Competitive balance the theme for AL in 2015
Season could be marked by wide-open races throughout Junior Circuit
To understand baseball's competitive balance, the American League is a good place to start.
Let's begin with the big picture. That is, at least 13 of the 15 AL teams believe they're positioned to make the postseason in 2015. (Only the Astros and Twins aren't on my list. That said, both have gotten better this offseason, both have waves of young talent on the way and both expect to play meaningful games this September.)
Go ahead and try to wrap your mind around the seismic change baseball has undergone the last two decades. We've come a long way since the days when payroll size seemed to dictate the standings, and when Bud Selig's legacy as Commissioner is put into a larger context, this would be a good place to start.
On Sept. 1 last season, 17 of baseball's 30 teams were within 5 1/2 games of a postseason berth. In the American League, six franchises have won the pennant in the last seven seasons.
Here's another number to chew on: In the last two postseasons, eight of the 15 AL teams -- that's 53 percent -- have been to the playoffs. Again, that's in the last two seasons.
As for the divisions, the Tigers will end up as slight favorites to win the AL Central. But the Indians and Royals are an eyelash behind.
The Tigers have health issues in Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera and don't know what to expect from Justin Verlander. Meanwhile, the Indians added Brandon Moss to their offense and have one of baseball's best young players, shortstop Francisco Lindor, on the fast track to the big leagues.
The Royals will be different without Billy Butler, James Shields and Nori Aoki, but general manager Dayton Moore added Kendrys Morales, Alex Rios and Edinson Volquez.
As long as that bullpen is intact and Yordano Ventura continues to progress toward No. 1 starter status, the Royals will be in the mix. And the White Sox are going to be there, too, with Chris Sale and Jeff Samardzija at the front of the rotation and Adam LaRoche and Melky Cabrera added to the offense.
The AL West is even more muddled. The Mariners are very good. So are the Angels.
And the Athletics seem likely to be in the mix after general manager Billy Beane worked his magic again, retooling his roster to add depth to the rotation and a new look to the offense with the additions of Butler, Ben Zobrist, Brett Lawrie, Ike Davis and Marcus Semien.
It would be a mistake to stop with those three. The Rangers believe they're good enough to play deep into October if Prince Fielder is healthy. And they have enough depth in the farm system that general manager Jon Daniels will have the ability to fill needs along the way.
Finally, there's the AL East. The Red Sox will begin Spring Training favored to make another worst-to-first run. There's also a case to be made for the Blue Jays and Rays. Only a knucklehead would count out the Orioles.
As for that other AL East team …
The Yankees believe last season marked the end of a significant drought for their player development system with Dellin Betances, David Phelps, Shane Greene, Vidal Nuno, Adam Warren and Chase Whitley all contributing. Michael Pineda deserves to be on this list as well since he was acquired for Jesus Montero, then the pride of the Yankees' farm system.
There's more on the way: second baseman Rob Refsnyder, left-hander Jacob Lindgren, right-hander Jose Ramirez and outfielders Mason Williams, Tyler Austin and Ramon Flores.
Nothing is guaranteed, but this is a longer list of potentially big league-ready prospects than the Yankees have had in a while. And the point is a reminder that while the Yankees might be a logical pick for third, fourth or fifth in the AL East, it would be a mistake to overlook them.
So there you go. Welcome to Major League Baseball in 2015. Payroll size still matters, but more than ever before so do smarts, guts and creativity. We're at the end of an offseason in which the Rays and A's were taken apart and put back together, an offseason in which the Red Sox got way, way better and the Mariners filled every need.
Every single AL team will report to Spring Training with reasonable expectations about at least contending. So that's where we begin another new season. It has never been better than this.