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.

Must-read: A profile on former Rays prospect Brandon Martin, currently in jail for alleged murders of three men

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Nathan Fenno of the Los Angeles Times has an outstanding profile of former Rays prospect Brandon Martin, who is currently in jail for allegedly murdering three men nearly two years ago.

Fenno describes Martin’s erratic personality as he became a highly-touted baseball prospect who then descends into drug use. Friends described Martin has having completely changed into an unrecognizable person. Martin had repeated conflicts with friends and family such that police reports became common and he was placed in a psychiatric facility. Sadly, the facility only held him for less than 48 hours. He would allegedly murder three people upon returning home: his father, his brother-in-law, and a home security system contractor. Martin fled from police, who eventually caught up to him and subdued him with the help of a police dog.

Fenno’s profile is really worth a read, so click here to check it out.

Martin, 23, was selected by the Rays in the first round (38th overall) of the 2011 draft. He spent three years in the Rays’ system, reaching as high as Single-A Bowling Green.

Pedro Martinez: “If I was pitching, I was going to drill Machado, as much as I love him.”

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On Sunday, Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes was ejected for throwing at Orioles third baseman Manny Machado‘s head. It was revenge for a slide of Machado’s which ended up injuring Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. Barnes was suspended four games.

Hall of Famer and former Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez said that if he were in Barnes’ shoes, he would have also thrown at Machado, although not necessarily at his head. Via ESPN’s Scott Lauber:

If I was pitching, I was going to drill Machado, as much as I love him. The only thing I would’ve done differently is probably bring the ball a little bit lower.

Martinez added that Machado “did not intend to hurt Pedroia. And I know that because I know Machado.” And he doesn’t think Barnes meant to throw at Machado’s head.

Martinez, of course, was certainly a pitcher who wasn’t afraid to pitch inside to batters and even hit a few of them when he felt he or his teammates had been wronged. This is an unfortunate part of baseball’s culture and the fact that it continues means that it will eventually result in someone being seriously hurt. It’s disappointing that Martinez isn’t willing to be a better role model now that his playing days are over. Martinez could have set an example for today’s pitchers by saying what Barnes did crossed a line. Getting a Hall of Famer’s seal of approval will only embolden players now when they feel they must defend their teammates’ honor.

The “tradition” of beaning batters to defend one’s teammates is anachronistic in today’s game, especially when Major League Baseball has made strides in so many other ways recently to protect players’ safety.