MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Parity has most clubs in playoff hunt

Justice: Parity has most clubs in the hunt

Parity has most clubs in playoff hunt
KANSAS CITY -- The American League has 11 teams at .500 or better at the All-Star break for the first time. In the 43 seasons since divisional play began, the AL has had 10 teams at .500 or better four times -- 1981, '83, '93 and 2005. Meanwhile, the National League had 12 teams at .500 or better in '04, and 11 teams in '03.

In addition, it's just the third time since the current divisional format began in 1994 that one division had five teams at .500. It happened in 2005 with the NL East, and in '04 with the NL Central.

This parity comes after a season in which the Cardinals and Rays sprinted from 10 games back in the final month to grab playoff berths in the final hours of the regular season.

So ...

At the moment, 21 of 30 MLB teams are leading either their division or Wild Card race or are within five games of a playoff berth.

Wait, it gets better.

In the NL, after Washington and Pittsburgh, there are six teams bunched within two games of one another. In the AL, excluding the division leaders, eight teams are separated by a mere 3 1/2 games.

These numbers are important as the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline approaches. In these final weeks, every owner and general manager must look at his club and make a decision on this season.

Do they add pieces, or do they begin planning for 2013? At this point, it's going to be extremely hard for all but a few teams to trade away important pieces, especially after seeing what the Cardinals and Rays did down the stretch last season.

The Brewers aren't one of the teams within five games of a playoff berth. They begin the second half six games out of the Wild Card (but with seven teams ahead of them) and eight behind in the NL Central. GM Doug Melvin's job is tougher, as he considers trading Zack Greinke.

Melvin's club isn't right on the border. If they have a bad week, they could find themselves 10 games out and chasing too many teams to realistically have a chance.

On the other hand, a good week could put them in the mix. For a franchise that could be on its way to drawing three million fans for the fourth time in five seasons, it will be a tough, tough call on making a move that could be perceived as pulling the plug on the season.

Plenty of other GMs are going to be making some version of that decision. For instance, the Pirates are nicely positioned to make their first playoff appearance in 20 years.

So how far does GM Neal Huntington go in shoring up his roster? If he can acquire a middle-of-the-order bat, does he trade away some of the young pitching depth he has acquired?

Pedro Alvarez has a 1.258 OPS since June 16, and if he continues to crush the ball, Huntington's club may be good enough without a single change.

The Blue Jays have that kind of call to make as well. They'll probably need another pitcher to make a legitimate run, but at what price? Would a long-term sacrifice be worth a short-term gain?

This season has been fascinating in that we've all recast the division races every few days or so. One day, the Dodgers are fading fast. Another, they're showing a tough-as-nails mentality to hang in.

Just when we think the Red Sox are going to make their move, they slide backward again. The Tigers have been like that, too. Almost every time they string a couple of victories together, we think, "OK, this is the team we thought it would be."

As for the Phillies, it's almost closing time. They're 10 games out of the NL Wild Card race and have eight teams to pass. They need a big run just to get back in the conversation.

This is the kind of season Commissioner Bud Selig hoped for when he began pushing for revenue sharing. He didn't want a sport in which payrolls decided the standings before the season began.

Selig has it. All but about five or six teams can still envision a scenario in which they can wind up in the playoffs. If the season ended today, six of the top 10 payroll teams wouldn't make it.

Onward. Enjoy.

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.