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Cactus League vs. Grapefruit League?

MLB is getting creative in searching for ways to bring baseball back in 2020. The latest leaked proposal features realignment based around spring training sites.

It was a busy week for MLB rumor mongers. Baseball officials and team personnel continue to hold meetings searching for a way to bring the game back in the middle of a pandemic. Intrepid reporters are scrambling to be the one to break the latest conversations.

Earlier, Jeff Passan wrote that MLB was considering a return to baseball centered around Chase Field and the spring training facilities in Arizona. Players would be tested for COVID-19 and teams sequestered in hotels. Games would be played according to social distancing protocols with no fans in attendance. Robot umps would call balls and strikes. Players would likely be separated from their families for the length of the season.

If that feels weird, well, Ben Godar has some advice for you: Embrace it. Because it actually gets weirder.

Not to be outdone, Bob Nightengale broke news on Friday that MLB is considering a second proposal that would base teams out of their spring training facilities in both Florida and Arizona. This would cause massive divisional realignment for the 2020 season, as teams would only compete against the regional neighbors of their Spring Training homes.

The Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues of March would no longer be an exhibition. They would replace the NL and AL for the season, with three divisions each and likely expanded playoffs. Instead of sequestering teams in hotels around Phoenix, clubs would be able to use their own facilities and spring training homes. As with Passan’s report, it is assumed that standard social distancing guidelines would be in place for the games.

There are other details to sort through – including a proposed universal DH (which seems like a necessity under this arrangement), but we’ll skip all of that. I know what everyone wants to talk about: what would that divisional alignment look like for the Cardinals? Simple answer? Bad. Very bad.

This is how the proposed divisions would align:

I will let commentators and Tweeters handle the glaring imbalances in other divisions. We’re proudly Cardinals-centric here, so let’s take a hard look at the proposed and imposing Grapefruit League East. Since March lasted a decade and last year was a century ago, here’s a quick refresher on how the teams in the theoretical GLE (Grapefruit League East) performed last season:

Houston Asterisks – 107 wins, AL Champs
Washington Nationals – 93 wins, World Series Champs
St. Louis Cardinals – 91 wins, NLCS
New York Mets – 86 wins, 5th in NL
Miami Marlins – 57 wins, last in NL

This arrangement abandons the current divisional rivalries. That means no games against the Cubs or Brewers until a potential World Series. However, it does renew some old rivalries that those of us born and raised in bygone eras will appreciate. The Astros of the Berkman, Bagwell, Biggio era were among the Cardinals’ most feared rivals in the 90s-2000s. The Mets were (and remain) pond scum to fans who lived through the 1980s. The Cardinals and Nationals have some recent history of playoff rivalry.

It would make for an interesting season, but also an extremely difficult one. Here are the teams re-ordered according to projected standings:

Houston Asterisks – 95 wins, 2nd in baseball
Washington Nationals – 88 wins, 6th in baseball
New York Mets – 85 wins, 10th in baseball
St. Louis Cardinals – 81 wins, 18th in baseball
Miami Marlins – 70 wins, 27th in baseball

In the NL Central, the Cardinals were also a fourth-place division team, but they were in a very tight race with the Brewers and Reds (both projected at 83 wins). Even the Cubs were still within range at 85 wins.

Even if the Cardinals blow past projections and reach the upper 80s in wins, this new alignment would mean the club is entering the season with little or no chance to win the division, barring a complete and unexpected collapse by the Astros. Even with the likelihood of expanded playoffs, their odds of reaching the postseason are not strong. The Grapefruit League South has four teams projected to win 85 or more games: the Red Sox, Twins, Braves, and Rays.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that it could bring some form of baseball back for the season.

While fans might care about rivalries and home games, ballpark camera angles and tradition, baseball’s primary concern this season is playing baseball. And that trumps everything.

As Bob Nightengale broke the news of possible realignment, the XFL announced that it was suspending all operations indefinitely. KaKaw, Battlehawks! It was fun while it lasted. I mean that. (And I’m very excited that my 2nd-love KC Chiefs signed QB Jordan Ta’amu, who looks to me like the perfect backup for Pat Mahomes.)

Baseball is not nearly as vulnerable financially as the upstart XFL, but the league is losing unthinkable amounts of income every day that games aren’t being played. MLB seems resigned to the fact that some revenue, like ticket sales, is lost for this season. They are exploring every conceivable option to get as many games in as possible and retaining as much television money as possible.

Playing in Arizona and Florida for the entire season allows the league to push games into the winter without running into foul weather. It might even be possible to let fans into the stadiums later in the summer. A World Series played on a neutral field and likely in a dome could be played as late a December.

Former Cardinals Manager Tony LaRussa was quoted by Nightengale, saying “when you’re trying to get really creative, why say no now?”

That’s the heart of the issue. Baseball wants to play. It’s not interested in eliminating options. They are considering every possibility. As they should. The league needs to play, financially. It also has a responsibility to do so in the safest way possible.

Expect baseball to be different. Lament what is lost: Cards vs. Cubs and chances of a division crown. But embrace what is gained: renewed rivalries and the possible return of our favorite pastime.