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shining example of how to blow up a team, stock up on a ton of prospects, and get really good again. After losing 111 games in 2013 and 92 in 2014, the Astros saw youngsters such as José Altuve (2B), (RF), Carlos Correa (SS) and Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel blossom, lifting the team to a surprising wild card berth. The Astros need to cut down on their strikeouts, but the future is bright in Houston, and another protracted battle with their Lone Star State rivals in Arlington figures to play out for the division title this season. Though the Mariners struggled might-

Over in Houston the Astros proved a

ily last year, there is still plenty of talent up in Seattle with the likes of Robinson Canó (2B), Nelson Cruz (DH), Kyle Seager (3B) and of course ‘King’ Félix Hernández. New manager Scott Servais will have his work cut out for him getting this team to gel and keeping up with the boys down in Texas, but a wild card push isn’t out of the question if the cards fall just so. Elsewhere, the Angels still have one of

the best players in baseball in Mike Trout, but not a lot else, while other than ace Sonny Gray, wheeler dealer GM Billy Beane doesn’t appear to have a lot of chips on the table in Oakland with his A’s this season.

NL East

After just about every prognosticator was picking the Nationals to win it all this time last year, it was the Mets who rode the pitching of Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, and Noah Syndergaard (and the clutch hitting of playoff star Daniel Murphy) all the way to the World Series. Offense is still a concern for NYC’s Metropolitans – with Murphy heading to the rival Nationals – as is the health of third baseman David Wright and outfielder Yoenis Céspedes. With so much pitching though, the Mets figure to be right back in the mix again this year. In a word, ‘disappointing’ would sum

up the Nationals’ 2015 season. A mix of volatile personalities in the clubhouse never seemed to gel and the Nats missed the postseason completely. Dusty Baker, who replaces Matt Williams at the helm in Washingotn D.C., will be tasked with a veri- table chemistry experiment in getting the most out of a talented Nats roster, which includes the likes of Bryce Harper and pitch-

ers Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. The East would figure to be a two

horse race, but one has to wonder if the Miami Marlins might be poised to upset the balance. The biggest offseason addi- tions weren’t the ones on the field in South Florida though, as Don Mattingly takes over the managerial duties, while Barry Bonds (yes THAT Barry Bonds) joins the staff as the Marlins’ hitting coach. $300-million-man Giancarlo Stanton is one of the best players on the planet, but has had trouble staying healthy. Likewise with starting pitcher José Fernandez, who is coming off of Tommy John surgery. The Braves are firmly in rebuilding

mode, hoping to get good by the time they move into their new suburban Atlanta sta- dium in 2017. The Phillies have the alba- tross of Ryan Howard’s untradeable $25 mil- lion salary around their necks, and a 100-loss season is well within their grasp.

NL Central

The Cubs just about managed to turn that Back to the Future headline into prophecy in 2015, but fell short, losing in the NL Cham- pionship Series to the Mets. To say expecta- tions are high in Wrigleyville this year would be like saying the sun is kind of hot. After watching the likes of Anthony Rizzo (1B), Kris Bryant (3B), Kyle Schwarber (LF) and starting pitcher Jake Arrieta come of age, the Cubs went out and added Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward, versatile utility man Ben Zobrist and right hander John Lackey to an already stacked lineup. Yes, expectations are sky high for good reason in Chicago. Now there’s just the small matter of a certain curse. After losing Heyward and Lackey to

their upstart division rivals, the Cardinals, as they tend to do, will look to restock from within with the likes of youngsters Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty. The Cards have one of the preeminent organizations in baseball. They always seem to find a way to stay relevant, and one writes them off at their own peril. With all of the noise up in Chicago, it’s easy to forget that it was the St Louis Cardinals who owned the best record in baseball a year ago. The Pirates put years of mediocrity behind them with two straight playoff appearances, but the window of opportu-

nity might just be starting to close. Andrew McCutchen remains a cornerstone in Pitts- burgh, and Gerrit Cole is a legitimate ace. The Pirates will be good again this year, but will they be good enough to reach the postsea- son once again? The Milwaukee Brewers and Cin-

cinnati Reds have three bona fide Major Leaguers between them in Ryan Braun, Jonathan Lucroy and Joey Votto, all of whom figure to be on offer to the highest bidder come the end of July.

NL West

After lofty expectations, a gargantuan payroll and another early playoff exit, the LA Dodg- ers said goodbye to manager Don Mattingly at the end of the season, and hello to Dave Roberts. They also, somewhat surprisingly, lost out on a bidding war with Arizona to re- sign pitcher Zack Greinke. Japanese import Kenta Maeda and left hander Scott Kazmir will hope to paste over that glaring hole in the starting rotation. The Dodgers will also need continued improvement from young stars Corey Seager (SS) and Joc Pederson (CF) to keep the NL West flag in Chavez Ravine for a fourth consecutive year. The good news for Giants fans is that it

is an even-numbered year, as San Fran has been alternating World Series titles with missing the playoffs each year since 2010. The Giants spent big to bring in pitchers Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samaradzija. With a solid lineup anchored by catcher Buster Posey, the Giants look poised to make things interesting once again. The Diamondbacks shocked the base-

ball world by swooping in from Arizona with $206 million to swipe Greinke away from their division rivals in the biggest coup of the offseason. The D-Backs didn’t stop there, though, adding Shelby Miller to the rota- tion. Combined with an offense that includes superstar Paul Goldschmidt, the D-Backs are clearly all-in when it comes to competing with the Dodgers and Giants this season. The Padres have some decent pitch-

ing prospects down in San Diego, though it’s hard to see them making headway in the division, while up in the mountains, the Colorado Rockies’ biggest ques- tion is how much they can get in return for Carlos González as they continue their own

rebuilding project. The American 77 77

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