Spring-loaded National League storylines

Baseball clubhouses all over Florida and Arizona open this week. We're here to help you sort through them.

These are the five stories of spring in the National League:

• Strasburg puts franchise on back, looks heavy-legged in PFP drills

Ever see a franchise more in need of Stephen Strasburg(notes)? Other than the Pirates, I mean.

Someday, and I know this might be rushing Strasburg and general manager Mike Rizzo some, this could be the Washington Nationals' young Tom Seaver, who as a rookie won 16 games for a 101-game loser, and then helped turn the franchise quickly. If it plays out just that way, not only can Nats fans look forward to plenty of intriguing pitching performances, but also to getting Doug Flynn and Dan Norman in a trade.

Presumably, Strasburg's flame-throwing of big league lineups won't start this season, at least not early. Insiders project Strasburg will open in Double-A, even if he makes it all look easy in spring training, which he probably will.

Meanwhile, Rizzo and the Nats are at least trying to put together a representative pitching staff for the time Strasburg and his 100 mph heater arrive. Ranked last in the NL in ERA, bullpen ERA, batting average against, walks and strikeouts, and second-to-last in starters' ERA, the Nats added Jason Marquis(notes), Matt Capps(notes), Brian Bruney(notes), Miguel Batista(notes), Tyler Walker(notes) and various others. Sadly, they'll go without stud Jordan Zimmermann(notes), who will miss the season because of Tommy John surgery.

Strasburg recently told MASNSports.com, “The draft and all that hype is in the past,” and he certainly is right about the draft.

• Step right up and meet the Mess

If we have this right, the New York Mets owner has run out of money because he is knee-deep in the Bernie Madoff fallout, the GM and field manager need to start fast or start walkin', there is no starting catcher, or fifth starter (or fourth, or third), they're breaking in a first baseman, and they're not satisfied with their second baseman. And, let's see, Carlos Beltran(notes) is coming off knee surgery, Johan Santana(notes) off elbow surgery, and Jose Reyes off hamstring surgery. Presented a ballpark that hasn't played for power, they spent all their money on a guy – Jason Bay(notes) – who's primary tool is power, and then fixed up the place with the less-than-inspiring likes of Mike Jacobs(notes), Kelvim Escobar(notes), Gary Matthews Jr.(notes) and Ryota Igarashi(notes).

Did we miss anything?

Oh, they're going to spend $140 million for it.

It'll be worth hanging out in Port St. Lucie just to see what breaks camp. The Mets' only plan can be to hope for health, to make something of a rotation that was atrocious last season but has great (Mike Pelfrey(notes)) or decent (Oliver Perez(notes), John Maine(notes)) stuff, to have Beltran and Reyes and David Wright(notes) retake their place among the game's elite, and to have Bay prove those numbers weren't so much about Fenway.

Course, then they'd be good enough to finish third.

• Roy, meet Cole. Cole, Roy.

No one is more weary of the story than Cole Hamels(notes), who waded through countless amateur breakdowns of his schedule, his curveball, his mechanics and his psyche, all in the name of What's Wrong with Cole?

Unless it's Roy Halladay(notes), who had his own story to endure, kicked from website to weblog, from fired general manager to rookie general manager, from trading deadline to winter meetings, all in the name of Who Trades for Roy?

Philadelphia Phillies camp always has a little something for everybody, and now it's about the two men at the top of the rotation.

In a season, Hamels went from 14 wins to 10, from a 3.09 ERA to 4.32, from 227 innings to 193, from postseason hammer to October/November patsy. The Phillies believe those 262 innings (regular and postseason) in '08 fouled Hamels' '09, and now he's back to basics, from fastball location to curveball mechanics.

Along comes Halladay, who won at least 16 games (and as many as 20) in each of the past four seasons, all while pitching in the American League East. He's a top five Cy Young Award guy five times, almost never misses a start and almost never comes out of a game. Last season, only two teams (the Giants and Royals) had more than his nine complete games (along with the Blue Jays, of course).

But, and here's the thing, Philadelphia ain't Toronto. And Citizens Bank Park ain't Rogers Centre. And Halladay has never thrown a postseason pitch.

It probably doesn't matter, because he's that good. At least it's a new story.

• Sinking fastball, raising Arizona

From 2006-08, there wasn't a pitcher better than Brandon Webb(notes), who in those three seasons put up a 56-25 record (for a below-average offensive club) and a 3.13 ERA, won a Cy Young Award and finished second twice.

The whole 2009 thing didn't go so well. He threw 77 pitches, all 77 on opening day. He stopped because of a sore shoulder, went to the disabled list, rehabbed, succumbed in August to surgery and today stands before you as potentially one of the pivotal players of the 2010 season.

There are two ways this could happen, assuming Webb is sound again, and so far he is, having thrown easily and without pain from a mound last week.

First, he makes 34 starts and heads up a rotation – along with Dan Haren(notes), Edwin Jackson(notes), Ian Kennedy(notes) and Billy Buckner(notes) – that leads the Arizona Diamondbacks and their equally reborn offense into contention in the soft NL West.

Second, he makes 34 starts, the first 22 of them for another lackluster Dbacks team, the last 12 for the Red Sox, or the Cardinals, or the Yankees, or even the Dodgers, significantly altering a pennant race and whatever games there are to be had in October.

Webb is in his walk year, and he could be as attractive next offseason as Cliff Lee(notes) and Josh Beckett(notes). Before any of it, however, he'll need a healthy shoulder. That's what spring is for.

• McGwire, Rolodex get to work in Jupiter.

Eight years out of the game and five since he did the wrong thing by America's youth and caved to his lawyers' whims, Mark McGwire returns with thoughts of bettering St. Louis Cardinals hitters, rebuilding his image and avoiding eye contact with Tony La Russa. He's already worked with Matt Holliday(notes), Brendan Ryan(notes) and Skip Schumaker(notes) in the offseason, and players generally don't care who's throwing batting practice, so his transition back into the clubhouse will not be an issue. As long as he's got Albert Pujols(notes) and Holliday, and he does, nobody says a word.

Given a full season from Holliday and the potential for a breakout year from Colby Rasmus(notes) and a bounce-back year from Ryan Ludwick(notes) (and maybe a little production from somebody at third?), the Cardinals should score more runs than last year, when they were middle of the pack in runs, home runs and on-base percentage.

On the other hand, McGwire will be a target all year. Already, they've lined up – Bob Gibson, Hank Aaron, Robin Yount, Jim Palmer, La Russa on the sympathetic side, Jack Clark, Carlton Fisk, Ferguson Jenkins, Whitey Herzog and Adolphus V. Busch IV on the, let's say, disgusted side.

Cardinals management put itself in this position. Its hope, you'd think, is that in the end, Cardinals hitters don't wish they'd never played in the McGwire era.

• Honorable mention:

Chicago Cubs: Why does the 102nd anniversary feel like such a letdown?

Los Angeles Dodgers: If Frank McCourt gets the Dodgers and Jamie McCourt gets the real estate, who gets Mannywood?

Cincinnati Reds: The trendy pick to click, especially if Aroldis Chapman(notes) comes quick.

San Francisco Giants: They can pitch. As for scoring runs, well, they can pitch.