remains to be seen, but that would be a discussion for a later date.
Before and after: the NL Central
Throughout the 15-year history of the six-team NL Central, each team was able to hang up a championship pennant except the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have been stuck in rebuilding mode for the better part of two decades. Only one division winner from the Central managed to win the World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals in 2006. They would eventually go on to win it all from the wild-card position in 2011, the only year the Brewers were champions of the division.
With the Astros now absent from the Central Division, who becomes the new punching bag, and what affect will this change have on the remaining teams? Houston won 55 and 56 games, respectively, in the last two seasons, and during that time St. Louis has had the most success with a .700 winning percentage against the Astros while the Cubs (.533) struggled the most against the bottom feeder.
These results are to be expected as the Cardinals were the only team from the Central to reach the postseason in both 2011 and 2012, and Chicago has placed second-to-last in each of the past two seasons. With the Cubs in a similar position as the Astros -- rebuilding and cleaning house -- they are the most likely candidate to assume the role of last place with the Reds, Cardinals and Brewers all finishing with winning records last season and the Pirates steadily rising.
Of course, this is all sure to change in a few years but without the Astros, the NL Central could prove to be one of the most competitive divisions in all of baseball. Every team is setting itself up to be in a position to win down the road, if not immediately.
With all this being said, the NL Central hasn't quite rid itself of the Houston Astros. The American League division the Central is assigned to play in 2013 is -- you guessed it -- the AL West.
So why the Astros? Why has the worst team in baseball been handed this fate?
The Brewers' move to the National League made sense. The team was under the ownership of Selig's daughter at the time -- and previously Selig himself -- so he had a connection. Perhaps Selig could have just moved Milwaukee back to the AL, but that could require more shuffling with the AL Central already a five-team division.
Selig may have wanted to choose a team that wasn't built to contend right now so as to not interrupt the flow of the league. Another factor was that the Astros play in the same state as the Rangers, a team part of a division with only four teams. Evolving an in-state rivalry could add more spice to baseball, a rivalry that began to develop with the inclusion of interleague play. Not only that, but the sale of the Astros came at an opportune time for Selig to include a condition regarding realignment.
Regardless, the Astros have been dealt their fate, just as the Brewers were 15 years ago. Milwaukee has come a long way but it took time, just as it will in Houston. With a new owner in Crane, a smart, young general manager in Luhnow, and a new, young face in manager Bo Porter all on the same page, the Astros appear to be on the right track.
The once AL-Brewers are now NL, the once NL-Astros are now AL, and we can close the books on baseball's 15-year experiment of a six-team division.
With that, baseball is forever changed -- again.
Dave Radcliffe lives in a little known Milwaukee suburb and is a self-proclaimed Wisconsin sports expert who has contributed to JSOnline and as a featured columnist among other sites and publications.
You can follow Dave on Twitter@DaveRadcliffe_.