It's easy to envision the marquee matchups: Roger Clemens vs. Greg Maddux, with first place on the line.
Or Andy Pettitte against Kerry Wood for a trip to the World Series.
Maybe Mark Prior and Roy Oswalt in Game 7 of the playoffs.
Packed with pitching, the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros appear headed for a heated race in the NL Central this season and their budding rivalry could carry into October.
The Cubs won the division by one game over Houston last year and came within five outs of their first pennant since 1945. Looking to get over the hump, they signed Maddux, 11 wins shy of 300 and destined for the Hall of Fame.
The former Atlanta ace began his career with the Cubs and won the first of his four straight NL Cy Young Awards with them in 1992. A crafty control artist, he slides into a hard-throwing rotation that already featured Wood, Prior, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement.
The Astros did part with All-Star closer Billy Wagner, traded to Philadelphia. He and Tim Worrell should shore up the bullpen for the Phillies, who could end Atlanta's incredible run of 12 consecutive division titles.
Also expecting to challenge in the NL East again are the cost-conscious Florida Marlins, fresh off their surprising World Series championship.
Ivan Rodriguez, Derrek Lee and Mark Redman are gone, but Josh Beckett still leads a talented young staff.
Every team in the West seems to be worse than a year ago, except the last-place Padres. Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants should repeat as division champions, though they have some serious health concerns on the pitching staff.
A look at the NL in predicted order of finish:
The pressure is on hot-tempered manager Larry Bowa and the Phillies, who move into a new ballpark as favorites to win the division.
They need Pat Burrell (.209, 142 Ks) to bounce back from a horrendous season, and a healthy David Bell at third base would be nice. But the rotation is deep and the bullpen is much better than last year.
The Braves are really watching the budget these days, the biggest reason they might finally relinquish their grip on first place.
Maddux, Gary Sheffield, Javy Lopez and Vinny Castilla are all gone. Still, you can't count out Bobby Cox's crew.
Nobody expected the young Marlins to make the playoffs last year, much less win the World Series at Yankee Stadium.
Now hardly anybody thinks they can contend again. That's a mistake.
Vladimir Guerrero and Javier Vazquez are gone, and All-Star second baseman Jose Vidro could be next. But this team always plays hard and was especially tough to beat in Montreal last year.
The Expos will play another 22 ''home'' games in Puerto Rico all before the All-Star break, which should help. Baseball wants to find them a permanent home by July, though the same was said last year.
New York Mets
Tom Glavine (9-14, 4.52) must return to form if the Mets are to avoid a third straight last-place finish.
The infamous foul ball that some think cost the Cubs a trip to the World Series last October was blown up by a Hollywood special effects expert outside Harry Caray's Restaurant.
But the Cubs will overcome their ''curse'' with pitching, not pyrotechnics.
Top-notch setup man LaTroy Hawkins (9-3, 1.86 with Minnesota) was signed to help finish games for Wood and the gang.
The Astros have never won a playoff series, but the arrival of Pettitte and Clemens from the Yankees has this team thinking about a championship.
Houston hopes their renowned work ethic and history of success in October will rub off on the other pitchers. Oswalt (10-5, 2.97) is coming off groin surgery, an injury that limited him to 21 starts last season.
St. Louis Cardinals
There are four Gold Glove winners on defense and the lineup is still dangerous, but St. Louis never seems to round out the back of the rotation sufficiently.
The Cardinals are counting on Chris Carpenter to be their No. 3 starter after he missed 2003 due to shoulder surgery. Matt Morris (11-8, 3.76), Woody Williams (18-9, 3.87) and closer Jason Isringhausen (22 saves) also need to stay healthy. Williams has been slowed by shoulder tendinitis this spring.
Management angered Milwaukee fans by cutting payroll after taxpayers helped build Miller Park. On the field, manager Ned Yost quietly has this team headed in the right direction. The Brewers actually improved by 13 wins last season, though nobody noticed.
Scott Podsednik (.314, 100 runs, 43 SBs) finished second in Rookie of the Year balloting.
One of the team's few newcomers, Cory Lidle (12-15, 5.75 for Toronto), will start on opening day which says a lot about the rotation. Young pitchers Aaron Harang and Brandon Claussen will probably get a chance.
Danny Graves moves back to the bullpen after one-year as a starter.
The Pirates trimmed the payroll to about $35 million after their 11th consecutive losing season, a franchise record.
San Francisco Giants
The Giants probably won't pile up 100 victories again but they're still capable of winning a weakened division mostly because of Bonds.
His numbers (.341, 45, 90, 148 BBs, 61 IBBs, .749 SLG, .529 OBP) were staggering again last season, earning him a record sixth MVP award.
After trading Curt Schilling to Boston, the Diamondbacks need Randy Johnson's right knee to hold up more than ever.
Johnson, 40, made only 18 starts last season, going 6-8 with a 4.26 ERA. For the Diamondbacks to contend, he must return to the form that won him four straight Cy Young Awards from 1999-02.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers have a new owner, a new GM and the same old inept offense.
Hideo Nomo (16-13, 3.09) leads a pitching staff that's solid, even though Kevin Brown (14-9, 2.39) was traded to the Yankees for Jeff Weaver. The lanky right-hander hopes to revive a once-promising career pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium and a return to Southern California could help.
San Diego Padres
While everybody else in the division was losing top players last winter, Padres GM Kevin Towers pulled a few tricks out of his hat.
David Wells (15-7, 4.14 for Yankees) signed with his hometown team. All-Star catcher Ramon Hernandez was acquired in a trade. And Jay Payton was brought in to patrol spacious center field at new Petco Park.
Colorado can't seem to figure out how to win away from Coors Field. Now the Rockies are going with ''character'' guys, but it's an unimpressive group.
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