For more and more fans, hope springs

For more and more fans, hope springs in 2007

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Call it competitive balance or call it parity, but it is the central fact of Baseball 2007: The vast majority of teams have the right to think of themselves as potential winners.

Of course, at the end of September, many of these teams will not be winners, but that is not the issue. What we learned in Spring Training 2007 was that the talent has been spread around like never before in baseball. And so has the hope.

Out of the 30 franchises, 26 can come to the regular season with the genuine belief that they could play beyond September. This is not written in stone anywhere, but it does not appear that Washington is a postseason team. Tampa Bay and Baltimore have reason to believe that they are improved, but they are up against perennial powerhouses with vast resources in the AL East. And Kansas City has improved, too, but it is playing in baseball's toughest division, the AL Central.

Everywhere else you can create an optimistic scenario for any club and it will not be wildly unrealistic. This is a very good thing. As the Commissioner of Baseball, Bud Selig often says baseball owes its fans hope and faith. In 26 of 30 cases, at least hope has been achieved.

Franchises that don't have sky-scraping budgets are putting together talented, exciting, young clubs, which also have the economic virtue of being relatively inexpensive. Between this development and increased revenue sharing, more teams have a real shot to compete this season. And more so-called experts will have greater difficulty figuring out who is supposed to win the six divisions. That's enjoyable, too.

Baseball people outside the big-spending framework are happy, pleased, enthusiastic, and just generally up about these developments. Bob Melvin is the manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team that has spent money on veteran pitchers, but will otherwise depend on young but extremely promising position players. When asked about the notion that 26 teams could open the season with legitimate hope, Melvin responded:

"I wouldn't argue with those numbers, and I think it's great for the game. Many more teams go to Spring Training now feeling like they have a chance to win. I think it's great for the fan base, it's great for the game as a whole that so many teams are competitive. You look at clubs that have won with $60 or $70 million payrolls, and now everybody feels that they have a chance."

The profile of potentially successful teams has changed, at least in some cases. Cost-conscious clubs are depending increasingly on young players who have emerged from their farm systems. These players have to be talented, but they are also, by definition, relatively inexpensive. This is something of a new era in baseball, but it has meant a return to reliance on the traditional virtues of scouting and player development.

"I haven't really crunched the numbers, so to speak, but you get a lot of clubs that are winning with lesser payrolls," Melvin says. "It used to be the teams that had the veteran clubs were always the ones that were forecast to win. Now you're seeing younger clubs do that much better, and younger guys getting to the big leagues much quicker and making a difference.

"Look at what the Marlins did last year. They would have been one of the last teams that you would have picked to be potentially in it throughout September. I think a lot of the new general managers, the younger GMs, too, add a little more importance on the younger players.

"Every year, you see it with the Twins. You look at their roster and you say, 'how?' But they continually run organizational players out there to play their style and play their type of game, and they expect success."

Previous conventional wisdom was that you could not win playing with kids. Now, it is much more likely that teams will utilize young players, because those players fit their financial circumstances. Increasingly, teams with budgetary limits are attempting to create a blend of young players and carefully selected veterans.

"You used to be reluctant to bring young guys to the big-league level, whether you had veterans in front of them, or to play them off the bench, because for the most part they haven't done that before," Melvin says. "But now you're seeing more and more teams get these guys to the big leagues at a younger age. For the most part they're very athletic guys who end up doing well early on. We expect our guys to do the same."

For baseball, the level economic playing field remains a potential goal, rather than a current reality. The Yankees and the Red Sox still have a substantial lead in payroll. A team like the Cubs can commit nearly $300 million to free agents over one winter. But a broader distribution of wealth, combined with a renewed commitment to player development has given more clubs more reasons to believe that they can not only compete, but can win.

"I think it's just great for the game," Melvin says.

Exactly. Spring Training may be the quintessential time for hope. But this spring the hope was both more widely and evenly distributed than at any recent time. Many of these hopes are bound to be extinguished over the marathon season. But baseball has at least come to a place where the vast majority of its fans can look to the season ahead with an optimism that is more genuine than forced.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.