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NL Preview: League's pitching dominance still on rise

Zack Greinke

Zack Greinke Photo Credit: Getty Images

During the “Year of the Pitcher” last season, National League home runs dropped by 78 and team ERA plummeted from 4.19 to 4.01 compared to 2009. The AL-to-NL switches of former Cy Young winners Cliff Lee, to the Phillies, and Zack Greinke, to the Brewers, should only further the relative dominance of the mound in the NL this season.

NL East

Philadelphia has the best pitching rotation at least since Atlanta’s late 1990s teams, with Cy Young winner Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels. But the Phillies have weaknesses, with outfielder Jayson Werth now in Washington, second baseman Chase Utley on the DL, and no depth to speak of.

That might open the door for Atlanta, which sports a balanced roster of young talent (outfielder Jason Heyward, staff ace Tommy Hanson and first baseman Freddie Freeman) and veterans (third baseman Chipper Jones and right-hander Tim Hudson). Newcomer second baseman Dan Uggla gives the Braves a much-needed bat up the middle.

Expectations are low for the Mets, who won’t gain salary flexibility until the end of the season. But, if outfielders Carlos Beltran and Jason Bay can stay healthy and the team gets serviceable production out of new acquisitions Brad Emaus, at second base, and Chris Young and Chris Capuano, at the end of the starting rotation, the Mets could have their first winning season in three years.

Florida is still anchored by shortstop Hanley Ramirez and ace Josh Johnson, but the key to the Marlins’ season is their young, talented outfield. With an average age of 23, Logan Morrison, Chris Coghlan and Mike Stanton will largely determine whether the team wins 70 or 90 games.

Washington won’t be exciting early on, but the Nationals will merit attention in September when 22-year-old right-hander Stephen Strasburg could return from Tommy John surgery and phenom outfield prospect Bryce Harper, 18, might get his first call-up to the big leagues.

NL Central

Look for Milwaukee to rebound from a disappointing 2010 thanks to the Brewers’ revamped rotation featuring newcomers Greinke and Shawn Marcum. First baseman Prince Fielder’s contract year motivation will assist an already powerful offense.

The NL’s strongest offense, however, is in Cincinnati, with first baseman Joey Votto leading six Reds with 18 or more homers last season. Cincy could be held back by its pitching staff, which is in questionable health entering the season.

Unquestionable is the effect of the season-ending injury to the St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright, but Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan may uncover some gems in the rotation while first baseman Albert Pujols and outfielder Matt Holliday generate runs.

The Chicago Cubs don’t have the talent give their fans the World Series they covet, but this well-balanced club should see bounce-back seasons from third baseman Aramis Ramirez and outfielder Alfonso Soriano and could climb back to .500.

That goal might be unattainable for Pittsburgh, but the Pirates’ talented young core of outfielder Andrew McCutchen, third baseman Pedro Alvarez and outfielder Jose Tabata could lead them out of the division cellar for the first time in five years.

Moving down to that spot could be Houston, which produced an NL-worst 108 home runs last season. Young corner infielders Chris Johnson (3B) and Brett Wallace (1B) will be relied upon to solidify a weak Astros infield.

NL West

Colorado is poised to make a run in the ever-competitive NL West. A breakout year from outfielder Carlos Gonzalez helped drive a solid team OPS of .761 last season, while the Rockies’ pitching staff is built around groundball tendencies to blunt the impact of homer-friendly Coors Field.

During the Year of the Pitcher, it was only fitting that San Francisco rode its NL-leading 3.36 team ERA to a World Series victory. That strength could give way to fatigue and injury, as the Giants’ starting pitchers threw an additional 99 innings last postseason, including 37 extra frames from Tim Lincecum.

The L.A. Dodgers will remain competitive thanks to ace Clayton Kershaw and the rest of the pitching staff, but the team has holes offensively at second and third base and in left field.

Arizona scored runs but didn’t lead many games in 2010 — and when the Diamondbacks did, their disastrous bullpen squandered 41 percent of those chances. Former Mets reliever J.J. Putz could help rectify that situation if he can avoid the DL.

San Diego stands to lose the most ground in 2011. First baseman Adrian Gonzalez’ departure to Boston left an already weak Padres lineup in shambles, and only staff ace Mat Latos will give the lights-out bullpen many leads to protect.

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