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NL preview: Washington builds strong contender, with Braves close 2nd

| Sunday, March 31, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

If there is a recipe for cooking up a contender, the Washington Nationals are following it to the last drop.

Over the past few years, the Nationals, who lost 205 games between 2008-09, have taken a big scoop of front-office and organizational savvy, generously sprinkled in some dollars and added a dash of luck (lose 100 games two years running and get to draft Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper). Out of the oven popped a tasty 2012 regular season as the Nationals posted the best record in Major League Baseball. But then the dish spoiled in their Game 5 division series collapse against St. Louis.

The Nationals have better ingredients this season. Going into his last year as a manager, 70-year-old Davey Johnson set the agenda in December by proclaiming “World Series or bust.” The pitching staff — led by Gio Gonzalez and a restriction-free Strasburg — and lineup are deep and talented. Harper, no longer a teenager (my, they do grow up fast), is ready to explode in his second year. Catcher Wilson Ramos returns after missing all but 25 games with a knee injury.

Atlanta poses the Nationals' biggest concern. The Braves open the season without the retired Chipper Jones for the first time since 1995, but the club acquired the Upton brothers, Justin and B.J., to form a dynamic outfield with Jason Heyward. The starters are OK. The bullpen, led by killer closer Craig Kimbrel, might be the best.

Philadelphia's 81-81 finish was its worst since 2002. The roster still features some notable names, including newcomer Michael Young, although age and injuries figure to again get in the way. At least the Phillies should be competitive to a point. Not so the Mets and Marlins, two clubs that dreamed big not long ago but now are living through nightmares.

The NL Central mourns the loss of the Astros, who lost 213 games the last two years and now will be feasted upon in the AL West. Everyone loves a patsy. But it won't be the Reds, who won 97 games before losing their division series in five to the eventual world champion Giants. Shin-Soo Choo augments a tough lineup, and Joey Votto figures to play more than 111 games. Closer Aroldis Chapman and his 100-plus mph heater returns.

The Cardinals followed their 2011 championship season with a wild-card playoff berth and a missed opportunity to beat the Giants in the playoffs. Injuries were a nuisance, and they might be again with starter Chris Carpenter and shortstop Rafael Furcal already lost for the season and closer Jason Motte out for at least the first two weeks. The Cards will score. A big question is whether the bullpen can perform as it did in the playoffs and not the regular season.

Ryan Braun paces a potent Milwaukee attack, and Yovani Gallardo and newly signed Kyle Lohse are formidable starters. Last year's terrible bullpen needs an overhaul. Pirates fans keep harping on their team's meltdowns the last two seasons, but both times the club probably ended up where it should have been all along, with 72 and 79 wins.

That's a nice jump from 57 victories in 2010, and another spike is possible, maybe to produce the first winning season in 21 years. The Cubs, like the Pirates, remain a work in progress. They do, however, have three-fourths of a darned good infield.

San Francisco emerged from the NL West to win the World Series twice in the past three years. The Giants have an excellent pitching staff and talent elsewhere, including catcher Buster Posey, the 2012 Most Valuable Player. They look good enough to win it all again.

Most of the attention, however, probably will focus on their archrivals to the south in Los Angeles, thanks to an ownership change, a whopping TV contract and a $220 million payroll that surpasses all others.

The Dodgers' shopping spree began last year with Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford, and continued during the off-season with Zack Greinke. Lefty Clayton Kershaw is the league's best pitcher, and outfielder Matt Kemp an impact player. But big names and big money do not always translate to the field,

You might have heard that Arizona, San Diego and Colorado also occupy the division. Only the Diamondbacks, four games out as late as Aug. 10, made some noise. They might hang around again for a while, but the Padres and Rockies have long roads ahead.

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @BCohn_Trib.

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