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Five NL stories to watch in spring training

Chris Ruddick,
MLB Editor


Rounding Third Logo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Ryan Braun came out swinging on Friday a day after his 50-game suspension was overturned. Braun questioned the league's drug testing procedure, stating that the system is "fatally flawed".

Major League Baseball was none to happy with Braun's comments and released an equally angry statement of there own on the subject.

So if anyone think this case is closed, think again. We may have a few more lengthy court battles ahead of us, be it MLB trying to reverse the appeal, or Braun looking for even more of a way to clear his name.

Either way, it's time to start talking about on the field action, rather than what's going on off of it.

So with that said, let's take a look at some of the bigger stories to watch the next few weeks in the National League as teams begin to get ready for the start of the 2012 season. Click here http://goo.gl/0vuaH for the American League storylines.

Buster Posey
Just having Buster Posey back this year, combined with their tremendous pitching puts the Giants at least on par with defending division champion Arizona.
THE RETURN OF BUSTER POSEY

One of the more devastating injuries last season was Buster Posey going down with a broken left leg and significant ankle ligament damage that required two surgeries following a home plate collision with Florida's Scott Cousins. Not only did it raise the debate on whether or not catchers should be allowed to be put in such a prone position, but it essentially took the San Francisco Giants out of title contention. Posey had not only developed into the best hitter in an anemic Giants lineup, but he had also become the team's leader. Just having him back this year, combined with their tremendous pitching puts the Giants at least on par with defending division champion Arizona. But how will Posey handle plays at the plate? Will he be tentative? Manager Bruce Bochy has already stated that he does not want him blocking the plate anymore. Now the question is will he listen?

NEW LOOK NL CENTRAL

The National League Central will have an entirely new look this year with both Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder gone from the division, leading some in Cincinnati to believe that it is their time to run roughshod over the division. Reds fans could be right on the money with that assumption because for the first time in a long time this division is wide open. The Cards, of course, are the defending World Series champions, but what are they now without not only Pujols, but manager Tony LaRussa. The Brewers still have the reigning MVP Braun, but who else is going to knock in runs in that lineup. Theo Epstein would love to make his presence felt with the Cubs in year one, but they are probably a year or two away. From top-to-bottom the Reds may actually be the best team in the NL Central. Anyone can win this division. Well, except for the Astros and Pirates. But, let's not forget who was leading this division at last year's All-Star break. That's right the Pittsburgh Pirates.

IS CHASE UTLEY HEALTHY?

While teams in the NL Central battle for their own supremacy, there is no question who is the class of the NL East, and that is the Philadelphia Phillies. While they may possess the best rotation in baseball, they do have some major question marks with their offense, specifically second baseman Chase Utley. The five-time All-Star missed most of the first two months of the season last year because of a knee injury and really never got going, batting a mere .259 with just 11 home runs and 44 RBI. With Ryan Howard sidelined until at least Mother's Day, the Phils' offense is going to need Utley to return to form. But, at age 33 with bad knees is that too much to ask?

HANLEY RAMIREZ MOVING TO THIRD BASE

Perhaps the biggest story that bears watching this spring will be at Miami Marlins camp where not only is the team getting used to new manager Ozzie Guillen and a new superstar in Jose Reyes, but the old face of their franchise, Hanley Ramirez will be moving to third base. Unlike Miguel Cabrera in Detroit, Ramirez by all accounts is not as thrilled with moving to accommodate his team's new star. Publicly, though, he is saying all the right things so until something changes he deserves the benefit of the doubt. Ramirez can be an absolutely brilliant player when he wants to be, but at times appears as if he's not interested. How will he react to playing a position he doesn't want? There is no doubt that Guillen is the boss down there. With that potential powder keg and Carlos Zambrano on that team, Guillen will undoubtedly earn his money this year.

BRYCE HARPER

The Washington Nationals could be one of the more intriguing stories in the league this season. They could be even more interesting if Bryce Harper comes north with the team for Opening Day. Manager Davey Johnson has said he would love to have him as the team's everyday right fielder, but he is only 19 and has less than 600 professional plate appearances under his belt. Others in the organization are not so sure. However, that tremendous bat could change a lot of minds in the coming weeks though. But, if he is to start the year with the big league club, Washington better be right. It might make more sense to start him in the minors and if he progresses delay his arrival until roughly mid- May, when they would guarantee another full year or his service before he becomes eligible for free agency. Why sacrifice a full season of him at 25 for a month of him at 19?


Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Ruddick at cruddick@sportsnetwork.com.

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