Spring training preview: National League East
This week, Cliff Corcoran, Jay Jaffe and Joe Lemire will break down what to watch in each team's camp as part of SI.com's spring training preview by looking at each team's Big Question, Big Position Battle and Big Prospect. Teams are listed by their order of finish from 2013. Note: The Big Prospect is a player who will be in major league camp but has not yet debuted in the major leagues.
The Big Question: Is Brandon Beachy's elbow sound?
The biggest question facing the Braves in the coming season is whether or not B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla will bounce back from sub-replacement level performances in 2013, but that answer won't come in spring training. After all, Upton hit .347/.342/.507 in spring training a year ago only to hit .184/.268/.289 during the regular season.
Instead, the focus will be on Brandon Beachy's right elbow. He had Tommy John surgery in June 2012 and, after returning to the Braves' rotation and the end of July last year, the joint flared back up, requiring a subsequent clean-up surgery in September. The 27-year-old Beachy has never thrown 150 innings in a professional season, but he enters camp with the expectation of having a normal spring and a full season in Atlanta. In 46 career major league starts, Beachy has posted a 3.23 ERA (121 ERA+), 1.13 WHIP, 3.20 strikeout-to-walk ratio and struck out more than a man per inning. The Braves are hoping he can replicated those numbers in the place of departed free agent Tim Hudson this season.
The Big Battle: Back of the rotation
It would be compelling if Uggla or Upton had to fight for his job this spring, but the remaining money on their contracts ($26 million over two years for the former and $59.8 million over four years for the latter) would seem to guarantee that, baring injury or a trade, both will at least open the season in the starting lineup. Given that Atlanta is otherwise a well-stocked team, the biggest battle in camp this spring will be for the final two spots in the starting rotation.
Beachy and Alex Wood have the inside track to those spots, but veteran non-roster invitee Freddy Garcia, who turned in a quality start for the Braves in the Division Series against the Dodgers, or 26-year-old rookie David Hale, who was on the Division Series roster as a reliever, could sneak into the rotation if Beachy or Wood creates an opening.
The Big Prospect: Christian Bethancourt, catcher
Technically, Bethancourt violates our requirements for this designation as he made his major league debut in 2013, but that debut consisted of one pinch-hit appearance in the ninth inning of the final game of the season (he struck out). The 22-year-old Bethancourt's .277/.305/.436 line in Double A last year was his best since rookie ball, so expect him to spend a full year in Triple A this year while Evan Gattis and Gerald Laird fill the shoes of the departed Brian McCann, but a year from now, Bethancourt could be battling for the starting job.
If you're looking for someone who has yet to make a big league appearance, try 22-year-old righty Jason Hursh. He was the team's top pick in the 2013 draft, selected with the compensation pick Atlanta received when Michael Bourn signed with the Indians, and put up a 0.67 ERA in nine games in the A-level Sally League last summer.
The Big Question: What will become of Danny Espinosa?
As the Nationals' starting second baseman in 2011 and '12, Espinosa impressed with his combination of power (38 home runs combined), speed (37 steals at a 76 percent success rate) and defense, but raised concerns with his low batting averages (.242 combined) and high strikeout totals (a league-leading 189 in 2012). In 2013, Espinosa got off to a slow start, then had his right wrist fractured by a pitch just a dozen games into the season. His attempt to play through the injury was a disaster. On June 2, he was banished to Triple A with a .158/.193/.272 line, and he hit just .216/.280/.286 in the minors the rest of the way.
Anthony Rendon, the sixth overall pick in the 2011 draft, replaced Espinosa at the keystone and, with the exception of a Espinosa-like July, played well enough to keep the job heading into 2014. However, new manager Matt Williams and general manager Mike Rizzo have both said that there will be an open competition between the two for the second base job heading into camp. That might just be Williams keeping Rendon honest and Espinosa engaged, but even if Rendon is the presumptive starter at second, Espinosa's battle to reestablish himself as a part of the team will be worth watching.
The Big Battle: Fifth starter
Fifth starter battles are commonplace this time of year, but the Nationals have a good one, both because of the strength of their top four starters (Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg , Gio Gonzalez and new addition Doug Fister), and of the pitchers competing for that final spot. Lefty Ross Detwiler, who posted a 3.28 ERA (120 ERA+) over 37 starts and 11 relief appearances in 2011 and '12, is the leader heading into camp, but he's coming off a back injury that ended his 2013 season in early July.
One of Detwiler's top rivals is Tanner Roark, a righty just seven months younger than Detwiler, who will turn 28 in early March. Roark went 7-1 with a 1.51 ERA in five starts and nine relief appearances as a rookie last year, and his 3.14 xFIP (Expected Fielder-Independent Pitching ERA) and 3.64 K/BB ratio in those 53 2/3 innings suggest that his performance was not a fluke. The other top contender is 25-year-old righty Taylor Jordan, who went 7-0 with a 0.83 ERA in eight starts and one relief appearance in Double A last year and then jumped to the majors and put up solid numbers in nine starts before running into an innings limit. Jordan broke his right ankle getting out of a pool over the offseason but is expected to be on pace with the other starters in camp.
Rookie Nate Karns, who made his major league debut with three starts last year, journeyman Ross Ohlendorf and former second-round pick Sammy Solis, who has never pitched above High A, have also been mentioned as part of the competition. Still, Washington seems unlikely to reach beyond Detwiler, Jordan and Roark here, any of whom should fill out its rotation nicely.
The Big Prospect: RHP A.J. Cole
Cole has taken a rather circuitous route to his first Nationals camp. Drafted in the fourth round by the team in June 2010, he was traded to the A's in the Gio Gonzalez deal in December 2011, then reacquired from Oakland as part of the three-team deal that sent Mike Morse to Seattle in January 2013. Throughout that journey, the 22-year-old has posted strong peripherals (9.7 K/9, 4.52 BB/K) while working his way up to Double A, where he had a 2.18 ERA in seven starts last year. He's still at least a year away from reaching the majors, particularly with this pitching-rich organization, and despite the consistency of his peripherals, his overall performances have varied. Thanks to those two trades, though, his name is already familiar to most serious baseball fans.
New York Mets
The Big Question: Where will Ike Davis start the season?
The options include first base, the bench, Triple A or another team, and right now any seems as likely as the next. The 18th overall pick of the 2008 draft, Davis looked like an emerging core player when he hit .264/.351/.440 with 19 home runs as a rookie in 2010, but after a blazing start to the 2011 season, he suffered an ankle sprain in early May that turned out to be season-ending. He returned to hit 32 home runs and drive in 90 runs in 2012, but with a .227 batting average and .308 on-base percentage. Then, last year, everything fell apart. Hitting just .161/.242/.258 on June 9, he was optioned to Triple A, where he promptly started raking. After his return in early July, he hit .267/.429/.443, but an abdomen strain prevented him from taking the field in September, and he hit more home runs in 92 plate appearances in Triple A than he did in 170 after returning to the majors.
Davis, who will turn 27 before Opening Day, clearly has ability, but the Mets are tiring of trying to figure out when and how it's going to manifest itself. As a result, they're going to let Lucas Duda battle Davis for the first base job this spring, a competition which could very well end with Davis sporting the uniform of another team.
The Big Battle: The Outfield
The Mets aren't committed to Davis at first base or Ruben Tejada at shortstop, two players who have frustrated them in recent years, but their outfield situation is far more complicated. The only thing that seems to be certain is that Curtis Granderson will start in a corner. Beyond that, new addition Chris Young, sophomore defensive whiz Juan Lagares, speedster Eric Young Jr. and possibly Duda (depending on the outcome of his competition with Davis at first base) are all in play for the other two spots, with both Youngs and Lagares being viable options in centerfield. General manager Sandy Alderson has said the team will go with the three best offensive candidates in the outfield, but that doesn't clarify much given that none of the above hit much in 2013, though it might suggest that Lagares is a long shot to retain his center field job.
Adding an extra wrinkle, the team isn't ruling out moving Daniel Murphy to first base and letting Young start at second. That seems like a very unlikely scenario, but it's an indication of just how much of New York's 2014 lineup will need to be determined in March.
The Big Prospect: RHP Noah Syndergaard
Acquired from Toronto with intended starting catcher Travis d'Arnaud in the seven-player R.A. Dickey trade after the 2012 season, Syndergaard gives the Mets a third major pitching prospect behind Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler, and he's hardly the least of that trio. Last year, Syndergaard split his age-20 season between High A and Double A and posted a 3.06 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 23 starts while striking out 10.2 men per nine innings and posting a 4.75 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Baseball Prospectus listed the 6-foot-6 Syndergaard as the 11th best prospect in the game this winter. He has legitimate ace potential, could make his major league debut at some point this season and even has an outside chance of breaking camp as the team's fifth starter. Mets fans missing Harvey this spring will want to be sure to catch Syndergaard's Grapefruit League appearances.
The Big Question: Is the lineup healthy?
The Phillies won't have to worry about the health of the recently-retired Roy Halladay this spring. They'll only have to worry about the health of everyone else.
First baseman Ryan Howard has averaged 76 games over the last two seasons and is coming off left knee surgery that ended his 2013 season in early July. Centerfielder Ben Revere, a player whose game is built around his speed, didn't play a single game in the second half last year due to a broken right foot that required surgery. Carlos Ruiz, a 35-year-old catcher signed to a new, three-year, $26 million contract, missed a month in each of the last two seasons due to a leg injury. Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins are 35-year-old middle infielders, the former with a history of knee problems, and outfielder Domonic Brown has proven fragile in the past.
The Big Battle: Miguel Gonzalez's pursuit of a rotation spot
The Phillies signed 27-year-old Cuban righty Miguel Gonzalez in August and expect him to be in the mix for a rotation spot this spring. Gonzalez reportedly throws in the mid 90s with a laundry list of secondary pitches including a curve, changeup, splitter, cutter, sinker and even a knuckleball, but he has barely pitched in the last two years. He was suspended following a failed attempt to defect in early 2012 and also had surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow that January.
What's more, the Phillies reduced their offer to Gonazalez from six years and $48 million to three years and $12 million after his physical last July led to concerns about his elbow. Those concerns are part of the reason that the Phillies did not have Gonzalez pitch at any level late last year, and why some scouts suspect his ultimate destination will be the bullpen. Gonzalez seems to be as much of a mystery to the Phillies as everyone else, so it should be fascinating to finally see him pitch next month.
The Big Prospect: 3B Maikel Franco
Cody Asche will open 2014 as the Phillies' third baseman, but he'll keep the job only as long as Franco lets him. Last year, Franco split his age-20 season between High A and Double A and hit a combined .320/.356/.569 with 31 home runs and 103 RBIs in 134 games. It's possible, if Asche succeeds and Howard continues to struggle to stay on the field, that Franco could be moved to first base because his fielding at the hot corner is nothing special. His power would obviously play at first, though his lack of plate discipline is a concern at either position. His unrefined plate approach will be tested in what's likely to be a full season at Triple A this year, but if he succeeds and either Asche or Howard makes room, Franco could crack the majors by season's end.
The Big Question: When is Jose Fernandez's next start?
In his final 18 starts of the 2013 season, Fernandez went 10-3 (behind one of the worst lineups in major league history) with a 1.50 ERA and 135 strikeouts in 120 1/3 innings. In six of those starts he threw seven or more innings without allowing a run. In four of them he struck out 10 or more men. In his final start of the season, he held the Braves to one run on a solo home run over seven innings and hit (and pimped) a home run of his own, prompting a benches-clearing standoff at home plate. The Marlins may be a slightly better team in 2014 (or they may be just as bad as they were last year), but Fernandez's starts, even his abbreviated spring training outings, are all appointment television.
The Big Battle: Centerfield
With Justin Ruggiano and Chris Coghlan both Cubs, Miami has opened up centerfield for one of its 2-something outfield prospects. The only question is, which one. Christian Yelich, 22, is ticketed for left field and Giancarlo Stanton, still just 24, is locked into right. That leaves center for Jake Marisnick or Marcell Ozuna, both of whom are or will be 23 by Opening Day.
Marisnick, acquired in the big salary dump trade with the Blue Jays after the 2012 season, is a toolsy speed-and-defense type that better fits the image of the typical centerfielder given his wide range of skills. However, Marisnick isn't great at any one thing and didn't hit a lick in 30 starts at the position last year, putting up a miserable .183/.231/.248 line in 118 plate appearances. Ozuna is a low-average, low-on-base slugger at the plate, and that might lead some to underrate is athleticism both in the field and on the bases. However, he only hit three home runs in 291 major league plate appearances as a rookie in 2013.
Neither has played a game at Triple A, and both are coming off injuries, Marisnick having had offseason meniscus surgery on his left knee and Ozuna having had his season ended by a torn thumb ligament that required surgery in late July. Marisnick, who won't turn 23 until late March, is generally regarded as the better prospect. Ozuna, however, is the only one of the two to have had success at the plate in the majors, hitting .336/.381/.448 in his first 33 major league games and finishing his rookie campaign with a .265/.303/.389 line.
The Big Prospect: LHP Andrew Heaney The ninth overall pick in the 2012 draft, Oklahoma State lefty Andrew Heaney boasts high-90s heat and a nasty slider. Last year, he split his first full professional season between High A and Double A and went 9-3 with a 1.60 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and a solid 3.42 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 18 starts and one relief appearance. Given the Marlins' aggressive promotions of Fernandez, Ozuna, Marisnick and Yelich (none of whom have any Triple A experience), Heaney could be the team's number-two stater behind Fernandez before the year is out.