National League outlook

BOB ELLIOTT

, Last Updated: 7:18 AM ET

EAST

ATLANTA BRAVES

CHANGES: RPs Mike Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano, Tanyon Sturtze; 1B-OF Craig Wilson has arrived, while 2B Marcus Giles, 1B Adam LaRoche, LHP Horacio Ramirez, RP Chris Reitsma are elsewhere.

STAR ATTRACTIONS: The Jones crew: CF Andruw and 3B Chipper. Atlanta enters the season not as defending division champs for the first time since 1991.

PROGNOSIS: LHP Mike Hampton injured his oblique to delay a return from elbow ligament transplant surgery. Mark Redman was signed in his place. New left side of the infield. Braves dealt LaRoche and his 94 RBIs to make room for 1B Scott Thorman of Cambridge.

FLORIDA MARLINS

CHANGES: RP Jorge Julio, INF Aaron Boone and RP Kevin Gregg are in; RPs Joe Borowski and Matt Herges, INF Wes Helms are gone.

STAR ATTRACTIONS: LHP Dontrelle Willis (12-12, 3.87), Dan Uggla, who is an ugly size (5-foot-10), has an ugly name but beautiful numbers (27 HR, 90 RBIs) as a Rule V draft; Miguel Cabrerra (.339, 16, 114).

PROGNOSIS: Josh Johnson, who had a 3.10 ERA as a rookie, suffered an irritated ulnar nerve. Best case? Johnson is back sometime in May. RF Jeremy Hermida sidelined until mid-April at least. New manager Fredi Gonzalez is out of the Bobby Cox academy and has Carlos Tosca as his bench coach. Wild-card contenders last season, the Marlins should be close again.

NEW YORK METS

CHANGES: OF Moises Alou, INF Damion Easley, OF David Newhan, RP Scott Schoeneweis are in; RPs Chad Bradford, Roberto Hernandez, INF Chris Woodward and RHP Steve Trachsel are gone.

STAR ATTRACTIONS: Mets may have the best combo of position players in the game in 3B David Wright (.311, 26, 116) and CF Carlos Beltran (.275, 41, 116). They have a bopper in 1B Carlos Delgado (38 homers, giving him 407 on his career).

PROGNOSIS: Starting pitching a problem with the Mets giving rotation spots to Mike Pelfrey and the wild Oliver Perez. Tom Glavine needs 10 wins for No. 300. He's 41 and No. 2 man Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez is 37. They won't repeat.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

Changes: RHPs Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton; C Rod Barajas; INF Wes Helms, OF Jayson Werth are new to Philly, while OFs Jeff Conine, David Dellucci, C Mike Lieberthal, LHP Randy Wolf and RP Arthur Rhodes are over the hill.

STAR ATTRACTIONS: Ryan Howard has played two seasons and won a rookie of the year and an MVP award.

PROGNOSIS: The Phillies bullpen is a mess. SS Jimmy Rollins walked 11 times (plus 17 hits) in his first 59 at-bats this spring, giving him a .475 on base percentage -- a big deal for a leadoff man who had a .334 OBP in 2006. Will contend for a wild-card berth.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS

CHANGES: RHP Jerome Williams and OF Mike Restovich are in; while OF Alfonso Soriano, INF Jose Vidro, RHPs Tony Armas, Pedro Astacio are gone.

STAR ATTRACTIONS: 3B Ryan Zimmerman (.287, 20 HRs, 110 RBIs) and RF Austin Kearns (.264, 24, 86), but this is a bad team.

PROGNOSIS: RHP Shawn Hill of Georgetown has claimed the No. 2 spot. The rest of the rotation is opening day starter John Patterson, Jerome Williams, Jason Bergman and Matt Chico. 1B Larry Broadway didn't show any power, so the Nats turned to Dmitri Young. RHP Luis Ayala and LHP Matt O'Connor have had continued health problems. The phrase remains the same: Washington, first in war, first in peace, last in the NL East.

CENTRAL

CHICAGO CUBS

CHANGES: Do you have half an hour for the incoming? OF Alfonso Soriano, LHP Ted Lilly, RHP Jason Marquis, RP Neal Cotts, INF Mark DeRosa, OF Cliff Floyd, INF Daryle Ward; long gone are LHP Glendon Rusch, OF John Mabry, OF Juan Pierre.

STAR ATTRACTIONS: Soriano was the top offensive weapon on the free-agent market and Lilly was one of the premier arms. The Jays claim they're happy they lost out, yet at one time the Jays were confident enough to plop a four-year, $40-million offer on the table.

PROGNOSIS: Lou Piniella will energize the Cubs. Mark Prior has been way behind, theoretically because of shoulder problems but says he's healthy. He pitched well in his last start but still seems headed the DL. Negotiations with Carlos Zambrano have not produced an extension. The Cubs be there at the wire.

CINCINNATI REDS

CHANGES: OFs Josh Hamilton, Jeff Conine, Bubba Crosby, RHP Kirk Saarloos, RP Mike Stanton are new; INFs Rich Aurilia, Royce Clayton, RHPs Ryan Franklin, RHP Paul Wilson, RPs Eddie Guardado and Scott Schoeneweis, C Jason LaRue are out.

STAR ATTRACTIONS: Reds have a one-two punch of RHPs Aaron Harang (16-11, 3.76) and Bronson Arroyo (14-11, 3.29) along with RF Ken Griffey (.252, 27, 72) and LF Adam Dunn (.234, 40, 90). Griffey will be in right field with Ryan Freel in centre. To break up left-handers in the lineup, manager Jerry Narron experimented with Dunn batting second.

PROGNOSIS: Rule V pick Josh Hamilton, out of baseball nearly three years while on suspension for drug abuse, will be the fourth outfielder. The Reds will be a .500 club.

HOUSTON ASTROS

CHANGES: RHPs Jason Jennings and Woody Williams, OF Carlos Lee and INF Mark Loretta are in; LHP Andy Pettitte, RHP Russ Springer, OF Preston Wilson and RHP Roger Clemens are gone.Clemens may be back.

STAR ATTRACTIONS: Craig Biggio continues to roll along and 1B Lance Berkman will drive them in. Top development of spring was OF prospect Hunter Pence's .517 display. After a bad 2006, Morgan Ensberg has secured his spot.

PROGNOSIS: RP Brad Lidge has struggled and has a 12.38 ERA. In nine spring appearances Lidge has escaped without a run in only three outings. With Lee the Astros improved their offence, but Lidge will need to right himself.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

CHANGES: RHP Jeff Suppan, C Johnny Estrada and INF Craig Counsell are in, while INFs David Bell, Jeff Cirillo, LHP Doug Davis, RHPs Rick Helling and Tomo Ohka are gone.

STAR ATTRACTIONS: CF Bill Hall (. 270, 35, 85) moved to allow injured SS J.J. Hardy to return to the lineup. Prospect Ryan Braun proved he was not ready defensively to replace 3B Corey Koskie -- sidelined with post-concussion syndrome. So the Brewers will begin the season with a platoon of veterans Craig Counsell and Tony Graffanino at third.

PROGNOSIS: RHP Ben Sheets is back in top form. With Francisco Cordero, Jose Capellan and Derrick Turnbow, the Brewers have some relievers who can throw some Wisconsin cheddar. GM Doug Melvin says his club will contend. He isn't wrong.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

CHANGES: 1B Adam LaRoche, RHP Tony Armas are in; OF Jeromy Burnitz, RP Mike Gonzalez and INF Joe Randa are gone.

STAR ATTRACTIONS: LF Jason Bay and LaRoche. 1B Brad Eldred hit six home runs in 49 at-bats after being a forgotten man this winter. Eldred played 18 games at triple-A Indianapolis after surgery on his left hand. 2B Jose Castillo lost his starting job after three seasons. Freddy Sanchez moves to second from third and Jose Bautista plays third.

PROGNOSIS: They had 67 wins a year ago and will strive for 75.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

CHANGES: 2B Adam Kennedy and RP Ryan Franklin turned down more money from the Jays to sign in Baseball City. RHPs Kip Wells and Russ Springer are also in, while INF Ronnie Belliard, RHPs Jason Marquis, Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver are gone.

STAR ATTRACTIONS: The Cards won 83 games and still dispatched the Tigers easily to win the World Series, but they are shaky after RHP Chris Carpenter (15-8, 3.09) and 1B Albert Pujols (.331, 49, 137).

PROGNOSIS: RF Juan Encarnacion won't start the season because he hasn't fully recovered from wrist surgery. Talks of a contract extension for SS David Eckstein have been put on hold. They will be stressed to win the wild card.

WEST

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

CHANGES: LHP Randy Johnson is back in the desert as is LHP Doug Davis while RHP Miguel Batista, C Johnny Estrada, RP Luis Vizcaino, INFs Craig Counsell and Damian Easley are gone.

STAR ATTRACTIONS: 2B Orlando Hudson (.289, 15, 67) either hits second or third while 1B Connor Jackson (.291, 15, 71) will bat fourth. RHP Brandon Webb (16-8, 3.10) will start opening day as Johnson is injured. Johnson will be back May 20. Enrique Gonzalez or Micah Owings will get the fifth spot until then.

PROGNOSIS: RF Carlos Quentin hasn't played since March 16 because of a torn labrum (left shoulder). Scott Hairston starts if Quentin can't go, but in left with Eric Byrnes in right. They'll be below .500.

COLORADO ROCKIES

CHANGES: CF Willy Taveras will hit leadoff, RHP Rodrigo Lopez and RP LaTroy Hawkins are new, while INF Vinny Castilla, C J.D. Closser, RHP Jason Jennings, and RP Jose Mesa are gone.

STAR ATTRACTIONS: 1B Todd Helton (.302, 15, 81) still hits the gaps and RHP Aaron Cook (9-15, 4.23) goes opening day, followed by LHP Jeff Francis (13-11, 4.16). Rookie C Chris Ianetta and SS Troy Tulowitzki claimed starting jobs. RHP Josh Fogg earned the fifth starter's spot, beating out RHP Byung-Hyun Kim. CF Cory Sullivan and SS Clint Barmes hit 1-2 on opening day in 2006, might do it again in '07 but it will be with triple-A Colorado Springs. PROGNOSIS: In the light air of Denver, the Rockies will again be sub .500.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS

CHANGES: RHP Jason Schmidt, OF Juan Pierre, LHP Randy Wolf, C Mike Lieberthal and OF Luis Gonzalez are new, while J.D. Drew, RP Eric Gagne, C Toby Hall, OF Kenny Lofton, RHPs Greg Maddux and Aaron Sele are dearly departed.

STAR ATTRACTIONS: Rafael Furcal has a gimpy ankle. The Dodgers will try to be the go-go Dodgers of old with Furcal and Pierre hitting 1-2. They are one of the few clubs with a surplus in starting pitching: Derek Lowe, Wolf, Schmidt, RHP Brad Penny and RHP Brett Tomko. PROGNOSIS: Pitching wins, they could use some added pop and have the surplus of pitching to deal for a bat.

SAN DIEGO PADRES

CHANGES: INF Marcus Giles, RHP Greg Maddux, OF Jose Cruz and INF Russ Branyan are in, while INFs Josh Barfield and Mark Bellhorn, RHPs Woody Williams and Dewon Brazelton, INF Ryan Klesko, RHP Chan Ho Park, C Mike Piazza are gone.

STAR ATTRACTIONS: Jake Peavy (11-14, 4.09), Chris Young (11-5, 3.46) and Maddux (15-14 combined). David Wells has Type II Diabetes eliminating most all alcohol. Is slimmer better? LF Termel Sledge hit six home runs, won a job. That eased concerns about making a deal for Aaron Rowand, allowing Padres to keep Scott Linebrink.

PROGNOSIS: They'll contend but likely are short of arms.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

CHANGES: Barry Zito, RHP Russ Ortiz, C Benjie Molina, OF Dave Roberts are new; while RHP Jason Schmidt, OFs Moises Alou, Steve Finley, INF Shea Hillenbrand and RP Tim Worrell are out.

STAR ATTRACTIONS: Barry Bonds in his bid to break Hank Aaron's home run record has accepted manager Bruce Bochy's idea to hit third. Now, Bonds won't lead off every second inning. Ortiz seems to have the fifth rotation spot.

PROGNOSIS: RP Armando Benitez, a bust the first two seasons, was okay on the mound. The Giants are torn about dumping him, because they have no one else to close. Likely it will be another Bonds season -- more focus on him than the Giants reaching post-season play.


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