By Larry Fine
(Reuters) - The Los Angeles Dodgers appear poised to cash in on their big-budget blockbuster of a roster and end a 26-year wait for another World Series in the 2014 Major League Baseball season.
A dream starting rotation topped by double Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke and Korean import Ryu Hyun-jin, and a strong offense could turn Hollywood's team into a juggernaut if all the pieces fall into place.
The Dodgers do not figure to be threatened in the National League West, and the reigning NL champion St. Louis Cardinals, whose payroll is more than $100 million less than the Dodgers' projected total of $232 million, have lost some offensive punch.
Meanwhile, the Washington Nationals added right-hander Doug Fister to a formidable pitching staff supported by some big bats, including young slugger Bryce Harper, to rate as top pick in the NL East, followed by the 2013 division champion Atlanta Braves.
The array of Los Angeles stars will be on display in Australia, for a Down Under opening of the MLB season against the Arizona Diamondbacks at the Sydney Cricket Ground where the NL West rivals stage a two-game series starting on March 22.
Emboldened by a TV deal expected to bring billions of dollars into the Dodgers' coffers, the team has spared no expense in procuring players and the spending blitz may reap dividends with their first Fall Classic title since 1988.
Fueled by a payroll that puts the Yankees to shame, the Dodgers could well advance beyond their NL Championship Series showing in 2013 as outfielder Matt Kemp and shortstop Hanley Ramirez rebound from injury-shortened seasons.
Kemp, who had only 263 at-bats, and Ramirez (304 at-bats) should fully join an attack including slugger Adrian Gonzalez and Cuban dynamo Yasiel Puig, whose mid-season arrival sparked an L.A. hot stretch that carried them to the West crown.
Los Angeles tripped at the last hurdle on the way to the 2013 World Series, falling to the Cardinals, who this season return their extraordinary crop of young arms including Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly, who follow ace Adam Wainwright in the rotation.
But the Cards have lost some of the zing in their offense with the free agent departures of Carlos Beltran and David Freese. They countered by adding shortstop Jhonny Peralta and hope that young first baseman Matt Adams can fill the breach.
The Cards, however, could hear footsteps in an NL Central that last year saw both the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds take St. Louis down to the wire and reach the playoffs as wild card teams.
But similar to the Redbirds, the Pirates and Reds may also have lost a bit of their luster in the offseason.
Pittsburgh bade farewell to veteran hitters Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau, leaving NL MVP Andrew McCutcheon and Pedro Alvarez to power the offense.
Leading starting pitcher A.J. Burnett also departed, putting pressure on young hurler Gerrit Cole (10-7, 3.22) to step up.
Cincinnati lost Korean Choo Shin-soo at the top of their batting order, but plan to plug in young speedster Billy Hamilton as the new tablesetter in a lineup that includes run producers such as Joey Votto and Jay Bruce.
The loss of starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo, who signed with Arizona, could hurt the Reds' rotation.
Should the Los Angeles high-rollers stumble, Arizona and San Francisco could be lurking.
The Diamondbacks can strike with a slugging offense made even more fearsome with the addition of Mark Trumbo (34 home runs) to a lineup spearheaded by Paul Goldshmidt (36 home runs).
San Francisco, winners of two World Series in the past four years, took a step back last season after a pitching slump but are ever dangerous with a pitching staff led by Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner, though the offense is lightweight.
The NL East looms as a battle between the Braves and the Washington Nationals, though injuries have disrupted Atlanta's starting rotation and the free agent loss of catcher Brian McCann may prove crippling to the attack.
Kris Medlen (15-12, 3.11 ERA) has been lost to elbow surgery, and an aching elbow could also deny them Brandon Beachy. Free agent starter Ervin Santana was a late addition.
Washington could take charge with a strong rotation of their own led by Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez, with Harper, Jayson Worth and Ryan Zimmerman providing run support.
All signs point to another year of frustration for devoted fans of the Chicago Cubs, who are coming of a 66-96 season without much to speak of in improvement. Their last trip to the World Series was in 1945 and last title was 106 years ago.
(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue)