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NL preview

Reloaded Phillies ready for another run

Jonathan Papelbon gives a new look to the Phillies bullpen.

Steve Nesius/REUTERS

Jonathan Papelbon gives a new look to the Phillies bullpen.

Take a look at each team and the predicted order of finish for the 2012 season.

NL EAST

1. Philadelphia — The Phillies have some issues to start the season, mostly Chase Utley’s right knee tendinitis and Ryan Howard’s slow return from left Achilles’ tendon surgery, but when all is said and done, the Phillies can pitch. The rotation: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, then add Vance Worley, Kyle Kendrick and Joe Blanton. They’ve added closer Jonathan Papelbon at the end and the relievers leading up to him are solid.

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2. Atlanta — Much like the Red Sox, the Braves are motivated by their September collapse and they have the starting pitching and the young bullpen pieces to build. They have young stars - Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman - a year deeper into their careers. How much Chipper Jones, who will retire at the end of the season, can give them is key. They’re still missing the thump they need from an outfielder.

3. Miami — The Marlins should be fun with a new a manager (Ozzie Guillen) and a new stadium (Marlins Park). But better? Shortstop Jose Reyes might be one of the most exciting players in the game but must prove he can remain healthy. There has been a positive spin on Hanley Ramirez’s move to third — for the time being. Health questions remain with ace Josh Johnson, but the additions of lefthander Mark Buehrle and closer Heath Bell should be keys.

4. Washington — The Nationals are on the baseball’s incline, but it’s tough to project them in the playoffs. They eagerly await the debut of Bryce Harper, who is now going to try to transition from catcher to center field when he gets with a little seasoning in Triple A. Stephen Strasburg was named Opening Day starter less than two years after Tommy John surgery. Exciting players such as Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, and Jordan Zimmerman also make this a team worth watching.

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5. New York — Kind of a mess. Third baseman David Wright has an abdominal strain. Lefthander Johan Santana is coming back, but how good will he be after major shoulder surgery? The best thing that could happen is that their young players emerge during a season of rebuilding. One hundred losses is not out of the question.

NL CENTRAL

1. Cincinnati — The Reds want to seize the opportunity afforded them when Milwaukee lost Prince Fielder and St. Louis lost star Albert Pujols and manager Tony La Russa. The Reds really solidified their starting rotation by obtaining Mat Latos but got a bargain with closer Ryan Madson (elbow), acquired in the offseason. The lineup is capable of scoring a lot of runs. Their bullpen should be solid, but slowly developing out of the gate in spring training.

2. St. Louis — The Cardinals might experience some growing pains with new manager Mike Matheny. If he stays healthy, Carlos Beltran could replace some of the offense Pujols took to the Angels, and Lance Berkman returns to first base, where he’ll have less wear and tear than he did as a right fielder. The rotation is boosted by the return of Adam Wainwright, but Chris Carpenter’s injury is a concern. Roy Oswalt could be looming. (Projection: Wild card)

3. Milwaukee — The Brewers came out of the Ryan Braun fiasco fine, but they still have to replace Fielder’s presence and impact, and that could be very difficult. They have a solid rotation and bullpen. With Braun, they will be and will continue to be a formidable opponent capable of winning the division and making the playoffs.

4. Pittsburgh — The Pirates went from 57 wins in 2010 to 72 last season. They just want to keep progressing to the point where 1) They get over the .500 hump for the first time since 1992, which was the last time they made the playoffs; and 2) They can make the playoffs again. They have drafted well and those fruits of those drafts should begin to make an impact. In a very competitive division, it doesn’t appear the Pirates could even qualify for that ‘’sleeper’’ status if they can get A.J. Burnett in time to compete. Say this, they’re trying.

5. Chicago — ‘’Piano, piano,’’ is Theo Epstein’s approach to rebuilding the Cubs. He’ll will try to dump veterans Alfonso Soriano, Marlon Byrd and Ryan Dempster and eventually introduce younger players such as catchers Welington Castillo and Steve Clevenger, outfielder Brett Jackson, and first baseman Anthony Rizzo. The Cubs have more rotation depth in their rotation with the additions of Paul Maholm and Chris Volstad and the emergence of Jeff Samardzija.

6. Houston — The Jed Lowrie era begins in Houston. The Astros could be dreadful, maybe not 106-loss dreadful, but they’re obviously preparing for a better day next season in the American League. Their goal is to dump veterans Carlos Lee, Brett Myers and Wandy Rodriguez for some young players. New owner Jim Crane is a very competitive.

NL WEST

1. Arizona — A solid, well-rounded team that takes on the personality of manager Kirk Gibson. Shortstop Stephen Drew has to have a long stretch of good health. The Diamondbacks’ starting rotation must remain healthy, their bullpen is solid, like most Kevin Towers-built pens. They look like the cream of the crop in the West. (Projection: NL champion)

2. San Francisco — Pitchers Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner keep the Giants viable. GM Brian Sabean made a few strategic offensive moves to the offense by acquiring Melky Cabrera from the Royals and Angel Pagan from the Mets. The Giants need a spark from rookie first baseman Brandon Belt, catcher Buster Posey, and a better year from Aubrey Huff (12 HRs, 59 RBIs last season). (Projection: wild card)

3. Colorado — No team did more to improve. The Rockies look more stable with Marco Scutaro at second and Ramon Hernandez behind the plate. They also added Jeremy Guthrie from the Orioles, who has pitched 200 or more innings the past three seasons. The Rockies need stability to return to being a competitive team.

4. Los Angeles — The Dodgers became a good team in the second half of last season. and that should continue. Will it be enough to make the playoffs? Big year for Andre Ethier, who can become a free agent next year and needs to lead the Dodgers offense along with Matt Kemp. The Dodgers might not have enough horses in the starting rotation after Clayton Kershaw (big year for Chad Billingsley) to stay in the hunt.

5. San Diego — GM Josh Byrnes has tried to make the team competitive, but losing outfielder Carlos Quentin to knee surgery (out 4-6 weeks) right off the bat severely limits the Padres’ offense. They still have decent enough pitching to create close, low-scoring games, but the lack of offense still lags behind the rest of the division and will be their ultimate downfall.

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