Competitive balance points to game's health
Long list of potential contenders fuels optimism around Major Leagues
As the North American opening of the regular season nears, 2014 looks like another fine year for competitive balance.
Objectively, there are at least 20 clubs that could consider themselves legitimate contenders for a postseason berth. That may be a conservative estimate, but it is merely a starting point in any case.
An entire division -- the American League East -- is populated with teams that could fairly consider themselves postseason contenders.
Another division -- the National League Central -- set a record in 2013 by qualifying three teams for the postseason: St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Admittedly, the expansion of the Wild Card berth opened the door for this record, but, the division did have three postseason-worthy clubs last year. This year, a fourth club in that division, Milwaukee, has reason to believe that it can contend, as well.
The AL West was already difficult, with three clubs being viewed as genuine contenders. And then the Mariners picked up the premier position-player free agent of the offseason, Robinson Cano, added some other bats, and made themselves part of the discussion.
There is even encouragement within the encouragement when the coming season is considered. Some of the most viable contenders are small-market, or at least small-revenue, franchises that have successfully made their way against clubs with much larger resources.
Tampa Bay has qualified for the postseason four times in the past six years. In the player payroll projections for all 30 clubs reported by the Associated Press, the Rays ranked 28th.
Oakland has won the AL West the past two seasons despite sharing the division with some of the game's most aggressive franchises. The A's ranked 25th in the AP's salary projections.
Pittsburgh broke through last season after 20 years without a postseason appearance. The Pirates rank 27th in projected player salaries.
The presence of these clubs in the postseason, particularly in the repeat performances of Tampa Bay and Oakland, underscores the importance of the growth in revenue sharing. Baseball's economic playing field has not been leveled. But it has been modified to the point where small-market teams have a fighting chance.
After that, these clubs are making their way with top-shelf scouting, exceptional player development, astute personnel decisions and the ability to get the absolute maximum out of the talent on hand at the Major League level.
In baseball, the small-market success story is no longer a rarity. But it is still fundamentally a feel-good story.
And there is also reasonably good news in the secondary market for optimism. There are clubs that are not widely considered as immediate contenders but have undeniably brighter futures due to young and extremely talented players in the organization.
The Marlins are amassing a truly impressive base of young talent. The Cubs have some blue-chip position-player talent on the horizon -- and maybe closer than that in the case of Javier Baez. The Mets have some outstanding young pitching, and after Matt Harvey returns from Tommy John surgery, their rotation, one through three at least, may well be set for years.
The White Sox undeniably have taken positive steps on the road back to contending status. If you look a little further into the future, it is possible to see better days for the Astros, who are engaged in the ultimate from-the-ground-up rebuilding job.
True, the Dodgers have taken over the top salary spot with a player payroll reported to be about $235 million. And the Yankees, after all that talk about staying beneath the luxury tax threshold of $189 million, have once again checked in at more than $200 million.
Look, when we talk about competitive balance, nobody is saying that the Major Leagues have taken on a Bolshevik economic model. This is still a modified free market in operation. The game has never been more prosperous. The television contracts have never been more lucrative.
But the game on the field offers more opportunities for more teams to be winners than it did, for instance, 15-20 years ago. This is what Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig is speaking of when he speaks of the game owing its fans "hope and faith." The more teams with fans having that hope and faith, the better, the healthier, the game is.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.