MLB 2014: Cardinals among NL favorites again

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Stephen Strasburg leads a deep rotation in Washington. Matt Holliday and St. Louis are back again. And the loaded Los Angeles Dodgers think it’s their time to shine.

Yes, it is a very familiar group of favorites. Throw in Freddie Freeman and Atlanta, and the NL list is practically complete. But there’s always one team that crashes the party at the top; see MVP Andrew McCutchen and the 2013 Pirates.

Days after Arizona and Los Angeles started the season Down Under in Australia, the race is on to see which teams will finish on top in the National League.

“Our team’s really good,” Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke said. “We did really good, even with a bunch of injuries last year. We have some young guys about ready to come up if needed. I mean, the expectations should be really high here.”

Washington was among the favorites last year, coming off a breakthrough season. But Bryce Harper was hurt and the Nationals underperformed in their final season under manager Davey Johnson, finishing 10 games back of NL East champion Atlanta.

Enter Matt Williams, who gets his first job as a major league manager after three seasons as Arizona’s third base coach. The rotation is one of the best in the majors, with Doug Fister coming over in a December trade after winning 14 games for Detroit last season. Harper is healthy again, and Strasburg looks just fine following October elbow surgery.

“The more experience you get, the better chance you have to succeed, and I think that’s kind of the lesson from last year,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.

Powered by another great season from Freeman, the Braves breezed to the division title last year. Atlanta has made it to the playoffs in two of Fredi Gonzalez’s first three years as manager, but is still looking to advance for the first time since it lost to Arizona in the 2001 division series.

The rotation was beset by injuries in spring training, but Atlanta should be in the mix again - even after it lost right-hander Tim Hudson and catcher Brian McCann in free agency.

The Central belongs to St. Louis, which has won the division five times in the last decade. There’s no reason to believe the Cardinals won’t make it six times in 11 years.

Adam Wainwright and postseason darling Michael Wacha are part of the division’s best rotation. The lineup remains stacked even after Carlos Beltran departed in free agency. All-Star slugger Allen Craig missed much of the postseason last year, and the Cardinals still made it to the World Series.

The real intrigue in the division comes after the Cardinals. The Central had both wild cards last season, with Pittsburgh making the playoffs for the first time in 21 years and Cincinnati another four games back in the third.

The Pirates and Reds each lost a key player in free agency, while the Brewers get Ryan Braun back from his season-ending, 65-game drug suspension. A.J. Burnett went from the Pirates to the Phillies after a productive two years in Pittsburgh, while the Reds lost leadoff hitter Shin-Soo Choo to a big contract with the Rangers.

“We’re still hungry,” Pirates catcher Russell Martin said. “We did some special things last year, but everybody was disappointed with how it finished. I don’t know what all the ‘experts’ are saying, but I consider myself an expert and I think we’re going to do better than we did last year.”

The muddled Central could mean another playoff slot for one of the West teams.

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