The San Francisco Giants are taking aim at winning their third World Series in four seasons. But first, they have to conquer the National League. Here’s what the NL looks like:
Storyline: After making the 2011 playoffs, the Diamondbacks took a step back last season. They have a deep rotation, more speed and better lineup balance. Bounce-back seasons from RHPs Ian Kennedy and Trevor Cahill will help.
Players to watch: CF Adam Eaton, who will miss April because of a sprained elbow, hit .390 in spring training. He was impressive enough in the minors that the D-Backs traded Chris Young’s power. Eaton has speed and will energize the leadoff spot when he returns. ... RHP Brandon McCarthy, who had emergency brain surgery after getting hit with a line drive last season with Oakland, has been impressive this spring. ... The middle of the order - C Miguel Montero, 1B Paul Goldschmidt and LF Jason Kubel - has the potential to be devastate.
Outlook: The Giants have the World Series titles and the Dodgers the big-money glitz, but don’t overlook the Diamondbacks. The D-Backs are good enough to win the NL West.
Storyline: Future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones’ retirement means an end of an era with the Braves. The Braves’ forte is the rotation and bullpen. Their lineup has more pop from the right side, meaning more balance and less vulnerability to left-handed pitching.
Players to watch: SS Andrelton Simmons, who won a Single-A batting title in 2011, is the Braves’ new leadoff batter, replacing the prototypical Michael Bourn. ... The Upton brothers - Justin and B.J. - join RF Jason Heyward. The three combined for 70 steals and 71 home runs last season. ... 2B Dan Uggla will try to rebound from two sub-par seasons when he hit .227 with 324 strikeouts.
Outlook: The Braves won 94 games last season. Jones is gone, but the Braves will be the Nats’ main competition in the NL East, even with LHP Jonny Venters and C Brian McCann starting the season on the disabled list.
Storyline: After a 100-loss season in 2012, the Cubs continue their long-term development plan.
Players to watch: If healthy, RHP Matt Garza would have been traded in July. Now, the Cubs hope there is a market for him this year. ... Ex-Nats RHP Edwin Jackson signed a $50 million contract, so will the Cubs fans expect too much from a .500 pitcher? ... 1B Anthony Rizzo, 23, is a bright prospect who last season became the first Cub to have three game-winning RBI in his first five games.
Outlook: The Cubs are focused on winning in 2015. Any experienced player who does well will be traded. Another triple-digit loss season is likely.
Storyline: The Reds are a World Series contender. They are virtually the same team as last season, when their pitching was near the top and the offense ranked ninth in the NL in runs scored.
Players to watch: After debating all spring, LHP Aroldis Chapman, 25, will be the closer and not a starter, leaving a rotation spot for RHP Mike Leake, who made 30 starts last season. Chapman, who hits 100 mph on the radar gun, struck out 122 in 71 2/3 innings last season. ... The Reds had the worst on-base percentage in the NL from the leadoff spot last season, but the acquisition of CF Shin-Soo Choo (.373 on-base percentage in 2012) will change that. ... RHP Mat Latos, in his second season as a Red, needs to shake off the traditional slow start. If he does, he’ll be a strong NL Cy Young Award candidate.
Outlook: The decision to keep Chapman in the bullpen means the Reds are focused on winning, not development. They’ll win the NL Central with a chance to make the World Series for the first time since 1990.
Storyline: First-year manager Walt Weiss has a huge rebuilding project on his hands in the NL West, which could be the toughest division in baseball. Also, Rockies fans aren’t a patient bunch these days.
Players to watch: RHP Juan Nicasio, coming back from a broken neck in 2011 and an injured left knee last season, earned a rotation spot with a strong spring even though he hadn’t thrown a pitch for seven months before coming to camp. ... The lineup will improve because SS Troy Tulowitzki, the face of the franchise, is healthy after missing the last four months of 2012. ... LF Carlos Gonzalez was an All-Star last season that slumped to .261 in the second half.
Outlook: The Rockies are bound to be better, but their squeamish pitching means they will finish last in the NL West.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Storyline: The Dodgers have spent lavishly to have a star-studded roster. The pitching is deep, but the key will be to keep players such as OFs Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier healthy.
Players to watch: South Korean LHP Hyun-Jin Ryu signed for $62 million even though he’s never thrown a pitch in the U.S. ... SS Hanley Ramirez (thumb) will miss the first two months of the season and the team’s third baseman, Luis Cruz, will play shortstop. ... Will 1B Adrian Gonzalez’s power (18 home runs last season) continue to diminish? ... RHP Brandon League is the closer, but he might be blocking Kenley Jansen, 25, the best setup pitcher in baseball with 236 strikeouts in 145 2/3 innings over the last three seasons.
Outlook: Teams that are thrown together with big-time contracts don’t seem to work, but the Dodgers, with 86 wins last season, will be an exception. They’ll challenge the Giants for the NL West title.
Storyline: A year after opening a new ballpark, the Marlins traded their high-priced talent, leaving them with a public-relations disaster and a young, untested roster. Manager Mike Redmond replaces Ozzie Guillen as the Marlins try to win back a frustrated fan base and bring fans to the new ballpark.
Players to watch: RHP Ricky Nolasco is the staff ace, but RHP Nathan Eovaldi, with a 97-mph fastball, curve and changeup, should be steady in the No. 2 rotation spot. ... RF Giancarlo Stanton, at 23 one of the league’s premier power hitters, hopes a healthy spring will mean a fast start. Last April, he hit one home run. ... RHP Steve Cishek, who saved 15 of 19 last season, is in his first full season of closing. The question is whether his side-arm delivery makes him vulnerable to lefties.
Outlook: The Marlins have an underdog attitude with young players focused on baseball, a big change from last year’s distractions of egos, big-money contracts and expectations. It’s a refreshing change.
Storyline: The Brewers have one of the most potent offenses in the league, so adding RHP Kyle Lohse to the rotation will help. Still, they might not have enough help behind RHP Yovanni Gallardo and Lohse in the rotation.
Players to watch: Brewers are strong and youthful up the middle with C Jonathan Lucroy, 2B Rickie Weeks, SS Jean Segura and CF Carlos Gomez. ... The closer, RHP John Axford, needs to bounce back after blowing nine saves in 2012 with his ERA moving from 1.95 to 4.57. ... RHP Marco Estrada, an ex-Nats pitcher, has potential. He had 142 strikeouts and 29 walks last season.
Outlook: The Brewers are young and athletic, but the back end of the rotation makes it difficult see how they are going to have a winning season.
NEW YORK METS
Storyline: The Mets have young pitching, but their offense hasn’t improved since last season, when they finished 12th in the NL in runs and 11th in on-base percentage and home runs.
Players to watch: 3B David Wright signed a long-term contract with the Mets even though he’s made the playoffs once in his nine seasons. ... 1B Ike Davis had 27 home runs last season, but only a .227 average. ... C Travis d’Arnaud, acquired from Toronto in the R.A. Dickey trade, starts in the minors, but has a chance to give the Mets their best two-way catcher since Hall of Famer Gary Carter. ... LHP Jon Niese is a mainstay in the rotation, but will LHP Johan Santana be healthy enough to be a trade chip in July?
Outlook: Under manager Terry Collins last season, the Mets managed to stay in contention into July. The rebuilding is in the beginning stages, but the good news is that the Mets’ strength is blue-chip pitching prospects such as RHPs Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler.
Storyline: The Phillies’ window of opportunity has come down to this one year. If they win, fine. If not, expect big-name players to be traded to start the rebuilding process.
Players to watch: A torrid bat this spring means that OF Domonic Brown will be given a chance to live up to his billing as one of the Phillies’ top prospects. ... 1B Ryan Howard and 2B Chase Utley are healthy, so that brings Phillies fans hope, but RHP Roy Halladay struggled all spring with mechanical issues and fastball velocity. ... CF Ben Revere, who has the potential to steal 40 bases, is the rangy defender the Phillies have needed. ... At 36, Michael Young is coming off his worst season. Young, who lost three positions defensively for the Rangers, is a question at third base. ... Ex-Nats starter John Lannan joins fellow LHPs Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee in the rotation.
Outlook: The Phillies are difficult to figure out. Their bullpen is stable, but if they can overcome age and injuries, they have a chance to be a factor in the NL East.
Storyline: The Pirates want to end 20 consecutive seasons of losing, the longest streak in North American sports history. Last year, they were 16 games above .500 in mid-August and still couldn’t finish a winner.
Players to watch: C Russell Martin, who left the Yankees to sign with the Pirates, will help Pittsburgh pitchers with excellent defense and game-calling strategy. ... At 36, RHP Jason Grilli is a first-time closer. ... CF Andrew McCutchen, one of the most exciting players in the game, says he wants to improve his basestealing after going 20-for-32 last season.
Outlook: The Pirates have faded in August the last two seasons. Their pitching is still developing. Losing season No. 21 is on the horizon.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Storyline: The Cardinals, who chose not to re-sign RHP Kyle Lohse despite a weakened rotation, are in a season where the development of prospects in the big leagues, such as OF Oscar Taveras and RHPs Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal, will be key to the club’s long-term success.
Players to watch: SS Pete Kozma, who hit .333 in 26 games last season after a promotion from the minor leagues, takes over for injured Rafael Furcal, a huge loss for the Cardinals. ... 1B Allen Craig, who had 92 RBIs last season, hit .303-22-92 after the Cardinals finally found a position for one of their system’s best hitters. ... The Cardinals are confident in the health of LHP Jamie Garcia, but until he pitches deep into the season without problems, there will concerns about his health.
Outlook: The Cardinals have flexible payroll with a healthy balance between youth and experience. They have played in the last two NLCS even though they didn’t win their division. That’s a likely scenario for this season as well.
SAN DIEGO PADRES
Storyline: Usually, the Padres having plenty of pitching and no hitting. This year, it is the opposite. After ranking fifth in runs scored in the NL after July 1 last season, the Padres’ season will be determined by the health and progress of young pitching.
Players to watch: After hitting .286 with 31 home runs and 115 RBIs last season, 3B Chase Headley, who will miss the first month of the season with a thumb injury, is the face of the team and could be headed for an All-Star appearance. ... The closer, RHP Huston Street, allowed eight earned runs last season, but his success was hampered by two stints on the disabled list. ... If LF Carlos Quentin stays healthy, the Padres’ lineup gets a power boost. Quentin hit 16 home runs with a .374 on-base percentage in 86 games last season.
Outlook: If you’re picking teams that could be surprise contenders, the Padres should be at the top of the list in the NL.
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
Storyline: The Giants believe in loyalty, so they have the same lineup that finished off Detroit in last October’s World Series, even signing journeyman Marco Scutaro, 37, to a long-term contract.
Players to watch: RHP Tim Lincecum, a two-time NL Cy Young Award winner, is back in the rotation after a demotion to the bullpen last season. ... RHP Sergio Romo, who saved 14 of 15 last season and then four in the postseason, including three in the World Series, has the challenge of being a closer for the entire season, replacing RHP Brian Wilson, who was released. ... SS Brandon Crawford made six errors in his first 59 games last season, but six the rest of the year.
Outlook: Given their pitching, it is impossible to overlook the Giants. It would be nice if 1B Brandon Belt and 3B Pablo Sandoval supported NL MVP Buster Posey in the lineup. The Giants will win the NL West.
Storyline: The Nationals are expecting to bring the World Series back to D.C. for the first time since 1933. The last World Series title for D.C. was 1924, when the Senators got clutch relief from starter Walter Johnson in a Game 7 win over the New York Giants.
Players to watch: CF Denard Span, a rangy defender, gives the Nationals a legit leadoff batter and brings stability to the outfield, allowing Bryce Harper to play left. Span has a career .357 on-base percentage. ... RHP Dan Haren’s success at No. 5 in the rotation depends on his transformation from a power to a command pitcher. The Nats are expecting 200 innings from Haren. ... RHP Rafael Soriano, who saved 42 games for the Yankees last season when Mariano Rivera was injured, is the new closer, meaning RHP Drew Storen will be adjusting to a new role in the eighth inning.
Outlook: The Nationals are built to win for the next decade, but they will show that last season’s 98 wins are just the beginning. World Series teams aren’t easy to predict, but the Nationals will be in the Fall Classic.