1. Ownership Circuses
In addition to the on-field activity, one story to follow this season is the evolving (or devolving) ownership situations in Los Angeles, New York, and San Diego. The Dodgers are closest to resolution, with the Mets further behind and the Padres… well, who knows where they are.
While Frank McCourt and Fred Wilpon have been hogging the headlines for some time, only recently has the Jeff Moorad group in San Diego come to the forefront. They went from the verge of assuming control to apparently handing the reins back to would-be-former owner John Moores faster than you can say, “What happened to Jed Hoyer?”
Moores, by all accounts, wants nothing to do with the franchise. But with precious few options, here he remains until something else happens. Moores told the local newspaper, “this is the goofiest experience of my life” and went on to reassure people, “we're going to play baseball. The Padres will field a team.” Because apparently that was in doubt. Or something.
With about a week until Opening Day, the Padres have a reluctant owner and a television contract that still hasn't been finalized. Many of us who would love to watch games from the comfort of our own homes don't have that option unless we want to do so via Internet feed. At least the Expos had a French broadcast before Bud Selig kicked them out of Montreal.
None of these teams is expected to contend in 2012, but that doesn't mean there isn't a reason to watch. Assuming, of course, you can find someone with a television hooked up to the right cable company. —Geoff Young
2. Bryce Harper
I know Bryce Harper is going to be a huge story this year because I'm already sick of hearing about Bryce Harper this year. A lot of other people must also be sick of hearing about him, so we're going to have that wonderful news spiral where media companies over-cover Harper and social networkers backlash against it, raising his profile still further to the point that my mom has a working knowledge of Bryce Harper's hip rotation, leading major media companies to double down on Bryce Harper coverage, leading to Hollywood starlets' publicists insisting that their clients aren't (wink, wink) dating Harper, leading to still broader coverage of him, to the point that my grandmother has a working knowledge of Bryce Harper's t-shirt line, leading to still further and broader coverage of Bryce Harper, with Taiwanese animation, fan fiction, search-engine gaming, Drudge Report headlines, ironic meta-coverage of the coverage, advertisements starring Bryce Harper poking fun at his own backlash while Brooklyn Decker and Kate Upton have a pillow fight in the background and, finally, a piece in the New Yorker. Also, he's apparently quite a talented baseball player, so I'm looking forward to seeing him. —Sam Miller
3. The Trade Deadline
Now that there are two additional wild cards, more teams than ever will probably find themselves wondering if they should be in buy or sell mode come July. If teams believe they only need a piece or two to get through the long haul, will they pull the trigger? More importantly, how much will teams on the bubble be willing to spend in a potentially fruitless attempt for a post-season berth if it keeps fans coming through turnstiles? Teams like the Braves, Brewers, Rangers, and Yankees have shown a willingness to part with their top prospects for short-term rentals like Mark Teixeira (1.5 years of control), CC Sabathia (two months), and Cliff Lee (two months). This past winter, teams turned over huge bounties for the likes of Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, Mat Latos, and Michael Pineda. Will the added competition force some clubs to mortgage their future to beat the competition in a bidding war? Teams like the Cubs could reap huge rewards for holding on to players like Matt Garza this offseason. —Stephani Bee
4. Giancarlo Stanton Breaks Out
One of my favorite scenes in my favorite TV show of all-time—Seinfeld, of course—has Jerry telling Kramer that starting sentences with “My wife…” is among the best perks of being married. The baseball equivalent of that is undoubtedly starting sentences with “Giancarlo Stanton…”
After slugging 34 home runs in his first full season, the 22-year-old Stanton is primed to take another step forward as he establishes himself as the premier power hitter in the National League. My bold prediction for the 2012 season: Giancarlo Stanton passes Prince Fielder as the youngest player in MLB history to hit 50 homers in a single year.
That alone would be a big enough storyline. But add in all of those home run calls—“Giancarlo Stanton… left field… THAT BALL’s CRUSHED!” or “Giancarlo Stanton… Oh, my goodness!”—and the man formerly known as “Big Mike” will steal the show, even in a Miami clubhouse full of egos and clowns. —Daniel Rathman
â€‹5. Yu Darvish
As one of the biggest stories of the offseason, it’s fair to assume that Yu Darvish, the 25-year-old Japanese sensation, will remain in the headlines this season. Darvish, who spent the last seven seasons playing for the Nippon Ham Fighters, joins the Texas Rangers, with whom he will remain under a microscope for the duration of the 2012 season and beyond.
While Darvish amassed an impressive career record in Japan (93-38, 1.99 ERA), the Rangers are gambling a $51.7 million posting bid and a six-year/$56 million contract on a player who has yet to throw his first pitch in a major-league game.
Darvish will be a storyline regardless of how he pitches in 2012, partly because he has an army of reporters that follow his every move. He won’t only be a story here in the States; he will also undoubtedly be a story back in Japan. If he pitches well, it will be a victory for the Rangers, scouts, Japan, and Darvish himself as the stigma of transition between leagues is lifted. If he fails, the media will scrutinize all parties involved much like they have done in Daisuke Matsuzaka’s case. If Darvish struggles, it could change the landscape of large posting bids for Japanese players in the future. —Cee Angi
6. Two Wild Cards Per League
Bud Selig loves to tell anyone who will listen how many of the changes he has implemented to baseball during his tenure as commissioner that were derided by the media and fans have turned out well. In fact, he loves to tell people over and over and over. Indeed, things like the wild card and interleague play have proven to be popular. I believe the addition of a second wild card in each league will prove to be just as popular. More teams will be in the running for a post-season spot later in the season, and that should lead to more pennant race drama. The one-game knockout game in the wild card race isn't exactly fair. If the second wild-card team loses, it will mean it would have got the postseason without ever playing a playoff game at home, and that doesn't seem right. However, the one-game playoff will add plenty of drama and the months of September and October aren't truly great without drama. —John Perrotto
â€‹7. Ryan Braun
There's no use in denying it. When the reigning MVP is "busted" over the winter for having synthetic testosterone in his system and is then acquitted by the independent arbiter for reasons that aren't exactly accepted by the layman, that story is going to carry over into the season. Wherever Ryan Braun goes, he'll hear boos, he'll hear names, he'll hear "Cheater!". If he comes out of the gate hot (and he hasn't exactly had the best spring), some might accept that as a statement from Braun that he doesn't (or didn't) need any steroids. Others, of course, will just wonder how he's getting away with it this time. But if he comes out of that gate slowly, with some very non-MVP numbers in April—boy, howdy! That is not going to be a pleasant sight at the ballparks, in the newspapers, on Sportscenter. If you think the Braun coverage was speculative and sanctimonious in February, wait and see what's written about him after a 1-for-15 slump in April. Yet more fallout that never should have happened. —Larry Granillo
â€‹8. Andy Pettitte and Jamie Moyer Return
Everyone loves a comeback story. I mean, this is why we read The Natural and watch The Rookie. This year, MLB is promising us two of them that should be fun to watch—the Rockies' Jamie Moyer, lately of the Rockies, who was drafted before two recent Cy Young winners were born (Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw) and when Germany was two countries, and Andy Pettitte, a(n almost) lifelong Yankee who had originally retired after the 2010 season. Both will attempt to re-appear on a major-league mound in a major-league game while in a major-league uniform.
9. From Reader to Writer
They asked me what, in my opinion, will be the biggest story of this baseball season, and from my perspective, I don’t see how I can beat writing for Baseball Prospectus. It’s the ultimate student-becomes-the-teacher, rags-to-riches, underdog-makes-good-people-sick story that has the added bonuses of being true and being about me. It’s a story of perseverance, luck, endless spell-checking, and additional luck. But mostly it’s a love story that started about 10 years ago, starring me and BP. After reading BP for a decade, I now have the incredible fortune to write a weekly column here for you, the best audience on the internet (I know because I was one of you). I’m not exactly sure how this good fortune befell me, but if you’re asking me, and you are, this is mind-blowing stuff and there isn’t a bigger baseball story anywhere. If you're asking literally anyone else, something else might end up stealing the headlines.—Matthew Kory
â€‹10. Spending on Amateur Talent
Most informed observers have spent the months since the new CBA was signed issuing dire warnings about the agreement’s long-term ramifications for baseball’s competitive balance and quality of play. To hear them tell it, the CBA’s new draft and international spending restrictions will strip small-market teams of one of their few routes to success and make it more difficult for teams of all types to lure athletes away from other sports.
It’s pretty easy to make a persuasive case that Bud hurt baseball with his quest to cut spending in an area where cuts hardly seemed called for. It’s also pretty hard to say how it will all play out in practice. While it may take years for teams to find loopholes and come up with ways to exploit the new system, we’ll soon start to figure out whether the off-season fears were justified. Will fewer draft picks sign this summer? Will small-market systems wither away? Will teams beef up their scouting staffs in search of new inefficiencies? And what will happen after the season, when the money teams weren’t allowed to spend on amateurs starts begging to be blown on professional free agents?
It'll take some time for final answers to those questions to take shape. Still, I’m looking forward to finding out whether the sky is actually sagging, and our first inklings will arrive in 2012.—Ben Lindbergh