2013 National League preview

Manager Davey Johnson calls his Washington Nationals "a contending, championship-type team." But can the reigning NL East champs hold off an Atlanta outfit bolstered by the Upton brothers, B.J. and Justin? The answer to that question and more can be found in our league preview.

Projected division winners, plus teams on the rise and decline

Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg, left, won't have an innings limit this season, meaning more matchups against the Braves' Upton brothers, B.J. and Justin. (Patrick McDermott/Getty Images/Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press/

In December, Davey Johnson boldly stated he wanted to win a World Series with the Washington Nationals before he retires.

Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and company better act quickly since the major league’s oldest manager is calling it quits after the 2013 season.

"I like the talent level," Johnson, 70, told recently. "[The players] did the things last year to prove not only to me, but everybody else, that we are a contending, championship-type team."

Washington won the National League East last season with the best record in baseball at 98-64, and Johnson knows winners, having guided the 1986 New York Mets to a World Series championship.

Johnson isn’t alone in his faith in the team’s talent as many consider the Nationals the most balanced club in baseball. But can they fend off Atlanta, which boasts the Upton brothers, B.J. and Justin, Jason Heyward and closer Craig Kimbrel?

Which teams will reign supreme across the NL in 2013? Which of the league’s 15 clubs are poised to take the next step or falter this season?

It’s all here as projects the NL division winners along with three teams on the rise and decline. Also, check out our AL preview here.


East: Washington — There’s no reason to believe the Nationals can’t repeat as division champions and top the century mark in wins after posting the best record in the majors in 2012 at 98-64. Washington lost only one player of significance in the off-season, left-fielder Michael Morse (18 homers in 102 games in 2012), while signing former Yankees closer Rafael Soriano (two years, $28 million US) and one-time Angels starter Dan Haren (one year, $13 million).

Stephen Strasburg leads a spectacular starting rotation few teams can match and will have the shackles removed from an innings cap that saw him controversially shut down last September. General manager Mike Rizzo picked up centre-fielder Denard Span in a trade with Minnesota that sees blossoming star Bryce Harper shift to left and improve the Nationals' outfield defence.

Central: Cincinnati — Like Washington, the Reds will repeat as division champs, only they will fall two victories shy of matching their 2012 total of 97. Outfielder Shin-Soo Choo was acquired in a trade with Cleveland in the off-season and adds much-needed on-base ability (.373 on-base percentage in ’12) to complement Toronto-born first baseman Joey Votto (.474) in an above average lineup.

Second baseman Brandon Phillips, shortstop Zack Cozart and Votto form one of the best defensive infield trios while the starting pitching rotation is solid, led by Johnny Cueto (19 wins, 2.78 ERA last season) and Mat Latos (14-4, 3.48). The Reds have scrapped plans to have closer Aroldis Chapman convert to being a starter. The "Cuban Missile" converted 38 of 43 save chances in 2012 with a sparkling 1.51 earned-run average.

West: Los Angeles — The Dodgers could approach 100 wins if Adrian Gonzalez drives in 120 runs, the 1-2 punch of pitchers Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke combine for 40-plus victories and outfielder Matt Kemp (23 HRs in 449 at-bats in ’12) stays healthy. A lot will be expected of Greinke, who signed with the Dodgers in the off-season but has already encountered some elbow issues. Josh Beckett posted a 2.93 ERA in seven starts with L.A. and could settle in the 3.50 range while South Korean lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu is a nice add to the back end of the rotatation.

Offensively, the Dodgers could be very strong with Kemp and Gonzalez but they’ll need outfielder Carl Crawford (elbow) and Hanley Ramirez (torn thumb ligament) to avoid further injury. Expect about 90 wins.


Atlanta: There’s a lot of buzz about the off-season acquisitions of the Upton brothers, B.J. and Justin, who add punch to a lineup that ranked 10th in slugging in the NL last season. B.J. is a candidate to hit 30 home runs with 30 stolen bases while Justin, an NL MVP candidate, managed a .280 batting average with 17 homers and 18 stolen bases while battling a thumb injury for much of the 2012 season. They will form one of the strongest outfields with Jason Heyward (27 HRs, 21 steals in ’12).

The successful return of catcher Brian McCann (shoulder surgery) will be crucial for the team’s pursuit of a playoff berth, as will the performance of closer Craig Kimbrel (42 saves, 1.01 ERA), who struck out more than half the batters he faced last season.

Pittsburgh: Expect the Pirates to avoid a third consecutive second-half fade this season and reach the .500 mark. A lot of their success will hinge on the starting pitching rotation and a repeat of A.J. Burnett’s 16 wins and 3.51 ERA would be welcomed. James McDonald (4.21) and Wandy Rodriguez (3.76) have room to improve and bounce-back seasons by Jonathan Sanchez (8.07) and Francisco Liriano (six wins, 5.34) could see Pittsburgh surprise.

Leadoff man Starling Marte (five homers, 17 RBIs in 167 at-bats) is primed for a big jump in those categories while 26-year-old outfielder Andrew McCutchen (31 homers, 96 RBIs, 20 steals in 2012) is a star. And you cannot overlook the addition of catcher Russell Martin, who provides power and handles pitchers well, having worked previously with Burnett and McDonald.

San Diego: You might not see much, if any, increase in the Padres’ win total from 2012 (76) but it may have more to do with a slow start to the season due to injuries than anything. This team has enough young talent to forecast improvement in the near future. Third baseman Chase Headley (thumb) is out a month while Logan Forsythe (foot) could be DL-bound after having a setback in his recovery. That means prospect Jedd Gyorko (.328, 24 HRs at triple-A in 2012) likely steps in.

First baseman Yonder Alonso, outfielder Cameron Maybin and catcher Yasmani Grandal (suspended for the first 50 games) are also part of a young offensive core. Edinson Volquez and Clayton Richard are the only two pitchers guaranteed a rotation spot but Cory Luebke (coming off Tommy John surgery) and reliever-turned-starter Andrew Cashner could be big contributors early on.


Arizona: There are two reasons for a probable decline by the Diamondbacks, who finished with an 81-81 record last season. First, they failed to match San Francisco’s re-signing of Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro, and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ catch of starting pitcher Zack Greinke and utility player Skip Schumaker. Arizona GM Kevin Towers, on the other hand, dealt pitching prospect Trevor Bauer and outfielders Justin Upton (Atlanta) and Chris Young (Oakland) which could set back the Diamondbacks’ offence. To boot, outfield prospect and projected leadoff hitter Adam Eaton is expected to miss at least the first six weeks of the season with an elbow injury. However, the starting pitching rotation is decent, with Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill, Wade Miley and Brandon McCarthy.

Miami: Take away your leadoff man and top energy player, plus your top two starting pitchers, No. 1 catcher and a speedy infielder and what do you have? The Marlins, of course. Team owner Jeffrey Loria quickly became Public Enemy No. 1 in South Florida after trading Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buerhrle, John Buck and Emilio Bonafacio to Toronto in November. Sure, the Marlins received four prospects from the Blue Jays but they won’t have an effect on 2013, which might see the team struggle to win 70 games.

Remember, Miami sent starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez, shortstop Hanley Ramirez and infielder Omar Infante packing last July. At least the team still has veteran pitcher Ricky Nolasco and power-hitting outfielder Giancarlo Stanton (.290, 37 HRs in 2012), for now.

Philadelphia: A red flag has already popped up with the Phillies in the form of pitcher Roy Halladay and his lost velocity this spring. A lot is riding on the 35-year-old, who is coming off an injury-plagued 2011 season in which he sported his worst ERA (4.49) since 2000. Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels are co-aces but the back end of the rotation (John Lannan, Kyle Kendrick) won’t intimidate opponents.

Offensively, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley battled injuries in 2012 and are no sure things this season. Newcomer Michael Young, 35, should help but is more of a short-term piece. Newly acquired Ben Revere (.294, 40 stolen bases in 2012) and fellow outfielder Domonic Brown (.373 in spring training), who could help keep the Phillies near the .500 mark.