NL races shaping up to be free-for-all with plenty of Phillies pursuers 

click to enlarge Stephen Strasburg - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • Stephen Strasburg

If the National League was a beauty contest, there would be the one contestant that stood out from all the others — in this case, the Philadelphia Phillies.

There are a slew of contenders, but they all come with their warts — not that the Phillies don’t have any.

Philadelphia will be without slugging first baseman Ryan Howard for at least the first month of the season due to the Achilles he ruptured making the final out of the NL Division Series against St. Louis. There is a solid plan in place to fill Howard’s void and, of course, the Phillies have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball.

That pitching is why the Phillies are favored in the NL East, which should be the most-interesting division this season. Atlanta is still picking up the pieces from a major collapse that kept the Braves out of the playoffs. Two other teams — the Washington Nationals and Miami Marlins — are poised to take center stage.

In Washington, Stephen Strasburg is at full strength following his elbow surgery and leads a fortified arms race in the nation’s capital. How the Nationals’ offense performs will be the key. Down in Florida, the Marlins are all about new: new stadium, new moniker, new look, new players, new manager and a new wallet.

The battle for the West title figures to be a free-for-all. The Giants have made some offensive changes that figure not to leave a stellar pitching staff hanging, while Arizona will have a target on its back after its surprising run to the division title.

Colorado has retooled after a disappointing 2011, while the Los Angeles Dodgers still don’t have a new owner, but they did put up the NL’s third-best record following the All-Star break and feature the reigning NL Cy Young winner (Clayton Kershaw) and a center fielder that made a run at the Triple Crown (Matt Kemp).

Then there is the defending World Series champ. St. Louis lost its king in Albert Pujols, but does get back an ace in Adam Wainwright. Mike Matheny replaces Tony La Russa as manager, so the Cardinals will be seeking a new clubhouse voice. Their chief counterpart, the Milwaukee Brewers, lost a Prince (Fielder, who, like Pujols, bolted in free agency) and almost lost Ryan Braun to a suspension. Cincinnati, which won the division two years ago, sensed blood in the water and made some bold moves in pursuing the throne.

2011 NL leaders

Batting average: .337, Jose Reyes, Mets
Home runs: 39, Matt Kemp, Dodgers
RBIs: 126, Matt Kemp, Dodgers
ERA: 2.28, Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
Wins: 21, Ian Kennedy, Diamondbacks
Saves: 46, John Axford, Brewers and Craig Kimbrel, Braves

5 players to watch

Hanley Ramirez
Pushed over to third base when the Miami Marlins signed shortstop Jose Reyes, Ramirez has a chance to shed his selfish image. The former NL batting champ will need to get off to a quick start and not scuffle in the field.

Ryan Braun
The NL MVP spent his offseason successfully overturning a drug suspension that threatened to tarnish his career. But without Prince Fielder hitting behind him, the Milwaukee Brewers slugger will be challenged to repeat his stats.

Andre Ethier
The sweet-swinging Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder suffered a power outage in 2011. His re-emergence as a power threat is a key to taking the pressure off slugging center fielder Matt Kemp in the heart of the lineup.

Ryan Zimmerman
Injuries sapped his offensive production, but if the Washington Nationals are to emerge as a power in the NL East, it will be up to the third baseman, fresh off his new contract, to be the focal point of the offense.

Mat Latos

Traded from San Diego to Cincinnati, the right-hander will be under pressure to show that he can pitch at a high level in the Reds’ hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park as opposed to pitcher-friendly Petco Park.

National League predictions

Division races

Analysis: Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan add punch at the top of the Giants’ lineup, which will be a welcome relief to the pitching staff. But should a key injury hit, Troy Tulowitzki and the Colorado Rockies will step in.

1. Giants
2. Rockies
3. Dodgers
4. Diamondbacks
5. Padres

Analysis: St. Louis was hardly done celebrating its World Series title when Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols left town. Barring Chris Carpenter breaking down, the Cardinals have enough firepower.

1. Cardinals
2. Brewers
3. Reds
4. Pirates
5. Cubs
6. Astros

Analysis: While still the consensus favorite, the Philadelphia Phillies are starting to show cracks in their foundation. The big question is: Will Ozzie Guillen transform the Miami Marlins into contenders?

1. Phillies
2. Marlins
3. Nationals
4. Braves
5. Mets

Wild card:
Brewers def. Rockies
Division series: Phillies def. Brewers; Cardinals def. Giants
League championship series: Phillies def. Cardinals
World Series: Tigers def. Phillies

MVP: Jose Reyes, Marlins. The biggest acquisition by Miami will thrive in the warm climate of South Florida.

Cy Young: Matt Cain, Giants. Often overshadowed, being an impending free agent tends to bring out the best.

Rookie of the Year: Bryce Harper, Nationals. The power-hitting phenom will live up to the immense hype.

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Steve Drumwright

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