Stephen Strasburg leads a deep rotation in Washington. Matt Holliday and St. Louis are back again. And the loaded Los Angeles Dodgers think it’s their time to shine.
Yes, it is a very familiar group of favorites. Throw in Freddie Freeman and Atlanta, and the NL list is practically complete. But there’s always one team that crashes the party at the top; see MVP Andrew McCutchen and the 2013 Pirates.
Days after Arizona and Los Angeles started the season Down Under in Australia, the race is on to see which teams will finish on top in the National League.
“Our team’s really good,” Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke said. “We did really good, even with a bunch of injuries last year. We have some young guys about ready to come up if needed. I mean, the expectations should be really high here.”
Washington was among the favorites last year, coming off a breakthrough season. But Bryce Harper was hurt and the Nationals underperformed in their final season under manager Davey Johnson, finishing 10 games back of NL East champion Atlanta.
Enter Matt Williams, who gets his first job as a major league manager after three seasons as Arizona’s third base coach. The rotation is one of the best in the majors, with Doug Fister coming over in a December trade after winning 14 games for Detroit last season. Harper is healthy again, and Strasburg looks just fine following October elbow surgery.
“The more experience you get, the better chance you have to succeed, and I think that’s kind of the lesson from last year,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.
Powered by another great season from Freeman, the Braves breezed to the division title last year. Atlanta has made it to the playoffs in two of Fredi Gonzalez’s first three years as manager, but is still looking to advance for the first time since it lost to Arizona in the 2001 division series.
The rotation was beset by injuries in spring training, but Atlanta should be in the mix again – even after it lost right-hander Tim Hudson and catcher Brian McCann in free agency.
The Central belongs to St. Louis, which has won the division five times in the last decade. There’s no reason to believe the Cardinals won’t make it six times in 11 years.
Adam Wainwright and postseason darling Michael Wacha are part of the division’s best rotation. The lineup remains stacked even after Carlos Beltran departed in free agency. All-Star slugger Allen Craig missed much of the postseason last year, and the Cardinals still made it to the World Series.
The real intrigue in the division comes after the Cardinals. The Central had both wild cards last season, with Pittsburgh making the playoffs for the first time in 21 years and Cincinnati another four games back in the third.
The Pirates and Reds each lost a key player in free agency, while the Brewers get Ryan Braun back from his season-ending, 65-game drug suspension. A.J. Burnett went from the Pirates to the Phillies after a productive two years in Pittsburgh, while the Reds lost leadoff hitter Shin-Soo Choo to a big contract with the Rangers.
“We’re still hungry,” Pirates catcher Russell Martin said. “We did some special things last year, but everybody was disappointed with how it finished. I don’t know what all the ‘experts’ are saying, but I consider myself an expert and I think we’re going to do better than we did last year.”
The muddled Central could mean another playoff slot for one of the West teams.
Los Angeles’ biggest deal of the offseason was a $215 million, seven-year contract for its own Clayton Kershaw, who won the NL Cy Young Award for the second time in three seasons. Kershaw, Cuban sensation Yasiel Puig and steady Adrian Gonzalez helped the Dodgers all the way to the championship series.
Health is one of the biggest concerns in Southern California, with Matt Kemp coming back from left ankle surgery. If the Dodgers can keep the talented outfielder and shortstop Hanley Ramirez in the lineup alongside Gonzalez, look out.
Arizona made one of the biggest trades of the offseason, acquiring Mark Trumbo from the Angels in a three-team swap that also involved the White Sox. Trumbo hit 34 homers last year and should help protect Paul Goldschmidt in the lineup. The Diamondbacks also signed Bronson Arroyo to provide innings.
The Giants are another team that could surprise. Hudson joins a rotation that also includes 13-game winner Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain, and Michael Morse should add some pop in left field.
“The way this team is put together, everybody has a job and everybody just does their job,” Morse said. “History shows it, this is a winning organization.”
A look at the NL in predicted order of finish:
Adam LaRoche plays great defense, but he slumped last year at the plate. That’s why Zimmerman fielded some grounders at first this spring training. The plan is for Zimmerman to remain at third most days, but more time at the opposite corner might help him stay healthy.
The Nationals finished in the middle of the league in most offensive categories in 2013, and more games for Zimmerman could help improve those numbers. But the rotation is one of the best in baseball and left-hander Jerry Blevins, acquired in a December trade with Oakland, should help the bullpen.
The 24-year-old Freeman hit .319 with 23 homers and 109 RBIs last year, making the All-Star team for the first time. He was rewarded with the biggest contract in franchise history, a $135 million, eight-year deal.
The Braves also agreed to multiyear deals with outfielder Jason Heyward, closer Craig Kimbrel and shortstop Andrelton Simmons. When Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen reinjured their elbows, the Braves signed Ervin Santana to a $14.1 million, one-year contract to bolster their rotation.
NEW YORK METS
Help is on the way for the Mets; it just appears to be at least a year away. Pitching prospects Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero showed promise during spring training, and Matt Harvey is rehabbing his surgically repaired right elbow.
In the meantime, free-agent deals for pitcher Bartolo Colon and outfielders Curtis Granderson and Chris Young should be enough to keep New York on top of Philadelphia in third.
Another year, another set of injury concerns for the aging Phillies. Cole Hamels could miss the first month of the season with left biceps tendinitis. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins and second baseman Chase Utley are each 35, and slugger Ryan Howard is 34, making another title run for the accomplished core even more questionable.
Giancarlo Stanton should have some more help in the lineup after the Marlins signed Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Garrett Jones and Rafael Furcal, but it likely won’t be enough to move the Marlins out of the NL East basement. Miami has finished last in the division in each of the last three seasons.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Matt Carpenter moves from second to third base this season after leading the NL in hits (199), doubles (55) and runs (126) last year. Carpenter, who also batted .318 with 11 homers, is one of the key performers in a young Cardinals core that could keep the team in contention for years.
One of St. Louis’ biggest offseason moves was a trade to acquire center fielder Peter Bourjos, who adds more speed to an already dangerous lineup. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta also shores up one of the Cardinals’ weakest positions offensively.
Burnett is gone, but Pittsburgh still has Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole at the front end of the rotation. Liriano won 16 games last year in his first season with the Pirates, and the 23-year-old Cole looks like a star. Touted pitching prospect Jameson Taillon also could make it to the majors this summer.
With his mix of speed and power, McCutchen is one of the majors’ most dangerous hitters. He had a .317 batting average last season to go along with a career-high 38 doubles and a .404 on-base percentage.
Billy Hamilton could be one of baseball’s most exciting players this summer. He takes over for Choo in center field after batting .368 with 13 steals in a short stint with the Reds at the end of last year. The big question about the speedster is his ability to get on base, and he showed improved bunting skills during spring training.
Matt Garza returned to the NL Central for a big free-agent deal with Milwaukee, joining Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse on top of an improved Brewers rotation. Garza went 6-1 in 11 starts with the Cubs last year before he was traded to Texas in July.
The Cubs are hoping new manager Rick Renteria will have a positive effect on first baseman Anthony Rizzo and shortstop Starlin Castro after each young player had a disappointing 2013 season. The focus remains on the future, with slugging prospects Kris Bryant and Javier Baez attracting attention during spring training.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Tough load for Alexander Guerrero, who is moving from shortstop to second base while adjusting to life in the United States. He defected from Cuba last year and agreed to a $28 million, four-year contract with the Dodgers in October. Dee Gordon, Justin Turner and Chone Figgins also were in the mix at second.
Puig made his major league debut last June and hit .319 with 19 homers in 104 games. Will it be a sophomore slump for the strong-armed outfielder, or more of the same? Stay tuned.
Arroyo has pitched at least 200 innings in eight of the last nine seasons, and he had 199 innings with Cincinnati in 2011. The durable right-hander also wins, recording at least 12 victories in five of the last six years.
The 37-year-old Arroyo has been bothered by a bulging disk in his back. And that was a relatively minor problem for the Diamondbacks compared to the injury for Patrick Corbin, who had season-ending surgery on his left elbow. At least Arizona has pitching prospect Archie Bradley, who could provide a boost this summer.
SAN DIEGO PADRES
The Padres have a promising rotation in Andrew Cashner, Ian Kennedy, Tyson Ross, Josh Johnson and Eric Stults. The hard-throwing Cashner, acquired from the Cubs in 2012 trade, went 10-9 last season with a 3.09 ERA in 31 games, 26 starts.
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
Hudson broke his right ankle while covering first for Atlanta last July 24, ending his season. The Giants are counting on a full recovery for the 38-year-old right-hander after their rotation faltered last year. Hudson had 49 wins for Atlanta from 2010-12.
No more Todd Helton; the longtime first baseman retired after 17 seasons in Colorado. Justin Morneau takes over, but the biggest key for the Rockies could be just keeping sluggers Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez on the field. Tulowitzki played in 126 games last year, while Gonzalez was limited to 110 games.
AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley in San Francisco and AP freelance writer Carl Kotala in Viera, Fla., contributed to this report.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap