Posted February 12, 2014

Spring training preview: National League East

Atlanta Braves, Miami Marlins, New York Mets, NL East, Philadelphia Phillies, Spring Training Preview, Washington Nationals
Brandon Beachy, Braves

The Braves are hoping Brandon Beachy can help offset the loss of Tim Hudson. (Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

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.

Atlanta Braves

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.

Washington Nationals

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.

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