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.

Jacob deGrom open to extension with Mets

New York Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom talks during media day for the Major League Baseball World Series against the Kansas City Royals Monday, Oct. 26, 2015, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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The Mets are currently enjoying the spoils of the best young rotation in the game, but the big question is whether this is just a brief window or the start of sustained success. Given the huge prices on the free agent market, it’s going to be next to impossible to keep the band together, but at least one member of the rotation is open to sticking around for the long-term.

While there haven’t been any talks yet, All-Star right-hander Jacob deGrom told Kevin Kernan of the New York Post that he could see himself discussing an extension with the Mets.

“I’m a little bit older, so I might be more willing to do something like that,’’ deGrom told The Post at Mets pre-camp. “You just have to look at what is fair so both sides get a decent deal. It’s something I’d have to look into and make sure I agree with it.’’

It makes sense from deGrom’s perspective. He broke into the majors later than most prospects, so he’ll be 28 this June. Depending on whether he qualifies as a Super Two, he’ll be arbitration-eligible for the first time after either 2016 or 2017. Either way, he’s under team control through 2020, which means that he’s currently on track to hit free agency after his age-32 season. The market might not be kind to him even if he manages to stay healthy, so it could behoove him to get as much guaranteed money as possible right now. The Mets could always decide to play things year-to-year, but perhaps deGrom would be willing to settle for a discount in order to get them to buy out a free agent year or two. It’s a really interesting situation to think about, but odds are the two sides will wait on contract talks until he’s arbitration-eligible for the first time.

DeGrom owns a 2.61 ERA in 52 starts over his first two seasons in the majors. Among starters, only Zack Greinke, Jake Arrieta, and Clayton Kershaw have a lower ERA since the start of 2014.

Royals, Mike Moustakas avoid arbitration with two-year deal

Kansas City Royals' Mike Moustakas celebrates after hitting an RBI single against the Toronto Blue Jays during the eighth inning in Game 2 of baseball's American League Championship Seriesagainst the Toronto Blue Jays  on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015, in Kansas City, Mo. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP
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The Royals and third baseman Mike Moustakas have avoided arbitration by agreeing to a two-year, $14.3 million deal, reports Jon Heyman of MLB Network.

The deal, which was initially discussed last month, buys out Moustakas’ final two years of arbitration. Jeffrey Flanagan of MLB.com reports that it’s believed he’ll make $5.6 million in 2016 and $8.7 million in 2017.

The 27-year-old Moustakas posted an underwhelming .668 OPS over his first four seasons in the majors, but he enjoyed a big postseason in 2014 before breaking out last season by batting .284/.348/.470 with 22 home runs and 82 RBI.

Report: Rays having “advanced talks” with free agent reliever Tommy Hunter

Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Tommy Hunter throws to the Miami Marlins during the seventh inning of a baseball game in Miami, Friday, May 22, 2015. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)
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ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick reported this morning that free agent reliever Tommy Hunter required core muscle repair surgery earlier this offseason. Coming off a disappointing 2015, it’s understandable why he’s still on the market, but it sounds like he has at least one significant lead.

Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times hears that the Rays are having “advanced talks” with Hunter as they attempt to add an experienced arm to their bullpen. Nothing is considered close and Hunter is also talking to other clubs. Meanwhile, the Rays have been in touch with veteran reliever Ryan Webb while monitoring the trade market.

Hunter posted a 2.88 ERA as a late-inning arm from 2013-2014, but he compiled a mediocre 4.18 ERA over 58 appearances last season between the Orioles and Cubs. On the bright side, his velocity has held steady and his control is still very good. Despite the down year and core muscle surgery, Topkin writes that Hunter may be holding out for a multi-year deal.

Pirates sign left-hander Cory Luebke

Cory Luebke Getty
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Eric O'Flaherty wasn’t the only reclamation project added by the Pirates today, as the club also announced that they have signed left-hander Cory Luebke to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training.

Luebke once looked like a solid rotation piece for the Padres, but he hasn’t thrown a pitch in the majors since April 27, 2012. He’s undergone a pair of Tommy John surgeries since. Now 30 years old, he logged seven innings in the minors last season before requiring a procedure to remove loose bodies around a nerve in his forearm. The Padres cut ties with him in November after declining a $7.5 million club option for 2016.

It’s hard to count on much from Luebke at this point, but he told Adam Berry of MLB.com that he feels healthy and hopes to compete for a bullpen job in the spring.