Phillies seeking a pennant three-peat

The Associated Press ~ staff The News
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The only thing the Philadelphia Phillies want from the St. Louis Cardinals is the title of last team to win three straight National League pennants.

Albert Pujols? Heck, the Phils are fine with Ryan Howard. Besides, they boosted their chance of the first NL three-peat since the Cardinals in the 1940s by making the big deal, getting former Blue Jays star Roy Halladay in a trade that sent their playoff ace to Seattle.

The only thing the Philadelphia Phillies want from the St. Louis Cardinals is the title of last team to win three straight National League pennants.

Albert Pujols? Heck, the Phils are fine with Ryan Howard. Besides, they boosted their chance of the first NL three-peat since the Cardinals in the 1940s by making the big deal, getting former Blue Jays star Roy Halladay in a trade that sent their playoff ace to Seattle.

"I feel like the desire's more," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "I think that the talent we have on this team, stay healthy, a little luck, we'll be there again."

The 2010 Cardinals aren't conceding anything, though. They brought back Big Mac to help the hitters and gave Matt Holliday a huge deal to keep him paired with Pujols in the lineup.

The Phillies and Cardinals are the class of the league, for sure. But if the Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs and Colorado Rockies have their way, neither of those teams will be heading to the World Series come October.

"It's not good enough to win the division or get to the playoffs. It's not going to be good enough this year," Rockies backup first baseman Jason Giambi said, "it's going to be to go to the World Series."

Until the races heat up, though, all eyes in the NL will be fixed on the next wave of budding superstars. The Braves have 20-year-old Jason Heyward and the talk of his prodigious homers. Sometime this season the Cincinnati Reds will call upon Cuban left-hander Aroldis Chapman, whom they gave US$30 million to unleash his 100 m.p.h. fastball. And in Washington, the one thing that might rival the midterm elections in anticipation is the arrival of Stephen Strasburg and his astounding array of polished pitches.

The Phillies again ran away with the NL East, but failed to defend their World Series title. So they traded late-season acquisition Cliff Lee, so brilliant in the playoffs, for Toronto's Halladay, perhaps the best pitcher in baseball. Philadelphia also added Placido Polanco at third base and upgraded its bench.

But getting out of a division that's improved from top to bottom will be a tougher task.

The New York Mets signed slugger Jason Bay, a native of Trail, B.C., to help an anemic offence - but can they stay healthy? The Florida Marlins finally pushed their payroll over $40 million to keep the core of young talent together and the Braves made a host of moves, including bringing in a healthy Troy Glaus and closer Billy Wagner, who is 15 saves shy of 400.

"You always feel good about the potential of teams. It's a matter of if we live up to the potential," Atlanta's Chipper Jones said. "I think we're riding under the radar and biding our time.."

In the NL Central, new hitting coach Mark McGwire and the Cardinals will face a stiff challenge from the Cubs, who had won two straight division titles before the divisive Milton Bradley came to Wrigley. He's gone now, Alfonso Soriano says he's pain-free and 2008 Rookie of the Year Geovany Soto came to camp 40 pounds lighter and is hopeful - a perennial spring sentiment for all of Chicago, more than 100 years without a title.

The NL West is a three-team race. The Rockies, who surged to the wild card once Jim Tracy took over after an 18-28 start, and the Giants, behind the gifted arms of two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, are prepared to unseat the Los Angeles Dodgers and Manny Ramirez.

A look at the NL in predicted order of finish:

EAST

Not satisfied with a return to the World Series that ended in a six-game loss to the Yankees, the Phillies added Halladay to top their rotation. They also beefed up an already formidable lineup with Polanco, and upgraded the bench with catcher Brian Schneider, infielder Juan Castro and outfielder Ross Gload. But Philadelphia's chances at another title might depend on setup man J.C. Romero, closer Brad Lidge and Cole Hamels. Romero had off-season forearm surgery and is expected to start the year on the DL. Lidge went from a perfect '08 to leading the majors with 11 blown saves last year. Hamels followed up his World Series MVP with frustrating inconsistency.

If Bobby Cox is going to return to the playoffs in his last season as manager of the Braves, it in part could be thanks to the 20-year-old right-fielder Heyward, whose power displays this spring have elicited Bunyanesque tales. Glaus and Jones will be counted on to rediscover their home run strokes and help the Braves improve on their 149 homers, 22nd overall.

Despite trading workhorse Javier Vazquez to the Yankees, the starting rotation is still one of the best in the league with Derek Lowe, a healthy Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens. The bullpen, anchored by 38-year-old Wagner and 40-year-old Takashi Saito, could be a weak spot.

Health is the key if the Mets are going to bounce back from the disastrous 70-92 finish in 2009, and they already are off to a poor start. Centre-fielder Carlos Beltran is expected to be out for April after having knee surgery in January and shortstop Jose Reyes had an overactive thyroid.

After Johan Santana, the Mets rotation is shaky. John Maine and Oliver Perez are coming off injuries, Mike Pelfrey took a step back - 10-12 with a 5.03 ERA - after a solid '08 and neither Jonathon Niese nor Fernando Nieve has distinguished himself as a viable No. 5 starter.

At the plate, the Mets are relying on Bay and David Wright, who hit just 10 homers last year, to power an offence that hit a majors-low 95 homers, 49 at home in its first season at Citi Field.

With a talented core of young players led by NL batting champion Hanley Ramirez, Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan and All-Star righty Josh Johnson, Florida won 87 games last year and finished six back of the Phillies.

The Marlins pushed their payroll above $40 million for the first time since 2005 to keep the team together. They gave Johnson a $39 million, four-year contract and second baseman Dan Uggla $7.8 million for 2010. With the increase in payroll comes pressure to make their first playoff appearance since winning the World Series in 2003.

Florida's going to have to make that leap with a shaky bullpen and iffy rotation after Johnson.

The fact the Nationals finished their second straight 100-loss season (59-103) is no reason for optimism in D.C. Strasburg, however, is.

Signing their No. 1 pick for a record $15.1 million last August showed the Nationals are determined to win, and Strasburg displayed flashes of his potential as an ace this spring, but he'll start the season in Double-A.

The Nationals made several changes that should help bring that loss total down into the double digits. For one, Jim Riggleman was given the managerial job after leading the Nats to a 33-41 record to finish 2009 after replacing Manny Acta.

Then they signed the injured former Yankee Chien-Ming Wang, who will not be ready to pitch until sometime in May, but he's a two-time 19-game winner. Add in free-agent Jason Marquis and youngster John Lannan, and Washington soon could have a competitive rotation.

Ivan Rodriguez is here to help guide the young staff that includes new closer Matt Capps, who saved 27 of 32 games for Pittsburgh last year. Brian Bruney will be one of the setup men in a revamped 'pen that was one of the worst in baseball last season.

CENTRAL

With a starting rotation anchored by dual aces Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter, and an offence led by the combo of Pujols and Holliday, the Cardinals should repeat as Central champs. They just hope McGwire's return to St. Louis is not a distraction when the team hits the road.

David Freese will have to put aside his drunken-driving arrest in December as he takes over at third base for the departed Mark DeRosa. Pitching coach Dave Duncan will try to work the same magic to resurrect Brad Penny's career as he did with Joel Pineiro last season.

The biggest move the Cubs made this off-season was trading away the volatile Bradley after one combustible season.

Manager Lou Piniella enters the final year of his contract with several potential hindrances to ending the Cubs' World Series title drought, which dates to 1908. The health of Soriano and Ted Lilly are big questions. Ace Carlos Zambrano, who last year admitted he sometimes was lazy when it came to doing his abdominal exercises, must win more than nine games to justify his $91.5 million contract and Soto must return to the form that won him the 2008 Rookie of the Year award.

The Brewers found out that Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder can only carry the club so far, so Milwaukee went out and signed Randy Wolf to $29.75 million, three-year deal and brought back Doug Davis. The Brewers reunited manager Ken Macha with fellow former Oakland Athletics' coach Rick Peterson to guide Milwaukee's pitching staff after its starters had a majors-worst 5.37 ERA. Manny Parra will have to start living up to his potential, too, and Jeff Suppan must earn his $12.5 million.

New centre-fielder Carlos Gomez has to hit better than .229 . If he doesn't, expect to see more of Jim Edmonds, who did not play in '09. Big things are expected from rookie shortstop Alcides Escobar, who is taking over for J.J. Hardy.

Only six teams in majors scored fewer runs than the Reds did (673) last year, their ninth straight losing season, but they added only one new starter: Orlando Cabrera. Cincinnati needs to stay healthy, primarily right-fielder Jay Bruce, who missed two months with a broken wrist and hit .223.

Sure the Reds made a splash by winning the sweepstakes for Chapman, but he likely will start the season in the minors working on his control. Aaron Harang must return to No. 1 starter form after going 12-31 the last two seasons, both sidetracked by injuries. Youngsters Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey are being asked to carry a heavy load while Edinson Volquez recovers from Tommy John surgery.

New manager Brad Mills inherits a sagging ballclub that made few moves in the off-season. On offence, the Astros lost shortstop Miguel Tejada - rookie Tommy Manzella takes over - from a lineup that produced just 643 runs, 14th in the NL. The key to a run-scoring resurgence is Lance Berkman, who struggled to hit 25 homers and drive in 80 runs. Catcher J.R. Towles has to produce - he has hit .188 in three partial big league seasons - because there a few options available.

Roy Oswalt was limited to eight wins by a balky back, but Wandy Rodriguez improved to a formidable No. 2 starter. In the bullpen, Matt Lindstrom and Brandon Lyon were brought in to replace setup man LaTroy Hawkins and Jose Valverde, who had 69 saves over the last two seasons in Houston.

The ballclub without a winning season since Barry Bonds' year last with the team in 1992 is building for the future. A bevy of trades over the last 2 1/2 seasons stocked the minors, and several of those players might be ready - by this summer. Andrew McCutchen will try to build on an impressive rookie year, Jeff Clement starts in right field after spending all of 2009 in minors and Garrett Jones hit 21 homers in just 314 at-bats. Look for top prospect Pedro Alvarez to replace Andy LaRoche at third base soon.

Capitol Hill intern Ross Ohlendorf served notice with a breakthrough season and the Pirates are hoping the same will happen with No. 4 starter Charlie Morton this year. The bullpen, though, is even worse off than '09. Octavio Dotel will try closing for the first time since 2007 - if he's healthy.

WEST

Expectations are high after Tracy took over for Clint Hurdle as manager after a slow start and led the team to the NL wild card. They could win the West if left-hander Jeff Francis returns to form after missing all of 2008, and if closer Huston Street and setup man Rafael Betancourt are healthy. The relievers have missed time this spring and neither will likely be ready for the start of season.

Troy Tulowitzki leads a potent offence that was second in the NL for runs scored (804) and home runs (190). Giambi will back up Todd Helton, who signed a two-year deal after hitting .325 last season. The only potential weakness in the lineup is behind the plate. Catcher Chris Iannetta offers more power, but he hit .228 compared to the .291 the departed Yorvit Torrealba hit.

The Dodgers could be as interesting off the field as they are on it. Owners Frank McCourt and his estranged wife, Jamie, are set to meet in court in May. Manager Joe Torre is in the final year of his contract. And Ramirez, also in his final year, has already made a stir this spring, saying this would be his last season in Los Angeles and then backtracking a day later.

Ramirez, who turns 38 in May, is coming off a down year that included a 50-game drug suspension and will be relied on even more because Russell Martin is injured and Orlando Hudson is gone. On the upside, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and James Loney provide a dynamic young core. Blake DeWitt won the second-base job.

The once solid relief corps is in trouble. Ronald Belisario was stuck in Venezuela, unable to secure a visa. He went 4-3 with a 2.04 ERA in 69 games as a rookie last year. Cory Wade had right shoulder surgery and is expected to miss at least three months, and lefty setup man George Sherrill had a sore knee and struggled this spring.

It's a good thing Lincecum and Cain don't need much run support - they can't expect it from the Giants' offence. New arrivals Mark DeRosa and Aubrey Huff should add some pop to a lineup that hit 122 homers, 15th in the NL. San Francisco still is lacking another big bat to support third baseman Pablo Sandoval. There could be help on the way, though. Rookie catcher Buster Posey might get the call early despite the re-signing of Bengie Molina. Leadoff batter Aaron Rowand had a .319 on-base average.

Randy Johnson is gone, but Barry Zito has pitched better and Jonathan Sanchez threw a no-hitter in just his second full season.

Much depends on the return of 2006 Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb from shoulder surgery and he might be ready by mid-April. After Dan Haren and newly arrived Edwin Jackson, there are two untested youngsters, Ian Kennedy and Rodrigo Lopez. Without Webb at the top of the rotation there is no certain fifth starter. Arizona gave 22-year-old Justin Upton a six-year deal and Mark Reynolds a three-year contract, showing a commitment to youth. If Conor Jackson is healthy, Stephen Drew improves and first baseman Adam LaRoche hits for power, the Diamondbacks' offence should help compensate for shaky starters and a weak bullpen.

There is optimism in San Diego after the Padres went 37-25 to finish the season in fourth place. But a sunny outlook might not be enough to keep All-Star slugger Adrian Gonzalez, who could be dealt before the trading deadline. He has a year, plus a club option for 2011 left on his contract, and new general manager Jed Hoyer has limited funds.

Last season the Padres traded star pitcher Jake Peavy to the White Sox and got righty Clayton Richard in the deal. Richard went 5-2 in 12 starts and will likely be the No. 3 or 4 starter even though he struggled during training camp. San Diego also dealt third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff last season, allowing Chase Headley to return to his natural position.

Jon Garland, signed to a free-agent deal in the off-season, was scratched from a late spring start. He is slotted to be the No. 2 starter behind Chris Young, who was bothered by injuries the past two seasons.

Organizations: Philadelphia Phillies, National League, St. Louis Cardinals Atlanta Braves New York Mets Cincinnati Reds Blue Jays Chicago Cubs Colorado Rockies Giants Los Angeles Dodgers Yankees Florida Marlins World Series MVP Oakland Athletics Padres Astros Diamondbacks White Sox

Geographic location: Seattle, Washington, Philadelphia Toronto Jason Bay Atlanta Wrigley Chicago Florida Pittsburgh St. Louis Cincinnati San Diego Houston Huston Street Los Angeles Venezuela San Francisco Arizona

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