The top storylines of the 2012 season

10 Comments

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.

Buyers and Sellers at the Trade Deadline: National League Central

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Manny Machado’s trade completed, the rest of baseball can now turn its attention to the non-blue chip players on the market.

Yesterday, in our look-ahead to the second half, we mentioned some of the top players likely to be made available. Today we look at each team to see who is buying, who is selling, what they’re seeking and what they have to offer. Note: almost every contender, always, needs relief help.

As a reminder, the non-waiver Trade Deadline is July 31. Players traded after that date but before August 31 need to pass through waivers unclaimed before they can be traded. All players traded before August 31 are eligible to be on their new team’s playoff roster should they make the postseason.

Next up, the National League Central:

Cubs
Status: Buyers
Wanted: They could use a lot of pitching. They could get in-house help in this regard with Yu Darvish coming back, but they have no idea what they’ll get from him at this point. You have to assume they’ll be in the conversation for any starter out there.

Brewers
Status: Buyers. They were another of the finalists on Manny Machado.
Wanted: One of the few teams who does not need bullpen help, the Brewers could really use a bat, either at short or in the outfield.

Cardinals
Staus: I have no idea
Huh?  I mean, they just fired their manager which suggests the season is kind of a loss, but they’re only four games out in the Wild Card race which suggests that, no it is not. On one, vague level they’re like the Rays, who will likely seek good deals regardless of whether they are short term or long term. On another level they’re the Cardinals, and the Cardinals are almost always in win-now mode. If a pitcher can be had, figure they’ll try to grab one.

Pirates
Status: Sellers. They finished hot in the first half and are only 5.5. back in the Wild Card, but this front office does not strike me as one that’s gonna go for broke here.
For Sale: Assuming they fall out of contention, they’ll likely accept offers for any number of veterans, including Jordy MercerDavid FreeseCorey Dickerson and Ivan Nova.

Reds
Status: Sellers, because that awful start kind of buried them, though can we tip our cap to them for the run they’ve been on of late? *tip*
For Sale: They’ve done a pretty good job of making Matt Harvey look respectable, so flipping him seems to make sense. Any number of relievers would make sense. Billy Hamilton seems like a good change-of-scenery candidate who could be a lethal weapon for a playoff contender if judiciously deployed.