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MLB Opening Day Preview: Realignment, Rule Changes, and Rookies

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Some questions that are begging for answers as MLB Opening Day gets underway.

Q: What's new?

A: The most drastic change hinges on the Houston Astros, who are relocating from the formerly overcrowded Natonal League Central (which had six teams) to the once underpopulated American League West (which had four), thus giving each league three five-team divisions.

Q: So everybody's happy, right?

A: Of course not. In order to accommodate the Astros' move, interleague play will be spread out over the entire schedule instead of crammed into May and June. Fans who aren't sold on the concept of AL teams playing NL teams during the regular season -- and there's at least one opponent in every household -- are bemoaning the ubiquity of interleague competition.

What should be noted, though, is that more interleague games won't be played in 2013. It'll just seem that way.

Q: Why are the Yankees appearing for only a single, three-game series at Safeco Field?

A: Welcome to the revised schedule. Each team gets 19 games against each of its divisional opponents, 20 interleague games, and 66 games against the rest of the league. For the Mariners, as an example, that pencils out to six dates with the Yankees: three at home, three in New York.

It can be argued 19 games against the Athletics -- and 19 against the Rangers, Angels and Astros -- is too repetitive. But during the old days (the really old days, before the AL expanded in 1961 and the NL followed suit in 1962), when there were eight teams in each league, opponents played each other 22 times.

I don't recall Pittsburgh fans grumbling about having to watch the Pirates play, say, the Phillies 22 times a season. Then again, I don't recall much of anything about eight-team leagues. I do know that old-school fans remember it as baseball's "Golden Era."

Q: Any rules changes this season?

A: Unlike the NFL, whose competition committee relishes any chance to revise its league's ever-evolving rulebook, MLB owners are reluctant to meddle and tweak. But, yes, a few changes are in store.

Pitchers looking at baserunners on first and third no longer will be allowed to fake a throw to third before attempting a genuine pickoff throw to first. According to one unofficial estimation -- mine -- the fake-throw-to-third-followed-by-the-pickoff-throw-to-first routine has worked three times in 1.7 trillion attempts.

Anyway, the next pitcher to use the ruse will be charged with a balk, meaning: the baserunner on third scores, and the baserunner on first advances to second. Personally, I'd like to see a $150,000 delay-of-game fine also imposed on the pitcher, but the balk penalty is a start.

Another rules change applies to the number of coaches a team can put in uniform. It used to be six, now it's seven, allowing for the trend of the hitting-coach job shared by a duo.

Finally, an interpreter can accompany a pitching coach or manager to the mound to assist a pitcher who isn't fluent in English. But there's a caveat: the interpreter must be a full-time employee, and almost all of MLB's full-time interpreters are steeped in Asian languages rather than Spanish.

If a consequence of this new rule creates 30 full-time jobs for Spanish-language interpreters, so much the better.

Q: After a banner year for rookies in 2012 -- outfielder Mike Trout began the season as an Angels prospect facing the Rainiers in Cheney Stadium, and finished as runner-up to Miguel Cabrera for the AL's Most Valuable Player award -- who are the phenoms awaiting stardom in 2013?

A: Texas shortstop Jurickson Profar is regarded as a leading candidate for the can't-miss club, despite the fact his recent assignment to the minors means he'll miss the first few weeks of the Texas season, if not more.

Outfielders Will Myers (Tampa Bay) and Adam Eaton (Arizona) also are in the mix, as well as starting pitchers Trevor Bauer (Cleveland) and Dylan Bundy (Baltimore).

And don't discount Seattle's Brandon Maurer, who quietly surpassed the Mariners' "Big Three" of more ballyhooed pitching prospects -- Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton -- to gain a rotation spot out of Double-A.

Q: When all is said and done, what will be said about what was done in 2013?

A: That injuries, advancing age and an ownership prone to a more frugal stewardship of the bottom line caught up with the Yankees, who'll be challenged to finish .500. The defending world-champion Giants again will qualify for the playoffs, but their aspirations of parading through a third storm of confetti in four years will be undone by the Washington Nationals.

Q: As for the Mariners?

A: The Mariners appear destined for a fourth-place finish in the AL West, which is better than it sounds. It's not a stretch to see Seattle winning 85 games, and if the Mariners are able to coax just one more victory a month from that projection, they'll end up with 91 of them and in the wild-card hunt.

Q: Back to the schedule: Why were the Rangers and Astros, former interleague foes, chosen to begin the season tonight? What ever happened to tradition?

A. The Astros and Rangers are now divisional opponents. Besides, a Sunday night season opener in Texas trumps any opener played at 3 a.m. West Coast time in Japan.

Baseball heritage will be honored Monday, sort of, when the Reds are home for an afternoon game in Cincinnati. The Reds' Monday opener is as much an early April baseball tradition as hot dogs that aren't hot enough and cold beer that isn't cold enough.

Only this year, there's a twist: The Reds will take on the Angels in an interleague game.

Q: Ho-hum. Rangers-Astros, Angels-Reds. And baseball fans are supposed to be excited about this? Why?

A: It's like what Louis Armstrong once said about jazz: If you have to ask, you'll never understand.




2012 season: 94-68 (first, AL West; lost in ALDS)

New faces: SS Hiroyuki Nakajima, OF Chris Young, INF Jed Lowrie, C John Jaso.

Strength: Young talent. Last year, the A's become the second team ever to get at least 50 homers (56) and wins (54) from rookies. Pitching is especially good, led by starters Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone and A.J. Griffin and reliever Ryan Cook.

Weakness: An all-or-nothing offense. Although the A's finished eighth in the AL in runs scored -- thanks to 195 homers -- they were 13th in average, 12th in on-base percentage and led the AL with 1,387 strikeouts.

Outlook: While this year's team might be stronger with OF Yoenis Cespedes, above, in his second year, a healthy Brett Anderson at the top of the rotation and acquisitions of Young, Lowrie and Jaso, repeating will be difficult. Oakland might not be able to count on the same late-inning success that led to a major league-leading 14 walk-off wins.

Projected lineup

CF Coco Crisp (.259, 11 HR, 46 RBI, 39 SB)

2B Jed Lowrie (.244, 16, 42)

or Jemile Weeks (.221, 2, 20)

LF Yoenis Cespedes (.292, 23, 82, 16 SB)

1B Brandon Moss (.291, 21, 52)

RF Josh Reddick (.242, 32, 85, Gold Glove)

DH Chris Young (.231, 14, 41)

or Seth Smith (.240, 14, 52)

3B Josh Donaldson (.241, 9, 33)

C John Jaso (.276, 10, 50)

or Derek Norris (.201, 7, 34)

SS Hiroyuki Nakajima (.311, 13, 74 for Seibu Lions in Japan).

Projected rotation

LH Brett Anderson (4-2, 2.57 ERA in 6 starts)

RH Jarrod Parker (13-8, 3.47)

LH Tommy Milone (13-10, 3.74)

RH A.J. Griffin (7-1, 3.05)

RH Bartolo Colon (10-9, 3.43, 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs with 5 remaining this season)


RH Grant Balfour (3-2, 2.53, 24/26 saves)


2012 season: 93-69 (second, AL West; lost in wild-card round)

New faces: DH Lance Berkman; C A.J. Pierzynski; RHPs Jason Frasor, Joakim Soria, Josh Lindblom.

Strength: Even without Josh Hamilton, Michael Young and Mike Napoli, this is a team that can score plenty of runs. They might not need to score as many if the pitchers produce a sub-4.00 ERA as they did in 2012.

Weakness: Uncertainty where confidence once was. What effect did choking the AL West title away on the last day of the season and then losing the one-game AL wild-card playoff have?

Outlook: There's talent but some big questions that need to be answered. Can Mitch Moreland be an everyday first baseman? Is Cuban CF Loenys Martin ready for an everyday role? How much do veterans Berkman and Pierzynski have left?

Projected lineup

2B Ian Kinsler (.256, 19 HR, 72 RBI, 21 SB, 105 runs)

SS Elvis Andrus (.286, 3, 62, 21 SB)

DH Lance Berkman (.259, 2, 7 in 32 games for St. Louis)

3B Adrian Beltre, above, (.321, 36, 102)

RF Nelson Cruz (.260, 24, 90)

LF David Murphy (.304, 15, 61)

C A.J. Pierzynski (.278, 27, 77 in 135 games for Chicago White Sox)

1B Mitch Moreland (.275, 15, 50)

CF Leoyns Martin (.174 in 24 games) or Craig Gentry (.304, 1, 26 in 240 at-bats)

Projected rotation

LH Matt Harrison (18-11, 3.29 ERA, 4 CG)

RH Yu Darvish (16-9, 3.90, 221

strikeouts in 191.1 innings)

LH Derek Holland (12-7, 4.67)

RH Alexi Ogando (2-0, 3.27 in 58 relief appearances)

RH Nick Tepesch (6-3, 4.28 at Double-A Frisco)


RH Joe Nathan (3-5, 2.80, 37/40 saves)


2012 season: 89-73 (third, AL West)

New faces: OF Josh Hamilton, above left, LHP Jason Vargas, RHPs Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson and Ryan Madson.

Strength: Offensive potential. The Angels were third in the AL in runs without Hamilton, who should push them to the top. And now that Albert Pujols, above right, has a year in the AL under his belt, watch out. And don't forget about Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo, who combined for 62 homers last year.

Weakness: Fragility. Hamilton is no iron man, and Pujols has been limited this spring with plantar fasciitis and knee issues from offseason surgery. New closer Madson is coming off Tommy John surgery, and Hanson had some arm issues last year with the Braves.

Outlook: Although they won more games last season than AL champion Detroit, the Angels missed the playoffs for the third straight year -- a first under Mike Scioscia, baseball's longest-tenured manager. The offense should cover up a patchwork rotation behind Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. After letting Zack Greinke walk, they're gambling on Blanton, Vargas and Hanson to keep them in games. The Angels are betting big money that it's their turn to rise again in the AL West.

Projected lineup

LF Mike Trout (.326, 30 HR, 83 RBI, 49 SB, 129 runs)

SS Erick Aybar (.290, 8, 45)

1B Albert Pujols (.285, 30, 105)

RF Josh Hamilton (.285, 43, 128 with Texas)

DH Mark Trumbo (.268, 32, 95)

2B Howie Kendrick (.287, 8, 67)

3B Alberto Callaspo (.252, 10, 53)

C Chris Iannetta (.240, 9, 26)

CF Peter Bourjos (.220, 3, 19)

Projected rotation

RH Jered Weaver (20-5, 2.81 ERA,

142 K, .214 opponents' average)

LH C.J. Wilson (13-10, 3.83, 173)

LH Jason Vargas (14-11, 3.85, 141 with Seattle)

RH Joe Blanton (10-13, 4.71, 166 with Philadelphia and L.A. Dodgers)

RH Tommy Hanson (13-10, 4.48, 161 with Atlanta)


RH Ryan Madson (DNP, elbow injury, with Cincinnati)


2012 season: 75-87 (fourth, AL West)

New faces: OF Jason Bay, OF/1B Michael Morse, OF Raul Ibanez, 1B Kendrys Morales, above, C Kelly Shoppach.

Strength: Improved offense, hard-throwing bullpen. Morse and Morales are legitimate, middle-of-the-order hitters who can't help but lift the team from the doldrums of the past few years. And no one in the majors can match the gas that relievers Tom Wilhelmsen, Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor bring.

Weakness: Starting pitching issues. Felix Hernandez is an ace, but from there, there are lots of questions in the rotation. Can Hisashi Iwakuma duplicate his late-season success? Is Joe Saunders a capable fill-in for Jason Vargas? And will youngsters Blake Beavan and Brandon Maurer hold up?

Outlook: This is the year Seattle needs to take a step forward in the rebuilding manager Eric Wedge and general manager Jack Zduriencik have undertaken. Prospects Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders need to produce with consistency. Jesus Montero needs to show he can be an everyday catcher. And Franklin Gutierrez needs to stay healthy. If that happens, the Mariners should challenge the .500 mark.

Projected lineup

CF Franklin Gutierrez (.260, 4 HR, 17 RBI in 40 games)

3B Kyle Seager (.259, 20, 86)

LF Michael Morse (.291, 18, 62 in 102 games with Washington)

DH Kendrys Morales (.273, 22, 73 in 134 games with Angels)

RF Michael Saunders (.247, 19, 57)

C Jesus Montero (.260, 15, 62)

2B Dustin Ackley (.226, 12, 50)

1B Justin Smoak (.217, 19, 51)

SS Brendan Ryan (.194, 3, 31).

Projected rotation

RH Felix Hernandez (13-9, 3.06 ERA, 5 CG)

RH Hisashi Iwakuma (9-5, 3.16 ERA, 16 starts)

LH Joe Saunders (9-13, 4.07 in 28 starts with Arizona and Baltimore)

RH Brandon Maurer (9-2, 3.20 in 24 starts in Double-A)

RH Blake Beavan (11-11, 4.43, 26 starts)


RH Tom Wilhelmsen (4-3, 2.50, 29/34 saves)


2012 season: 55-107 (sixth, NL Central)

New faces: 1B/DH Carlos Pena, above, RHP Philip Humber, OF Rick Ankiel, 1B/OF Chris Carter.

Strength: Second base. Jose Altuve was an All-Star in 2012, and he might be the only representative the rebuilding Astros have this year.

Weakness: Hitting, pitching, depth, inexperience -- pick one. Questions abound at every position, which means first-year manager Bo Porter, the Nationals' former third base coach, will be hard pressed to avoid a last-place finish in the division.

Outlook: It's a new league for the Astros, who make the jump from the NL. Unfortunately, they bring much of the same problems they've had recently with them. This team finished last in the NL Central in each of the past two years and could lose more than the 107 games it lost in 2012. The Astros will try to avoid becoming the first team to lose at least 106 games in three straight seasons since the expansion Mets did it from 1962-65. It won't be easy for a team with just five players on the 40-man roster with more than two years of major league experience and the league's lowest payroll.

Projected lineup

2B Jose Altuve (.290, 7 HR, 37 RBI, 33 SB)

1B Brett Wallace (.253, 9, 24)

DH Carlos Pena (.197, 19, 61 for Tampa Bay)

LF Chris Carter (.239, 16, 39 for Oakland)

RF Fernando Martinez (.237, 6, 14)

CF Justin Maxwell (.229, 18, 53)

C Jason Castro (.257, 6, 29)

SS Ronny Cedeno (.259, 4, 22 for Mets)

3B Matt Dominguez (.284, 5, 16)

Projected rotation

RH Bud Norris (7-13, 4.65 ERA)

RH Lucas Harrell (11-11, 3.76)

RH Philip Humber (5-5, 6.44, with the White Sox)

RH Brad Peacock (12-9, 6.01 in Triple-A Sacramento)

LH Erik Bedard (7-14, 5.01 with Pittsburgh)


RH Jose Veras (5-4, 3.63, 1 save with Milwaukee)



2012 season: 73-89 (fourth, AL East)

New faces: RHP R.A. Dickey, above, LHP Mark Buehrle, SS Jose Reyes, RHP Josh Johnson, OF Melky Cabrera.

2013 outlook: Toronto went all-in this offseason and landed three top-quality starters in Dickey, Buehrle and Johnson. And the offense is improved with Reyes and Cabrera joining a lineup that has Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion in the middle of it.

Will win the AL East if ... the pitching stabilizes. Dickey was great in 2012, but is he a legit ace? How much does Buehrle have left? Can Brandon Morrow ever stay healthy?


2012 season: 90-72 (third, AL East)

New faces: 1B James Loney, SS Yunel Escobar, RHP Roberto Hernandez.

2013 outlook: Pitching has always made the Rays a threat and they will be again with David Price leading the rotation and Fernando Rodney closing. But it'll be an uphill battle with the losses of B.J. Upton and James Shields in a stout division.

Will win the AL East if ... uber prospect Wil Myers makes an impact.


2012 season: 93-69 (second, AL East; lost in ALDS)

New faces: RHP Jair Jurrjens, INF Alexi Casilla, OF Trayvon Robinson.

2013 outlook: They made the playoffs for the first time since 1997 by going 29-9 in one-run games, thanks in large part to closer Jim Johnson. It's hard to see that type of magic repeating itself, although they have young talent throughout the lineup, including C Matt Wieters, INF Manny Machado and OF Adam Jones.

Will win the AL East if ... those young position players keep getting better and the rotation develops a star (say, former Mariners prospect RHP Chris Tillman?).


2012 season: 95-67 (first, AL East; lost in ALCS)

New faces: 3B Kevin Youkilis, C Bobby Wilson, DH Travis Hafner.

2013 outlook: They are an aging team with injuries already knocking out several of their key players for substantial parts of the season (Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson). Youkilis should help fill the void left by Rodriguez, and Mariano Rivera returns, but it's hard to see the Yankees winning 95 or more games for a fifth straight season.

Will win the AL East if ... management, determined not to pay the luxury tax, changes its mind and spends on inseason upgrades.


2012 season: 69-93 (fifth, AL East)

New faces: 1B Mike Napoli, OF Shane Victorino, OF Jonny Gomes, RHP Ryan Dempster, RHP Joel Hanrahan, RHP Koji Uehara.

2013 outlook: After the big-time backfire of the Bobby Valentine experiment, the Red Sox made a major salary dump, ridding themselves of Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett, all sent to the Dodgers last season. They added high-quality pieces this winter and should be better, but it's hard to see them climbing too far after a disastrous season.

Will win the AL East if ... the starting pitching bounces back.



2012 season: 88-74 (1st, AL Central; lost in World Series)

New faces: OF Torii Hunter, C Brayan Pena

2013 outlook: The offense is set with reigning MVP Miguel Cabrera, above and Prince Fielder in the middle. The rotation is set with Justin Verlander. The only question is who fills in for Jose Valverde at closer. Manager Jim Leyland said, "It'll be a second-guesser's delight" because they have no set closer.

Will win the AL Central if ... Victor Martinez returns to his former run-producing self, the closer situation works itself out, and the rotation pitches like it did at the end of last season.


2012 season: 72-90 (3rd, AL Central)

New faces: RHP James Shields, RHP Wade Davis, RHP Ervin Santana, INF Miguel Tejada

2013 outlook: At some point, the Royals had to make a serious run for the playoffs. They haven't been there since winning it all in 1985, but they are going for it this year. They added Shields and Davis to solidify their rotation and reignite the fan base.

Will win the AL Central if ... the rebuilt rotation consistently delivers six quality innings, and the team's young position players -- that means you, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain -- take the next step in their development.


2012 season: 85-77 (2nd, AL Central)

New faces: INF Jeff Keppinger, RHP Matt Lindstrom

2013 outlook: Jake Peavy and Chris Sale form a strong 1-2 punch at the front of the rotation, but the lineup suffered big blows with the departures of A.J. Pierzynski and Kevin Youkilis. They have the makings of a middle-of-the-road team.

Will win the AL Central if ... the holes in the lineup get filled.


2012 season: 68-94 (4th, AL Central)

New faces: OF Nick Swisher, RHP Trevor Bauer, OF Drew Stubbs, 3B Mark Reynolds, RHP Brett Myers, INF Mike Aviles

2013 outlook: The Indians traded away outfielder Shin-Soo Choo in exchange for what they hope will be a front-line starter (Bauer) and impact outfielder (Stubbs). The Indians will certainly be more competitive this season, but it's hard to see them pushing Detroit, KC and Chicago down the stretch.

Will win the AL Central if ... the pitching shaves a run off its team ERA. The Indians were last in the AL with a 4.78 ERA in 2012.


2012 season: 66-96 (5th, AL Central)

New faces: RHP Kevin Correia, RHP Mike Pelfrey, RHP Josh Roenicke, RHP Vance Worley

2013 outlook: In Ron Gardenhire's first nine seasons, he had one losing season with the Twins. But the past two have been the worst of his era with 99- and 96-loss seasons. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are power bats in the lineup, but the rotation and bullpen are shaky.

Will win the AL Central if ... uhm ... nope. It's not Houston Astros bad in Minneapolis, but the Twins are not good enough to compete in an improving division.



2012 season: 98-64 (first, NL East; lost in NLDS)

New faces: RHP Dan Haren, RHP Rafael Soriano, OF Denard Span

2013 outlook: Nobody won more regular-season games than the Nationals last season, but they were without ace Stephen Strasburg in the playoffs. That shouldn't be the case this year, and Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez are a formidable 1-2 punch. Their bullpen got better, too, with the addition of Soriano.

Will win the NL East if ... the rotation, which was remarkably healthy last season, takes the mound game-in, game-out in 2013.


2012 season: 94-68 (second, NL East; lost in wild-card round)

New faces: OF B.J. Upton, above, OF Justin Upton, RHP Jordan Walden, 3B Chris Johnson

2013 outlook: They have the Upton brothers and Jason Heyward roaming the outfield, which might be the best in the game. They also acquired reliever Walden. Expect the Braves, a wild-card team last year, to challenge for the division title again.

Will win the NL East if ... young pitchers Mike Minor (25) and Julio Teheran (22) to take on major roles in the rotation.


2012 season: 81-81 (third, NL East)

New faces: RHP Mike Adams, 3B Michael Young, OF Delmon Young, OF Ben Revere, RHP John Lannan

2013 outlook: With Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee heading the rotation, the Phillies remain a contender. The offense still is a question mark, but it could be in good shape if newcomer Michael Young bounces back and Chase Utley and Ryan Howard return to their All-Star form.

Will win the NL East if ... Father Time is good to them. Young isn't so much -- he's 36 -- nor are Utley (34), Howard (33), Halladay (35) and Lee (34).


2012 season: 74-88 (fourth, NL East)

New faces: RHP Shaun Marcum, RHP Brandon Lyon, OF Collin Cowgill

2013 outlook: The Mets haven't been to the postseason since 2006, and it'll be tough this season. Johan Santana faces shoulder surgery again and is likely out for the season, and they traded away reigning Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. While they got a nice return, it's clearly not a win-now move.

Will win the NL East if ... Ike Davis becomes a home run champion, and young pitcher Matt Harvey is the second coming of Tom Seaver.


2012 season: 69-93 (fifth, NL East)

New faces: SS Adeiny Hechavarria, OF Juan Pierre, INF Placido Polanco, C Jeff Mathis, RHP Jon Rauch

2013 outlook: One of the most dysfunctional franchises in the game, the Marlins are a mess. They went all-in prior to the 2012 season and flopped. That led to a fire sale this offseason when they fired manager Ozzie Guillen and shipped away, among others, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Heath Bell and Josh Johnson. They kept one of their stars, though, outfielder Giancarlo Stanton.

Will win the NL East if ... who are we kidding? The Marlins would be lucky to finish third.



2012 season: 97-65 (first in NL Central; lost in NLDS)

New faces: OF Shin-Soo Choo, above, LHP Manny Parra, INF Cesar Izturis, INF Jack Hannahan

2013 outlook: The reigning division champs have a strong bullpen with Aroldis Chapman and Jonathan Broxton at the back end, and bolstered their lineup by trading for outfielder Choo and re-signing OF Ryan Ludwick. And they have a perennial MVP candidate in INF Joey Votto and arguably the best second baseman in the game, Brandon Phillips.

Will win the NL Central if ... they stay healthy. Votto missed 48 games last season, but the pitching was healthy.


2012 season: 88-74 (second, NL Central; lost in NLCS)

New faces: LHP Randy Choate, INF/OF Ty Wigginton

2013 outlook: The Cardinals didn't miss a beat with the loss of Albert Pujols last season, so it's hard to see them taking a step back without ace Chris Carpenter. Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday form the heart of the lineup, while Adam Wainwright and Jake Westbrook lead the rotation.

Will win the NL Central if ... the pitching holds up. Without Carpenter and Kyle Lohse, the Cardinals need big years from Shelby Miller and Jaime Garcia.


2012 season: 83-79 (third, NL Central)

New faces: RHP Kyle Lohse, LHP Mike Gonzalez, RHP Burke Badenhop, LHP Tom Gorzelanny

2013 outlook: The Brewers had a relatively quiet offseason until reaching a three-year deal with Lohse, which should make them contenders once again. OF Ryan Braun remains one of the top players in the game, and Yovani Gallardo has established himself as a front-line starter. They also finished last season by winning 20 of their final 31 games.

Will win the NL Central if ... closer John Axford recovers from a bad season in which he blew nine saves.


2012 season: 79-83 (fourth, NL Central)

New faces: LHP Francisco Liriano, C Russell Martin, INF Ivan De Jesus Jr., RHP Mark Melancon

2013 outlook: The Pirates have started strong the past two seasons only to falter down the stretch. They hope to sustain it this season and make the playoffs for the first time since 1992. But they're prone to fade.

Will win the NL Central if ... new closer Jason Grilli is up to the task, the Nos. 4 and 5 starters pitch decently and Martin shores up the defense.


2012 season: 61-101 (fifth, NL Central)

New faces: RHP Edwin Jackson, RHP Scott Feldman, RHP Scott Baker, RHP Kyuji Fujikawa, OF Nate Schierholtz

2013 outlook: They have a plan in place under president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer, but this is not the year they turn the corner. They will be more competitive by adding right-hander Jackson and former Rangers long reliever Feldman to the rotation.

Will win the NL Central if ... the other teams in the division completely flop. The Cubs are better but they're still at least a year or two away from contending.



2012 season: 94-68 (first, NL West; won World Series)

New faces: RHP Chad Gaudin, OF Andres Torres

2013 outlook: Fresh off their second World Series in three years, the Giants have established themselves as a model franchise. They have one of the best rotations in the league and re-signed left-handed reliever Jeremy Affeldt, outfielder Angel Pagan and infielder Marco Scutaro.

Will win the NL West if ... the stand-pat strategy of newly re-signed GM Brian Sabean, who kept his aging core together after winning it all, pays off.


2012 season: 86-76 (second, NL West)

New faces: RHP Zack Greinke, above, LHP J.P. Howell, LHP Hyun-Jin Ryu

2013 outlook: The Dodgers' new ownership group isn't afraid to spend. They signed Greinke, the top free-agent starter on the market, and fortified their bullpen by re-signing Brandon League and adding lefty reliever J.P. Howell. They also have perennial Cy Young (Clayton Kershaw) and MVP (Matt Kemp) candidates on their team.

Will win the NL West if ... the team stays healthy. Kemp missed a big chunk of last season, and Greinke had elbow issues this spring. They'll need both to beat out the Giants.


2012 season: 81-81 (third, NL West)

New faces: RHP Heath Bell, SS Cliff Pennington, LHP Tony Sipp, INF/OF Martin Prado, RHP Brandon McCarthy, OF Cody Ross, SS Didi Gregorius

2013 outlook: They traded Justin Upton to Atlanta, which brought back All-Star infielder/outfielder Prado, who signed an extension. The D-backs also got Braves pitching prospect, Randall Delgado, and three minor leaguers. Arizona was part of a three-team trade, too, that landed shortstop Gregorius and lefty Sipp. The D-backs should stay in the hunt this season.

Will win the NL West if ... scrappiness counts for anything. This team was remade in manager Kirk Gibson's image, but a lot of talent was traded away.


2012 season: 76-86 (fourth NL West)

New faces: OF Travis Buck, C Rene Rivera, RHP Tyson Ross

2013 outlook: The Padres return a good trio of veterans in starter Jason Marquis, outfielder Carlos Quentin and closer Huston Street. But it's hard to see them making a serious run in the NL West.

Will win the NL West if ... 1B Yonder Alonso becomes Adrian Gonzalez, 3B Chase Headley heals quickly and keeps hitting homers, and C Yasmani Grandal gives a boost after his 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs.


2012 season: 64-98 (fifth, NL West)

New faces: RHP Wilton Lopez, RHP Chris Volstad, INF Ryan Wheeler

2013 outlook: They have a new manager, Walt Weiss, and hitting coach, Dante Bichette. They also have two of the biggest stars in the game in outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. But the Rockies don't appear to be in position to push for a playoff spot.

Will win the NL West if ... Weiss, who was coaching his son's high school baseball team at this time last year, is a better manager than Billy Martin.

Associated Press photos, preview capsules compiled by staff and The Associated Press


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