Bases loaded with familiar faces as MLB season opens
With Diamondbacks, Dodgers preparing to launch season Down Under, rotation of pitchers and hitters in National League are hungry for glory
Stephen Strasburg leads a deep rotation in Washington. Matt Holliday and St Louis are back. And the loaded Los Angeles Dodgers think it is their time.
Yes, it is a very familiar group of favourites. Throw in Freddie Freeman and Atlanta, and the NL list is practically complete.
But there's always one team that crash the party at the top - see MVP Andrew McCutchen and the 2013 Pirates.
With Arizona and Los Angeles starting the season Down Under in Australia today, the race is on in the National League.
"Our team's really good," Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke said.
"We did really good, even with a bunch of injuries last year.
"We have some young guys about ready to come up if needed. The expectations should be high."
Washington were among the favourites last year, coming off a breakthrough season.
But Bryce Harper was hurt and the Nationals underperformed in their final season under manager Davey Johnson, finishing 10 games behind NL East champions Atlanta.
Enter Matt Williams, in his first job as a major league manager. The rotation is one of the best in the majors, with Doug Fister coming over after winning 14 games for the Detroit Tigers last season.
Harper is healthy again, and Strasburg is fine following October elbow surgery.
"The more experience you get, the better chance you have to succeed, and I think that's kind of the lesson from last year," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.
Powered by another great season from Freeman, the Braves breezed to the division title last year.
Atlanta have made it to the play-offs in two of Fredi Gonzalez's first three years as manager, but are still looking to advance for the first time since losing to Arizona in the 2001 division series.
Their rotation was beset by injuries in spring training, but Atlanta should be in the mix again - even after losing right-hander Tim Hudson and catcher Brian McCann in free agency.
The Central belongs to St Louis, who have won the division five times in the last decade. There is no reason to believe they will not make it six in 11 years.
Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha are part of the division's best rotation. The line-up remains stacked even after Carlos Beltran departed in free agency.
All-Star slugger Allen Craig missed much of the postseason last year, and the Cardinals still made it to the World Series.
The intrigue in the division comes after the Cardinals. The Central team had both wild cards last season, with Pittsburgh making the play-offs for the first time in 21 years and Cincinnati another four games back in the third.
A.J. Burnett went from the Pirates to the Phillies after a productive two years in Pittsburgh, while the Reds lost lead-off hitter Choo Shin-soo to a big contract with the Rangers.
The Brewers get Ryan Braun back from his season-ending, 65-game drug suspension.
"We're still hungry," Pirates catcher Russell Martin said. "I don't know what all the 'experts' are saying, but I consider myself an expert and I think we're going to do better than we did last year."
The muddled Central division could mean another play-off slot for one of the West teams.
Los Angeles' biggest deal of the off season was a US$215 million, seven-year contract for their own Clayton Kershaw, who won the NL Cy Young Award for the second time in three seasons.
Kershaw, Cuban sensation Yasiel Puig and steady Adrian Gonzalez helped the Dodgers to the championship series.
Health is one of the biggest concerns in Southern California, with Matt Kemp coming back from left ankle surgery. If the Dodgers can keep the talented outfielder and shortstop Hanley Ramirez in the line-up alongside Gonzalez, look out.
Arizona made one of the biggest trades of the off season, acquiring Mark Trumbo from the Angels in a three-team swap that also involved the White Sox.
Trumbo hit 34 homers last year and should help protect Paul Goldschmidt in the line-up. The Diamondbacks also signed Bronson Arroyo to provide innings.
The Giants are another possible surprise. Hudson joins a rotation that also includes 13-game winner Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain, and Michael Morse should add some pop in left field.