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World Series champion Giants resume role as hunted

The San Francisco Giants celebrate after beating the Detroit Tigers 4-3 in Game 4 of the World Series last fall. San Francisco will be the team that the rest of the National League will try to catch in 2013.
The San Francisco Giants celebrate after beating the Detroit Tigers 4-3 in Game 4 of the World Series last fall. San Francisco will be the team that the rest of the National League will try to catch in 2013.

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 3 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 6-year, $147 million contract, then was slowed by a tender right elbow this spring. Hyun-Jin Ryu signed a 6-year, $36 million 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 with 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."

Don't forget about the Diamondbacks. General Manager Kevin Towers traded 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.

"It's a lot of competition here, and it gets better every single year," Rockies slugger Carlos Gonzalez said of the NL West, which the Dodgers won by eight games last season.

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.

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.

"We've come a long way in a short period of time over 3 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."

AP division predictions


1. Washington Nationals

2. Atlanta Braves

3. Philadelphia Phillies

4. New York Mets

5. Miami Marlins


1. Cincinnati Reds

2. St. Louis Cardinals

3. Pittsburgh Pirates

4. Milwaukee Brewers

5. Chicago Cubs


1. San Francisco Giants

2. Los Angeles Dodgers

3. Arizona Diamondbacks

4. Colorado Rockies

5. San Diego Padres

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