In baseball, more than any sport, certain holidays serve as signposts that sometimes tell where teams are, and where they are headed. Memorial Day, Labor Day and, for some really bad teams, Opening Day, often tell a lot about a club. But July 4, Independence Day, can be the most revealing because it represents the midway point of the season. It can signal whether a team is coming or going, although this season, it's very, very hard to tell.
Starting with 1995, the first year of the six-division format, 86 teams were in first place, or a tie for first, on the morning of July 4 -- 53 of those teams (62 percent) went on to win the division. And, 196 teams were under .500 on the morning of July 4, with nine (5 percent) going on to make the playoffs: the 2008 Dodgers, '07 Rockies, '07 Yankees, '05 Astros, '04 Braves, '01 Athletics, '01 Cardinals, '97 Astros and '95 Yankees.
Those nine give hope to all the teams under .500 that they could make the playoffs, but none of those nine went on to win the World Series. Those 53 division winners give hope to all those teams that are in first place this morning. But given the unpredictability of the 2009 season, or any season, those numbers might not mean much. Here's a look at each division.
Red Sox: They are loaded with pitching, and will have even more whenever Daisuke Matsuzaka gets his right shoulder, and his body, in shape in the minor leagues, and Clay Buchholz gets recalled from Triple-A Pawtucket. David Ortiz is swinging much better these days. There's nothing to suggest that the Red Sox will be anywhere but in the playoffs once October arrives.
Yankees: They are climbing. They are second in the American League in runs scored, their pitching is getting better and first baseman Mark Teixeira has made them a demonstrably better defensive team than last year. They are good enough to win the division, but if they're going to ensure that they make the playoffs, they're going to have to beat the team behind them in the standings, the Rays. The Yankees and Rays will play each other in the final three games of the season at Tropicana Field.
Rays: They're another club on the rise. They have outscored their opponents by 86 runs, the second-largest margin in the major leagues. They reached 100 homers and 100 steals at an earlier date than any team in baseball history. With Scott Kazmir back, David Price here to stay and Matt Garza as a force, their rotation is very good, and the bullpen by committee is working. Plus, second baseman Aki Iwamura (injured left knee) might be ready to play by September.
Blue Jays: They can hit, and they have the AL's best pitcher (Roy Halladay). But it's unlikely that they'll make the playoffs given the stretch they have from Aug. 10 to Sept. 20, when they get the Red Sox, Rays and Yankees a combined 24 games, as well as the Twins, Rangers and Angels.
Orioles: This will be the 12th straight season which they'll finish under .500, but at least they're going in the right direction with the outfield trio of Adam Jones, Nick Markakis and Nolan Reimold. Still, every AL East team has outscored its opponents by at least 38 runs, but the O's have been outscored by 54 runs.
Tigers: They reconstructed their pitching and defense right before our eyes, and now are the team to beat in their division. Their season -- and this race -- could come down to the final seven games of the season when the Tigers play the Twins (four games) and White Sox (three games) in Detroit.
White Sox: They have won seven in a row and 11 of their past 13, they are second in the AL in ERA and they are starting to swing the bats. They have worked their way back into contention without left fielder Carlos Quentin (injured left foot). He could be back for the final two months.
Twins: Their young pitching is slowly getting better, they catch the ball as well as any team and they have the best player in the league in catcher Joe Mauer. We'll know more about the Twins after they play 16 of their first 22 games after the All-Star break on the road. They are 17-24 on the road this year.
Royals: They have been outscored by 66 runs, most in the AL. They can't hit enough to contend.
Angels: Despite all the injuries, and the tragic death of Nick Adenhart, the Angels have found their way. As always, it's another tribute to their organization, especially manager Mike Scioscia. Look for them to trade for middle relief help, the only major trouble spot on their club.
Rangers: There's so much to like about this team, including the way the Rangers have upgraded their pitching. But they're still going to have to outscore most teams, and with center fielder Josh Hamilton injured, they're going to be hard pressed to do that in the second half.
Mariners: They are so much better than most people expected. They lead the AL in ERA by a healthy margin. They are currently contenders, but if they can get left-hander Erik Bedard healthy, trading him for a package of young players will help them in 2010 and beyond.
Athletics: Left fielder Matt Holliday will be traded somewhere unless GM Billy Beane can't get what he wants, then he'll take the draft picks when he loses Holliday to free agency this winter.
Phillies: They have the highest starters' ERA in the NL, another reason for them to make a deal before the July 31 trade deadline. But first, they have to get shortstop Jimmy Rollins (4 for his last 35) out of his slump and they have to get left fielder Raul Ibanez healthy.
Marlins: When they moved into a first-place tie with the Phillies on Thursday, it marked the latest the Marlins have ever been in first place in a calendar year -- remember, this is a team with two World Series titles in the past 12 years. To make the playoffs again this season, they must trade for a reliever now that closer Matt Lindstrom is out for at least another month.
Mets: Their only hope, and it isn't much, is to get shortstop Jose Reyes and center fielder Carlos Beltran back by the end of July, then make a huge playoff push. But even that might not be possible with their starting pitching issues, including the injury to John Maine.
Braves: They are a terrible hitting team, but with their pitching, led lately by rookie Tommy Hanson, they have a chance to win a very winnable division. Plus, they might get Tim Hudson off the disabled list for the stretch run. But it appears they made their only big move when they acquired center fielder Nate McLouth. They're going to have to win with the players they have.
Nationals: They are as irrelevant as a team can get, 33 games under .500, and outscored by 105 runs. Yet it will be interesting to see if they deal first baseman Nick Johnson to a contender, and it will be fascinating to see if they can sign their No. 1 pick, Stephen Strasburg.
Brewers: With all they lost in the offseason, it's amazing that they're nearly in first place, and they're in that spot with a dynamic offense, an improved defense and Trevor Hoffman pitching for them at the end of games. The stretch the Brewers have before the All-Star break is crucial: four games at the Cubs, followed by six home games against the Cardinals and Dodgers combined.
Cardinals: Their trade for Mark DeRosa will help in every way, but whether or not the Cardinals make the playoffs will depend on how opponents pitch to Albert Pujols. He has 28 intentional walks. Since the statistic became official in 1955, only Barry Bonds (five times, including 71 in 2004) has had more intentional walks before the All-Star break than Pujols.
Reds: They're going to have to make the playoffs on the strength of their pitching, and their best pitcher, Edinson Volquez, is hurt. There's no telling when he'll be back, but his beginning a long-toss program on July 3 doesn't sound good.
Cubs: At some point, the Cubs have to get hot, and maybe that has just begun. At some point, they're going to have to start hitting, and maybe that will begin when third baseman Aramis Ramirez returns early next week after spending two months on the disabled list. The Cubs are 23-13 at home, and 16-25 on the road. The rest of their games until the All-Star break will be at Wrigley Field.
Astros: They have worked their way back into the division race even though they're still in fifth place. It's hard to give up on a season when you're four games out of first, but if they can get better for 2010 by trading Miguel Tejada or Carlos Lee, they should do it. But chances are, those guys will stay in Houston.
Pirates: They will set the major league record for most consecutive years (17) under .500. And they might do that without shortstop Jack Wilson and/or first baseman Adam LaRoche, who might be the next players the Pirates trade away.
Dodgers: They are tied for the NL lead in ERA, they are third in the NL in runs scored, second in defense and, by a wide margin, they are first in run differential (plus-87). And now they've got Manny Ramirez back. Just as important, they proved they can win without Ramirez.
Giants: They are improving offensively, and can pitch with any team in the league. They are 25-12 at home, and they will play the remainder of their games until the All-Star break at home against the Astros, Marlins and Padres. If they want another bat at the July 31 trade deadline, they have the pitching to get it.
Rockies: The amazing Rockies are back in the race for a variety of reasons. And they've played only 33 home games compared with 46 road games. There's no reason they can't stay in the race for the wild card.
Padres: They are the lowest-scoring team in the NL, having been outscored by 97 runs. Their best hope for 2010 is to get Jake Peavy healthy (unlikely) before the trade deadline, and deal him for three prospects.
So there it is. On July 4, 21 of 30 teams have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs. We'll see how many are still in contention when the next signpost comes around on Labor Day.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.