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NL East spring training preview: All eyes on trio of young sluggers

This week, Cliff Corcoran will break down what to expect from each team's camp as part of SI.com's spring training preview. Teams are listed by their order of finish from 2011. Note: The Big Prospect is a player who will be in camp and has not yet debuted in the major leagues.

The Big Question: Can Jim Thome still play first base?

With Ryan Howard out until at least May following Achilles surgery, the Phillies plan to make Ty Wigginton their primary first baseman to start the season. They also signed Jim Thome this winter with the hope that he could make a few starts in the field in addition to serving at the team's top left-handed pinch-hitter.

The problem is, Thome is 41 and hasn't played the field since 2007, when he made just one start at first base for the White Sox. In fact, in the six seasons since the Phillies traded him to Chicago, Thome has played just four games in the field, all at first base. The Phillies just want Thome to spell the right-handed Wigginton once or twice a week against right-handed starters, which means he may only have to make a dozen starts at first base before Howard returns. Given his 9,500 innings of experience at first base, no matter how far removed they might be, it's unlikely that his play in the field would be so bad that he couldn't handle that small workload, but until he puts on a glove and plays a few exhibition games no one really knows how it will go.

The Big Battle: Domonic Brown

A bigger question than Thome's viability as a spot first baseman is how Domonic Brown's future will play out. A year ago, he was the coming star that gave the Phillies the confidence not to bid on departing free agent rightfielder Jayson Werth, but Brown broke the hamate bone in his right hand spring training, had his return delayed by a thumb sprain, and struggled upon eventually assuming the right-field job in late May. Brown was hitting .246/.335/.393 when the Phillies acquired Hunter Pence at the trading deadline, bumping Brown to Triple-A, and he struck out in his only major league plate appearance in September.

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has since said that he thinks Brown needs to spend his age-24 season back in the minors to get straightened out, but he left the door open for Brown to make the team with a particularly impressive spring training. That means that Brown has to do more in March than out-play Wigginton (who could be bumped to the bench by Brown pushing presumptive leftfielder John Mayberry Jr. to first base), he has to look like the young stud he was believed to be before his lost season.

The Big Prospect: Phillippe Aumont

None of the Phillies' top four prospects -- starting pitchers Trevor May, Jessie Biddle, Brody Colvin and outfielder Larry Greene, the team's top pick in 2011 --will be in major league camp this spring, making Aumont, part of the package received from Seattle for Cliff Lee following the 2009 season, the most compelling youngster in camp. After a rough year as a starter in 2010, the 6-foot-7, French Canadian righthander moved back into the bullpen last year and struck out 13.1 men per nine innings in a season split between Double- and Triple-A. Aumont still walks too many men, but the sinking action on his mid-90s heater helps him strand those men by keeping the ball in the ballpark. If the 23-year-old gets off to a hot start in Triple-A this season, the Phillies will likely make room in their bullpen for him.

The Big Question: Can Jason Heyward stay healthy?

That's a question you hate to ask about a player as young and talented as Heyward, but there it is. Heyward is just 22 and proved he was ready to mash at the major league level as a rookie in 2010, hitting .291/.405/.591 in his first 153 major league plate appearances, but a thumb injury in late May sullied that season by sapping his power (he slugged just .412 the rest of the way), and a shoulder injury proved so problematic last year that he became a part-time player in August and hit just .227/.319/.389 on the season. Heyward also missed nearly a month in 2009 due to a hip flexor strain and, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Carroll Rogers reported last March, has dealt with back pain since his mid-teens due to a less-than-typical amount of cartilage between the discs of his spine. For now, Heyward is focused on re-building his swing, which he altered to compensate for his sore right shoulder last season, and hopes that shedding 20 pounds will put less strain on his body. He had added the weight in an attempt to add power last year but didn't even make it out of camp before his back and shoulder began bothering him.

The Big Battle: Starting rotation

Even after dumping Derek Lowe on the Indians, the Braves have seven starting pitchers any other major league team would be happy to have, and could have had an eighth if they hadn't moved Arodys Vizcaino into the bullpen. The expectation is that Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens and Brandon Beachy will take the top four spots, with Mike Minor being the favorite for the fifth spot over top prospects Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado, both of whom made a handful of major league starts last year.

However, Hudson had back surgery in November and might not be ready for Opening Day, Hanson's 2011 season ended in early August due to shoulder problems and he's coming to camp with new mechanics hoping to prove his arm is healthy and can stay so, and Jurrjens struggled with a right knee injury last year, which brought an early end to his season. So it wouldn't be a shock to see at least one if not both of those prospects break camp with the team.

The Big Prospect: Tyler Pastornicky

Pastornicky, who came over from the Blue Jays in the Yunel Escobar trade, is supposed to be the Braves' starting shortstop this year coming off a year in which he hit .314/.359/.414 between Double- and Triple-A. He's not a future star, but he should provide solid defense, speed on the bases good for 20-odd steals a year and a contact-oriented plate approach that won't contribute much power but should produce a respectable enough batting average to keep the total package at or above average for his position. The 22-year-old is hardly the team's top prospect, but with Teheran, Delgado and Vizcaino having already made their major league debuts he fills this spot by default.

The Big Question: Yeah, yeah, yeah, Bryce Harper, but what about Jayson Werth?

Let's face it, Nationals camp is going to be all about Bryce Harper this year. Harper, the top overall pick in the 2010 draft, is a monster talent and a polarizing figure and could well be the Nationals' Opening Day rightfielder at the age of 19, particularly if manager Davey Johnson gets his way. However, whether he breaks camp with the team or not, Harper seems like a good bet to make his major league debut at some point this season, and to rake after he does. Less clear is how Jayson Werth will rebound from the disastrous first season of his seven-year, $126 million contract with the Nationals.

It was clear that the Nats overpayed Werth last winter, and some expressed concern about just how much his production as a Phillie was a product of Citizens Bank Park, but the concern was that he might shed 50 points of OPS after leaving Philadelphia, not 200, which is what he did. The good news is that Werth's core skills appeared to remain intact last year. He still hit 20 homers, stole 19 bases at a high percentage, drew 74 walks, and played a solid rightfield, ringing up 10 assists plus one more in center.

Still, Werth wasn't just hitting in bad luck. He hit more ground balls, more infield pop-ups, struck out more often (particularly looking) and walked less often than he did in either of his last two seasons with the Phillies. Werth has enough to contend with this spring in trying to reverse those trends, but Harper complicates things further by threatening to push Werth to centerfield.

The Big Battle: Centerfield

Speaking of which, Harper's battle to make the team will be paralleled by the battle to fill centerfield if he doesn't (which would mean Werth would remain in right). Roger Bernadina is the leader in that competition simply by virtue of being on the 40-man roster, but he'll have to fight off veteran non-roster invitees Rick Ankiel and Mike Cameron, who are superior defensively and offer more pop at the plate but are coming off miserable seasons. One intriguing solution there is a platoon of the lefty Ankiel and righty Cameron, which would sufficiently limit the playing time of the 39-year-old Cameron, though Bernadina could also fill the left-handed role in such an arrangement.

The Big Prospect: Anthony Rendon

No, not really, but, again, you already know about Harper. Rendon, the team's top pick last year (sixth overall, out of Rice University), doesn't have that once-in-a-generation power that Harper does, but he does have the potential to be a middle-of-the-order hitter while playing a key infield position (he was a third baseman in college, but could be moved to second if the team is able to work out a long-term deal with incumbent Ryan Zimmerman). The only knocks against Rendon's game are that he's slow and injury-prone (the latter being why he wasn't drafted even higher despite the fact that Baseball America had him rated as the top prospect in the draft), and he's expected to move through the Nationals' system almost as quickly as Harper.

The Big Question: Can Johan Santana come back?

After an anterior capsule tear in his pitching shoulder prompted surgery in September 2010 and subsequently cost him the entire 2011 season, the question isn't when Johan Santana can come back or how good he'll be, it's if he can come back at all.

Early reports from Mets camp are optimistic, putting Santana only slightly behind a normal spring pace, but his work thus far has been mostly catch and long toss. He's scheduled to throw his first bullpen session on Friday, which would be his first time on a mound since he threw four innings in the instructional league at the end of September. Santana made three abbreviated rehab starts in the low minors late last year prior to that outing, but the first ended in discomfort followed by another month of inaction, and plans for a fourth in the Sally League playoffs were scratched when the team realized it was uncomfortable with Santana putting forth a competitive effort (Santana threw a simulated game instead).

The Mets still owe Santana, a two-time Cy Young winner with the Twins, $55 million over the next two seasons (including his $5.5 million 2014 buyout), so having him in the rotation is as much about getting something for that investment after sinking $22.5 million on him last year as it is about having him be the pitcher they paid for, which it seems clear he never will be again.

The Big Battle: No. 5 starter

In the unlikely event that Santana is ready for Opening Day, this should be moot, as Jonathon Niese, R.A. Dickey, Dillon Gee and Mike Pelfrey will fill in the other four spots in the Mets' rotation. In the far more likely event that Santana stays back in Florida for extended spring training, the Mets will need a fifth arm. Most likely that would be 25-year-old righty Chris Schwinden, who made four starts for the big club last September after a solid showing in 26 Triple-A starts (3.95 ERA, 2.79 K/BB), but Schwinden isn't anything special and will at the very least have to earn the job in camp. Not that he has any significant competition. As long as he can beat out a 41-year-old non-rostered Miguel Batista, the job will likely be his, at least until the team's top prospect is ready.

The Big Prospect: Matt Harvey

The seventh-overall pick in the 2010 draft, out of the University of North Carolina, 6-foot-4 righty Harvey was in Double-A by the end of June last year, and had just two rough starts before adjusting to the increased level of competition. Harvey compliments mid-to-upper 90s heat with a sharp slider and struck out 10.3 men per nine innings over 26 starts at High-A and Double-A last year in his first professional season.

This spring, he's looking to introduce a sinker to his repertoire, and while he's not in the mix for the Opening Day rotation, it seems likely that he'll break into the major leagues at some point this season, be it in September or before. He has front-of-the-rotation potential and is expected to team with fellow righty Zack Wheeler, who won't be in major league camp this spring, atop the Mets rotation for much of the remainder of the decade.

The Big Question: Can Josh Johnson and Hanley Ramirez bounce back?

The Marlins made a ton of news this offseason, from their name change, to their new uniforms, to hiring Ozzie Guillen as manager, to their free-agent spending spree (which saw them commit $191 million to Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and Heath Bell), to this, but what will ultimately decide the fate of their season is the performance of the two key players who were here before all that. According to Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement Player, Johnson and Ramirez were worth 10 WAR in 2010, but injuries and poor performance reduced their value to just three WAR last year, a drop of seven wins that mirrored the change in the team's overall record.

Johnson made just nine starts last year before shoulder problems shut him down for the year in mid-May. That after shoulder problems ended his 2010 season a month early. Johnson was dominant when he was active last year, but, as our Will Carroll wrote on Tuesday, the fact that a root cause of those shoulder problems has not been identified is problematic as it suggests that the joint has simply become, in Carroll's terminology, the weak link in the chain and will be prone to further breakdowns.

Ramirez's outlook is more positive. He didn't hit a lick in April and May of last year, hit the disabled list with lower back inflammation at the end of May, and had his season ended in early August by a left shoulder injury that required surgery in September, but he did hit .280/.365/.459 in 178 plate appearances in between his two DL stays. Add in the fact that his injured shoulder was in his non-throwing arm and was indeed repaired (and that he's not a pitcher), and one can see Ramirez bouncing back at least to his 2010 level (which was itself a step down from his 2007 to 2009 level). How his shift to third base factors in to that, however, remains to be seen.

The Big Battle: Ramirez's move to third base

Barring injury, the Marlins have a pretty clear picture of who is going to play where, who will be in their starting rotation, and who the top men in their bullpen are going to be, but, as Guillen confessed on Monday, Ramirez is not yet "100 percent on board" with moving from shortstop to third base to accommodate Reyes. That doesn't mean that there's a concern that Ramirez won't make the move but the biggest battle in Marlins camp could be a mental one between the team's outspoken new manager and its signature player.

The Big Prospect: Chad James

Several of the Marlins' top prospects, including outfielder Christian Yelich, their consensus No. 1, will still be in minor league camp this spring, making the 21-year-old lefty James the one to watch. The 18th-overall pick in 2009, James isn't a future ace, but could be a solid major league starter mixing low-90s heat with a slider and changeup. He should crack Double-A this year.

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