Take a moment and imagine, if you will, a world where the NL West reigned, where the Giants and Rangers were among baseball’s worst teams, and even crazier – where the Cubs finished in 1st place. Seems far fetched, does it not, given where those teams are today?
Such was life in 2007. In just 5 seasons, baseball has largely flipped the tables, unseating the former division leaders and replacing them with teams accustomed to the bottom dweller role. Among the most surprising clubs enjoying this role reversal are the Orioles, Pirates, and Nationals who have combined for just 7 playoff appearances since 1981 and none since 1997.
This year, all three teams have put themselves in position to earn a playoff spot, thanks in part to the additional Wild Card Spot, but more so to the teams’ exceptional young talent. Players such as Baltimore’s Adam Jones, Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen, and Washington’s Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper have led their teams into unfamiliar territory: the playoff hunt.
For teams with such a history of losing, their success this season has been sudden and surprising.After years upon years of subpar teams, the three franchises have been sensational this season, despite all three finishing below .500 just 1 year ago. Even more spectacular is that these clubs have done all this while being among the bottom 12 teams in terms of payroll.
Meanwhile, some perennial contenders sitting atop the payroll rankings haven’t fared as well as their small market counterparts. The Phillies and Red Sox, in particular, have struggled for most of the season. A lot of this can be chalked up to unfortunate long term injuries to key players on both teams (Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury for Boston and Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Roy Halladay for Philladelphia), but David Ortiz is the only one in Boston replicating his strong play from last year. Adrian Gonzalez has followed up his MVP caliber season with a pretty forgettable performance, but despite all this, Boston is still 2 games over .500 and just .5 games back from a Wild Card spot. They’ve been disappointing, but not terrible.
Philadelphia on the other hand…
After finishing with an MLB best 102 wins last season, the Phillies are among the league’s worst, sitting at the bottom of the NL East, 13.5 games back.
Outside of these extreme examples, parity as a whole has increased throughout the MLB. 19 teams have realistic hopes for making the playoffs, a far cry from even just a year ago when that number hovered closer to 11. While payrolls remain incredibly unequal (the Yankees spend $198 million while the Padres spend just $55 million), the talent levels between teams is becoming increasingly more similar. Just as with the success of the Pirates, Orioles, and Nationals, much of the parity is the result of talented young players that still have small salaries due to their youth. Teams are developing exciting new players in their farm systems and can afford them while they are still a part of their rookie contracts.
The increased level of competitiveness will perhaps mark the beginning of a new era for baseball, where parity is more prevalent, as the league recovers from the steroid era of the past few decades. This season could be the start of a golden age for baseball.
Just don’t say so in Philadelphia.