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10 NL Stories to Watch for in 2013

Can Money Buy Happiness?

The Los Angeles Dodgers’ new ownership group must include some drunken sailors because they certainly spent like them. When even the Yankees are blushing at your expenditures, you know you’ve overdone it a bit. With a $230 million payroll, give or take, let’s just say expectations are a bit high. Anything short of a World Series crown will be considered a failure. Welcome to the Big Spenders Club. We’ll get back to you in October and let you know how you did.

A Washington Power Play

The Nationals ended decades of baseball futility in the nation’s capital by breaking through to win the NL East crown in 2012. But Washington blew a big lead in the NLDS against St. Louis and bowed out of the playoffs. Undaunted, the Nationals continued to stock up by adding Rafael Soriano to their bullpen. You have to assume Stephen Strasburg will be given a longer leash this time around, which should be big trouble for those trying to keep up in the division.

Marlins Fans Go Fishing

No team worked harder in the off-season to alienate its fans than the Miami Marlins, who jettisoned all of the top-tier players they signed before the opening of their luxurious new ballpark, funded in large part by taxpayers. Owner Jeffrey Loria, the most hated man in South Florida since Tony Montana was taken down, says it had to be done after the 2012 club failed to make the playoffs. But stripping the club to the bare bones instead of spending on talent guarantees one thing in the second year of Marlins Park: plenty of good sections available.

City of Brotherly Glove

The Atlanta Braves figured you never can have enough Uptons. Accordingly, they signed free agent outfielder B.J. Upton and traded for Arizona outfielder Justin Upton. Now the question is: Will that brotherly pairing lead the Braves deep into the postseason. It was hardly worth winning the first NL wild card in 2012 only to lose at home to No. 2 wild card St. Louis. For those seeking to wash away the taste of the late-season collapse the previous season, it proved unsatisfying.

The Over-The-Hill Gang

When their players were in their prime, the Philadelphia Phillies were a force in the NL East. But Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins have their best days in the rearview mirror, and even Roy Halladay had to admit he’s not what he used to be after a problematic spring. The Phillies have big contracts committed to several players, which makes it difficult to add necessary pieces. And let’s just say that Philly fans aren’t likely to support a rebuilding plan.

Is This Finally the Year?

When the Pittsburgh Pirates moved 16 games over .500 on Aug. 6 of last season, surely their string of losing seasons was about to end, right. Wrong, and don’t call them Shirley. The Pirates collapsed down the stretch and stretched the skid to 20 seasons, extending their record for North American team sports. It’s a cloud that continues to hang over the franchise, and not even the staunchest of Pittsburgh fans is going to believe it’s over until that 81st victory is recorded.

Make Up Your Mind

When the Cincinnati Reds announced during the winter that flame-throwing Cuban lefty Aroldis Chapman would be moving from the closer’s role to the starting rotation, it was evident everyone was not on the same page. Manager Dusty Baker stopped short of endorsing the move, and Chapman seemed unexcited. So, just more than a week into camp, the Reds announced that Chapman would be returning to the closer’s role and Mike Leake would assume his spot in the rotation. If that’s your biggest issue, you’re doing OK.

No More Cream Puffs

Every team in the NL Central got worse merely by the exodus of the Houston Astros to the American League after a pair of 100-loss seasons. With the unbalanced schedule, division opponents could fatten up on the Astros and Chicago Cubs, who also exceeded 100 losses in 2012. Now, having to play more games against the rest of the league as well as the AL in interleague competition, the schedules of NL Central teams get tougher. Let’s see how many victories it takes to claim the division.

Standing Pat in San Francisco

The Giants’ decision makers opted for the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to their roster during the winter. In other words, they basically stood pat. What the Giants will count on is continued dominance from their pitching staff, including a bounce-back year from newly shorn Tim Lincecum (10-15, 5.18 ERA in 2012). They also could use a repeat performance from veteran lefty Barry Zito in the final year of his $167 million contract. In a somewhat modest offense, Pablo Sandoval and 2012 NL MVP Buster Posey will do most of the heavy lifting.

The Cardinal Way

Somehow, some way the Cardinals find a way to make it work and get back to the playoffs almost every year. They’ve overcome daunting losses in the past and will have to do so again with right-hander Chris Carpenter (nerve issue) and shortstop Rafael Furcal (elbow) expected to miss the entire season. Even manager Mike Matheny had back surgery before St. Louis broke camp. And closer Jason Motte opens on the DL with a cranky elbow. But the Cardinals keep plugging the holes and finding their way back to the postseason, a trick that leaves other teams shaking their heads.