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MLB 2012: NL wide open after turbulent offseason

By Jay Cohen

Associated Press

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

For Cincinnati, the departures of Pujols and Fielder, who left NL Central champion Milwaukee for a $214 million, nine-year contract with Detroit, created a void it was eager to try to fill. Votto, the 2010 NL MVP, could price himself out of the Queen City soon, so the Reds went all in and bolstered their staff by trading for starting pitcher Mat Latos and reliever Sean Marshall.

The future is right now for Cincinnati.

"We took a lot of chances but we've got pretty good return," Votto said. "I'm very happy about it. I'm excited for the season this year."

The Diamondbacks also were aggressive over the winter, acquiring pitchers Trevor Cahill and Craig Breslow from Oakland and signing left fielder Jason Kubel. They won the NL West last season behind breakout years from pitcher Ian Kennedy and outfielder Justin Upton, and should be in the mix again in 2012.

San Francisco also expects to contend after catcher Buster Posey missed much of last season following a frightening home-plate collision on May 25. And don't forget the Dodgers and Rockies, each with their own reasons for optimism.

A look at the NL in predicted order of finish:

EAST

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

Each of the contenders in the East begins the season with major questions, but only one has Halladay, Lee and Hamels. Boosted by its Big Three, Philadelphia led the NL last year with 21 shutouts, 18 complete games and a sterling 3.02 team ERA. Vance Worley (11-2, 3.01 ERA) and Joe Blanton fill out the rotation.

The Phillies, who have won five consecutive division titles, also fortified the bullpen by signing free-agent closer Jonathan Papelbon over the winter. Papelbon had 31 saves and a 2.94 ERA with Boston last year.

The big question in Philly is how will the offense fare without Utley and Howard, who could be out until June. Well, All-Star right fielder Hunter Pence begins his first full year in the NL East after he was acquired in a July trade with Houston, and 41-year-old slugger Jim Thome could provide some of the missing power at first in his return to the Phillies.

MIAMI MARLINS

When he managed the White Sox, Guillen often talked about how much he loved speed. Now he has two of the majors' fastest players at the top of his lineup in switch hitters Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio, to go along with power in the middle in Ramirez, Giancarlo Stanton and Gaby Sanchez. The addition of Buehrle puts a reliable innings-eater in the middle of the rotation, and Bell had at least 42 saves in each of his last three seasons in San Diego.

The real wild card in Miami is Carlos Zambrano, who was acquired in a trade with the Cubs in January. The volatile right-hander had a series of run-ins with teammates, management and umpires during his time in Chicago but is close with Guillen and is hoping to salvage his career in South Florida.

ATLANTA BRAVES

The Braves were one of the NL's best teams last year — until the final month of the season. They went 9-18 in September to slip out of the top spot in the wild-card race and were eliminated from playoff contention on the final day of the season.

Now largely the same group of players and coaches are back to put the awful memories of 2011 behind them. Fortunately for Atlanta, that includes one of the majors' best bullpens, All-Star catcher Brian McCann and solid starting pitchers Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson. Jones also is back for one last season before heading into retirement, but will begin the year on the disabled list while he recovers from left knee surgery.

The potential is there to end Philadelphia's run atop the division, but Hudson is expected to open the season on the disabled list and it remains to be seen if Jurrjens and Hanson can remain healthy. The Braves also need a bounceback season from slugger Jason Heyward.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS

Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, and Edwin Jackson lead one of the NL's best rotations. Left fielder Michael Morse is coming off a career year, and phenom Bryce Harper should reach the majors this season.

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