MLB 2012: NL wide open after turbulent offseason

By Jay Cohen

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 24 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

In this March 13, 2012 photo, Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen speaks with his players in the dugout during a spring training baseball game against the Atlanta Braves in Jupiter, Fla. Guillen is a big reason there's suddenly so much noise about the Marlins, a team that has led the league in fan apathy for much of its 20-year history.

Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

A year ago, it was the Philadelphia Phillies, and then the rest of the National League. Everyone was picking Roy Halladay and Co. to win the pennant.

OK, so everyone was wrong.

This year, Philadelphia is still one of the favorites — but the situation is different. Jose Reyes, Heath Bell and Mark Buehrle are in Miami, and Atlanta wants Chipper Jones' final season to be a memorable one. Joey Votto and Cincinnati are out to prove last year was an aberration, and World Series champion St. Louis is anxious to get Adam Wainwright back in the rotation. Arizona, San Francisco and Los Angeles are equipped to make a run out West.

While Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder learn their way around the AL, their old league is wide open.

"You can't take anything for granted," Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson said, gearing up to defend a surprise division title. "I think we know we are good but you have to understand we have to carry the lunch bucket every day."

One of baseball's biggest offseason makeovers occurred in Miami, where the team formerly known as the Florida Marlins begins the year with a new manager and a restocked pitching staff for its first season in Marlins Park. Counting on bigger crowds in their sparkling new facility, the Marlins went on quite the spending spree over the winter, committing $191 million worth of contracts to NL batting champion Reyes, and pitchers Buehrle and Bell.

"We're looking good," said Hanley Ramirez, who is moving from shortstop to third to make room for Reyes. "This is the best team I've been on in six years with the Marlins."

Buehrle should help solidify the rotation and Bell is one of the league's best closers. But Miami's hopes could rest on Ozzie Guillen's ability to manage an eclectic group of personalities that now includes Carlos Zambrano, acquired in a trade with the Chicago Cubs.

"If I don't screw it up, we'll be fine," the typically candid Guillen said.

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel likes his club, too, even after a disappointing loss to the Cardinals in the NL division series. The Big Three of Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels are back again, and shortstop Jimmy Rollins returned after testing free agency over the winter. But big first baseman Ryan Howard is recovering from surgery on his left Achilles and second baseman Chase Utley has been sidelined by problems with both knees.

"You have to keep playing," Manuel said, pondering life without two of his best hitters. "You have to try to find someone to fill in and hopefully they'll do a job for you. We've been very fortunate with that ever since I've been here. But at the same time, Utley and Howard, that's a heavy load."

At least Utley and Howard are still on the team. St. Louis is moving on without Pujols after its longtime star agreed to a $240 million, 10-year contract with the Los Angeles Angels in December. Manager Tony La Russa is gone, and pitching coach Dave Duncan is on an open-ended leave of absence.

"Would it have been a slam dunk even if Albert had come back, that we'd return to the postseason and do great? Not necessarily," slugger Lance Berkman said. "Similarly, it doesn't spell the death knell for the franchise that he's not here."

Former Cardinals catcher Mike Matheny takes over for La Russa in the dugout, and St. Louis will lean on several different areas to replace Pujols' production. Wainwright is back after missing all of last season following right elbow surgery, and Berkman moves from right field to first to make room for Carlos Beltran, one of the majors' smartest offseason acquisitions at $26 million over two years.

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