Continued parity would make for a happy New Year
Happy New Year, everybody, and by that, I mean let's hope 2013 provides as much as 2012. Like having 20 teams within five games of a playoff berth at the All-Star break and 14 of them still in the mix on Sept. 1. Like having four of the six division races settled in the final week and every best-of-five Division Series go the distance.
It would mean having some new teams in the mix, too. In 2012, the Orioles and A's reminded us how fun that can be, so here's to the Blue Jays, Royals, Padres and others in 2013.
Happy New Year indeed. Baseball has never had this much parity, and neither has any other professional sport. At least eight teams are in the "Best Team in Baseball" discussion: Blue Jays, Tigers, Angels, Nationals, Reds, Cardinals, Giants, Dodgers.
Has it ever been like this before? And did you notice the Yankees and Red Sox weren't on the list? When was the last time we had a discussion like this without including them?
If you didn't know one other thing about the state of Major League Baseball on this New Year's Day, the Yankees and Red Sox opening Spring Training with fewer questions than the Reds, Nationals and a bunch of other teams would tell you plenty.
Here's the deal about the Yankees and Red Sox: If either of them won the World Series, it would surprise almost no one.
At the moment, though, they appear to be part of the next group of teams, nine of them in all, that expect to be in the postseason. Besides the Yankees and Red Sox, the Rays, Rangers, A's, Braves, Phillies, D-backs and Orioles are on this list.
And there are others. The Royals believe they're going to vault into contention after a productive offseason. The Pirates and Indians also made significant additions this offseason, and the Padres and Mariners have so many highly regarded young prospects that it would be a mistake to overlook them.
The Brewers? We're not forgetting them, either. They score runs in bunches, and general manager Doug Melvin shored up his bullpen this winter. If those young starting pitchers are as good as a lot of people think, the Crew should be in the mix.
Get the picture? So far, I've mentioned 23 of 30 teams, and that's the larger story in all of this. No sport has the kind of parity baseball has right now. Every team has a chance to contend.
Yes, there are wide gaps in revenue from top to bottom, but general managers like Oakland's Billy Beane and Tampa Bay's Andrew Friedman have proven that smarts can overcome a lot of challenges in other areas.
That's why nine franchises have won at least one World Series the last dozen years, and their average payroll rank was just 10th. Over that same period of time, 15 of baseball's 30 teams have won at least one pennant.
Wait, there's more. In the last three seasons, 14 of 30 teams have been to the playoffs at least once, and I'm not counting the 2012 Wild Card teams. In the last five seasons, 20 of the sport's 30 teams have been to the postseason.
In the final 30 days of the 2012 regular season, the big-money Yankees and upstart Orioles were neck-and-neck in the American League East.
In the AL Central, the Tigers and White Sox weren't more than three games apart after July 16. Pause for a moment and roll that thought around in your head.
The Tigers and White Sox pushed one another, tested one another, each refusing to give in. There's a wonderful, exhausting tension when two teams are that close together for that long. The Tigers finally took over first place for good in the 145th game of the season and clinched in the 160th. In the AL West, the Rangers and A's settled the race on the final day of the regular season.
These last two seasons have changed the dynamics at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. Rather than have buyers and sellers, teams on the edge of contention didn't want to be seen as pulling the plug on their season.
If the Rays and Cardinals can come from 10 games back, as both did in 2011, during the final five weeks, then why can't other teams do it? Maybe that's why the Royals were willing to part with one of baseball's best prospects, outfielder Wil Myers, in a trade that brought them two starting pitchers, James Shields and Wade Davis.
The Royals have been carefully and smartly reconstructed from the ground up. General manager Dayton Moore decided it was time to go for it. Plenty of others -- the Padres, Mariners and Indians -- believe they're not far away.
Remember the 2012 A's? They weren't expected to contend, either, but when they were right in the middle of things at the Trade Deadline, Beane was asked if this changed his thought process.
"Oh yeah," he said. "When you've got an opportunity like this, you go for it. You owe it to your players and your fans."
He ended up having about as much fun as he has ever had in the game, as the A's ran down the Rangers in the 161st game of the season and passed them in the 162nd. As Beane said, these opportunities don't come around that often. But they're becoming more and more frequent for more and more teams. Happy New Year, everybody. Enjoy the ride.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.