As the weather continues to get hotter (read unbearable for the southeast) baseball is just about to the halfway point. If you are obsessive like I am and check the standings about everyday you will notice something interesting. While the NFL is the undisputed king of parity and unpredictability week to week, need I remind you the Arizona Cardinals made the Super Bowl last year, Major League Baseball has become much more of a level playing field this year. Some would say it is too early to make such claims but with such a plethora of teams still in the race for division titles and wild-cards, the August/September stretch run could possibly be the most contested since the expansion to 8 playoff teams.
As of right now, I would only say that 7 of the 30 teams are out of the race for a playoff spot: Baltimore, Kansas City, Cleveland, Oakland, Washington, San Diego, and Arizona. It may be a tad generous to suggest that teams like Pittsburgh and Atlanta are playoff contenders, but the numbers so far do not lie.
The San Francisco Giants (yes you read that right) are ahead in the NL wild-card for the moment. The top ten contenders are separated only by 6.5 games. The mighty Yankees of unlimited payroll have to settle for the AL wild-card top spot since they trail the Red Sox in the division. The top 7 in that race are only separated by 5.5 games. The largest division lead in baseball is the NL west where the Dodgers own the best record in baseball (49-29) as they have a 6 game edge on the wild-card leading Giants.
Once again it can easily be pointed out that the season is only half over, but right now you would be hard pressed to find a MLB game on any given night that has zero significance right now. This should make the trade deadline extremely interesting next month. So why do we have all this parity in baseball? Isn't this supposed to be the sport where only the rich thrive and every once in awhile a small market team catches fire for a season? It could simply be chance, just the way the numbers fall and since the baseball season is the classic marathon not a sprint of regular seasons it may all fall apart come September, but maybe baseball is changing and perhaps the way of the Marlins, Rays, and Rangers are going to become more of a solid formula than the way of the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, and Cubs.
Looking at payroll, the teams 1-3 (Yanks, Mets, Cubs) are all not in control of their division at the moment, but they are close. The Yankees had a horrible start, but only trail Boston by 2.5 and have won 7 of their last 10. We just saw back to back outstanding starts by Sabathia and Burnett. Combined with their potent offense this is what we all expected out of the Bronx this year. Hang on with your top starters, bomb away at the plate, and once again lean on Mariano in the 9th. The formula has gotten them this far, but with Burnett's unpredictability, Sabathia and A-Rod's past playoff history, and the the miles on Mariano's arm come October, it is not a fool-proof formula. You would think $201 million and change would give you better security than this Yankee fans, but that is what your hopes hang on if you want the Yankees to make their first World Series in 6 years and win their first in 9.
The other 2 top dogs in payroll have underperformed for various reasons. The Mets have been devastated by injuries. It seems like a cop out to say that but it really is true. With 3 of the top 4 hitters on the DL (Beltran, Delgado, Reyes), one of their starters they were depending on in John Mayne sidelined, and their setup man J.J. Putz gone for a long while, the Mets are in dire straits. It also does not help that they are running a gauntlet of tough teams and that their fielding this year has been akin to a Bad News Bears movie. The Mets are right where they were last year, two games under .500 and clinging for dear life. The Cubs situation is a little different. Yes, Aramis Ramirez has been hurt but I guess Buster Olney said it best yesterday when he called the Cubs "the Dallas Cowboys of baseball." The locker room is in dysfunction and the Southsiders always have the championship drought hanging over their heads. The Cubs are also 2 games under .500 and if they are not careful, they could be out of the picture by the end of July.
Of the remaining 5 teams with a payroll over a hundo million, only Houston is not leading their division. These teams seem to have spent their money wisely, but they are by no means safe. Boston has New York, Tampa, and to a lesser degree Toronto lurking behind them. Detroit has to deal with Minnesota who is always tough and the chaotic Ozzie Guillen and the White Sox. The Phillies have been in a bad slump and while the Mets have mirrored it, the Braves and Marlins have begun to charge. The Dodgers are the 5th team and for the moment they appear rolling but we will see what happens when Manny comes back.
One of the factors that is contributing to this parity is the sustained success of the small market teams. Looking at the playoff teams from last year, you would think that the Brewers and Rays were simply one year wonders. But the teams are right back in the thick of the race this year. The Brewers lost C.C. but they still have the core of their line-up, they added Trevor Hoffman as the closer, and Yovani Guillardo has stepped up to be the ace. The Rays have virtually the same team as last year and despite their slow start, the return of B.J. Upton has lead their 7 game win streak.
Where does the economy factor in? Attendance has been down, but no one is shocked by that, but it certainly limited the free agent wheeling and dealing in the offseason. The big name guys got their money, mostly from the Yankees but a lot of the mid-level teams stayed put and were able to keep their young talent and add some veteran pieces. The Rangers are probably the prime example of this. Think of where they were years ago when they signed A-Rod and spent a ton of money on bats. Now they have a minimal $68 payroll but have the bats of Kinsler, Young with the veteran pitching of Milwood and Padilla. The Rangers trail the Angels by 1.5 games in the division and (hopefully) soon they will have Hamilton back.
We could not forget to mention the Marlins. While the A's are the portrait for Moneyball, even though the movie has been scratched for now, there is perhaps no better example of getting the most out of a paltry payroll than the Marlins. Who knows if this will change when they move into their new stadium and become the "Miami Marlins" but at this point why change what works? The fish sit dead last in payroll at $36.834 yet they one game over .500 and trail the floundering Phillies by 1.5 games. It seems like we could have 2003 all over again. I expect the Marlins will be buyers before the trade deadline which means they could possibly add a veteran arm or bat. The market will be tough though since almost everyone will be looking to improve after the All-Star break. The Marlins did show some signs last year after holding onto Uggla and Hanley Ramirez and it has paid off for them. Hanley Ramirez is, for lack of a better word, "en fuego". He is hitting .341 and driven in a run in 9 straight games. Josh Johnson appears to be doing a Josh Beckett impersonation on the mound and Matt Lindstrom has only blown 2 saves thus far.
What does it all mean? It means that the fans are the big winners just like in the NFL where each week, each game holds significant value. While tickets remain high and attendance dips, in many cities there will be incentive to make the the attempt to come out and catch a game. Baseball can only hope that a month from now the standings will look the same.