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No clear-cut favorite to win NL

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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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You tell me: Who is going to win the National League?

At various points during the first quarter of the season, the Cardinals, Dodgers, Braves and Nationals all looked like the best team in the NL.

Except for the Braves, each of those clubs since has been compromised by injuries. And the Braves’ rotation, 12th in the NL in ERA despite the presence of the league leader, right-hander Brandon Beachy, isn’t exactly a sure thing.

A quick look at the 11 contenders, ranked according to winning percentage entering Monday night’s play:

Dodgers: Far from perfect, but 5-2 without injured center fielder Matt Kemp after their weekend sweep of the Cardinals. Their needs include another starting pitcher, middle-of-the-order bat and left-handed reliever. Under new ownership, they will at least try to address their needs.

Braves: The offense looks fabulous, but the players privately believe they need at least one more reliable starting pitcher, perhaps free agent Roy Oswalt. Lefty Mike Minor soon could join righty Jair Jurrjens at Triple A.

Nationals: Even with all their injuries, their pitching should be good enough to keep them in contention; one rival exec thinks they might even be the team to beat. Left fielder Michael Morse should return soon, but right fielder Jayson Werth is at least two months away and catcher Wilson Ramos is out for the season.

Cardinals: True, they just lost outfielder Jon Jay, first baseman Lance Berkman, first baseman/outfielder Allen Craig and reliever Kyle McClellan within a six-day span. No one should be surprised; the biggest question with the Cardinals was always whether they could stay healthy.

Marlins: Talented but not trustworthy. The good news: Right-hander Josh Johnson appears to be returning to form and closer Heath Bell is settling down. The bad: The team ranks 13th in the league in runs scored, and just demoted first baseman Gaby Sanchez to Triple A.

Mets: Don’t see them staying above .500: They’re 22-19 with a -31 run differential. The Mets are sixth in the league in runs thanks in large part to third baseman David Wright, but they’re 13th in the league in rotation ERA, last in bullpen ERA and next-to-last in pitching overall.

Reds: It’s difficult to get overly excited by a club that ranks last in the NL in OPS from the leadoff spot and next-to-last from the cleanup spot. Still, the Reds are 17-11 since their 4-8 start, and talented enough to win the Central if the Cardinals continue to stumble.

Giants: Right-hander Tim Lincecum couldn’t hold down the anemic Athletics on Sunday; his struggles would be even more alarming if lefty Barry Zito was not such a surprise. The offense, as always, is an issue, though somewhat better in recent days with Gregor Blanco leading off and Brandon Belt playing first. Get well soon, Pablo Sandoval.

Phillies: Cannot be fairly judged until injured first baseman Ryan Howard and second baseman Chase Utley return — and even then, there will be a question about how much either will contribute. The starting pitching is terrific but thin. The bullpen? Outside of Jonathan Papelbon, it’s a mess.

Diamondbacks: Nine-and-a-half games behind the Dodgers, but a team with an actual chance once right-hander Daniel Hudson and shortstop Stephen Drew return. The D-backs have yet to really hit, and they eventually could summon Triple A right-hander Trevor Bauer and/or Double A left-hander Tyler Skaggs; their overall depth gives them an edge.

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Brewers: Don’t be shocked if they become sellers. The Brewers have the same number of quality starts as the Cardinals (23), but ranked in the lower half in the NL in runs until erupting for 16 on Sunday against the Twins. Closer John Axford has had only seven save opportunities — the OriolesJim Johnson leads the majors with 15.

FOR MANNY, TIME IS A-WASTIN’

Manny Ramirez is eligible to join the Athletics on May 30, his 40th birthday. There is no guarantee, however, that the A’s will promote him on that date.

Ramirez, remember, signed a minor-league contract. The Athletics invested virtually nothing in him. If they don’t believe he will be an offensive asset, they can either keep him in the minors or grant him his release.

Ramirez went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in his first game at Triple A, then sat out Sunday with a sore wrist. The offensively challenged Athletics could use him, assuming he bears a resemblance to the old Manny.

If not, they need not bother with him.

DAVEY’S BACK

Davey Johnson was not at his best managing Team USA in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. But with the Nationals, he again looks more like the Davey of old.

Padres officials took note of Johnson’s in-game work during a two-game series between the clubs last week in Washington.

One sequence, in particular, stood out.

On Monday, with the Nationals trailing, 5-4, in the sixth inning, Padres right-handed reliever Miles Mikolas issued a leadoff walk to his first hitter, Rick Ankiel.

Manager Bud Black visited the mound to give Mikolas, a rookie, a brief pep talk. Johnson, sensing an opening, called for a hit-and-run on the next pitch, and Jesus Flores delivered a single to right, sending Ankiel to third.

Ian Desmond then crushed a two-run double after a sacrifice by pitcher Craig Stammen, giving the Nationals a 6-5 lead in a game they won, 8-5.

REDS’ CUETO WORTH EVERY CENT

Players react to big contracts in different ways. The Blue Jays believe that right-hander Brandon Morrow, after a rocky start to his career, settled down after signing his three-year, $21 million extension in January. The Reds feel the same about righty Johnny Cueto, who signed a four-year, $27 million deal in January 2011.

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Cueto, 26, owns a 2.22 ERA since the start of last season, second in the majors only to Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw (2.20) and ahead of Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander (2.35).

“The kid kind of grew up,” Reds GM Walt Jocketty says. “He matured, realized how good he can be. The fact that we gave him a long-term deal gave him confidence, gave him some security.

“He’s a big family guy. He supports his whole family. It gave him some peace of mind. But he worked his tail off. This kids works very, very hard.”

THE BUCK STARTS IN YEAR TWO

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the Orioles are playing so well in their second full season under manager Buck Showalter.

Their surge is consistent with Showalter’s history.

Showalter averages 92 wins in his second season with a club. He had 88 with the 1993 Yankees, 100 with the ’99 Diamondbacks and 89 with the ’04 Rangers.

The rap on Showalter, of course, is that his teams eventually grow tired of him. But if Showalter can end the Orioles’ streak of 14 straight losing seasons, it will be one of his biggest achievements yet.

THE ‘X’ FACTOR IN BALTIMORE

The Orioles’ player development has been rightly criticized in recent years, but outfielder Xavier Avery looks like he could be a rare success story.

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The team’s development people considered Avery one of the most raw prospects they had ever seen after the O’s selected him in the second round of the 2008 draft. But Avery reached the majors at 22, and has been impressive since joining the club on May 13.

The Orioles remain thin on prospects beyond Single A right-hander Dylan Bundy and Double A shortstop Manny Machado, perhaps limiting their ability to make a significant deal before the July 31 non-waiver deadline.

Club officials, however, are high on Double A second baseman Jonathan Schoop, Double A center fielder L.J. Hoes and Single A catcher Gabriel Lino.

HARDY-HAR-HAR

According to one rival executive, the Twins traded J.J. Hardy after the 2010 season in part because manager Ron Gardenhire wanted a more athletic shortstop.

Hardy, 29, also missed nearly two months with a left-wrist injury in ’10, raising renewed questions about his durability. But the Twins blew it by replacing Hardy with Tsuyoshi Nishioka, and perhaps failed to appreciate what they had.

Showalter has said repeatedly that Hardy is a far better player than he thought initially. What Hardy lacks in pure athleticism, he makes up for with superior instincts.

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THE COLLINS MAKEOVER

Royals reliever Tim Collins, a 5-foot-7 left-hander, has shown notable progress with his control, going from a 1.25-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio last season to 5-to-1 this season (30 strikeouts, six walks in 20 1/3 innings).

New Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland, after watching video of each of the team’s pitchers last offseason, determined that Collins was a “mechanical mess.” Eiland suggested changes, then worked with Collins in spring training to implement them.

Collins made a number of adjustments.

He moved his back foot so it was flush against the rubber when he came to the set position. Shifted from the extreme third base side of the rubber to the first-base side. Removed some of the rotation from his delivery. Leveled off his shoulders to lower his front side.

“It was all designed to help his command,” Eiland says. “He really needs to create angle. He wasn’t going to create angle with the way he was delivering the baseball.

“I threw a lot at him, but fed him a little bit at a time. To his credit, he bought into it. Now we’re seeing results.”

MARINERS: PROGRESS OF SORTS

The Mariners are moving up in the world – they rank 11th in the AL in runs after finishing last in each of the past three seasons.

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Still, some rival executives wonder if the M’s will need to make another pitcher-for-hitter trade similar to the Michael Pineda/Jesus Montero deal. Such a deal could involve right-hander Felix Hernandez, who is signed through 2014, or one of the team’s top pitching prospects.

For now, the Mariners continue to sift through what they have.

Infielder Kyle Seager looks like a keeper, though he profiles best at second base, a position occupied by the Mariners’ best young hitter, Dustin Ackley. Catcher Jesus Montero, third baseman Alex Liddi and outfielders Mike Carp and Michael Saunders also are 25 or under. So is first baseman Justin Smoak, who finally shows signs of coming around.

Smoak, the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee trade with the Rangers in July 2010, owns a .226 batting average and .684 OPS in 1,041 plate appearances. He lost his father last season, and one rival exec says that might have affected him. Some also suggest that switch-hitters take longer to become established in the majors, but that wasn’t true for players such as Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher.

WHY YOUNG GOT 50 AND LAWRIE ONLY 4

Several rival players and executives are curious why Delmon Young received a 50-game suspension for throwing his bat at a Triple A umpire in April 2006 while the Blue Jays’ Brett Lawrie received only a four-game suspension for spiking his helmet and hitting umpire Bill Miller last week.

Young was walking toward his dugout and had his back to the umpire when he flipped his bat back toward home plate, end over end. The bat struck the umpire but did not injure him. Still, Young’s act was ruled to be intentional. Lawrie’s, on the other hand, was deemed accidental; he threw his helmet at the ground, not Miller.

Another difference is that the International League suspended Young and Major League Baseball suspended Lawrie. Minor-league players, even those on 40-man rosters, do not enjoy the same protection as major leaguers. Though minor leaguers can appeal suspensions, their employers need not demonstrate “just cause,” and the final decision rests with commissioner Bud Selig.

Young, knowing that he stood little chance of winning, chose not to appeal, according to reports at the time. Lawrie dropped his appeal and chose to serve his suspension.

AROUND THE HORN

• Theories continue to abound on what’s wrong with Albert Pujols.

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Some rival executives wonder whether he has some kind of leg issue. Scouts say that Pujols isn’t even driving the ball in batting practice.

Pujols batted .313 with an .853 OPS during his eight-game hitting streak that ended on Sunday. However, he had only one multi-hit game during the streak, and only two of his 10 hits went for extra bases. Both were home runs.

• As Pujols continues to idle, it’s safe to say that his early-season slumping twin, Jose Bautista, has snapped out of it.

Bautista through May 10 was batting .177 with a .655 OPS and five home runs. In his last 10 games, he’s batting .333 with a 1.176 OPS and six home runs.

• Right-hander Carlos Zambrano reworked his contract to include a $100,000 incentive for Comeback Player of the Year when he waived his no-trade clause for the Marlins.

Shrewd move: Zambrano is fourth in the NL with a 1.96 ERA, and his .199 opponents’ batting average is the league’s eighth lowest. He, Zito, White Sox right-hander Jake Peavy and White Sox DH Adam Dunn are all early candidates for the comeback award.

• It’s not always possible, but the Dodgers are trying to arrange for right-hander Aaron Harang and lefty Chris Capuano to pitch in bigger parks when the opportunity arises.

Capuano made six of his first eight starts and Harang five of his first eight in either Dodger Stadium or Petco Park.

• What the heck happened to Athletics catcher Kurt Suzuki, who averaged 14 homers and 68 RBIs from 2009 and ’11?

Suzuki, 28, has zero homers and a .559 OPS in 136 plate appearances. He remains strong defensively, but no longer is coveted on the trade market.

Say this for Suzuki, though: He’s durable. The A’s frequently are a walking hospital, but Suzuki averaged 140 games over the previous four seasons.

• The Padres are 13-14 since their 3-12 start, and that is with a major-league leading 13 players on the disabled list.

That count does not even include three top pitching prospects who are on the minor-league DL — right-hander Casey Kelly, left-hander Robbie Erlin and righty Joe Ross.

• The Rangers were the only team in the majors without a player on the DL until losing right-hander Neftali Feliz due to an elbow problem on Monday.

• And finally, it’s not a good thing for the Yankees when Raul Ibanez is the team leader in slugging percentage, right?

Tagged: Orioles, Angels, White Sox, Tigers, Royals, Brewers, Twins, Yankees, Athletics, Mariners, Rangers, Blue Jays, Braves, Reds, Dodgers, Nationals, Mets, Phillies, Cardinals, Padres, Giants, Marlins, Diamondbacks, Manny Ramirez, Roy Oswalt, Albert Pujols, Carlos Zambrano, J.J. Hardy, Delmon Young, Michael Morse, Josh Johnson, Jim Johnson, Jesus Flores, Tim Lincecum, Brandon Morrow, Kurt Suzuki, Johnny Cueto, Michael Saunders, John Axford, Allen Craig, Justin Smoak, Jon Jay, Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy

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