Rob Manfred mentioned MLB expansion again. However…

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“I would love to get to 32 teams,” Rob Manfred recently told ESPN’s Don Van Natta Jr. in a lengthy story. You don’t really need to read the whole thing unless you really want to, as it’s kind of what you’d expect: you don’t get to do a long interview with the commissioner of Major League Baseball if there are going to be a lot of tough questions and pushback. Still, though, Van Natta Jr. got Manfred to mention expansion during their talk, which was one of the early things he discussed back in his first term as commissioner, after taking over for Bud Selig:

No matter how they see the CBA’s fine print, owners seem thrilled with Manfred’s job performance. And why wouldn’t they be? Despite its array of problems, league sources say baseball has grown into a $10 billion-plus-a-year sport, up from $8 billion when Manfred became commissioner. Owners also loved Manfred’s reorganization of the minor leagues in 2020, and in the past decade, franchise valuations have more than quadrupled. Not surprisingly, billionaires want in, and expansion is coming. “I would love to get to 32 teams,” Manfred tells me.

Here’s the thing, though: five years ago, Manfred explained why expansion wasn’t just a thing that could happen, even if it was something he wanted to happen:

I think for us to expand we need to be resolved in Tampa and Oakland in terms of their stadium situations. As much as I hope that both Oakland and Tampa will get stadiums, I think it would be difficult to convince the owners to go forward with an expansion until those situations are resolved.

Once they’re done, I think we have some great candidates. I know the mayor of Montreal has been very vocal about bringing baseball back to Montreal. It was not great when the Expos left. The fact of the matter was baseball was successful in Montreal for a very long time. Charlotte is a possibility. And I would like to think that Mexico City or some place in Mexico would be another possibility.

That was during the All-Star break press conferences of 2017: Tampa’s stadium situation remains unresolved, despite trying to loop Montreal into the process for reasons, and the A’s are currently threatening to leave for Las Vegas with the full financial support of MLB’s other owners, should the city of Oakland refuse to agree to go forward with the club’s current stadium proposal. That’s right: MLB made sure to make it known that they’re willing to waive the relocation fee for the A’s, in order to make it easier for them to escape Oakland should the current proposal be voted down. That might not even be true, but it was leaked for a reason —  to let Oakland know it was now or never — as Ann Killion explained in the above linked San Francisco Chronicle story.

Which brings us back to mentioning expansion as something Manfred would love to do. The league would love 32 teams, especially since the current owners would all get a cut of expansion fees north of $2 billion per club, but Tampa and Oakland are still at it. There can’t be an expansion team in Vegas, because that’s where the A’s are currently threatening to go to. There could be an expansion team in Montreal now that the Rays have quit their half-baked two-city threat, but maybe not, since the initial overtures from Rays’ owner Stuart Sternberg could also be used to facilitate a relocation of his franchise to that city once the Tropicana Field lease expires in 2027, especially since St. Petersburg’s mayor is more focused on creating affordable housing and bettering the community than he is spending taxpayer money on redeveloping Tropicana.

It feels like the Oakland vs. A’s situation is at least coming to a head, and so we’ll know if they’re staying or going sooner than later. The Rays, though, who knows what’s going on with the Rays, really. Their lease has another five years on it, and the team’s solution to not being able to get what they wanted out of taxpayers was to try to get two cities to pay for half of the club. And without that solved, expansion might not even be a possibility for Manfred’s MLB until at least his next term in the role: his current deal ends after 2024, but he’s also just 63 years old, so he’ll likely stick around beyond that, too. Selig didn’t retire until he was 80, in case you were just wondering about that.

If Manfred wants to ignore that the Rays still need to solve their stadium issue, then yes, expansion can move forward. Let them pick their potential relocation city — probably Montreal — and then save everything else for potential expansion bids. That’s probably not how things will go down, though, as MLB needs to be able to pitch as many possible cities against each other as they can, in order to get them to offer up more and more in taxpayer-funded incentives to sweeten the deal. Mexico City would likely be excited to be the home of Mexico’s first MLB team, but imagine how much more excitable they could get if they were pitted in a blood feud with Montreal to get it?

Don’t discount any city’s usefulness as a leverage point for relocation, either: Tropicana Field was built in the first place in the hopes that it would attract an MLB team, and then the White Sox used its existence to convince Chicago they were going to play there instead if they didn’t get their own new stadium at home. This is how the league does things; removing pieces from the board just isn’t how they operate.

Maybe there will be expansion in the next few years, but it’s unlikely to happen until both the Rays and A’s know exactly where they’re long-term future resides. It’s a shame that this is how things work, too, as there certainly is enough available talent out there for MLB to expand, and the chance to go more international with the game, to make the league more North American than American, isn’t something that should be ignored, either.

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