JAY COHEN,AP Sports Writer
Once Sergio Romo struck out Miguel Cabrera to end the World Series, the chase was on.
The Upton brothers were reunited in Atlanta. Zack Greinke signed a big free-agent deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Arizona remade its club with fiery manager Kirk Gibson in mind. Washington and Cincinnati each traded for a leadoff hitter, and Philadelphia added Michael Young to its already potent lineup.
Romo and the San Francisco Giants begin the year on top, but there is no shortage of potential challengers in the leaner National League.
“History is not in our favor. It doesn’t happen very often,” ace Matt Cain said, gearing up to defend the title. “But if we do all we can, it certainly is possible.”
San Francisco decided to make another run with the same core group of players who went the distance in the first two rounds of the playoffs last season, then swept Cabrera and the Detroit Tigers to win their second championship in three years. Another title for NL MVP Buster Posey and company would put them among the best teams in the history of the sport.
Romo gets a full season at closer after a memorable October and the Giants are hoping former ace Tim Lincecum can bounce back after his worst season in the majors. They’re going to need all the help they can get after the Dodgers and Diamondbacks revamped their rosters over the winter.
Backed by a huge new TV deal, Los Angeles continued its spending spree that began when the new ownership group took over last summer. Greinke received a $147 million, six-year contract, then was slowed by a tender right elbow this spring. Hyun-Jin Ryu signed a $36 million, six-year deal, making the South Korean left-hander a part of one of the deepest rotations in the majors.
Hanley Ramirez will miss the start of the season due to a right thumb injury, but the lineup still has plenty of power with Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez and Andre Ethier.
“The Giants have proven themselves, especially with their pitching staff,” Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw said. “A lot of people are talking about us. But talk is all it is. I’m not trying to downplay the expectations. Of course, we hear them. But we have to do it on the field. That’s all that really matters.”
Don’t forget about the Diamondbacks, either. General manager Kevin Towers traded away talented center fielder Justin Upton and right-hander Trevor Bauer over the winter, but received an interesting haul in return. Ian Kennedy, Wade Miley and Trevor Cahill form the heart of a strong rotation, and Randall Delgado, Tyler Skaggs and Patrick Corbin provide good young pitching depth.
The moves made by Arizona and Los Angeles should make the NL West more competitive than a year ago, when the Giants won by eight games.
“It’s a lot of competition here, and it gets better every single year,” Rockies slugger Carlos Gonzalez said. “You can see in the past three years, San Francisco has won twice. They’re going to have to pay more attention to this division.”
Washington won the NL East last season by four games over Atlanta, finishing with the best record in baseball. But it was eliminated in the division series when it blew a 7-5 lead in the ninth inning of Game 5 against St. Louis.
The Nationals then signed closer Rafael Soriano in free agency and traded for Denard Span to add more speed to their dynamic lineup. With Stephen Strasburg all clear for a full year atop the rotation, this could be another memorable summer in the nation’s capital.
“We’ve got to go out and compete, and we’ve got to go out and express our talent,” manager Davey Johnson said. “I’m hopeful with a year of progress that a lot of guys made, we’ll be playing closer to our potential. A lot of guys haven’t played to their potential.”
That’s a scary thought for the rest of the National League, but the same premise could be applied to the Braves.
Atlanta will field one of the best young outfields in baseball after signing B.J. Upton in free agency and trading for Justin Upton to play alongside Jason Heyward. The potential extends to the rest of the lineup, which includes first baseman Freddy Freeman and shortstop Andrelton Simmons, both just 23 years old.
The bullpen is loaded with power arms and the rotation is solid. Even without retired third baseman Chipper Jones, the Braves are stocked once again.
“When you don’t have probably the best third baseman ever, there is a big hole to fill,” pitcher Tim Hudson said. “But there is a lot of young talent on this team. We’ll be good again this year and should be good for a lot more years. Everyone’s excited about the moves that were made. This is a different team, but a team that should win a lot of games.”
Like Washington and Atlanta, Cincinnati is hoping for a long postseason run after a disappointing finish a year ago. The Reds had the Giants on the ropes in the division series, then dropped three straight games.
Shin-Soo Choo came over in a trade with Cleveland and addresses Cincinnati’s gaping hole at the leadoff spot. But he is making the transition to center field and was hampered by back spasms in spring training. If he can’t play center, then Jay Bruce could move over from right.
Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos front a deep rotation, and Joey Votto anchors one of the deepest lineups in the league. Coupled with a solid bullpen, Cincinnati could finish one of the best records in baseball once again even with the lowly Houston Astros moving from the NL Central to the AL West.
“We’ve come a long way in a short period of time over three years,” manager Dusty Baker said. “It’s about being able to sustaining high excellence. We want to be good for a long period of time. That is the goal to increase your odds of winning a championship.”
A look at the NL in predicted order of finish:
With Strasburg and NL Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper slated for a full season for the first time, there’s a lot to love about the loaded Nationals.
Strasburg went 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA in 2012 before he was shut down after 159 1-3 innings out of concern for his arm in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. The move was the subject of much debate, but the right-hander is free of any such restriction this year. Harper also gets a full year after he began last season in the minors.
Dan Haren, who has won at least 12 games in each of the last eight seasons, joins the strong rotation, and Soriano should help shore up the back end of the bullpen. The pressure is on All-Star shortstop Ian Desmond, second baseman Danny Espinosa and first baseman Adam LaRoche to duplicate their solid seasons from a year ago.
Even with the Uptons in the fold, the key to Atlanta’s season could be the return of catcher Brian McCann following surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
McCann hit a career-low .230 last year, when he was hampered by the injury for much of the season. The six-time All-Star also had 67 RBIs for his lowest total since he was a rookie in 2005.
He won’t be ready for the start of the season, making Gerald Laird the likely opening-day starter, but Atlanta is hoping for a return to the form that made him one of the majors’ top catchers.
The trade for Jordan Walden got lost in the shuffle during the Braves’ busy offseason, but the right-hander should make one of baseball’s best bullpens even better.
There is plenty of talent in Philly. The question hanging over the Phillies’ key players is can they stay on the field enough to make a difference.
Ace right-hander Roy Halladay was hampered by lower back and shoulder problems last year. New right fielder Delmon Young will begin the season on the DL, and key sluggers Ryan Howard and Chase Utley have dealt with major injuries in recent years.
Michael Young should provide a steady presence at third base and speedy center fielder Ben Revere came over in a trade with Minnesota. Mike Adams will help the Phillies get the ball to Jonathan Papelbon, who saved 38 games in his first year with Philadelphia.
“We’re a complete team,” shortstop Jimmy Rollins said. “We’re not going out there with role players. We’re going out there with everyday players, every game.”
NEW YORK METS
All-Star third baseman David Wright committed to New York by agreeing to an eight-year, $138 million deal over the winter. He may have to wait a while to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey was traded to Toronto in December, bringing back a group of prospects but making it all the more difficult for the Mets to contend this year. Jason Bay was cut loose, leaving behind an inexperienced outfield.
To make matters worse, Wright was hampered by a rib strain during spring training and left-hander Johan Santana will begin the season on the disabled list while he builds strength in his shoulder.
There should be plenty of nice seats available for the second season at Marlins Park after Miami traded away many of its best players over the winter, angering the team’s fan base in South Florida.
Shortstop Jose Reyes and pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle were dealt to Toronto, and manager Ozzie Guillen was fired. Mike Redmond takes over on the bench, and there is little to work with for his first managerial job.
Giancarlo Stanton is the biggest remaining star, but he likely won’t see much to hit with no other major threats in the lineup. Top prospect Christian Yelich had a big spring and could make his major league debut this season.
Joey Votto was still one tough out when he returned last season following left knee surgery. But his power was noticeably absent when the Reds were eliminated by the Giants in the first round of the playoffs.
Fast forward to this spring, when the 2010 NL MVP felt so good that he played for Canada in the World Baseball Classic. It was a great sign for a Cincinnati team hoping to win more than just another division title this year.
Todd Frazier gets third base all to himself after hitting .273 with 19 homers, and shortstop Zack Cozart looks to improve on his .246 average from his rookie season. The growth of the pair of young infielders could help the Reds play deep into October this year.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
No more Chris Carpenter, who is sidelined by a career-threatening arm injury. No Rafael Furcal, either. He went down with a season-ending elbow injury during spring training. And starting pitcher Kyle Lohse left in free agency.
Heck, even manager Mike Matheny was sidelined by back surgery this month.
While St. Louis had a rough offseason, there are reasons for hope. Sluggers Matt Holliday, Allen Craig and Carlos Beltran remain a part of a dangerous lineup, and bright young arms Trevor Rosenthal, Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly could have an impact in the rotation and bullpen.
The Cardinals have made the playoffs in three of the last four years, and they will need some of their young players to step to continue that postseason trend.
Andrew McCutchen is coming off a breakthrough performance, and the pressure is on to come up with an appropriate sequel in 2013.
The All-Star center fielder hit .327 with 31 homers and 96 RBIs last year, helping Pittsburgh contend for much of the summer before another late fade sent the Pirates to their 20th straight losing season.
The big offseason acquisition was All-Star catcher Russell Martin, who signed a $17 million, two-year deal as a free agent. He provides a veteran presence behind the plate and some pop for the lineup. Closer Joel Hanrahan was traded to Boston, leaving journeyman Jason Grilli to pick up the slack after another solid year as a setup man.
Milwaukee got off to a terrible start last year, then closed with a 27-13 push that nearly got the team back into the playoffs. While there are several questions about the rotation, the Brewers are hoping the end of last season is more representative of the club than the beginning of last year.
The prolific lineup that produced an NL-best 776 runs returns largely intact, with speed in Carlos Gomez and Norichika Aoki and power in Corey Hart and Aramis Ramirez. Then there is Ryan Braun, who can do it all.
Hart is hoping to return in late April following surgery on his right knee, and Braun could be headed for a chilly reception when the Brewers hit the road after the slugger was linked to a controversial clinic in Florida during the offseason.
But the biggest problem for Milwaukee could be the rotation beyond Yovani Gallardo, which is largely unproven. It got a boost late in spring training when Lohse agreed to a $33 million, three-year contract.
The Cubs are encouraged by the progress of prospects Albert Almora, Jorge Soler and Javier Baez. And that’s going to have to be enough for now, because the rebuilding project under Theo Epstein is still at least a year away.
Edwin Jackson signed with Chicago for a $52 million, four-year contract, providing a workhorse for the rotation. But right-hander Matt Garza will miss the start of the season with an injured muscle in his side. The rebuilding process could get a boost if Garza, closer Carlos Marmol and outfielder Alfonso Soriano play well, making them attractive targets for teams ready to win right now.
That most certainly isn’t the Cubs, who are looking to build on their solid young nucleus of shortstop Starlin Castro, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and Gold Glove second baseman Darwin Barney.
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
Romo was one of the breakout stars in San Francisco’s title run last year. The animated right-hander was 1-0 with a sparkling 0.84 ERA in 10 playoff games, collecting four saves in four opportunities.
Now Romo begins the season as the closer, and it remains to be seen if he can handle the challenges of the role over the whole year. If he falters, there are plenty of people who can pick up the slack. Javier Lopez, Santiago Casilla and Jeremy Affledt each saved at least three games last year.
The Giants may not need as many saves with their lineup largely in place from the end of last season. Steady second baseman Marco Scutaro and outfielder Hunter Pence each came over in trades during San Francisco’s run to the division title, and they’re hoping for a repeat performance.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS
The Dodgers’ feel-good spring was stymied by a double dose of bad news. First, Greinke was diagnosed with inflammation in the back of his right elbow. Then Ramirez hurt his right thumb in the World Baseball Classic and was expected to be sidelined for eight weeks.
Greinke seemed to be fine after a short rest, but the problem with Ramirez will linger into the season. Luis Cruz likely will be at shortstop on opening day.
The injuries for Greinke and Ramirez curtailed what had been a healthy spring for Los Angeles. Carl Crawford is on his way back following left elbow surgery, and Matt Kemp appears to be ready to go following October surgery on his left shoulder.
One of the most uplifting scenes this spring was Brandon McCarthy back on the mound for the first time since he was struck by a liner up the middle last September.
The 6-foot-7 right-hander sustained an epidural hemorrhage, brain contusion and skull fracture in the freak accident, then left Oakland for a free-agent deal with Arizona. He joins a strong rotation fronted by 15-game winner Ian Kennedy and right-hander Trevor Cahill.
The focus with the Diamondbacks is on the lineup, which is missing Justin Upton’s potent bat after the trade with Atlanta. They’re counting on newcomers Martin Prado and Cody Ross to help make up for his missing production.
The Rockies are pinning their hopes on a pair of shortstops.
Walt Weiss became the manager in November, replacing Jim Tracy. He served as the Rockies’ shortstop from 1994-97 before wrapping up his 14-year big league career with three years in Atlanta. He inherits a club coming off a franchise-worst 64-98 season and a last-place finish in the NL West.
The most important shortstop in Colorado is Troy Tulowitzki, who was limited to 47 games last year due to a groin injury that required surgery. The Rockies need him to return to the form that made him one of the majors’ best players.
SAN DIEGO PADRES
Chase Headley appears to be the latest star on the road out of San Diego.
The third baseman had a career year last season, finishing with a .286 batting average, 31 homers and 115 RBIs. He avoided salary arbitration by agreeing to an $8,575,000, one-year contract, but there is no indication that a long-term deal is coming.
The Padres control his rights through 2014, and he could command quite the haul if he hits the trade market. First up for Headley is recovering from a broken left thumb that is expected to sideline him for the first two weeks of the season.
AP Sports Writers Janie McCauley and Rob Maaddi, and AP freelance writers Don Ketchum, Guy Curtright, Gary Schatz, Norm Frauenheim and Carl Kotala contributed to this report.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap
(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)