This baseball season is best represented by the Cincinnati Reds. Through their first 80 games, the Reds were 40-40 overall, 20-20 at home, 20-20 on the road, 36-36 in nine-inning games, 4-4 in extra inning games, 28-28 against right-handed pitchers, and 12-12 against left-handed pitchers. And where did such monumental mediocrity get them? Just one game in the loss column out of first place in the NL Central.
Parity -- otherwise known as competitive balance around MLB offices -- means anything close to .500 is contending. As this week began, marking the official second half of the season, 17 of the 30 teams were separated by just five or fewer losses. Eighteen teams were within four games of a playoff spot. The Mariners were closer to the playoffs than the Rays. The Astros were nearer the playoffs than the Mets.
The baseball season breaks down like this: you have the Red Sox, Yankees and Dodgers playing for October, then you have 19 teams that are fairly interchangeable, and then you have eight teams that are playing for next year. Of course, it's not quite that simple, but you get the idea.
Baseball 2009 means a wide-open playing field. It also means possible runs for .400 and a Triple Crown, a generation of young starting pitchers dominating the game, and a golden age of all-time great managers still at the top of their game. To recap a tightly if not always well-contested first half, here are my leaders for the major individual awards and some not-so-major team awards:
AL MVP: 1) Joe Mauer, Twins. 2) Torii Hunter, Angels. 3) Kevin Youkilis, Red Sox. 4) Justin Morneau, Twins. 5) Derek Jeter, Yankees. 6) Evan Longoria, Rays. 7) Carl Crawford, Rays. 8) Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners. 9) Aaron Hill, Blue Jays. 10) Shin-Soo Choo, Indians. A Gold Glove catcher hitting .389? Everybody else get in line behind Mauer.
NL MVP: 1) Albert Pujols, Cardinals. 2) Hanley Ramirez, Marlins. 3) Chase Utley, Phillies. 4) Ryan Braun, Brewers. 5) Prince Fielder, Brewers. 6) Raul Ibanez, Phillies. 7) Pablo Sandoval, Giants. 8) Brad Hawpe, Rockies. 9) David Wright, Mets. 10) Adrian Gonzalez, Padres. And it's not even close. Pujols is Triple Crown material.
AL Cy Young Award: 1) Zack Greinke, Royals. 2) Roy Halladay, Blue Jays. 3) Felix Hernandez, Mariners.Greinke is so good he has a shot at 200 punchouts with fewer than 40 walks. The only men to do that are Ben Sheets, Halladay, CC Sabathia, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Ferguson Jenkins, Juan Marichal, WalterJohnson and the man himself, Cy Young.
NL Cy Young Award: 1) Tim Lincecum, Giants. 2) Dan Haren, Diamondbacks. 3) Matt Cain, Giants. This is shaping up as a great race, but Lincecum holds the slight edge with his strikeouts. He is headed for a third season with more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings.
AL Rookie of the Year: 1) Ricky Romero, Blue Jays. 2) Rick Porcello, Tigers. 3) Brad Bergesen, Orioles.Seven wins and a 2.96 ERA, and now people have stopped asking why the Jays took Romero instead of Troy Tulowitzki in that 2005 draft.
NL Rookie of the Year: 1) Colby Rasmus, Cardinals. 2) Tommy Hanson, Braves. 3) Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals. The award may wind up with Hanson, but Rasmus has the edge as an every-day outfielder who has been in the bigs all year.
AL Manager of the Year: 1) Jim Leyland, Tigers. 2) Ron Washington, Rangers. 3) Cito Gaston, Blue Jays.Leyland has remade the Tigers on the fly into a pitching and defense club with daily lineup uncertainties.
NL Manager of the Year: 1) Tony La Russa, Cardinals. 2) Joe Torre, Dodgers. 3) Bruce Bochy, Giants. La Russa never gets stale. He's still as good as there is at turning unpredictability into an asset, never allowing his players to grow content with their status or the lineup.
AL Biggest Surprise: Texas Rangers. The team with four straight losing seasons hasn't been more than 3 1/2 games out of first place all season. Kevin Millwood has been a true workhorse and ace for a pitching staff that has held up very well under coach Mike Maddux.
NL Biggest Surprise: San Francisco Giants. They might not even hit 100 home runs and they might be the least-patient hitting team in the league, but the Giants are a legitimate wild-card threat because their pitching is spectacular.
AL Biggest Bust: Cleveland Indians. Yes, injuries have helped take this team out of contention, but the Indians shouldn't be this bad. The bullpen has been frightening.
NL Biggest Bust: Arizona Diamondbacks. Suddenly, they are a stagnant organization, and the A.J. Hinch hiring as a completely inexperienced manager has looked about as risky as it sounded at the time.
AL Best Plan A: Detroit Tigers. They fast-tracked Porcello, traded for Edwin Jackson, moved Brandon Inge to third, acquired Gerald Laird and Adam Everett and paid Gary Sheffield to go away, a symbolic move proving the organization knew the team had grown too old and unathletic. The emphasis on pitching and defense has been spot on.
NL Best Plan A: Los Angeles Dodgers. They cut their payroll by $18 million and wound up with the best record in baseball. The Orlando Hudson signing was a gem, not to mention those of Casey Blake, Mark Loretta, Brad Ausmus and Randy Wolf, gamers all.
AL Worst Plan A: Oakland Athletics. Oakland does a nice job collecting assets on the cheap, but the plan doesn't seem to come together. Old horses Jason Giambi, Orlando Cabrera and Nomar Garciaparra have 729 plate appearances and OPS+ marks of 92, 69 and 83. Matt Holliday isn't as valuable now as when Oakland acquired him. And the Athletics continue to have major problems keeping players healthy. Oakland does have a bunch of good arms that could pay off big soon, and there's still time to invoke a good Plan B before the trade deadline.
NL Worst Plan A: Washington Nationals. Why is Adam Dunn here? The Nats have too many outfielders who are poor defenders, too many starting pitchers who can't go deep enough into games, too many relief pitchers who can't get enough hitters out and too many dumb mistakes.
AL Best Race: AL East. As predicted, the three best teams in the league, if not in all of baseball, play in the same division. One of them is not making the playoffs.
NL Best Race: The Bryce Harper Derby. Washington and Arizona are competing for the first pick of the 2010 draft. Somehow the Diamondbacks have played themselves into making an actual race of it. Nationals fans should understand every Nats win is a costly one.
AL Most Key Player:David Price. The Rays have a potential ace on their hands. Price is very close to turning the corner, and he could get hot enough to pull the Rays to the playoffs.
NL Most Key Player:Milton Bradley. The guy has been horrible on the road (.178/325/.267) and hasn't provided the kind of power the Cubs expected. But now that he has a hot Derrek Lee in front of him and Aramis Ramirez behind him, Bradley should start heating up.
• Keith: Burning questions for second half• Baseball America: Ten key call-ups• Heyman: Midseason awards (and anti-awards)• Sabino: All-Stats All-Stars