Expansion is on the horizon for Major League Baseball, adding an additional layer of uncertainty to the Nationals' future.
Change is rampant today in Major League baseball. Rules changes are happening on the field, including the shift ban, checks for sticky stuff and the pitch clock with automated ball and strike calls apparently on the horizon. Change is happening off the field too, with a new playoff structure that debuted last year and a new schedule format beginning this year. In the next several years, it appears as though we will be treated to an even more fundamental adjustment to our game: expansion.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has expressed his desire to add a pair of expansion franchises to the Major Leagues in the near future, growing the league to a total of 32 teams. The new structure for each team’s schedule that ensures each club will face every other team in the majors appears to have been done to prepare for the arrival of these new teams, deemphasizing the importance of divisions. The Nationals, for example, will play each of its NL East rivals 13 times, down from 19 times in years past. Adding two teams to the current six-division alignment would upset the even five-teams-per-division that currently exists, so perhaps we can expect a new organization structure that turns the American and National leagues into NHL-esque 'conferences'. This would mean either an end to or transformation of the regional divisions and a renewed emphasis on league or conference competition.
For the Nationals, this would perhaps mean a deemphasis on our rivalries with teams like Miami and a rise in competition with other NL clubs like Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and whoever ends up getting the NL expansion team (I'll get to that in a moment). I think I'll probably still despise teams like the Phillies and the Mets no matter what happens with expansion, even if we are no longer competing for a division championship.
But where will these new teams set up shop? And what is the best expansion outcome for our Nationals?
At first glance, it feels like adding an expansion franchise in an east coast city like Charlotte or Nashville would most adversely affect DC’s team. Charlotte, for example, is home to many Nats fans who, in the absence of a nearby MLB team, chose to look north for their favorite club rather than southward to Atlanta. I myself am a Charlotte-based fan. I go to school in DC but spend most of the baseball season watching games from my couch in North Carolina (don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere). MASN’s current broadcast market extends all the way to the Carolinas, so it is reasonable to expect that the Nationals may lose a handful of fans if an expansion franchise were to be established in the Queen City.
The same can be said of Nashville. I have no idea whether the good people of Tennessee cheer for the Nationals, but the relative geographic proximity may mean that an expansion team in Music City might dip into remote portions of Washington's fanbase. Expanding to more distant cities like Las Vegas, Orlando or Salt Lake City would cause DC less trouble. It is worth mentioning, however, that the Tennessee Titans are also in the process of building a new stadium, which would leave a stadium lot available in Downtown Nashville for a possible baseball team.
Another interesting outcome would be an expansion to Montreal. The Canadian city hosted the franchise that is now the Nationals for 35 years, with very limited success. Does Montreal deserve a second chance? Would this new team be called the Expos or would the Nationals refuse to sell back the rights to that name?
After the NBA's Hornets left Charlotte to become the New Orleans Pelicans, Charlotte got itself an expansion franchise, briefly called the Bobcats. Later, the Bobcats bought the rights to the Hornets name from the Pelicans and 'retconned' the stats and history of the original Hornets in a rebrand that fashioned the Pelicans as the expansion team.
Would the Nationals do something similar if a new team went to Canada, selling off the Expos logo along with the stats and history of the original Expos? I doubt Nationals fans would miss calling Expos history their own, as many Nationals fans talk about their team as if it was founded in DC in 2005. The only real downside is that losing the Expos' history would mean losing the franchise's only current Hall of Famers, Gary Carter, Tim Raines, and Andre Dawson among them.
The prospect of expansion will be realized one day, but Commissioner Manfred has made it clear that it will not happen until the Athletics and the Rays have figured out their stadium troubles. Until then, we can only imagine and be grateful that our city is lucky enough to have a Major League ballclub.