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Los Angeles Dodgers are set for a starring role

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Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka has wasted no time in making a big splash in his first major-league season.
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Not since the late 1970s and the days of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes and Tommy John (the pitcher, not the surgery) have there been the type of expectations around the Los Angeles Dodgers as there are now.

Not only are the Dodgers the popular pick to win the World Series this year, it would seem like they are just beginning a new chapter in the book of dynasties, which is the last thing Giants fans want to hear.

Now it is Yasiel Puig, Hanley Ramirez and Clayton Kershaw playing leading roles in L.A. — and Puig hasn’t even played a full season of organized ball at any one level in the U.S. Just let that sink in for a second.

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The Dodgers appear loaded everywhere except for infield depth, but that could be solved by Puig’s fellow Cuban Alex Guerrero. Manager Don Mattingly faces a potential jam in the outfield, with Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier returning with Puig. Kemp spent most of the spring still recovering from a heel injury, but will one or more of these outfielders make waves if the playing time isn’t there?

The Giants can provide a legit threat to the Dodgers in the NL West, but need to get a better performance out of their starting pitching, which newcomer Tim Hudson could bolster, and they added an offensive jolt in slugger Mike Morse. The Arizona Diamondbacks added pop in Mark Trumbo, an innings eater in Bronson Arroyo and a closer in Addison Reed, making the Snakes even more dangerous.

In the NL Central, the St. Louis Cardinals are head and shoulders the class of the division. The young pitching continues to emerge from the minors, which is stocked with some of the game’s better prospects.

But after that, it is a battle royale. NL MVP Andrew McCutchen and the Pittsburgh Pirates ended a 20-year playoff drought by claiming one of the two wild-card spots, but then remained quiet in the offseason and lost ace A.J. Burnett to Philadelphia via free agency. The Milwaukee Brewers get slugger Ryan Braun back after a season of injuries and a 65-game Biogenesis suspension. Matt Garza surprisingly picked Milwaukee as a landing spot via free agency, giving the Brewers a decent rotation.

In the East, the Atlanta Braves’ dominance of the division last season was surprising given the expectations placed on the Washington Nationals. But the Braves lost Hudson to the Giants and All-Star catcher Brian McCann to the New York Yankees, so leadership and production will have to be replaced. The Nationals have ex-Giant Matt Williams making his managerial debut. If Stephen Strasburg, with a full season under his belt after Tommy John surgery, can be the elite pitcher he is supposed to be, Williams could have a fun first year.

PREDICITIONS

West

1. Dodgers

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2. Diamondbacks

3. Giants

4. Padres

5. Rockies

Central

1. Cardinals

2. Brewers

3. Pirates

4. Reds

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5. Cubs

East

1. Nationals

2. Braves

3. Mets

4. Phillies

5. Marlins

PLAYOFFS

Wild card: Diamondbacks def. Braves

Division series: Dodgers def. Diamondbacks, Cardinals def. Nationals

League championship series: Dodgers def. Cardinals

World Series: Dodgers def. Rays

AWARDS

MVP: Yasiel Puig, Dodgers

Cy Young: Stephen Strasburg, Nationals

Rookie of the Year: Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox

5 things to watch

Two years after fiercely stating he did not take performance-enhancing drugs after a testing positive and having his suspension overturned, Ryan Braun is back with the Milwaukee Brewers after serving a 65-game suspension for his part in the Biogenesis scandal. The 2011 NL MVP will need to put up big numbers to quiet those who say his award was won artificially.

Yasiel Puig burst onto the major-league scene last summer as a comet and energized the Los Angeles Dodgers. Puig’s arrival sparked a 46-10 run that vaulted the Dodgers into the playoffs. However, the Cuban outfielder turned many off with his poor baserunning, overthrowing cutoff men and other assorted antics. Fine-tuning his skills could make him an MVP candidate.

Can Ryne Sandberg save the Philadelphia Phillies? The former NL MVP with the Chicago Cubs basically has the same aging roster that got Charlie Manuel fired, just without former ace Roy Halladay (retired) and replaced him with almost-retired A.J. Burnett. The rookie manager will need to pull every ounce of remaining production out of veterans such as Ryan Howard and Chase Utley.

Matt Williams is another first-time manager after serving his apprenticeship on the Arizona Diamondbacks’ bench. The former Giants third baseman takes over a great roster that produced disappointing results last year. He will need to straighten out his Stephen Strasburg-led pitching staff, which should have been spectacular in 2013, but was instead rather average.

Will anything slow down the St. Louis Cardinals? Their young pitching is pretty much the envy of every other organization and have position players slowly filtering up, too. Kolten Wong is supposed to see a lot of time at second base, with outfielder Oscar Taveras maybe needing a little more seasoning before being ready. The Cards’ roster is still relatively young and is only getting better.



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