BEGIN IN the nation's capital, with the club that won more games than any other in 2012: Is there a scarier team than this year's Nationals, with 20-year-old Bryce Harper ready to conquer the world and ace Stephen Strasburg unleashed? (That's not a clown question, bro.) Go south, where the Braves will be powered by one of the most talented all-around outfields the game has ever seen. (At least that's what Hank Aaron thinks of the Upton brothers, B.J. and Justin, teaming up with Jason Heyward.) In the heartland a lineup that stirs memories of the Big Red Machine is revving up in Cincinnati, while in St. Louis the perpetually loaded Cardinals, who haven't missed a beat since a certain first baseman skipped town, have a wave of young studs ready to make a splash. (Überprospect Oscar Taveras is the franchise's most impressive young hitter since Albert Pujols.) There is a new Evil Empire in Los Angeles, where the Dodgers have the largest payroll in history (it's projected to be $217 million) and a roster stuffed with more star power than The Avengers. And don't forget the team up the Pacific Coast—will we ever learn to stop sleeping on the pitching-rich Giants, who have all the key players back from last year's world championship team?
This is the National League in 2013: stacked with talent, compelling story lines and elite teams that make the senior circuit also the superior circuit. Though the Nats should rise to the top, it's not difficult to imagine any of the league's five other top contenders running the NL's World Series winning streak to four years. "There was a time when the American League did seem more dominant," says the architect of one of the NL juggernauts, Reds G.M. Walt Jocketty. "The last few years we've closed the gap, and the good teams are only getting stronger."
The gulf between the league's crowded top tier and the rest of the field widened over the winter; the 2012 playoff teams (the Nationals, Reds, Giants, Braves and Cardinals), as well as the Dodgers, have all improved. That will make it harder for the clubs trying to break through, such as the Diamondbacks (with a promising young core), the Phillies (hoping for one last run with their aging veterans) and the Brewers (led by the league's best player, Ryan Braun).
Coming up behind that group are the Padres, who boast one of baseball's deepest farm systems, and the Pirates, who have prospects Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, perhaps the top young pitching duo in the game, coming soon to a ballpark near you. And while neither the Mets nor the Cubs will be playing meaningful games in September, for the first time in a while there is reason to envision a brighter future in New York and Chicago. Cubs general manager Theo Epstein and Mets G.M. Sandy Alderson are aggressively stockpiling young talent.
Those clubs are dreaming of far-off pennant races. But this year the battle for the pennant will be waged by deep teams that are clearly all in for 2013. "With the competition you see, for a team to go out and win a division and win the league?" says Jocketty. "That's tougher than it's ever been."