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 eager 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.
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.
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.
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel likes his club, too, even after losing to the Cardinals in an NL division series. The Big Three of Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels are back, and shortstop Jimmy Rollins returned after testing free agency. 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.”
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.
Wainwright is back after missing all of last season following right elbow surgery, and Lance Berkman moves from right field to first to make room for Carlos Beltran.
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. 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,” said Votto, who is close to agreeing on a multiyear contract extension.
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.