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: All eyes on trio of young sluggers

Story Highlights

Domonic Brown, Jason Heyward and Bryce Harper have something to prove

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Jim Thome
Jim Thome will have to reacquaint himself with Philadelphia -- and with playing first base.
Chuck Solomon/SI

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.

Philadelphia Phillies

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.

Atlanta Braves

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.

Washington Nationals

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.

 
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