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

The top storylines of the 2012 season

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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.

The Padres non-tendered RHP Tyson Ross

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 04:  Tyson Ross #38 of the San Diego Padres walks off the field as he's taken out of the game in the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers on opening day at PETCO Park on April 4, 2016 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
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Per a report by MLB.com’s AJ Cassavell, the Padres non-tendered right-handed starter Tyson Ross on Friday, cutting loose their top ace after three seasons with the club.

Ross, 29, was sidelined for the bulk of the season with inflammation in his right shoulder and underwent thoracic outlet surgery in October. His injuries limited him to only 5 1/3 innings in 2016, during which he gave up seven runs and struck out five in a 15-0 blowout against the Dodgers.

Prior to his lengthy stint on the disabled list, the right-hander earned 9.5 fWAR and pitched to a 3.07 ERA and 9.2 K/9 rate in three full seasons with the Padres. He avoided arbitration with a one-year, $9.625 million deal prior to the 2016 season after leading the league with 33 starts and delivering a 3.26 ERA and career-best 4.4 WARP over 196 innings in 2015.

The Padres appear open to bringing Ross back to San Diego, reported Cassavell, albeit not at such a steep cost. Cassavell quoted Padres’ GM A.J. Preller, who was reportedly in trade talks involving Ross but unable to strike a deal, likely due to the right-hander’s recent health issues. Preller denied that those same health issues factored into the club’s decision to non-tender their ace.

With the move, Ross became one of 35 major leaguers to enter free agency on Friday.

Angels’ Pujols has foot surgery, could be sidelined 4 months

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Los Angeles Angels slugger Albert Pujols had surgery on his right foot Friday, possibly sidelining him past opening day.

Angels general manager Billy Eppler said Pujols had the procedure Friday in North Carolina to release his plantar fascia, the ligament connecting the heel to the toes. The three-time NL MVP was bothered by plantar fasciitis repeatedly during the season, but played through the pain in arguably the strongest year of his half-decade with the Angels.

Eppler said the surgery typically prevents players from participating in baseball activities for three months, along with another month before they’re ready to resume playing in games. Opening day for Los Angeles is April 3, and the Angels hope Pujols can be ready.

“He’s at that point in his career where he’s keenly aware of what’s happening with his body,” Eppler said in a phone interview. “I don’t put the timetable on Albert like you would with your younger players. We’ll just see in Albert’s case, as he progresses, what his timetable is.”

Pujols, who turns 37 next month, batted .268 last year with 31 homers and 119 RBIs, the fourth-most in the majors – although his .780 OPS was among the worst of his career. He largely served as a designated hitter instead of playing first base due to problems with his hamstrings and feet.

Pujols heads into 2017 with 591 career homers, ranking him ninth in major league history. He is 18 homers behind Sammy Sosa for eighth place.

After playing in pain until the final week of the Angels’ disappointing season, Pujols began shock wave therapy on his foot early in the offseason, believing he wouldn’t need surgery.

But Pujols’ foot became more painful in recent weeks despite the therapy, and he huddled with the Angels’ top brass to decide on surgery after his most recent trip to see Dr. Robert Anderson in North Carolina. Continuing with conservative care would have required 10 more weeks, forcing Pujols to miss the first half of the 2017 season if he still required surgery.

“He just felt that the pain had gotten to a point where he was comfortable” having surgery, Eppler said. “If we did delay it, you’re just looking at 2 1/2 more months into the season.”

Pujols had a different type of surgery on his right foot last winter, but recovered in time for opening day. He also had plantar fasciitis in his left foot during the 2013 season, eventually forcing him out for the year when his fascia snapped.

Pujols has five years and $140 million remaining on the 10-year, $240 million free-agent contract that pried him out of St. Louis, where he won two World Series and became a nine-time NL All-Star.

The Angels haven’t won a playoff game since Pujols’ arrival and Mike Trout‘s concurrent emergence as one of baseball’s best players. They went 74-88 last season, the injury-plagued club’s worst record since 1999.