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Matthew Leach

Swing factors make more teams contenders

Change in behavior, spending puts nearly everyone in the game this season

Swing factors make more teams contenders

As Opening Day approaches, predictions are flying. And while all of the prognosticators might well turn out to be wrong, it stands out that the number of realistic playoff contenders seems unusually high -- especially in some divisions that historically have been dominated by one or two clubs.

The American League East could be won by any of its five teams. The National League East features the long-time bully Phillies widely picked to finish third. The Tigers appear to have more challengers to their throne than they've seen in the past two years. There are some teams looking to the future, to be sure, but baseball's talent distribution appears to be less top-heavy than it's been in a while.

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That results in part from a strange winter. The rich, for the most part, did not get richer. Baseball's biggest spenders from the past few years mostly stayed quiet over the offseason, and some of the top talents headed to unusual destinations.

Sure, the Southern California powers both spent big, with the Angels adding Josh Hamilton and the Dodgers adding just about every unsigned pitcher this side of Pedro Astacio. But the overall movement of big-time talent this year tended to be toward clubs other than the ones that dominated the first decade of the 21st century.

The Yankees have an eye on trimming payroll for 2014, leading to a fairly uneventful winter. The Phillies are a team in transition, and though they spent big to keep Cole Hamels last summer, they made few major additions during the Hot Stove season. The Red Sox made a flurry of moves, but only after clearing a massive amount of payroll room during the 2012 season.

Meanwhile, the Blue Jays were the winter's most aggressive team by far, recalling their glory days from the early 1990s. The Royals and Indians asserted themselves, adding pieces in hopes of challenging the Tigers' reign. The Braves remade their outfield with a pair of huge additions, breaking from some frugal habits in recent years. Even teams that we've gotten used to seeing push hard in the winter, like Detroit and Washington, haven't always been thought of as power teams.

"Everybody's in the game as far as free agency," said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez.

There seem to be a couple of things going on. One, quite simply, is there's more money in the game. Local and national television contracts have boomed recently, allowing many more teams to spend aggressively than in past years. That's part of what spurred the Rangers' and Angels' emergence as big spenders in recent years.

Certainly some teams still have more money than others, but the middle class is doing well these days. Teams like Atlanta, Cincinnati and Toronto will never be confused for their New York, Boston, or Los Angeles counterparts, but they're spending.

It's not just on the free-agent market, either. Another recent trend is that fewer and fewer young stars are reaching free agency. Their teams have the money to lock them up, and so they're doing just that. As a result, it's harder for the big boys to cherry-pick the best talent as those players reach their prime.

"I see clubs doing a better job of, when they get a talent, keeping the talent," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. "I think that's a big part of it."

This may not be a short-term trend, either. In the slightly longer view, regular-season results seem to bear out the same pattern. Things appear to be evening out. From 2006-2012, a span of seven seasons, a total of three teams won 100 or more games -- and none won more than 103. In the nine seasons before that, there were 14 100-win teams, with four of them winning at least 105. That stretch included the 1998 Yankees and 2001 Mariners, both of which roared past 110 wins.

Some of that may be an ongoing adjustment by teams to the modern playoff format. With four and now five teams making the postseason in each league, the incentive has been reduced to build a super-team. A more reasonable goal is to aim for somewhere in the low 90s, make it into October and take your chances. If that is in fact a part of what's going on, don't expect it to change.

And that's not necessarily a bad thing at all. We enter what looks very much like a wide-open, unpredictable season, and it ought to be a lot of fun.

Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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