NATIONAL LEAGUE PREVIEW: Teams gear up to take down Giants
Once Sergio Romo struck out Miguel Cabrera to end the World Series, the chase was on.
The Upton brothers were reunited in Atlanta. Zack Greinke signed a big free-agent deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Arizona remade its club with fiery manager Kirk Gibson in mind. Washington and Cincinnati each traded for a leadoff hitter, and Philadelphia added Michael Young to its already potent lineup.
Romo and the San Francisco Giants begin the year on top, but there is no shortage of potential challengers in the leaner National League.
“History is not in our favor. It doesn’t happen very often,” ace Matt Cain said, gearing up to defend the title. “But if we do all we can, it certainly is possible.”
San Francisco decided to make another run with the same core group of players who went the distance in the first two rounds of the playoffs last season, then swept Cabrera and the Detroit Tigers to win their second championship in three years. Another title for NL MVP Buster Posey and company would put them among the best teams in the history of the sport.
Romo gets a full season at closer after a memorable October and the Giants are hoping former ace Tim Lincecum can bounce back after his worst season in the majors. They’re going to need all the help they can get after the Dodgers and Diamondbacks revamped their rosters over the winter.
Backed by a huge new TV deal, Los Angeles continued its spending spree that began when the new ownership group took over last summer. Greinke received a $147 million, six-year contract, then was slowed by a tender right elbow this spring. Hyun-Jin Ryu signed a $36 million, six-year deal, making the South Korean left-hander a part of one of the deepest rotations in the majors.
Hanley Ramirez will miss the start of the season due to a right thumb injury, but the lineup still has plenty of power with Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez and Andre Ethier.
“The Giants have proven themselves, especially with their pitching staff,” Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw said. “A lot of people are talking about us. But talk is all it is. I’m not trying to downplay the expectations. Of course, we hear them. But we have to do it on the field. That’s all that really matters.”
Don’t forget about the Diamondbacks, either. General manager Kevin Towers traded away talented center fielder Justin Upton and right-hander Trevor Bauer over the winter, but received an interesting haul in return. Ian Kennedy, Wade Miley and Trevor Cahill form the heart of a strong rotation, and Randall Delgado, Tyler Skaggs and Patrick Corbin provide good young pitching depth.
The moves made by Arizona and Los Angeles should make the NL West more competitive than a year ago, when the Giants won by eight games.
“It’s a lot of competition here, and it gets better every single year,” Rockies slugger Carlos Gonzalez said. “You can see in the past three years, San Francisco has won twice. They’re going to have to pay more attention to this division.”
Washington won the NL East last season by four games over Atlanta, finishing with the best record in baseball. But it was eliminated in the division series when it blew a 7-5 lead in the ninth inning of Game 5 against St. Louis.
The Nationals then signed closer Rafael Soriano in free agency and traded for Denard Span to add more speed to their dynamic lineup. With Stephen Strasburg all clear for a full year atop the rotation, this could be another memorable summer in the nation’s capital.
“We’ve got to go out and compete, and we’ve got to go out and express our talent,” manager Davey Johnson said. “I’m hopeful with a year of progress that a lot of guys made, we’ll be playing closer to our potential. A lot of guys haven’t played to their potential.”
That’s a scary thought for the rest of the National League, but the same premise could be applied to the Braves.
Atlanta will field one of the best young outfields in baseball after signing B.J. Upton in free agency and trading for Justin Upton to play alongside Jason Heyward. The potential extends to the rest of the lineup, which includes first baseman Freddy Freeman and shortstop Andrelton Simmons, both just 23 years old.
The bullpen is loaded with power arms and the rotation is solid. Even without retired third baseman Chipper Jones, the Braves are stocked once again.
“When you don’t have probably the best third baseman ever, there is a big hole to fill,” pitcher Tim Hudson said. “But there is a lot of young talent on this team. We’ll be good again this year and should be good for a lot more years. Everyone’s excited about the moves that were made. This is a different team, but a team that should win a lot of games.”
Like Washington and Atlanta, Cincinnati is hoping for a long postseason run after a disappointing finish a year ago. The Reds had the Giants on the ropes in the division series, then dropped three straight games.
Shin-Soo Choo came over in a trade with Cleveland and addresses Cincinnati’s gaping hole at the leadoff spot. But he is making the transition to center field and was hampered by back spasms in spring training. If he can’t play center, then Jay Bruce could move over from right.
Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos front a deep rotation, and Joey Votto anchors one of the deepest lineups in the league. Coupled with a solid bullpen, Cincinnati could finish one of the best records in baseball once again even with the lowly Houston Astros moving from the NL Central to the AL West.
“We’ve come a long way in a short period of time over three years,” manager Dusty Baker said. “It’s about being able to sustaining high excellence. We want to be good for a long period of time. That is the goal to increase your odds of winning a championship.”