MLB 2012: NL wide open after turbulent offseason

By Jay Cohen

Associated Press

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

The Nationals had a major league-worst 27 blown saves in 2011 and are hoping the addition of Brad Lidge will help ease the pressure on All-Star Tyler Clippard and closer Drew Storen. They also need right fielder Jayson Werth to live up to his $126 million contract after a forgettable first season in Washington.

NEW YORK METS

Johan Santana returns after missing all of last season following left shoulder surgery, providing a glimmer of hope for the woebegone Mets. The two-time Cy Young Award winner hasn't appeared in a major league game since he went 11-9 with a 2.98 ERA in 29 starts in 2010.

Promising first baseman Ike Davis also is back after an injury-riddled 2011 season, but there are significant holes in the rotation and lineup. Third baseman David Wright, new left fielder Andres Torres and reliever Tim Byrdak were bothered by injuries this spring, and improvements by the rest of the division could lead to a long year in New York.

CENTRAL

CINCINNATI REDS

The Reds won the Central in 2010, then were quiet over the offseason and slumped to third behind the Brewers and Cardinals. This time, they were unusually active over the winter, raiding their stocked farm system to acquire Latos from San Diego and Marshall from the Chicago Cubs. Latos will slot into the rotation right behind ace Johnny Cueto, and Marshall, teaming with Bill Bray, gives Cincinnati two effective lefties in the bullpen.

Cincinnati also signed reliever Ryan Madson to an $8.5 million, one-year deal, but the right-hander tore a ligament in his elbow during spring training and is out for the year. Marshall is the top candidate to step into the closer's role with Madson out.

Two positions to watch in Cincinnati are third base and left field. The Reds need Scott Rolen to stay healthy to go along with lefty batters Votto and Jay Bruce in the middle of the lineup, and Ryan Ludwick and Chris Heisey both will get opportunities to fill the troublesome void in left.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

The Cardinals stormed into the playoffs on the last day of the season in 2011, then went on to win it all in a memorable seven-game series against Texas. Pujols and La Russa subsequently departed, but there is still a deep and versatile ballclub in St. Louis.

Beltran should be able to fill some of the void created by Pujols' departure. The switch hitter batted .300 with 22 homers and 84 RBIs in 142 games for the Mets and Giants last season. Moving Berkman from right to first should help the 36-year-old slugger stay healthy, and also improves the defense.

Injuries are of particular concern after the surprising run to the title put some extra miles on the aging legs of Berkman and Matt Holliday, and led to significant innings for ace Chris Carpenter and young left-hander Jaime Garcia. Carpenter pitched 273 1-3 innings in 2011, and was bothered by a bulging disk in his neck this spring.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

Faced with life without Fielder, the Brewers found a player nearby to replace some of that lost production. Free-agent third baseman Aramis Ramirez stayed in the division for a $36 million, three-year contract, leaving the Cubs after 8½ seasons. Ramirez hit 26 homers last year and should be able to help protect star Ryan Braun.

Mat Gamel, a converted third baseman, moved into Fielder's spot at first, and the Brewers return one of the NL's best rotations. The bullpen also is solid with Francisco Rodriguez and closer John Axford for the back end of games.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

After a promising run last summer, the Pirates crashed down the stretch and finished 72-90 for their 19th consecutive losing season. They took a chance in February and traded for erratic right-hander A.J. Burnett, who promptly took a batted ball off his face during camp and had surgery to repair a fractured right orbital bone.

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