National League preview: Intact Giants hoping for rare repeat title

2013-03-31T00:00:00Z National League preview: Intact Giants hoping for rare repeat titleThe Associated Press The Associated Press
March 31, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Once Sergio Romo struck out Miguel Cabrera to end the World Series, the chase was on.

The Upton brothers were reunited in Atlanta. Zack Greinke signed a big free-agent deal with the Dodgers, and Arizona remade its club with fiery manager Kirk Gibson in mind. Washington and Cincinnati each traded for a leadoff hitter, and Philadelphia added Michael Young to its already potent lineup.

Romo and the San Francisco Giants begin the year on top, but there is no shortage of potential challengers in the leaner National League.

"History is not in our favor. It doesn't happen very often," ace Matt Cain said of repeating.

San Francisco decided to make another run with the same core group of players who went the distance in the first two rounds of the playoffs last season, then swept Cabrera and the Tigers to win their second championship in three years. Another title for NL MVP Buster Posey and company would put them among the best teams in the history of the sport.

Romo gets a full season at closer after a memorable October, and the Giants are hoping former ace Tim Lincecum can bounce back after his worst season in the majors. They're going to need all the help they can get after the Dodgers and Arizona retooled over the winter.

A look at the NL in predicted order of finish:

WEST

San Francisco Giants

Romo was one of the breakout stars in San Francisco's title run last year. The animated right-hander was 1-0 with a sparkling 0.84 ERA in 10 playoff games, collecting four saves in four opportunities.

Now Romo begins the season as the closer, and it remains to be seen if he can handle the challenges of the role over the whole year. If he falters, there are plenty of people who can pick up the slack.

The Giants may not need as many saves with their lineup largely in place from the end of last season. Steady second baseman Marco Scutaro and outfielder Hunter Pence came over in trades during San Francisco's run to the division title, and they're hoping for a repeat performance.

Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers' feel-good spring was stymied by a double dose of bad news. First, Greinke was diagnosed with inflammation in the back of his right elbow. Then Hanley Ramirez hurt his right thumb in the World Baseball Classic and was expected to be sidelined for eight weeks.

The injuries for Greinke and Ramirez curtailed what had been a healthy spring for Los Angeles. Carl Crawford is on his way back following left elbow surgery, and Matt Kemp appears to be ready to go following October surgery on his left shoulder.

Arizona Diamondbacks

See season preview, page B1

Colorado Rockies

The Rockies are pinning their hopes on a pair of shortstops.

Walt Weiss became the manager in November, replacing Jim Tracy. He served as the Rockies' shortstop from 1994 to 1997 before wrapping up his 14-year big-league career with three years in Atlanta. He inherits a club coming off a franchise-worst 64-98 season and a last-place finish in the NL West.

The most important shortstop in Colorado is Troy Tulowitzki, who was limited to 47 games last year because of a groin injury that required surgery. The Rockies need him to return as one of the majors' best players.

San Diego Padres

Chase Headley appears to be the latest star on the road out of San Diego.

The third baseman had a career year last season, finishing with a .286 batting average, 31 homers and 115 RBIs. He avoided salary arbitration by agreeing to an $8,575,000, one-year contract, but there is no indication that a long-term deal is coming.

The Padres control his rights through 2014, and he could command quite the haul if he hits the trade market. First up for Headley is recovering from a broken left thumb that is expected to sideline him for the first two weeks of the season.

CEntral

Cincinnati Reds

Joey Votto was still one tough out when he returned last season following left knee surgery. But his power was noticeably absent when the Reds were eliminated by the Giants in the first round of the playoffs.

But the 2010 NL MVP felt so good that he played for Canada in the World Baseball Classic. It was a great sign for a Cincinnati team hoping to win more than just another division title this year.

St. Louis Cardinals

No more Chris Carpenter, who is sidelined by a career-threatening arm injury. No Rafael Furcal, either. He went down with a season-ending elbow injury during spring training. And starting pitcher Kyle Lohse left in free agency.

Even manager Mike Matheny was sidelined by back surgery this month.

Although St. Louis had a rough offseason, there are reasons for hope. Matt Holliday, Allen Craig and Carlos Beltran remain part of a dangerous lineup.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Andrew McCutchen is coming off a breakthrough performance. The All-Star center fielder hit .327 with 31 homers and 96 RBIs last year, helping Pittsburgh contend for much of the summer before another late fade sent the Pirates to their 20th straight losing season.

The big offseason acquisition was All-Star catcher Russell Martin, who signed a $17 million, two-year deal as a free agent.

Milwaukee Brewers

Milwaukee got off to a terrible start last year, then closed with a 27-13 push that nearly got the team back into the playoffs. Although there are several questions about the rotation, the Brewers are hoping the end of last season is more representative of the club than the beginning of last year.

The prolific lineup that produced an NL-best 776 runs returns largely intact, with speed in Carlos Gomez and Norichika Aoki and power in Corey Hart and Aramis Ramirez. Then there is Ryan Braun, who can do it all.

But the biggest problem for Milwaukee could be the rotation beyond Yovani Gallardo, which is largely unproven.

Chicago Cubs

The Cubs are encouraged by the progress of prospects Albert Almora, Jorge Soler and Javier Baez. And that's going to have to be enough for now, because the rebuilding project under Theo Epstein is still at least a year from fruition.

Edwin Jackson signed a $52 million, four-year contract, providing a workhorse for the rotation. But right-hander Matt Garza will miss the start of the season with an injured muscle in his side.

EAST

Washington Nationals

With Stephen Strasburg and NL Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper slated for a full season for the first time, there's a lot to love about the loaded Nationals.

Strasburg went 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA in 2012 before he was shut down after 159 1/3 innings out of concern for his arm in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. The move was the subject of much debate, but the right-hander is free of any such restriction this year. Harper also gets a full year after he began last season in the minors.

Dan Haren joins the strong rotation, and Rafael Soriano should help shore up the back end of the bullpen.

Atlanta Braves

Even with the Uptons in the fold, the key to Atlanta's season could be the return of catcher Brian McCann following surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder.

McCann hit a career-low .230 last year, when he was hampered by the injury for much of the season. The six-time All-Star also had 67 RBIs for his lowest total since he was a rookie in 2005.

He won't be ready for the start of the season, making Gerald Laird the likely opening day starter, but Atlanta is hoping for a return to the form that made him one of the majors' top catchers.

Philadelphia Phillies

There is plenty of talent in Philly. The question hanging over the Phillies' key players is can they stay on the field enough to make a difference.

Ace right-hander Roy Halladay was hampered by lower back and shoulder problems last year and a stomach virus this spring. New right fielder Delmon Young will begin the season on the DL, and key sluggers Ryan Howard and Chase Utley have dealt with major injuries in recent years.

Michael Young should provide a steady presence at third base, and speedy center fielder Ben Revere came over in a trade with Minnesota.

New York Mets

All-Star third baseman David Wright committed to New York by agreeing to an eight-year, $138 million deal over the winter. He may have to wait a while to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2006.

NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey was traded to Toronto in December, bringing back a group of prospects but making it all the more difficult for the Mets to contend this year. Jason Bay was cut loose, leaving behind an inexperienced outfield.

To make matters worse, Wright was hampered by a rib strain during spring training and left-hander Johan Santana may miss the season with shoulder surgery.

Miami Marlins

There should be plenty of nice seats available for the second season at Marlins Park after Miami traded away many of its best players over the winter, angering the team's fan base in South Florida.

Shortstop Jose Reyes and pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle were dealt to Toronto, and manager Ozzie Guillen was fired. Mike Redmond takes over on the bench, and there is little to work with for his first managerial job.

Giancarlo Stanton is the biggest remaining star, but he likely won't see much to hit with no other major threats in the lineup.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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