In his “21 predictions” piece for the 2021 season, The Athletic’s Jim Bowden uses one of those predictions to address a matter that may very well come up this winter — expansion. He predicts that as part of the upcoming CBA talks between MLB and the Players Union, the league will agree to expand to 32 teams. This would obviously affect the Houston Astros and the other 29 current clubs in various ways.
If MLB ends up expanding, how would that affect the Houston Astros?
The current CBA expires after the season, and negotiations between the league and the players will likely be contentious. There will be plenty of issues to be worked out before a deal is reached — universal DH, expanded playoffs, changes to the qualifying offer system, etc. — so expansion might not even end up happening. But it certainly could.
Bowden’s prediction says the league will expand in 2025 and that several cities will be invited to submit bids to host one of the two new clubs. Obviously whether this actually happens is still to be determined, but it’s fun to think about. It’s also interesting to look at just how this would affect the Astros and their fans if indeed it came to pass.
The addition of two new teams means the divisions would obviously have to be realigned. Assuming the league keeps the AL and NL as opposed to just having everyone in the same league, there will be 16 teams in each league. The best way to handle that would be four divisions in each league with four teams in each division, similar to how the NFL is set up.
This would likely be good news for the Astros. There are already six teams on the West Coast — Mariners, Angels, Athletics, Dodgers, Padres and Giants — plus the Diamondbacks and Rockies. This means the Astros and Rangers might not need to be grouped in a division with them. Depending on which cities are awarded the new teams, the Astros could end up being grouped with teams from the middle of the country.
This would mean the Astros aren’t playing so many road games on the West Coast, many of which start around 9 p.m. CT. I’ve never been a fan of being in the West division, so any chance of a change on that front would be welcome. How about a new AL Central or South division with the Astros, Rangers, Royals and maybe a team from Nashville or New Orleans?
The exact format of an expansion draft would have to be worked out, but we can look to the two most recent ones — 1992 and 1997 — as general blueprints. Each existing team was allowed to protect 15 of its players from the draft, leaving most others subject to being drafted. Exceptions were made for minor leaguers who had been drafted or signed within the previous three years.
The drafts were each three rounds, with 70 or 72 picks total, and the two expansion teams alternated picks. After each round, the existing clubs could protect three or four additional players, and no team could have more than one player selected from its roster in a given round. So, at most, existing clubs could stand to lose three players from their rosters in the draft.
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Several notable players were taken in those expansion drafts, including Trevor Hoffman, Carl Everett, Vinny Castilla and Brad Ausmus in 1992, and Jeff Suppan, Dmitri Young and Randy Winn in 1997. The Astros memorably lost Bobby Abreu in that 1997 draft, and they also lost pitcher Russ Springer, who would later return to Houston from 2004-2006.
There’s no way to know what players the Astros might stand to lose given that an expansion draft wouldn’t take place for a few years, but it could lead to plenty of interesting debates if and when it happens. I suspect fans wouldn’t all agree on the 15 players to protect if it were happening now, and I doubt that will change in a few years.
If the league is expanded, the postseason will likely be expanded too. That would, theoretically, give each team a better chance of making the playoffs in a given year. But then again it would also make for a longer road to the World Series. Still, expanding the reach of the sport is generally a good thing, especially from a financial standpoint.
The fact is that expansion will likely have other effects beyond what I’ve examined or contemplated. But as a fan of the Astros, I would be all for it, if for no other reason than it might get us out of the AL West and group us with teams that are in the same time zone. It would also likely help the league in general, which is always a good thing.