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The Baltimore Sun

He's 36. He's brittle, pitching in just five games last season. And he has made 30 or more starts only three times in his past nine seasons. But when healthy, he can dominate, especially in a pitchers' park such as Shea Stadium.

If Pedro is Pedro, the Mets will cruise into the National League playoffs as the favorites behind the 1-2 punch of newly acquired ace Johan Santana and Martinez. But if Pedro can't sustain his health, the Mets come back to the rest of the pack.

Here's betting Pedro bounces back with 15 wins after combining for just 12 the past two years.

CENTRAL

CHICAGO CUBS

MANAGER: Lou Piniella, second season

PAYROLL: $115 million

X-FACTOR: Will Kerry Wood make a successful transition to closer?

BEST CASE: Kosuke Fukudome approaches an All-Star level in his first year over from Japan. ... Geovany Soto continues hitting like a madman while handling the pitching staff well. ... They reach the postseason in consecutive years for the first time since 1906-1908, which also happens to mark their last World Series title.

WORST CASE: Center field remains an offensive void. ... Ryan Dempster struggles in his conversion back to starting full time for the first time since 2003. ... A century's worth of negative history can't be stopped with wishful thinking and pricey additions.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

MANAGER: Ned Yost, sixth season

PAYROLL: $82 million

X-FACTOR: CF Mike Cameron is appealing his 25-game suspension, but even with that absence his defensive impact should be substantial.

BEST CASE: Prince Fielder makes it 50 homers in back-to-back seasons. ... The defensive puzzle clicks into place with Ryan Braun moving to left and Bill Hall taking his place at third. ... This time they hold things together and end a 26-year playoff drought.

WORST CASE: Eric Gagne's troubles in Boston carry over. ... Ben Sheets breaks down again and fails to reach the 25-start mark for the fourth year in a row, a period that coincides with the start of his $38.5 million contract. ... Jason Kendall, a gamer's gamer, is no longer first-string quality.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

MANAGER: Tony La Russa, 13th season

PAYROLL: $102 million

X-FACTOR: Right-hander Matt Clement is the latest reclamation project under pitching coach Dave Duncan.

BEST CASE: Jason Isringhausen locks down 32 or more games for the eighth time in the past nine years. ... Troy Glaus stays healthy now that he's off Toronto's FieldTurf and hits 40 homers. ... Kyle Lohse gives a highly motivated performance after he was left out in the free-agent cold.

WORST CASE: Albert Pujols' troublesome throwing elbow lands him on the disabled list for any significant period. ... The rotation after Adam Wainwright is as poor as most expect it to be. ... A proud franchise has fallen and can't get up.

HOUSTON ASTROS

MANAGER: Cecil Cooper, first season

PAYROLL: $95 million

X-FACTOR: Michael Bourn is a speedster who can cover plenty of ground in the field, but scouts have serious doubts about his bat.

BEST CASE: Jose Valverde brings his fist-pumping, game-ending mojo with him from Arizona. ... The 3-4-5 hitters prove as potent as their histories suggest. ... J.R. Towles eases into the starting catching role without incident as Brad Ausmus mentors him as a backup.

WORST CASE: Miguel Tejada, who drove in 150 runs in 2004, fails to exceed 100 RBIs for the fourth consecutive year. ... Kaz Matsui comes back to earth now that he's out of Denver's altitude. ... The starting pitching after Roy Oswalt is mediocre.

CINCINNATI REDS

MANAGER: Dusty Baker, first season

PAYROLL: $70 million

X-FACTOR: Rookie outfielder Jay Bruce is rated the top prospect in the minors and isn't far away.

BEST CASE: Johnny Cueto and fellow kid pitcher Homer Bailey emerge to beef up a weak rotation. ... Ken Griffey Jr., seven homers from 600, stays healthy enough to exceed 420 at-bats for the fourth year in a row. ... They take advantage of a weak division to jump back into contention behind some youthful enthusiasm.

WORST CASE: The rotation is as porous as it appears after the top two spots. ... Spending $46 million on a closer (Francisco Cordero) wasn't the smartest thing with so many other needs. ... Baker's first-year mojo from San Francisco and Chicago can't be replicated.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

MANAGER: John Russell, first season

PAYROLL: $45 million

X-FACTOR: Was last year an aberration for Jason Bay, who saw his slugging percentage drop by 114 points?

BEST CASE: Freddy Sanchez, fresh off signing a multiyear extension, bids for his second batting crown in three years. ... The young starters bring their performance in line with their potential. ... . The unheralded Matt Capps continues to develop into one of the league's best young closers.

WORST CASE: Adam LaRoche gets off to another horrible start and the offense struggles. ... Their results aren't that different under new management than they were under the previous regime. ... They string together a 16th straight losing season since Barry Bonds' departure.

WEST

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

MANAGER: Bob Melvin, fourth season

PAYROLL: $62 million

X-FACTOR: Randy Johnson, 16 wins shy of 300, is hoping his back holds up as he prepares to turn 45 in September.

BEST CASE: All that young talent carries them back to the playoffs after last year's NLCS disappointment against the Rockies. ... The pairing of Dan Haren and Brandon Webb is their best 1-2 punch since the Johnson-Curt Schilling days at the start of the decade. ... Eric Byrnes' energy keeps the machine humming.

WORST CASE: Dealing Jose Valverde to the Astros for financial reasons blows a hole in the back of the bullpen. ... Chris Young's .295 on-base percentage doesn't improve enough to justify a spot at the top of the lineup. ... They played over their heads a year ago and come back to earth.

COLORADO ROCKIES

MANAGER: Clint Hurdle, seventh season

PAYROLL: $72 million

X-FACTOR: Yorvit Torrealba flunked his physical with the Mets and was taken back only because the Rockies didn't have a better in-house option.

BEST CASE: A deep bullpen continues to shorten games and take pressure off the starters. ... Matt Holliday and Troy Tulowitzki blossom into full-blown superstars. ... They follow up last year's hot finish with a sustained run of excellence.

WORST CASE: Turns out they pulled the trigger too fast in handing out more than $100 million in extensions to their young core. ... The rotation after Jeff Francis and Aaron Cook isn't good enough to prevent a falloff. ... They miss Kaz Matsui's energy at second more than expected.

SAN DIEGO PADRES

MANAGER: Bud Black, second season

PAYROLL: $65 million

X-FACTOR: If ex-Cubs pitcher Mark Prior can get healthy by June 1, he could have a huge impact on the rotation.

BEST CASE: Stuck on 80-something wins the past four years, they break into 90-plus territory for the first time in a decade. ... Jake Peavy makes a strong run at a repeat Cy Young Award performance. ... Young Chase Headley pushes for playing time, either in left or at second.

WORST CASE: Trevor Hoffman, now 40, blows more than seven saves in a season for the first time in his Hall of Fame career. ... Khalil Greene becomes too power-conscious off a 27-homer season and messes up his swing. ... Jim Edmonds sees his homer total dip for the fourth year in a row.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS

MANAGER: Joe Torre, first season

PAYROLL: $115 million

X-FACTOR: Starting pitcher Jason Schmidt must get past his nagging shoulder problems if he's going to make the Dodgers look smart for giving him $47 million before last season.

BEST CASE: Torre's calm demeanor and impressive resume coax a playoff trip from a hard-to-figure group. ... Juan Pierre answers his detractors after getting bounced out of center. ... Brad Penny finally exceeds 16 wins and the Dodgers end a 20-year drought without winning a playoff series.

WORST CASE: Andruw Jones' beefier frame makes it impossible for him to add to his extensive Gold Glove collection. ... Hiroki Kuroda is just the latest Kaz Ishii instead of a difference-maker deserving of a $35.3 million investment. ... Clubhouse tensions break out again, and not even Torre can make them stop.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

MANAGER: Bruce Bochy, second season

PAYROLL: $85 million

X-FACTOR: Left-handed pitcher Noah Lowry, a 14-game winner last year, had surgery to repair a wrist condition and could return by early May.

BEST CASE: Aaron Rowand's range and energy justify the decision to pay him $13 million. ... Barry Zito's experimentation with his windup returns him to Cy Young form. ... Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum overcome bad springs and form a top young combo.

WORST CASE: Omar Vizquel surpasses Luis Aparicio for most career games by a shortstop, then promptly hits the wall at age 41. ... They wind up missing Barry Bonds more than any of them would like to admit. ... A talent drain lands them in last place for a second year in a row, which hasn't happened to them since 1984-1985.

EAST

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

MANAGER: Charlie Manuel, fourth season

PAYROLL: $105 million

X-FACTOR: If Brad Lidge can keep his surgically repaired knee healthy, he could return to the 40-save form he flashed in Houston.

BEST CASE: Citizens Bank Park's cozy dimensions help them produce their third straight National League Most Valuable Player (Chase Utley?). ... Cole Hamels takes the next step forward and hits the 200-inning mark for the first time. ... The underrated Pedro Feliz proves a big upgrade at third.

WORST CASE: Yet another lousy April sets loose the many negative influences around town. ... Ryan Howard breaks his own major league strikeout record after averaging 190 the past two seasons. ... The bullpen breaks down and puts too much pressure on the starters.

NEW YORK METS

MANAGER: Willie Randolph, fourth season

PAYROLL: $135 million

X-FACTOR: If Pedro Martinez can coax his fastball back into the low 90s, he still has the guile and the wiles to win big.

BEST CASE: Johan Santana dominates the National League in a similar fashion to what he did for the Twins. ... Brian Schneider's game-calling and general defensive skills prove a notable upgrade on those of predecessor Paul Lo Duca.

WORST CASE: All those spring injuries are an indicator of a fading, limping roster. ... Billy Wagner starts showing more cracks in his armor now that his fastball has tailed off just a bit. ... They start hearing and thinking too much about last year's September collapse.

ATLANTA BRAVES

MANAGER: Bobby Cox, 23rd season

PAYROLL: $90 million

X-FACTOR: Mike Gonzalez, coming off elbow surgery, could give the Braves another shutdown weapon at the end of games.

BEST CASE: Mike Hampton makes it back for 25-plus starts after missing 2 1/2 years and enduring a pair of elbow reconstructions. ... Reuniting Tom Glavine and John Smoltz puts them back in the playoffs after a two-year absence. ... Mark Teixeira (Mount St. Joseph) enjoys a monster year as he approaches free agency.

WORST CASE: That spring elbow soreness Rafael Soriano felt in his throwing arm crops up again. ... Yunel Escobar isn't as ready as thought to replace the traded Edgar Renteria. ... Mark Kotsay, a year removed from back surgery, proves a poor substitute for the departed Andruw Jones.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS

MANAGER: Manny Acta, second season

PAYROLL: $55 million

X-FACTOR: Elijah Dukes' raw talents are immense, but can he stay out of trouble?

BEST CASE: General manager Jim Bowden's latest gambles pay off with an athletic and potent outfield. ... A no-name pitching staff keeps developing in surprising fashion. ... Energized by a move into their new stadium, they sneak past the Marlins again and threaten the .500 mark.

WORST CASE: Pitching coach Randy St. Claire is unable to work the same magic he did a year ago. ... First baseman Nick Johnson can't stay healthy and the Nationals are forced to turn again to Dmitri Young, who is battling diabetes.

FLORIDA MARLINS

MANAGER: Fredi Gonzalez, second season

PAYROLL: $18 million

X-FACTOR: Andrew Miller, acquired from the Tigers, has top-of-the-rotation stuff if he can ever get a consistent delivery and release point.

BEST CASE: Anibal Sanchez returns by midseason from shoulder surgery and reclaims his no-hit form. ... Cameron Maybin returns from the minors and shows why he has been rated one of the top prospects in the game. ... Jeremy Hermida blossoms into a team leader.

WORST CASE: Injuries to Sergio Mitre and Scott Olsen snowball into a second consecutive year of gimpy starting pitchers. ... A young roster continues to struggle with the fundamentals. ... A slow start means a second straight last-place showing.

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