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The top storylines of the 2012 season

Apr 4, 2012, 11:00 AM EDT

Rays' Evan Longoria runs to home plate as his teammates crowd around after his 12th inning home run to defeat the Yankees during their American League MLB baseball game in St. Petersburg, Florida

We have used the word “storylines” around here a whole lot lately. Sorry about that. Until the games start later, it’s all about the narrative.  We can get back to our more natural state — reacting to cool stuff that happens rather than speculating about what will — not long after the Cardinals and Marlins get going down in Miami this evening.

But for now, here are the storylines that seem like they’ll dominate the 2012 season.  I went with five because there are only so many of these things that truly sustain themselves once teams meet in battle. These, I think, will sustain themselves:

1.  The second wild card:  Remember all of that craziness on the last night of the 2011 regular season? Yeah, that was great. So it makes perfect sense that Major League Baseball has instituted something that would have utterly mooted it.  Yes, two teams in each league will win the wild card going forward, and that definitely lowers the stakes for teams that were heretofore on the playoff bubble.

But it certainly raises the stakes for teams fighting for the division, as the wild card winners will now be at a sharp disadvantage in the form of being thrust into a one-game playoff to kick things off while division winners avoid it.  Whether this works to enhance the allure of winning the division and causes managers to really go for it, or whether it simply means that teams will change their tactics and coast late in order to set up favorable pitching matchups for the one-game playoff, will determine how cool this new setup really is.

2. The sure-to-be brutal AL West race:  The Rangers have won the American League pennant two years running.  The Angels have just signed the best hitter in Albert Pujols and (arguably) the best pitcher in C.J. Wilson from the free agent market. They will also see the return of the man who was once their best hitter, Kendrys Morales.  That probably closes the ten-game gap between these two teams from last year, and sets up what should be a humdinger of a race.

3. The return from Chokesville: The Red Sox and the Braves each gagged away what looked to be certain playoff appearances last year. In Boston the collapse dominated the news and lead to front office and managerial upheaval. In Atlanta it barely registered and the Braves stood pat. Watching how each team responds in 2012 will be like a cool experiment to see what method works best to address dreaded choking.

4. The departed sluggers:  Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder have abandoned the NL Central. Their production will, in part, be replaced by Carlos Beltran on the Cardinals and Aramis Ramirez on the Brewers. There’s something pretty cool about each team’s post-megastar-loss damage control plan being the determining factor as to who wins the division.  At least if the Reds don’t sneak in.

5. Moneyball: No, I’m not talking about Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s. I’m talking about the new world baseball teams seem to have suddenly found themselves, flush with cash and enhanced franchise value due to skyrocketing television rights fees. It’s what allowed the Angels to sign Albert Pujols. It allowed Frank McCourt to sell the Dodgers for $2 billion too.  Other teams — the Reds with their Joey Votto signing and the Giants extending Matt Cain — are making bolder financial moves now too, either because they anticipate their own improved financial prospects or because they feel pressure by the competition.  The upshot: teams may rush to lock up young talent now, before the market gets too out of control, and that could lead to a number of mid-season deals.

So those are the five I’m watching. But like I said before, the games change everything. Once pitches start being thrown in anger — and once guys start breaking unwritten rules and getting into fun little in-season controversies — the importance of these preseason storylines diminishes.

Play ball.

  1. yankeesfanlen - Apr 4, 2012 at 11:10 AM

    Now to convince Joe that the last five regular season games DO count.

  2. natstowngreg - Apr 4, 2012 at 11:25 AM

    Yes Houston (and everywhere else), we have real baseball. Our long national nightmare of an off-season is over. End of Spring Training, where every team was enjoying an undefeated season (except the A’s and Mariners, of course), and approximately one-quarter of all players were in The Best Shapes of their Lives.

    Got my share of our Nats (half) season tickets, including the extra-large plastic ticket to the home opener vs. the Reds. They have this year’s slogan, “Ignite Your Natitude.” Let me be the first (hopefully) to point out how utterly, completely, and amazingly lame that is. Doesn’t even make sense in the English language. Perhaps Gator could translate it into Spanish and it would sound better. Fortunately, the tickets should work, regardless.

    • acheron2112 - Apr 4, 2012 at 12:39 PM

      Got my share of Nats season tickets too. However, with a new baby this year, we didn’t buy in for much; our share = 4 games. (Got one of the Rays interleague games though; I’ll be excited to see them.) We’ll see how going to a game with a 1-year-old works. Probably too early to teach him to keep score yet.

      • natstowngreg - Apr 4, 2012 at 4:33 PM

        Never too early to learn how to keep score. :)

  3. APBA Guy - Apr 4, 2012 at 12:16 PM

    Craig, imagine my disappointment that your “brutal AL West” headline was not about the death match between the Mariners and the Beloved A’s for last in the AL West. Surely that’s what you meant. The Hulking Goliath that is the Mariner’s $ 90M annual payroll and shiny relatively new stadium versus the upstart paupers with their $ 55M payroll and tumbledown pile of rubble ball park. The absentee foreign billionaire owner against the plucky local billionaire absentee owner. The insanely compelling drama of who will have the lower WAR, Ichiro or Coco Crisp? It’s too much excitement. Maybe that’s why you fell back on the Texas v. Anaheim angle.

    • yankeesfanlen - Apr 4, 2012 at 8:12 PM

      Wow!

  4. Utley's Hair - Apr 4, 2012 at 12:21 PM

    How about a Best Storyline of Their Life post?

  5. tjwilliams - Apr 4, 2012 at 2:48 PM

    re: #1. I hate this narrative that adding a Wild Card team in each league will somehow result in fewer exciting races. No, the exact conditions that created last year won’t happen, but it will create other races, too. Looking at the past ten years, there were seven instances of a Wild Card race being decided by one game. Had the last decade of playoffs been played under the new rules, there would have been 10 instances where the final playoff spot was decided by one game and three instances when there would have been a one-game playoff to decide that team.

    Additionally, there were 6 occurrences of a team winning the Wild Card by 6 games (including 2009 when the only race decided by fewer than 8 games was the AL Central, which Minnesota won in a one-game playoff). Under the new system, there would have only been two times when the last Wild Card team ran away from the pack. Had there been an extra Wild Card in 2009, there would have been a four-way race, with Detroit, Minnesota, Texas, and Tampa Bay all separated by three games with four to play.

  6. pbannard - Apr 4, 2012 at 6:53 PM

    I don’t usually play grammar nazi, but you hit my biggest pet peeve (which I actually talked to my students about today as well). The past tense of the verb ‘to lead’ is led, NOT lead (“In Boston the collapse dominated the news and lead to front office and managerial upheaval”).

  7. rythestunner - Apr 4, 2012 at 6:57 PM

    How does Aramis Ramirez help replace the production in the NL Central when he was already in the NL Central to begin with?

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