Posted: Friday February 17, 2012 11:58AM ; Updated: Sunday February 19, 2012 1:13PM
Cliff Corcoran
Cliff Corcoran>INSIDE BASEBALL

NL East spring training preview (cont.)

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Bryce Harper
Bryce Harper came to camp last year to get a taste of the big leagues. This year he could win a starting job.
AP

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.

New York Mets

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.

Miami Marlins

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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