In 1960, the National Hockey League had six teams. The National Basketball Association had eight teams. The National Football League had 13 teams. And Major League Baseball led major North American professional sports leagues with 16 teams.
Since the American League was founded in 1901, sixteen teams comprised Major League Baseball—eight in the American League and eight in the National League—for sixty years. By and large, Major League Baseball had little need for more teams. Until 1947, the player pool was entirely white and almost entirely American—the presence of African-American players, non-American players, and the expansion in the United States and elsewhere of organized developmental leagues meant that baseball could expand to 18 teams, 20 teams, and eventually to 30 teams. Before 1958, no team played further south or further west than St. Louis—the league was still essentially regional.
MLB expansion, on balance, is a very good thing. It means more baseball for more people. And because of the explosion in the talent pool, the quality of play did not drop.
But I have always had a whimsical fascination with what would have happened if pro sports leagues had not expanded. To be clear again—the cons outweigh the pros. But as high of caliber as the play in Major League Baseball is today, imagine a world in which there are only sixteen teams playing—all of the increases in the talent pool, all of the medical advances, and barely over half of the teams which currently operate.
This is a look at what would happen to players on the St. Louis Cardinals if Major League Baseball in 2017 consisted of only sixteen teams. For the time being, I’m avoiding most levels of the butterfly effect of not expanding in the 1960s and beyond—perhaps other leagues expand and baseball is less popular and the talent pool is thinner than it is in reality today, perhaps top athletes are less inclined to venture into baseball because there are fewer major jobs available in it, etc. Let’s just say the player pool as it currently exists will now exist for a sixteen team league.
Yadier Molina: Average starting catcher
By 2017 projected Wins Above Replacement per ZiPS, Molina ranks tied for 7th among catchers. By Steamer, Molina ranks 6th among actual catchers (i.e. I’m excluding Kyle Schwarber). If anything, Molina might benefit from a smaller league in that he would almost certainly have a stronger backup, and thus teams would be inclined to give him days of rest.
Carson Kelly and Eric Fryer: Not in Major League Baseball
Kelly, 22, is currently borderline to play in a 30-team MLB, so he certainly would not make it into a 16-team version. But because he is so young and because he is considered one of the better catching prospects in baseball, he would still be able to find a job in lower levels of affiliated minor leagues. Fryer, on the other hand, would likely have to settle for independent leagues. Assuming the thirty best catchers in the world are the current starting catchers in MLB (they aren’t, but the current starters are all probably better than Fryer), only two current backups could get backup jobs. Fryer is not only not in the top two of backups, he isn’t in the top half.
Matt Carpenter: Starting player
ZiPS lists Carpenter at third base still, ranking him 14th—this seems a tad pessimistic to me, but it also reminds me a bit of that old joke about what you call the guy who graduates last in his class in medical school: doctor. It is much less likely in this scenario that Matt Carpenter would be a lineup standout, but he would certainly have a role.
Kolten Wong: Borderline player
Kolten Wong ranks tied for 20th by 2017 ZiPS projections among second basemen, though because several players are ranked at multiple positions, Wong would get a little bit of a bump. One thing which would diminish Wong’s argument for a roster spot is that he has never played another infield position in the Majors, and his 2016 demonstrations in the outfield would be less valuable in a world in which every team has a deeper roster of outfielders.
Jedd Gyorko: Utility bench player
While his days as a full-time starter are likely numbered with fourteen fewer teams, Gyorko’s versatility still does give him some additional value. He is hurt relatively little in this experiment because unlike Wong, he assuredly has value as a backup third baseman and, if you squint, a backup shortstop.
Aledmys Diaz: Borderline starter
ZiPS projects Diaz as tied for the 14th best shortstop in baseball, but unlike the similarly ranked Carpenter, Diaz’s track record is much shorter, and it is a bit more difficult to know exactly where his perception stands among MLB front offices. Although he has only played shortstop in his brief MLB career, save two innings at second base, his competence at the most difficult infield position and his relative youth would mean that he would at least get a shot in a condensed league.
Matt Adams, Jhonny Peralta, Greg Garcia: Not in Major League Baseball
Adams is a fine player in his very narrow role—guy who can play first base and hit righties—but the extent to which he is above average at this role is much smaller in this universe. Peralta is almost certainly done being more than a passable fielder, and his offensive decline gives him a lack of an obvious role in 2017’s reality, much less in this alternate one. I had a difficult time weighing Garcia, who had a very good 2016, but perception of him seems to be that he played well above his head. That said, I wouldn’t argue too vehemently with him getting a shot in a Gyorko utility role.
Dexter Fowler and Stephen Piscotty: Starting outfielders
Piscotty ranks tied for 27th and Fowler ranks tied for 34th by projected ZiPS WAR among outfielders in a world where there are 48 spots available for starting outfielders. It is possible that Fowler’s hotly debated defensive ability in center field would hurt him even more in a condensed field, but even so, he is a top 48 offensive outfielder, and thus would still be capable of starting in a corner spot, even if his overall value is diminished.
Randal Grichuk: Fourth outfielder
Grichuk could be a very valuable bench player in a smaller league. While he is not a top 48 outfielder by projected ZiPS WAR like Fowler or Piscotty, he has shown himself to be a capable enough defensive center fielder to, at the very least, fit in at center field, and he has shown enough offensive prowess that he would not embarrass himself in a corner spot, even in a smaller league. He has played all three outfield spots enough in the Majors that one can safely conclude that he can play them.
Tommy Pham and Jose Martinez: Not in Major League Baseball
In theory, Pham has shown enough skill to merit bench outfield consideration, especially considered that like Grichuk he can play across the outfield, but his checkered injury history and age (he is not old, but he is also probably not going to develop much more) diminish his value. Meanwhile, Martinez is just trying to make his first MLB Opening Day roster now in a 30-team world; to expect him to succeed in a far more competitive environment is a reach.
Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Mike Leake, and Lance Lynn: MLB starters
There are eighty rotation spots available, and three Cardinals starters rank among the top 80 starters in projected WAR by ZiPS. Martinez and Wainwright pass the eye test—Martinez is an ace or near-ace and while he probably wouldn’t be the top pitcher on a 16-team league’s team, he could certainly find a spot in the rotation; and while Wainwright struggled by his standards in 2016, he was still tied for 41st in FanGraphs WAR among starting pitchers. Even if his 2016 form is just what he is now, Waino is still worth a spot in a rotation.
Mike Leake may have underwhelmed some fans in 2016, but his fWAR still did rank tied for 58th among starters. And because of Leake’s tendency to stay healthy and throw a decent number of innings, he may have extra value to teams prioritizing flamethrowers at the top of their rotation who wish to hedge bets by placing Leake in the 5th spot in their rotation. Meanwhile, Lance Lynn has a much lower ZiPS projection, but this is in part due to his lack of 2016 statistics—if Lynn can pitch like he did prior to Tommy John surgery, he will easily once again be among baseball’s eighty greatest best starting pitchers.
Seung-hwan Oh, Trevor Rosenthal, Michael Wacha, Brett Cecil: MLB relievers
Even if one is pessimistic about Oh’s ability to maintain his 2016 performance, this is a no-brainer to place him among the top 100 or so relief pitchers in baseball. And even with potential cynicism surrounding Rosenthal’s 2016 performance, he was such a transcendent reliever in his first three seasons that he is certainly worth the risk here.
The problem that relievers will face in this scenario is that they will endure competition for bullpen roles from starters who could not crack MLB rotations. Michael Wacha is a solid example of this, particularly as he would arguably be best served in a bullpen role given his recent injury problems anyway. But even with this much higher threshold for inclusion, Brett Cecil still would likely make the cut—he has been a top-30 reliever in baseball over the last three seasons, and as a lefty, he gets some bonus points there.
Kevin Siegrist, Matt Bowman: Borderline MLB relievers
As somebody who is still unsure what to make of Siegrist, I put him in this group—his ERA certainly merits even a condensed bullpen spot, but his somewhat lacking peripherals also make the case against him a bit stronger. And while Bowman was a pleasant surprise in 2016, would teams be inclined to defer to a pitcher who was a Rule 5 pick a year ago? I have no idea. Well, technically I have no idea on any of these, but I really have no idea here.
Jonathan Broxton, Luke Weaver, etc.: Not in Major League Baseball
While Broxton is better than you probably think he is—but he is far from great, and he’s not getting any younger. Miguel Socolovich has pitched well for the Cardinals, but at 30, he probably hasn’t been dynamic enough nor is he young enough to get a serious shot at a condensed big leagues. Luke Weaver, as well as other potential inclusions in the Cardinals bullpen (Marco Gonzales, Sam Tuivailala, Tyler Lyons when healthy), could likely get minor league gigs, as they do have potential to grow.
At the end of the day, Major League Baseball would not lose superstars. But it would lose some interesting and amusing players. And while I recognize that I’m arguing against nobody, since nobody is advocating that MLB scrap fourteen teams (if anybody is advocating for this, don’t tell me), it’s just downright swell that baseball has expanded enough that even the worst players are dynamic talents. And because of the depth of talent, imagining a league with 53% of the players is difficult to fathom.