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Each NL team's biggest question heading into spring

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With spring camps getting underway, we look at the biggest question facing each National League club as preparations begin for the 2024 MLB season.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Can they prove last season wasn't a fluke?

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The D-Backs made a surprising run to the World Series, taking down the favored Brewers, Dodgers, and Phillies during the postseason to win the National League championship despite entering as the playoff's lowest seed. Arizona's front office spent the offseason surrounding its talented core of Corbin Carroll, Zac Gallen, and Gabriel Moreno with veterans like Eugenio Suárez, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Joc Pederson. While the Snakes look better on paper, trumping last year's success is a difficult task. PECOTA projects they'll win one more game this season.

Atlanta Braves: Is the starting pitching good enough?

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The Braves had the top offense in baseball last season and will return much of the same group in 2024, but is Atlanta's starting pitching good enough to win a World Series title? Atlanta made a run at Dylan Cease and Aaron Nola this winter but heads into camp with neither on its roster. The Braves will have to rely on an aging Charlie Morton, injury-prone Chris Sale, and sophomore hurler Bryce Elder (who struggled in the final three months of the 2023 campaign) behind co-aces Spencer Strider and Max Fried. Remember, the Braves' lack of rotation depth proved costly in their playoff series loss to the Phillies last season.

Chicago Cubs: Is this roster good enough to win the division?

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The Cubs' offseason looks a lot better after Cody Bellinger returned on a three-year, $80-million contract. Bellinger's presence in the middle of the lineup brings thing together nicely for new manager Craig Counsell. The Cubs still have some question marks in the lineup and the rotation, but are certainly a contender in a far from imposing NL Central. Shota Imanaga's addition to the rotation could serve as a big X-factor in 2024; the Japanese left-hander boasts impressive stuff and could emerge as a quality No. 2 behind 2023 breakout star Justin Steele.

Cincinnati Reds: Is De La Cruz for real?

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The Reds spent much of their offseason adding veteran stability, but Cincinnati's success revolves around a young core of position players that includes Matt McLain, Spencer Steer, Christian Encarnacion-Strand, Noelvi Marte, and potential phenom Elly De La Cruz. While the others are promising, the spotlight will be on De La Cruz this season as he attempts to lead the Reds to their first division title since 2012. Which version of the talented De La Cruz will we get: the one that lit the baseball world on fire for the first 30 games of his career, or the player whose numbers nosedived afterward?

Colorado Rockies: Can Jones build on his strong rookie campaign?

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There weren't too many highlights in Colorado last season, but Nolan Jones stood out for the Rockies. The 25-year-old, who was acquired in a trade from the Cleveland Guardians, finished fourth in NL Rookie of the Year voting thanks to a well-rounded debut campaign that included 20 homers, 20 steals, .931 OPS and 10 defensive runs saved in left field. He'll need to produce a strong Year 2 if the Rockies hope to have any chance of winning more than 59 games.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Will the starters stay healthy?

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The Dodgers are obviously a juggernaut, but it's not time to crown them champions just yet. So much of their success in 2024 depends on keeping their starters healthy, and that's a tall order considering how many of them have checkered histories in that department. Tyler Glasnow hasn't thrown more than 120 innings in a season and has battled injuries throughout his career, while veteran addition James Paxton has only made 25 starts since 2019. Meanwhile, Clayton Kershaw will miss at least the first half of the season, Walker Buehler's still rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, and Shohei Ohtani won't pitch this year. One ill-timed IL stint for a starter could easily be the difference between a Dodgers parade and another early exit.

Miami Marlins: How will they replace Soler's power?

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Jorge Soler was the only Marlin to eclipse the 20-homer and 70-RBI marks with the team in 2023, but now that he's in San Francisco, someone needs to step up in the middle of the order. The candidates who immediately come to mind are Josh Bell and Jake Burger, although their power numbers took hits after they joined Miami at last year's trade deadline. They also can't count on Avísail García, who's been a disappointment after signing a big free-agent deal two years ago. Bell, Burger, Jazz Chisholm Jr., and a revitalized Tim Anderson - assuming he is indeed revitalized in Miami - all need to rediscover their power strokes and cross the 20-homer mark for this lineup to function properly. Luis Arraez can reach base at a near-.400 clip all he wants, but it won't mean a thing if nobody's able to drive him in.

Milwaukee Brewers: What direction are they really taking?

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Trading Corbin Burnes appeared to signal the Brewers were shifting into rebuild mode. It also sent mixed signals about their ambitions for this season because the trade came after Milwaukee made what seemed to be a win-now move by signing Rhys Hoskins. There are still paths to contention for the Brewers without Burnes, especially since they play in the weaker NL Central. But they seem to have feet in two camps right now, and it's anyone's guess as to which direction they'll ultimately take. A trade of Willy Adames, Devin Williams, or even Hoskins feels like it could come down at any minute and derail a potential playoff push.

New York Mets: Will Stearns' approach work?

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David Stearns hasn't made a major splash in his first months running the Mets. Instead, he pivoted from owner Steve Cohen's strategy in 2023 and loaded up on depth pieces and potential bounce-back candidates. The ceiling is indeed high if someone like Luis Severino can rediscover his old form, for instance - but that's a pretty big if. Between the depth pieces and legitimate questions about Pete Alonso's future in Flushing, there's a lot of uncertainty on this squad right now. We may not get the answer to this question until later in the year.

Philadelphia Phillies: What version of Castellanos will they get?

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Nick Castellanos' tenure in the City of Brotherly Love has been a roller coaster since he signed a five-year deal before the 2022 season. The 31-year-old struggled during his debut campaign with the Phillies before turning it around and earning an All-Star nod and downballot MVP consideration last season. However, his regular-season success was overshadowed by his dreadful NLCS performance against the D-Backs; he looked lost at the plate and went 1-for-24 during the series upset. Castellanos' playoff slide drew criticism from Philadelphia's fan base and prompted offseason trade rumors, but he remains on the team as the Phillies enter the season with heightened expectations.

Pittsburgh Pirates: What can we expect from a healthy Cruz?

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A fractured ankle ended Oneil Cruz's 2023 campaign after nine games. He still hasn't played a full season in the majors, getting into only 87 contests during his rookie year. Now he's healthy and ready to take the reins of the Pirates franchise. The 25-year-old should provide a boost to the Bucs' lineup as an electric top-of-the-order hitter with power and speed. He's also got a cannon of an arm at shortstop. There are still a lot of unknowns here, and that's not necessarily Cruz's fault - but that also makes him one of the reasons to watch the Pirates in 2024. If he's actually fully healthy, he could make their games a lot of fun.

San Diego Padres: Is the Machado-Tatis combo enough?

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Not too long ago, the Padres' long-term future looked brighter than ever. Now they're picking up the pieces after losing Juan Soto, Josh Hader, and Blake Snell this winter. The team's two main core pieces - Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr. - remain in place, though, and that's a better foundation than many teams can boast. The problem is that nobody really knows what kind of help the supporting cast will provide. Xander Bogaerts is learning a new position, Jake Cronenworth is still searching for his bounce-back season, and Yu Darvish is a year older. The Padres are talented, but talent alone can only take them so far in the crowded NL West.

San Francisco Giants: Did they do enough?

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The Giants finally made some splashes this winter, landing Soler, Korean sparkplug Jung Hoo Lee, and electric pitcher Jordan Hicks in free agency. While their additions were certainly expensive, they weren't necessarily game-changing. The lineup still feels a bit incomplete and relies heavily on platoons. Lee still has to prove he can hang with MLB pitching, and Soler is moving to a park that's often death for right-handed power hitters. Hicks, meanwhile, is moving to the rotation after relieving for most of his career. The Giants can't afford to have that transition fail.

St. Louis Cardinals: Will Arenado rebound?

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There were many disappointments on the 2023 Cardinals, and Nolan Arenado's down year qualifies as the biggest shock of them all. In addition to his offensive downturn, the 32-year-old posted negative defensive numbers and failed to win a Gold Glove for the first time in his career. His struggles were a big part of why St. Louis lost 90 games last year, the first time that had happened since 1990. For all of the pitching improvements the Cardinals made this winter, it's Arenado who will be the catalyst of their 2024 season, one way or the other.

Washington Nationals: Is Abrams capable of more?

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The Nationals were better than expected in 2023, winning 71 games and improving by 16 victories compared to the season prior. A lot of that improvement had to do with CJ Abrams, the prized piece of the trade return from the Padres for Juan Soto in 2022. Abrams was solid during his first full campaign, hitting 18 homers with 28 doubles, 64 RBIs, and 47 steals, but he still only managed a 90 wRC+ and .300 OBP. Steamer projects a similar 2024 season for Abrams, but the ceiling seems higher for the 23-year-old former first-round pick. He greatly improved his launch angle, average exit velocity, max exit velocity, and HR/FB% during a strong second half last season.

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