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First in a series that previews the 2017 MLB season. Today: National League.

THE FAVORITES

You always start with the defending champion, and that's the Cubs -- in case you haven't heard. The team didn't do a ton over the winter, because it simply didn't have to. Years of building up under Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are poised to pay off for a long, long time. Even in their likely top challengers, the Nationals and Dodgers, the talent from top to bottom simply can't compare. That said, it's not easy to repeat as World Series champions -- nobody's done it since the 1998-2000 Yankees -- and the pressure on the Cubs will be at an all-time high. No longer the "Lovable Losers," they're now the "Expected Winners."

THE DARKHORSES

The National League appears very top-heavy and bottom-heavy, with not a whole lot in between. Either you're good or you're bad. That was the case last season, anyway, and could very well be again. That said, forced to pick one team that could come out of nowhere, let's try the Braves. It's a proud franchise that's made some great trades in recent years, and played pretty darn good baseball down the stretch last season -- not that anyone noticed, because they were so bad early in the year. They're improved all over the place. Whether that's enough to contend, probably not in 2017, but they're closer than most folks think.

THE AWARDS

* MVP: Anthony Rizzo, Cubs -- His teammate, Kris Bryant, won it a year ago, while Rizzo finished fourth. Watch out for Corey Seager of the Dodgers, too.

* Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers -- Totally going out on a limb here, right? If the ace lefty can stay healthy, there's nobody in his stratosphere.

* Rookie of the year: Dansby Swanson, Braves -- This trade with the Diamondbacks has the potential to go down as one of the most-lopsided in MLB history.

* Manager of the year: Brian Snitker, Braves -- In his first full season, he showed some serious promise turning around a team that won six games in April.

THE PICKS

* Wild-card: Mets over Cardinals

* NLDS: Cubs over Mets, 3-1; Dodgers over Nationals, 3-2

* NLCS: Cubs over Dodgers, 4-2

* Coming Tuesday: American League, World Series predictions

NL CENTRAL

(In order of predicted finish)

Chicago Cubs

Manager: Joe Maddon (3rd year, 200-123; 981-852 overall)

2016: 103-58, 1st; won World Series

Hi: RP Wade Davis, OF Jon Jay, RP Koji Uehara

Bye: OF Dexter Fowler, SP Jason Hammel

Rookie to watch: IF Ian Happ

Bounceback candidate: RF Jason Heyward

Over-under (pick): 95.5 (Over)

Outlook: Theo Epstein, the "Curse Breaker," did it again last year, constructing an epic roster that led the Cups to their first World Series championship in more than a century. They're the overwhelming pick to win again, and why not? If there are any holes in this roster, we haven't spotted them. There's a downgrade in center, with Fowler leaving for the rival Cardinals, but an upgrade in left, with Kyle Schwarber healthy.

St. Louis Cardinals

Manager: Mike Matheny (6th year, 462-349)

2016: 86-76, 2nd

Hi: RP Brett Cecil, OF Dexter Fowler

Bye: SP Jaime Garcia, OF Matt Holliday, 1B Brandon Moss

Over-under (pick): 83.5 (Over)

Rookie to watch: OF Harrison Bader

Bounceback candidate: SP Michael Wacha

Outlook: The Cardinals' five-year run of making the postseason came to an end last season, albeit barely. The offense leaves plenty to be desired, even with the addition of Fowler, but the rotation -- knock on wood -- appears healthy, with the retun of Lance Lynn, who missed all of last season to Tommy John surgery. The bullpen appears to be the ballclub's strength, assuming there's no sophomore slump for closer Seung-Hwan Oh.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Manager: Clint Hurdle (7th year, 509-462; 1,043-1,087 overall)

2016: 78-83, 3rd

Hi: RP Daniel Hudson

Bye: RP Neftali Feliz, RF Matt Joyce, RP Mark Melancon, UT Sean Rodriguez

Over-under (pick): 82.5 (Under)

Rookie to watch: SP Tyler Glasnow

Bounceback candidate: SP Gerrit Cole

Outlook: Looking for a franchise-record fourth consecutive playoff appearance, the Pirates had a frustrating 2016 season, and followed that up with a rather underwhelming offseason with no significant moves. They also were dealt a big blow in 3B Jung Ho Kang's DUI in South Korea -- a development that has the U.S. blocking Kang's work visa. That means David Freese will be the starter early, and possibly much longer than that.

Cincinnati Reds

Manager: Bryan Price (4th year, 208-278)

2016: 68-94, 5th

Hi: SP Bronson Arroyo, SP Scott Feldman, RP Drew Storen

Bye: 2B Brandon Phillips, SP Dan Straily

Over-under (pick): 70.5 (Over)

Rookie to watch: LHP Amir Garrett

Bounceback candidate: RP Drew Storen

Outlook: There's probably no manager in baseball on a hotter seat than Bryan Price, who enters his fourth season -- and has done no better than 10 games under .500 in his first three seasons. And that showing was his first year. The last two years, they've won 64 and 68 games. It'll be a tough task to turn things around, as this is a team in transition, having traded Brandon Phillips, and SP Homer Bailey still ailing.

Milwaukee Brewers

Manager: Craig Counsell (3rd year, 134-165)

2016: 73-89, 4th

Hi: SP Tommy Milone, 3B Travis Shaw, RP Neftali Feliz

Bye: 1B Chris Carter

Over-under (pick): 69.5 (Under)

Rookie to watch: OF Brett Phillips

Bounceback candidate: SP Wily Peralta

Outlook: The offense is ugly, especially given the trade last year of Jonathan Lucroy, and the non-tendering this offseason of Chris Carter. Both positions, catcher and first base, have been filled by journeyman castoffs. Good thing Ryan Braun has a huge contract, or he would've been dumped, too. The rotation is a mess, though the bullpen looks decent -- which it will need to be. Grab some suds. Packers season will be here soon enough.

NL EAST

(In order of predicted finish)

Washington Nationals

Manager: Dusty Baker (2nd year, 95-67; 1,766-1,571 overall)

2016: 95-67, 1st; lost in NLDS

Hi: CF Adam Eaton, 1B Adam Lind, C Matt Wieters

Bye: SS Danny Espinosa, RP Jonathan Papelbon, C Wilson Ramos

Over-under (pick): 91.5 (Over)

Rookie to watch: RP Koda Glover

Bounceback candidate: RF Bryce Harper

Outlook: It's weird to see Bryce Harper listed as a "bounceback" candidate, but he really fizzled down the stretch last season. They'll need him to regain his form, with some significant departures on the offensive end. The rotation remains the team's calling card, but possibly not as bullet-proof as it once was, with Max Scherzer dealing with a finger injury, while Stephen Strasburg has missed substantial time the last two years.

New York Mets

Manager: Terry Collins (7th year, 481-491; 925-925 overall)

2016: 87-75, 2nd; lost in wild-card game

Hi: Nobody

Bye: SP Bartolo Colon

Over-under (pick): 88.5 (Over)

Rookie to watch: OF Brandon Nimmo

Bounceback candidate: RF Jay Bruce

Outlook: What a strange offseason, with so little hot-stove activity in New York -- for the Mets or the Yankees. The Mets were able to re-sign 2B Neal Walker, and landed OF Jay Bruce late last season. They need him to get comfy in New York, which he clearly wasn't in 2016. This team is all about the young arms, though, and that still includes SP Matt Harvey, injured much of 2016 and struggling through many spring-training starts.

Atlanta Braves

Manager: Brian Snitker (2nd year, 59-65)

2016: 68-93, 5th

Hi: SP Bartolo Colon, SP R.A. Dickey, SP Jaime Garcia, 2B Brandon Phillips, UT Sean Rodriguez, C Kurt Suzuki

Bye: C A.J. Pierzynski

Over-under (pick): 75.5 (Under)

Rookie to watch: SS Dansby Swanson

Bounceback candidate: SP R.A. Dickey

Outlook: It's weird. You think Braves and think youth movement, led by stud Dansby Swanson, stolen from the Diamondbacks in a December 2015 trade. Yet, the Braves are older than you think, adding Matt Kemp last year -- he had a nice run after arriving in Atlanta -- and veteran Brandon Phillips and 40-something pitchers in Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey. There's more than you think for Brian Snitker, who righted the ship last season.

Miami Marlins

Manager: Don Mattingly (2nd year, 79-82; 525-445 overall)

2016: 79-82, 3rd

Hi: SP Dan Straily, SP Edinson Volquez, RP Brad Ziegler

Bye: RP Mike Dunn

Over-under (pick): 76.5 (Under)

Rookie to watch: SP Dillon Peters

Bounceback candidate: 2B Dee Gordon

Outlook: It's been the most solemn of offseasons for the Marlins, who tragically lost SP Jose Fernandez, one of the game's brightest young stars who was killed in a boating accident late last season. Replacing his talent in the rotation was an impossible task. Dee Gordon, suspended 80 games last season, has a whole lot to prove, as does the entire offense, which struggled under then-hitting coach Barry Bonds.

Philadelphia Phillies

Manager: Pete Mackanin (3rd year, 108-142; 161-195 overall)

2016: 71-91, 4th

Hi: RP Joaquin Benoit, SP Clay Buchholz, LF Howie Kendrick, RP Pat Neshek, RF Michael Saunders

Bye: OF Peter Bourjos, 1B Ryan Howard

Over-under (pick): 72.5 (Under)

Rookie to watch: 1B Brock Stassi

Bounceback candidate: LF Howie Kendrick

Outlook: They made a couple shrewd offseason moves, notably getting RF Michael Saunders on a one-year deal. But they're also paying SP Jeremy Hellickson $17.2 million -- let that sink in for a moment -- after he accepted their qualifying offer. At least they're finally out of the Ryan Howard contract, after they bought him out for $10 million. Things are looking up, certainly, but it's not going to be the smoothest ascent.

NL WEST

(In order of predicted finish)

Los Angeles Dodgers

Manager: Dave Roberts (2nd year, 91-71; 91-72 overall)

2016: 91-71, 1st; lost in NLCS

Hi: 2B Logan Forsythe, RP Sergio Romo,

Bye: RP J.P. Howell, LF Howie Kendrick, RF Josh Reddick

Over-under (pick): 94.5 (Under)

Rookie to watch: P Walker Buehler

Bounceback candidate: SP Clayton Kershaw

Outlook: They're not the free-spending Dodgers of yesteryear, so while they seemed good fits for trade talks with the Tigers on the likes of Justin Verlander and Ian Kinsler, nothing happened. Instead, L.A. mostly took care of its own house, re-signing 3B Justin Turner, SP Rich Hill and closer Kenley Jansen. The Yasiel Puig experiment will continue again in 2017. He's supposedly matured. We'll see. Keep on eye on OF prospect Andrew Toles.

San Francisco Giants

Manager: Bruce Bochy (11th year, 838-782; 1,789-1,757 overall)

2016: 87-75, 2nd; lost in NLDS

Hi: RP Mark Melancon

Bye: RP Santiago Casilla, LF Angel Pagan, SP Jake Peavy

Over-under (pick): 87.5 (Over)

Rookie to watch: SP Ty Blach

Bounceback candidate: SP Matt Moore

Outlook: Well, their whole win-the-World-Series-every-other-year thing came to a halt last season, because of a wobbly bullpen. That's why signing a closer was priority No. 1 this offseason, and GM Brian Sabean quickly pounced on Mark Melancon -- who wasn't even one of the top two closers available. The rotation looks good again, though, especially if Matt Cain ever can return to form. Even if not, there's depth there.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Manager: Torey Lovullo (1st year)

2016: 69-93, 4th

Hi: SP Jorge De La Rosa, RP Fernando Rodney, SP Taijuan Walker

Bye: C Wellington Castillo, Manager Chip Hale, RP Daniel Hudson, IF Jean Segura

Over-under (pick): 77.5 (Under)

Rookie to watch: SP Anthony Banda

Bounceback candidate: SP Zack Greinke

Outlook: GM Dave Stewart was fired, and Tony La Russa's role was lessened after a disastrous 2016 season set in motion by some ugly trades, most notably giving away Dansby Swanson to the Braves for SP Shelby Miller (6.15 ERA). The rotation on a whole was absolutely atrocious, with ex-Tiger Robbie Ray among the staff's best, with a 4.90 ERA. Yet, the new management made no upgrades in that department. That's going to be a big problem.

Colorado Rockies

Manager: Bud Black (1st year; 649-713 overall)

2016: 75-87, 3rd

Hi: 1B Ian Desmond, RP Greg Holland

Bye: SP Jorge De La Rosa, Manager Walt Weiss

Over-under (pick): 80.5 (Under)

Rookie to watch: SP German Marquez

Bounceback candidate: RP Greg Holland

Outlook: The Rockies have some of the best young stars in the game, led by reigning batting champion D.J. LeMahieu (Birmingham Brother Rice), Nolan Arenado, Carlos Gonzalez, Charlie Blackmonn and Trevor Story. Problem is, notice how none of those names are starting pitchers? There's no ace in the rotation, as the game's best aren't overly interested in coming to pitch in Coors Field, and the lack of depth is staggering. Good luck, Bud Black.

San Diego Padres

Manager: Andy Green (2nd year, 68-94)

2016: 68-94, 5th

Hi: SP Jhoulys Chacin, SP Jered Weaver

Bye: CF Jon Jay, C Derek Norris

Over-under (pick): 67.5 (Under)

Rookie to watch: RF Hunter Renfroe

Bounceback candidate: RP Brandon Maurer

Outlook: The 2016 season was a disaster for the Padres, with the highlight -- err, lowlight -- being the suspension of GM A.J. Preller for hiding medicals in trade talks, a huge no-no. Good luck getting major-league teams to take you seriously in future discussions, dude. This is a ridiculously young team, outside of the rotation, which added two total has-beens, including Jered Weaver, whose fastball soon might top out in the high 70s.

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