OK, so everyone was wrong.
This year, Philadelphia is still one of the favourites — but the situation is different. Jose Reyes, Heath Bell and Mark Buehrle are in Miami, and Atlanta wants Chipper Jones' final season to be a memorable one. Joey Votto and Cincinnati are out to prove last year was an aberration, and World Series champion St. Louis is anxious to get Adam Wainwright back in the rotation. Arizona, San Francisco and Los Angeles are equipped to make a run out West.
While Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder learn their way around the AL, their old league is wide open.
"You can't take anything for granted," Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson said, gearing up to defend a surprise division title. "I think we know we are good but you have to understand we have to carry the lunch bucket every day."
One of baseball's biggest off-season makeovers occurred in Miami, where the team formerly known as the Florida Marlins begins the year with a new manager and a restocked pitching staff for its first season in Marlins Park. Counting on bigger crowds in their sparkling new facility, the Marlins went on quite the spending spree over the winter, committing $191 million worth of contracts to NL batting champion Reyes, and pitchers Buehrle and Bell.
"We're looking good," said Hanley Ramirez, who is moving from shortstop to third to make room for Reyes. "This is the best team I've been on in six years with the Marlins."
Buehrle should help solidify the rotation and Bell is one of the league's best closers. But Miami's hopes could rest on Ozzie Guillen's ability to manage an eclectic group of personalities that now includes Carlos Zambrano, acquired in a trade with the Chicago Cubs.
"If I don't screw it up, we'll be fine," the typically candid Guillen said.
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel likes his club, too, even after a disappointing loss to the Cardinals in the NL division series. The Big Three of Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels are back again, and shortstop Jimmy Rollins returned after testing free agency over the winter. But big first baseman Ryan Howard is recovering from surgery on his left Achilles and second baseman Chase Utley has been sidelined by problems with both knees.
"You have to keep playing," Manuel said, pondering life without two of his best hitters. "You have to try to find someone to fill in and hopefully they'll do a job for you. We've been very fortunate with that ever since I've been here. But at the same time, Utley and Howard, that's a heavy load."
At least Utley and Howard are still on the team. St. Louis is moving on without Pujols after its longtime star agreed to a $240 million, 10-year contract with the Los Angeles Angels in December. Manager Tony La Russa is gone, and pitching coach Dave Duncan is on an open-ended leave of absence.
"Would it have been a slam dunk even if Albert had come back, that we'd return to the post-season and do great? Not necessarily," slugger Lance Berkman said. "Similarly, it doesn't spell the death knell for the franchise that he's not here."
Former Cardinals catcher Mike Matheny takes over for La Russa in the dugout, and St. Louis will lean on several different areas to replace Pujols' production. Wainwright is back after missing all of last season following right elbow surgery, and Berkman moves from right field to first to make room for Carlos Beltran, one of the majors' smartest off-season acquisitions at $26 million over two years.
For Cincinnati, the departures of Pujols and Fielder, who left NL Central champion Milwaukee for a $214 million, nine-year contract with Detroit, created a void it was eager to try to fill. Votto, the 2010 NL MVP, could price himself out of the Queen City soon, so the Reds went all in and bolstered their staff by trading for starting pitcher Mat Latos and reliever Sean Marshall before signing closer Ryan Madson to a one-year deal.
The future is right now for Cincinnati.
"We took a lot of chances but we've got pretty good return," Votto said. "I'm very happy about it. I'm excited for the season this year."
The Diamondbacks also were aggressive over the winter, acquiring pitchers Trevor Cahill and Craig Breslow from Oakland and signing left fielder Jason Kubel. They won the NL West last season behind breakout years from pitcher Ian Kennedy and outfielder Justin Upton, and should be in the mix again in 2012.
San Francisco also expects to contend after catcher Buster Posey missed much of last season following a frightening home-plate collision on May 25. And don't forget the Dodgers and Rockies, each with their own reasons for optimism.
A look at the NL in predicted order of finish:
Each of the contenders in the East begins the season with major questions, but only one has Halladay, Lee and Hamels. Boosted by its Big Three, Philadelphia led the NL last year with 21 shutouts, 18 complete games and a sterling 3.02 team ERA. Vance Worley (11-2, 3.01 ERA) and Joe Blanton fill out the rotation.
The Phillies, who have won five consecutive division titles, also fortified the bullpen by signing free-agent closer Jonathan Papelbon over the winter. Papelbon had 31 saves and a 2.94 ERA with Boston last year.
The big question in Philly is how will the offence fare without Utley and Howard, who could be out until June. Well, All-Star right fielder Hunter Pence begins his first full year in the NL East after he was acquired in a July trade with Houston, and 41-year-old slugger Jim Thome could provide some of the missing power at first in his return to the Phillies.
When he managed the White Sox, Guillen often talked about how much he loved speed. Now he has two of the majors' fastest players at the top of his lineup in switch hitters Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio, to go along with power in the middle in Ramirez, Giancarlo Stanton and Gaby Sanchez. The addition of Buehrle puts a reliable innings-eater in the middle of the rotation, and Bell had at least 42 saves in each of his last three seasons in San Diego.
The real wild card in Miami is Carlos Zambrano, who was acquired in a trade with the Cubs in January. The volatile right-hander had a series of run-ins with teammates, management and umpires during his time in Chicago but is close with Guillen and is hoping to salvage his career in South Florida.
The Braves were one of the NL's best teams last year — until the final month of the season. They went 9-18 in September to slip out of the top spot in the wild-card race and were eliminated from playoff contention on the final day of the season.
Now largely the same group of players and coaches are back to put the awful memories of 2011 behind them. Fortunately for Atlanta, that includes one of the majors' best bullpens, All-Star catcher Brian McCann and solid starting pitchers Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson. Jones also is back for one last season before heading into retirement.
The potential is there to end Philadelphia's run atop the division, but Hudson is expected to open the season on the disabled list and it remains to be seen if Jurrjens and Hanson can remain healthy. The Braves also need a bounceback season from slugger Jason Heyward.
Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, and Edwin Jackson lead one of the NL's best rotations. Left fielder Michael Morse is coming off a career year, and phenom Bryce Harper should reach the majors this season.
The Nationals had a major league-worst 27 blown saves in 2011 and are hoping the addition of Brad Lidge will help ease the pressure on All-Star Tyler Clippard and closer Drew Storen. They also need right fielder Jayson Werth to live up to his $126 million contract after a forgettable first season in Washington.
NEW YORK METS
Johan Santana returns after missing all of last season following left shoulder surgery, providing a glimmer of hope for the woebegone Mets. The two-time Cy Young Award winner hasn't appeared in a major league game since he went 11-9 with a 2.98 ERA in 29 starts in 2010.
Promising first baseman Ike Davis also is back after an injury-riddled 2011 season, but there are significant holes in the rotation and lineup. Third baseman David Wright, new left fielder Andres Torres and reliever Tim Byrdak were bothered by injuries this spring, and improvements by the rest of the division could lead to a long year in New York.
The Reds won the Central in 2010, then were quiet over the off-season and slumped to third behind the Brewers and Cardinals. This time, they were unusually active over the winter, raiding their stocked farm system to acquire Latos from San Diego and Marshall from the Chicago Cubs. Latos will slot into the rotation right behind ace Johnny Cueto, and Marshall, teaming with Bill Bray, gives Cincinnati two effective lefties in the bullpen.
Owner Bob Castellini also opened his checkbook for a shrewd $8.5 million, one-year deal with Madson, who had 32 saves in 34 opportunities with Philadelphia last season.
Two positions to watch in Cincinnati are third base and left field. The Reds need Scott Rolen to stay healthy to go along with lefty batters Votto and Jay Bruce in the middle of the lineup, and Ryan Ludwick and Chris Heisey both will get opportunities to fill the troublesome void in left.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
The Cardinals stormed into the playoffs on the last day of the season in 2011, then went on to win it all in a memorable seven-game series against Texas. Pujols and La Russa subsequently departed, but there is still a deep and versatile ballclub in St. Louis.
Beltran should be able to fill some of the void created by Pujols' departure. The switch hitter batted .300 with 22 homers and 84 RBIs in 142 games for the Mets and Giants last season. Moving Berkman from right to first should help the 36-year-old slugger stay healthy, and also improves the defence.
Injuries are of particular concern after the surprising run to the title put some extra miles on the aging legs of Berkman and Matt Holliday, and led to significant innings for ace Chris Carpenter and young left-hander Jaime Garcia. Carpenter pitched 273 1-3 innings in 2011, and was bothered by a bulging disk in his neck this spring.
Faced with life without Fielder, the Brewers found a player nearby to replace some of that lost production. Free-agent third baseman Aramis Ramirez stayed in the division for a $36 million, three-year contract, leaving the Cubs after 8 1/2 seasons. Ramirez hit 26 homers last year and should be able to help protect star Ryan Braun.
Mat Gamel, a converted third baseman, moved into Fielder's spot at first, and the Brewers return one of the NL's best rotations. The bullpen also is solid with Francisco Rodriguez and closer John Axford for the back end of games.
After a promising run last summer, the Pirates crashed down the stretch and finished 72-90 for their 19th consecutive losing season. They took a chance in February and traded for erratic right-hander A.J. Burnett, who promptly took a batted ball off his face during camp and had surgery to repair a fractured right orbital bone.
That type of bad luck seems to be the norm in Pittsburgh, which did make a couple of positive moves in the off-season. All-Star centre fielder Andrew McCutchen signed a new contract, and former fan favourite Nate McLouth is back after a tough couple of years in Atlanta. Also, look for Casey McGehee to push promising slugger Pedro Alvarez at third.
Theomania took over Chicago when Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein agreed to become Cubs president in October. By the time the off-season was over, there was a whole new crew in charge of the baseball team at Wrigley Field. Jed Hoyer left San Diego to become the general manager, and Dale Sveum was hired as manager.
Even with Pujols and Fielder on the market, Epstein and company stayed quiet during free agency and talked openly about building through scouting and player development. That means it could be another difficult season on the North Side.
Houston's last year in the National League likely will be a forgettable one. The Astros, who lost 106 games last season, begin the season with Wandy Rodriguez in the rotation and Carlos Lee at first base, but both veterans could be moved if new general manager Jeff Luhnow sees an opportunity to upgrade the farm system.
The Astros used 21 rookies in 2011, including prospects Jose Altuve and J.D. Martinez, and could have the youngest team in the NL this season. They will move to the AL West in 2013.
All the components for a championship team are here. There's the solid rotation, fronted by Kennedy and boosted by the acquisition of Cahill. The offence is dynamic, led by All-Stars Justin Upton and Miguel Montero. There is depth in the bullpen and on the bench, and reigning NL Manager of the Year Gibson in the dugout.
The Diamondbacks even have stud pitching prospects Trevor Bauer and Tyler waiting in the minors in case of injuries or poor performance.
The biggest variable for the defending West champions is shortstop Stephen Drew, who is working his way back from an ugly right ankle injury. Willie Bloomquist and John McDonald should be able to fill in adequately while Drew is out.
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
The Giants used two different avenues to bolster their lineup over the winter. They traded for outfielders Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan, and they just got healthy.
Posey, the 2010 NL Rookie of the Year, is back after tearing three ligaments in his left ankle and fracturing a bone in his lower leg in that ugly collision in May. Posey was batting .284 at the time of the season-ending injuries, and the Giants sorely missed his presence behind the plate and in the lineup. Second baseman Freddy Sanchez had right shoulder surgery in August and is expected to be at full strength again.
The return of Posey, plus the continued brilliance of ace right-hander Tim Lincecum, makes San Francisco a strong contender to reach the playoffs once again. It just doesn't look like enough to catch Arizona in the division.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS
All Matt Kemp did last year was hit .324 with a career-high 39 homers, 126 RBIs and 40 steals. It was good enough for second in the MVP voting behind Braun, and the Dodgers rewarded the Gold Glove centre fielder with a $160 million, eight-year contract — even with the ownership situation in flux.
Now all they have to do is get him some help.
Clayton Kershaw won the NL Cy Young Award last season, and the Dodgers signed veteran pitchers Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang to round out the rotation. But right fielder Andre Ethier is coming off right knee surgery and first baseman James Loney had an up-and-down season in 2011. Increased production from the pair of key veterans could move Los Angeles to the top of the division.
Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki form one of the majors' best 1-2 offensive combinations. Michael Cuddyer left the Minnesota Twins to sign a free-agent deal with Colorado over the winter, adding more punch to the Rockies' lineup.
Colorado has a group of promising candidates for the rotation, but they're mostly young and unproven. The notable exception is 49-year-old Jamie Moyer, who is attempting a comeback from Tommy John surgery on his left elbow that sidelined him all of last season.
SAN DIEGO PADRES
The Padres are rebuilding once again, but there is some promise in San Diego. First baseman Yonder Alonso, acquired from Cincinnati in the Latos deal, has the perfect line-drive swing for Petco Park, and right-hander Edinson Volquez could rebound under the tutelage of manager Bud Black and pitching coach Darren Balsley. Carlos Quentin, who came over in a trade with the Chicago White Sox, was having a nice spring before he was sidelined by arthroscopic right knee surgery.
San Diego should be better than its 71-91 record from a year ago. But the improvement probably won't be enough to move out of the basement of the division.
AP Sports Writers Rob Maaddi, Joe Kay and R.B. Fallstrom, and AP freelance writer Bob Huhn contributed to this report.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap