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Competitive balance reigns to begin season

Playoff races may be better than ever this season in Major League Baseball.

That is speculation at this early point in the season, of course. No one knows how the next five months will play out. But don't be surprised if a record number of teams remain in the hunt when the Trade Deadline rolls around in July.

What we can say for sure is this: more teams have gotten off to good starts than normal, leaving minimal separation from the top to the bottom this season.

Through games on Friday, 25 of MLB's 30 teams were within three games of .500. There were six teams that were more than three games under .500 -- the Indians, Astros, Cubs, Pirates, D-backs and Padres.

You have to go back to 1976 to find a season when fewer teams had gotten off to slow starts, and even that is probably misleading, as the '76 season didn't start until April 9.

The balance in the first month of the 2014 season is truly remarkable.

Rays manager Joe Maddon says that the balance around Major League Baseball creates a "laser-thin line of winning or losing." He sees almost no difference in terms of talent and upside between any of the five teams in the American League East.

"Every team in our division is good," Maddon said. "The whole league is good. I've talked about the parity situation. It's going to exist throughout the whole season. It's going to be tough to really run away and hide because of the way this thing is balanced out."

After May 1 a year ago, nine teams had records worse than three games below .500 -- and for what it's worth, none of those teams recovered to grab a playoff spot.

The Astros, Marlins, White Sox and Cubs would go on to finish a combined 242-406, allowing teams at the top of the division to pile up wins. The Indians, for instance, went 17-2 against the White Sox to grab an AL Wild Card spot.

In the previous 10 years, there has been an average of 7.3 teams worse than three games below .500 after games on May 1. Among the 73 teams that got off to those bad starts, eight went on to go to the playoffs. So there's a reason for slow-starting teams like the Bucs or the Tribe to remain hopeful.

Among the teams who have turned things around to start 2014:

• Brewers: Baseball's best story in April, Ron Roenicke's team is winning with balance. The biggest improvement has come in the bullpen through the addition of Will Smith, the development of Tyler Thornburg and the renaissance of Francisco Rodriguez, who leads baseball with 14 saves. Milwaukee was 74-88 last year.

• Giants: It's an even-numbered year, so should we be surprised that the 2010 and '12 World Series champs are dangerous again? They're second to the Rockies in home runs among National League teams, thanks to the emergence of Brandon Belt and the addition of Michael Morse. San Francisco was 76-86 last year.

• Rockies: Troy Tulowitzki is healthy, which is always a good sign. Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez lead a lineup that has had a dangerous leadoff man in center fielder Charlie Blackmon. Colorado was 74-88 last year.

• Mets: A lot of people scoffed when general manager Sandy Alderson said his team could win 90 games, but despite a slow start from Curtis Granderson and the absence of Matt Harvey, the Mets are serving notice. It's a blue-collar operation, but manager Terry Collins is making the parts work. He's done a great job shuffling roles in the bullpen. New York was 74-88 last year.

• Marlins: Jose Fernandez's arrival last season began a turnaround that continues in South Florida. Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton are a must-see duo, but newcomers like Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Garrett Jones are also making a difference for a team that went into Friday's game second in runs scored in the National League. Miami was 62-100 last year.

After struggling a year ago, the White Sox and Twins have had encouraging starts. Both are scoring runs at a much higher pace than a year ago, with Jose Abreu and independent league survivor Chris Colabello among the reasons.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for