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Back to the ballgame

Tumultuous offseason over, MLB steps into 2012 campaign

Better health, especially from Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, can make Minnesota relevant again. Kansas City’s long building project continues, closer to completion, and the Royals host the All-Star Game.

AL West – It can be argued that the league’s balance of power, long residing in the space between Gotham and Beantown, has shifted here. Texas has won the last two pennants, and that didn’t sit well with the Angels, who went all-in, snatching Pujols and, even more brazenly, C.J. Wilson from the Rangers.

One pitch from winning it all in 2011, Texas will need Neftali Feliz to make a smooth transition from closer to starter and Yu Darvish to live up to the hype. Yet the Angels still might be better because of the quartet of Wilson, Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana on the mound.

This doesn’t leave much for Oakland or Seattle, who are wisely retooling. It’s difficult to imagine the A’s or Mariners offering any serious challenge to Texas or Anaheim.

NL East – Philadelphia, winners of five straight division titles, is under assault from at least two fronts. Concerned with injuries to Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, the Phillies will lean more on the Roy Halladay-Cliff Lee combo.

That might not be enough to fend off full-strength Atlanta, who still burns about last September’s meltdown, or the everything-is-new Marlins that spent the bank on Mark Buerhle, Heath Bell and Jose Reyes.

Even Washington can dream big dreams as Stephen Strasburg takes over as ace and Bryce Harper inches closer to his big-league debut. Finally emerging from the shadow of the Madoff saga, the Mets can turn its attention back to actual baseball, with actual funds to go after actual players. Whether that actually amounts to anything is another matter.

NL Central – Life goes on in St. Louis without Pujols and Tony LaRussa, and in Milwaukee without Fielder. At least the Cardinals won it all (dramatically) before their upheaval and are better suited to maintaining a winning form, especially if Adam Wainwright comes back at full speed.

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