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NL teams' biggest spring training questions

12:07 PM, Feb 5, 2013   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The countdown to pitchers and catchers reporting for the start of spring training is almost over.

At various camps in Florida and Arizona next week, it will be the start of baseball season again. As major league teams prepare for the 2013 season, let's examine the main question each National League squad will hope to answer during the next month and a half of spring training (The key American League questions will be posed here next week).

EAST DIVISION

ATANTA BRAVES: Can Andrelton Simmons be an effective leadoff hitter?

The Braves' lineup has top-notch power with the offseason additions of Justin Upton and B.J. Upton, but the team needs to find a replacement for departed leadoff man Michael Bourn.

The 23-year-old Simmons was impressive in his 166 at-bat major-league debut season last summer, hitting .289 with a .335 on-base percentage. The Braves would probably like to see him draw more than the 12 walks he was issued last year.

Bourn's on-base percentage was .348 last season, and that's a figure Simmons might be able to approach. After stealing just one base last year, Simmons doesn't figure to run nearly as much as Bourn, who swiped 42 bags in 2012.

MIAMI MARLINS: Will anyone be able to protect Giancarlo Stanton in the lineup?

After trading away most of the 2012 Opening Day lineup, Miami is left with just Stanton and Logan Morrison as returning starters. Despite missing 39 games last year because of knee problems, Stanton slugged 37 home runs.

There's no doubt Stanton will hit his share of bombs again, but why would opposing pitchers throw strikes to him in a key spot? Aside from Stanton, who else is going to scare opposing pitchers? Expect about 30 homers, but maybe twice that number of intentional walks.

NEW YORK METS: Can the team get any production from its outfield?

If Opening Day were today, the Mets would probably line up with a starting outfield of Lucas Duda, Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Mike Baxter, which would be the weakest in the majors.

There's still somewhat of a chance Bourn, a free agent, could come aboard. That would help, but the team is going to have to count on a big step forward from Duda, Baxter or both if the team is to be competitive.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES: Can Michael Young produce in the middle of the order?

The Phillies' new third baseman, obtained in a trade with the Texas Rangers, has a chance to open the season as the No. 3 hitter in the lineup between Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. Young, however, is a declining player who slumped to eight home runs and 67 RBIs in 611 at-bats last year.

It's early, and there's certainly a chance Young gets placed in the sixth spot if manager Charlie Manuel opts for newcomer Ben Revere to hit No. 2 behind Jimmy Rollins. No matter where Young bats, though, the Phillies will need for him to improve dramatically on his 2012 OPS of .682.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS: How will the team handle being the hunted?

The roster appears to be without a weakness. The Nationals lacked a quality leadoff hitter last year, so they added Denard Span. The rotation lost Edwin Jackson to free agency, and Dan Haren replaced him. The back end of the bullpen was shaky at times, so Rafael Soriano was signed to be the closer.

Washington is set up to win - and win big - this season. The question is how the Nationals' mostly young players with limited experience in pennant races will handle being the clear favorite this time around. They'll need to establish the proper attitude over the next six or seven weeks in Florida and carry it into the regular season.

CENTRAL DIVISION

CHICAGO CUBS: Can the team find takers for high-priced veterans Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Marmol?

The Cubs reportedly agreed to deal Marmol to the Los Angeles Angels for Haren during the offseason, but the trade was nixed when Chicago wasn't pleased with Haren's physical condition. Considering Soriano is owed $36 million over the next two years, the Cubs would probably be willing to trade him for the proverbial bag of balls.

President of baseball operations Theo Epstein would love nothing more than to remove the two remaining huge salaries from the books and see what prospect Brett Jackson can do as a full-time outfielder and Japanese import Kyuji Fujikawa can do as the closer.

CINCINNATI REDS: Can Aroldis Chapman become a top-flight starting pitcher?

Chapman has been dominant as a late-inning reliever, but now he's expected to make the transition to the rotation. Will he still be able to throw 100 mph- plus now that he has to pace himself for longer outings? Will he be able to mix his pitches well enough to get through the order the second and third time?

The biggest concern could be how much the Reds will have to monitor Chapman's workload. He threw just 72 1/3 innings last year, so it seems unlikely - and unwise - to give him a 180- to 200-inning workload in 2013. Cincinnati will have to handle his situation well enough to make sure he's available to pitch in the postseason.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS: Other than ace Yovani Gallardo, is there enough pitching?

Milwaukee traded Zack Greinke at the deadline last July when it determined it couldn't sign him to a long-term deal. It was a big loss because the Brewers have plenty of question marks in the starting rotation.

Marco Estrada walked only 29 in 138 1/3 innings last season, but he's had limited major-league success and is already 29 years old. Another late bloomer, Michael Fiers, posted nine wins in 22 starts last season.

The last two spots could be up in the air. Chris Narveson would nail down one of them if he gets a clean bill of health. He underwent rotator cuff surgery last May. Top prospect Wily Peralta is the favorite for the No. 5 spot. He has major upside, but, like most young pitchers, he can be wild at times.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES: Can the lineup produce enough runs for the team to be in title contention?

Pittsburgh's offense improved last season and it helped make the Pirates a buyer rather than a seller at the trade deadline. Still, they only finished 23rd in the majors in runs scored, 25th in team batting average and 27th in team on-base percentage.

Clearly, there's still room for improvement, but most of the lineup will be unchanged. Free agent Russell Martin has come aboard as the No. 1 catcher. Also, trade deadline acquisition Travis Snider will be around for a full season.

Will those changes be enough for the Pirates to at least finish in the middle of the pack in runs scored? Only if returning starters like Pedro Alvarez can make a more consistent impact.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS: Will young arms challenge for spots in the starting rotation?

Veterans Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter and Jake Westbrook are givens for the rotation, and Jaime Garcia will surely have a spot if his shoulder is sound.

The fifth spot should belong to Lance Lynn, who won 18 games last season. St. Louis is not guaranteeing him a spot, though, and it told Lynn prior to the offseason that it wanted him to lose weight.

If Garcia isn't healthy enough to open the season, there could be quite a battle for a starting job between young pitchers Shelby Miller, Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal. Of course, the guys who fail to earn rotation jobs will likely be in the bullpen, adding to the Cardinals' embarrassment of pitching riches.

WEST DIVISION

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS: Who will take charge in the battle to start at shortstop?

With Stephen Drew gone, the Diamondbacks will turn either to Cliff Pennington or Didi Gregorius to start at shortstop. Pennington is coming off a poor season in Oakland, when he batted .215 and had a miserable .589 OPS.

Gregorius, acquired from the Reds, is a slick defender whose offense is a bit of an unknown; he has just 20 major-league at-bats. Gregorius bats left-handed and Pennington is a switch hitter.

Neither player would be an ideal option, but Gregorius could provide a bit more upside.

COLORADO ROCKIES: Can the rotation bounce back from a horrible 2012 season?

Here's how bad the Rockies were on the mound last year: They were last in the majors in team ERA (5.22) and batting average against (.290), and their 27 quality starts also ranked a distant last in the sport. The Minnesota Twins, who were next to last, had 62 quality starts.

The Rockies are going to need incumbents to significantly improve. The prime breakout candidates could be Jhoulys Chacin, Juan Nicasio and Drew Pomeranz. Injuries contributed heavily to the lack of success from Chacin and Nicasio. Pomeranz struggled, but he was considered a top prospect when he was obtained from Cleveland.

Also, Jorge De La Rosa, who made only three starts in 2012 as he returned from Tommy John surgery, should be ready from the start of the spring. Things can only go up from the pitching staff's forgettable 2012 campaign.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS: Can Carl Crawford rebound to be a solid leadoff hitter?

The Boston Red Sox forced the Dodgers to take on Crawford's bad contract in order to facilitate a trade that netted star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Provided he has sufficiently recovered from rotator cuff surgery, though, Crawford figures to open the season as the Dodgers' left fielder and in the leadoff or No. 2 spot.

Crawford was a longtime star in Tampa Bay before signing a seven-year, $142 million contract with the Red Sox. In a full 2011 season, he put up an anemic on-base percentage of .289. He was only slightly better (.306) in an injury- shortened 2012 campaign.

Los Angeles has to hope the Tampa Bay version of Crawford returns this year. If not, the Dodgers will need to find production for the top of the lineup.

SAN DIEGO PADRES: Can the offense take a big enough step forward, given the lack of offseason changes?

San Diego tied for 23rd in runs scored in the majors last year, finished 22nd in team batting average, 26th in team slugging percentage and 28th in home runs. Most of the projected starting lineup is the same, with the possible addition of top prospect Jedd Gyorko at second base.

The Padres have moved the fences in at Petco Park by 11 to 12 feet. That should help boost their offensive numbers this year. Of course, it also should boost visiting teams' hitting stats, too.

San Diego will need bigger contributions from returning players, especially from the likes of underachieving outfielders Cameron Maybin and Will Venable.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS: Can Tim Lincecum become an ace again?

A two-time Cy Young Award winner, Lincecum slumped to 10-15 with a 5.18 ERA last season. That was a far cry from his 3.32 career ERA. In three of his six major-league seasons, the right-hander has pitched to a sub-3.00 ERA.

Will he be able to recapture his pre-2012 form? It'll be interesting to see if he can increase his velocity a notch this spring. Even though the Giants have plenty of other quality pitchers, they need their former ace to be great again if they are to fend off the free-spending Dodgers in the NL West.

Jeff Saukaitis is a former Sports Network writer/editor who has been a professional sportswriter since 1985.

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