Wide-open division races should make for a compelling finish
Originally Published: August 4, 2008By Sean McAdam | Special to ESPN.com
And down the stretch they come!What a stretch run it could be, too. Now that baseball has passed the non-waiver trade deadline, fewer than two months remain in a regular season that should promise some fantastic finishes. In a year in which the game has weathered the Mitchell report, avoided a near-disaster at the All-Star Game and survived the Manny Ramirez circus, it could use some good news. So, here it is: there's the potential for five of the six divisions to go down to the wire, and in more cases than not, with multiple teams in the running -- to say nothing of the wild-card chases. With eight weeks remaining, only one division -- the American League West -- seems spoken for. What's more, more than two teams are in the running in the AL East, NL East and NL Central. Further, a good week is all that's stopping the Detroit Tigers and Colorado Rockies from injecting themselves into their respective races in the AL Central and NL West. It's possible, too, that some teams in the running will fall back before Labor Day, the traditional final leg of the season. But for now, other than the Los Angeles Angels, no division leader has a margin of more than five games. Elsewhere, there's a virtual tie (the White Sox and Twins are even in the loss column); a three-way scrum with three games separating the Phillies, Mets and Marlins; a one-game difference between the Diamondbacks and Dodgers; two teams (Brewers and Cards) in hot pursuit of the Cubs; and a crowded house between the Rays, Red Sox and Yankees. This hasn't been the norm of late. In fact, the wild-card races have been more compelling and kept the drama alive in the closing weeks of the season. Why, all of a sudden, have the division races become so compelling? Three reasons:
1. Injuries have kept some favorites from running awaySure, the Angels have had more than their share of lumps (Kelvim Escobar and John Lackey to start the season; Howie Kendrick, etc.) and injuries are part of the game. But this season, more than most, some free-spending, big-market teams have been humbled thanks to the disabled list.
2. More spending equals more parityCredit revenue sharing and new (and more lucrative) revenue streams for helping to close -- if not eliminate -- the gap between the haves and have-nots. The Milwaukee Brewers, a classic small-market franchise, are able to contend with the Chicago Cubs and land pricey players like CC Sabathia because of the game's general economic well-being. Not long ago, the notion of small-market teams taking on salaries like Sabathia's, even for a couple of months, would have been preposterous. Now, revenue sharing, new media income and lucrative national media deals have helped boost budgets and lift payroll. "There are always going to be some teams with more money to spend," says one high-ranking team executive. "That's just a fact. But I think we're at a point now where fewer and fewer teams are automatically priced out on [star] players.'' A few years ago, the Yankees, Mets and Red Sox were the only teams spending north of the $100 million barrier. This season, more than 40 percent of MLB franchises (13-of-30) had Opening Day payrolls of at least $97 million.
3. Being bad can eventually pay offTeams like Tampa and Milwaukee were so feeble for so long, they accumulated top draft picks, and over time they made themselves competitive through their own development systems.
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