The Pirates are tied for first place in the National League Central. Their pitching is of genuine top-shelf quality. They have made the kind of astute stretch-run acquisitions -- Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau -- that can serve to make all the difference. At this point, the worst that can be said about the Pirates' postseason chances is that they are in an overwhelmingly good position to qualify for a Wild Card berth.
But the Pirates -- as big a story as they have become -- are only part of the competitive-balance story. The Oakland A's, a team with dramatic revenue limitations, are leading the American League West. This ought to be no particular shock. The A's won this division in 2012 with a blazing finish.
But in the preseason prognostications, Oakland was generally dismissed. And yet, there is a base of strong pitching there. Between the acumen of vice president and general manager Billy Beane and the impressive day-to-day performance of manager Bob Melvin in handling this roster, the A's have found the winning formula. The fact that their player payroll ranks 27th in the Majors merely serves to illustrate how consistently good the decision making is in this organization.
And the Tampa Bay Rays, despite some recent slippage, are still in position to claim one of the AL Wild Card spots. The Rays have essentially become perennial contenders over the past six seasons.
With an imperfect stadium situation, the Rays ranked last in the Majors in attendance after 73 home dates this season. They are forced on a yearly basis to undergo roster turnover in order to contain payroll costs. But with this organization's strength in scouting and player development, it has not only found success but has maintained success. The Rays offer proof that contemporary baseball intelligence can still trump oodles of cash.
Two other teams of relatively modest market size and means -- Cleveland and Kansas City -- are solidly in postseason contention as part of the AL Wild Card race. These are also clubs that have combined a base of young talent with sound acquisitions to make themselves genuine postseason contenders.
There are other measurements of parity. In only one division is the team from the largest media market in first place. That would be the Dodgers in the NL West.
The Dodgers' spending under a new ownership has been more than adequately discussed. This development may be regarded, not as an industry-wide trend, but as a market correction. The aberration is not the Dodgers spending $200-million-plus on player payroll. The aberration, under a previous ownership, was the $90 million player payroll the Dodgers had.
These are the Dodgers. They play their home games in Los Angeles. The surprise was when they didn't have one of the leading payrolls in baseball.
The game's movement toward competitive balance has been steady over time. In the past 10 years, 26 different teams have qualified for baseball's postseason. The game has moved toward parity through mechanisms such as vastly increased revenue sharing and the luxury tax.
Commissioner Bud Selig has said repeatedly that baseball owes its fans "hope and faith," the legitimate belief that their team has a shot to win. The 2013 season offers proof that the game continues to move in that direction -- the direction of increased competitive balance.