Manny Ramirez’s arrival at spring training looked a little like a Hollywood premiere. As television cameras zoomed in, everyone from reporters to team employees clamored for time with the Los Angeles Dodgers’ dreadlocked slugger.

With a captive audience, Ramirez couldn’t resist.

“I’m baaaaack!” he said.

So are the World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies, the ever-hopeful Chicago Cubs and several other contenders looking for a big year in a wide-open National League. Only 12 games separated the division winners from the runners-up in the NL last year, and the Milwaukee Brewers nailed down the wild card on the final day of the season.

Just like when Ramirez is on the field, it’s hard to predict what comes next.

“You don’t take things for granted,” Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. “There are teams in our division that have the same aspirations we do. No cockiness. No false bravados, go out and play and earn it on the field and that’s how you do it.”

Chicago has won consecutive Central titles under the fiery Piniella and flamed out in the first round of the postseason each year. The Cubbies were swept by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2007 and Manny’s Dodgers in 2008.

It’s 101 years and counting since the Cubs’ last World Series winner in 1908.

“You keep going to the postseason, sooner or later you break the door down,” Piniella said, “and hopefully this is the year.”

Philadelphia broke through last year, winning its first championship since 1980 and second in the franchise’s 126-year history. The core of that team is back for another run and the Phillies seem even more confident than they were in 2008.

“If we keep the same attitude and play the same way we have in the last couple years, if we keep that same philosophy and don’t get away from that, we’re going to be good,” manager Charlie Manuel said, “we’re going to be very good.”

Manuel got All-Star second baseman Chase Utley back from offseason right hip surgery sooner than expected, but his health could be key to Philly’s repeat hopes. Ace left-hander Cole Hamels also was bothered by elbow tightness during spring training, another situation worth watching for Phillies fans.

“We kinda have to put last year behind us, learn from it and I feel like we have a lot of room for improvement,” Utley said. “Obviously, we were the best team in baseball but I still feel like we can play better.”

Utley’s team has chased down the New York Mets in September in each of the last two seasons to win the East. The frustrated Mets addressed their most pressing need in the offseason, signing closer Francisco Rodriguez to a $37 million, three-year contract and acquiring J.J. Putz from Seattle to shore up their leaky bullpen.

“To go through that for two years in a row is very difficult. There’s no team in baseball that has done what we have done,” center fielder Carlos Beltran said.

A look at the NL in predicted order of finish:


Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies made one major addition after beating Tampa Bay in five games to win the World Series. Raul Ibanez agreed to a $31.5 million, three-year contract in December and will replace Pat Burrell in left field, making Philadelphia’s already dangerous lineup even deeper. Ibanez is one of five major league outfielders to drive in at least 100 runs in each of the past three seasons, joining Bobby Abreu, Carlos Beltran, Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Lee.

Cole Hamels and Brett Myers, who lost about 35 pounds in the offseason and is heading into the final year of his contract, are the top two starters in one of the league’s best rotations and closer Brad Lidge is back to anchor one of the majors’ best bullpens. Add in a strong bench and the Phillies have a chance to become the first team to repeat since the New York Yankees won three consecutive World Series from 1998-2000.

New York Mets

New York looked good in the first 145 games of each of the last two seasons: The final 17 were brutal in both years. The Mets led the East by seven games with 17 to play in 2007 before they went 5-12 down the stretch and missed the postseason. They blew a 3-game lead last year when they lost 10 of their last 17 games. The pressure is on to avoid a trilogy.

The biggest culprit in last year’s collapse was the bullpen, which had 29 blown saves in 72 chances. New York responded by signing record-setting closer Francisco Rodriguez and trading for J.J. Putz to pitch the eighth inning. But there are still glaring questions about the Mets’ corner outfielders and the back end of their rotation.

Atlanta Braves

The Braves overhauled their rotation after finishing with a 72-90 record last year, their worst since 1990. John Smoltz and Mike Hampton are gone. Derek Lowe signed a $60 million, four-year deal after going 14-11 with a 3.24 ERA for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Right-hander Javier Vazquez was acquired in a trade with the Chicago White Sox and Kenshin Kawakami came over from Japan. The three newcomers and holdovers Jair Jurrjens and Tom Glavine should give Atlanta a solid rotation, with Tim Hudson (elbow ligament-replacement surgery) possibly returning in the second half.

Florida Marlins

The Marlins, after another offseason of cost-cutting measures, once again will pin their hopes on a talented group of youngsters. Starting pitchers Ricky Nolasco, Josh Johnson and Chris Volstad all showed potential last year and All-Stars Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla will supply plenty of pop in the infield. Cameron Maybin also looks ready to take over the everyday job in center field.

Florida again will have one of the lowest payrolls in the majors.

Washington Nationals

General manager Jim Bowden resigned and special assistant Jose Rijo was fired during a tumultuous spring training for the Nationals, and the regular season doesn’t look much better. Adam Dunn agreed to a $20 million, two-year deal in February but Washington has a glut of corner outfielders and first basemen. At least Washington finally has a little power: Dunn hit a combined .236 with 40 homers and 100 RBIs last season with the Reds and Diamondbacks. None of last year’s Nats hit more than 14 homers or drove in more than 61 runs.


Chicago Cubs

For a team that won an NL-best 97 games last year, the Cubs were active in the offseason. New right fielder Milton Bradley gives them a potent switch hitter for the middle of their lineup. He batted .321 with 22 homers and 77 RBIs with Texas in 2008. Utility infielder Aaron Miles and backup center fielder Joey Gathright will provide speed and versatility off the bench. One of the league’s best rotations also remains largely the same from the end of last year.

The winner of the closer competition between All-Star reliever Carlos Marmol and Kevin Gregg should be able to replace Kerry Wood, who signed a free-agent deal with Cleveland in the offseason. But the Cubs could miss infielder Mark DeRosa, who hit .285 with a career-best 21 homers and 87 RBIs last year.

Milwaukee Brewers

CC Sabathia led the Brewers to the wild card last year for their first playoff berth since 1982, pitching a four-hitter on the final day of the season in Milwaukee’s 3-1 victory over the Chicago Cubs. The Brewers then lost to the Phillies in the division series, and Sabathia left for a big-money free-agent deal with the New York Yankees. Ben Sheets, Milwaukee’s second-best starter, also is gone.

Yovani Gallardo, who missed most of last season because of a knee injury, takes over as the team’s top starter. The lineup is solid with Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun but the questions about the pitching staff extend into the bullpen, where career saves leader Trevor Hoffman was bothered by a strained right oblique muscle this spring after coming over from San Diego in the offseason.

St. Louis Cardinals

The key to the Cardinals’ hopes for a big season may be 2005 NL Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter, who looked healthy this spring after battling shoulder and elbow injuries the past two years. The right-hander is 51-20 with a 3.11 ERA over the last five seasons, and his .718 winning percentage is the best in baseball during that time.

St. Louis will be without Troy Glaus for the first part of the season after the third baseman had shoulder surgery in January and Skip Schumaker is making the unusual transition from the outfield to second base. David Freese and Joe Mather are in the mix in third and Brendan Ryan could start at second if Schumaker isn’t ready on opening day. The lineup, with mashers Albert Pujols, Ryan Ludwick and Rick Ankiel, should be loaded again.

Cincinnati Reds

The Reds have the makings of a good young core with right-handers Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto, second baseman Brandon Phillips, first baseman Joey Votto and outfielder Jay Bruce. If Aaron Harang can bounce back from a down year, the rotation could be one of the league’s best. The lineup is missing a big bopper after Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn were traded during last year’s 74-88 season, but the Reds could be among the league leaders in steals with the addition of Willy Taveras. The development of Cincinnati’s young nucleus will be key if the Reds are to end their string of eight consecutive losing seasons.

Houston Astros

Houston got a boost in spring training when 13-time Gold Glove catcher Ivan Rodriguez agreed to a one-year, $1.5 million contract. The Astros needed a catcher after Brad Ausmus signed a free-agent deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Before Pudge signed, the biggest offseason acquisition was the return of Mike Hampton, who was 22-4 with a 2.90 ERA for the Astros in 1999 but has struggled to stay healthy of late. Sluggers Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee are back but the rotation is shaky behind ace Roy Oswalt.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Not a lot of reasons for optimism here, save for one of the majors’ best ballparks in PNC Park. Pittsburgh appears to be headed for its record-breaking 17th consecutive losing season. Tom Gorzelanny, one of the Pirates’ top two starters at the beginning of last season, will start the season at Triple-A Indianapolis after a disappointing spring. At least left-hander Zach Duke has shown signs of snapping out of his funk and young sluggers Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata are working their way through the minors.


Los Angeles Dodgers

Expect more chants of “Manny! Manny!” at Chavez Ravine this summer after Ramirez ended his stalemate with Los Angeles by agreeing to a $45 million, two-year contract on March 4. The gifted slugger made all the Dodgers better when he joined the team last summer, and his return should mean better numbers for Rafael Furcal, Matt Kemp and the rest of the lineup.

Derek Lowe departed for a free-agent deal with Atlanta but the Dodgers signed Randy Wolf, and Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw and Hiroki Kuroda. Jonathan Broxton has the stuff to make a smooth transition to full-time closer with Takashi Saito gone.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Brandon Webb and Dan Haren give the Diamondbacks one of the best 1-2 punches in a starting rotation in the majors. Jon Garland, who agreed to a one-year, $7.25 million contract in January, is hoping to make it a Big Three. The right-hander has seven consecutive seasons of at least 32 starts and 190 innings, and his durability could be a big boost considering fellow starters Max Scherzer and Doug Davis were both banged up in spring training.

San Francisco Giants

The Giants bolstered their bullpen by signing Jeremy Affeldt and Bob Howry in the offseason, and are counting on their strong rotation to make up for the lack of power in the lineup. NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum showed no signs of slowing down during an impressive spring and disappointing left-hander Barry Zito worked out hard over the winter. Randy Johnson, the No. 2 starter, needs just five wins to reach 300 for his career.

New shortstop Edgar Renteria is being counted on to add some offense to an anemic lineup, where catcher Bengie Molina and outfielder Aaron Rowand are the main home run threats.

Colorado Rockies

The Rockies traded slugger Matt Holliday to Oakland and lost closer Brian Fuentes in free agency over the winter, leaving major holes in their lineup and bullpen. Two players they acquired from Oakland could help. Promising prospect Carlos Gonzalez was in the mix for a spot in the outfield and former A’s closer Huston Street was competing with Manuel Corpas for the same role in Colorado. Healthy years from shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and first baseman Todd Helton could go a long way to helping the Rockies return to the success they enjoyed in 2007.

San Diego Padres

There were two major changes with the Padres in the offseason: a new ownership group and a changing of the guard at closer. Former agent Jeff Moorad heads a group that includes former NFL star Troy Aikman and is in the process of purchasing the team from John Moores. Moorad’s group is expected to be in place by opening day. Trevor Hoffman is no longer in the San Diego bullpen. Heath Bell takes over for the career saves leader.

At least Jake Peavy is still around. The Padres tried to move their ace but ended up holding on to the 2007 NL Cy Young Award winner, who is guaranteed $59 million through 2012 and could hit the market again if San Diego falls off the pace.

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