We’ve already run through the NL West, the NL East, the AL West and the AL Central in our look at some of the up-and-coming talent that figures to step into the Major League spotlight whenever play resumes. Let’s take a run through the NL Central…
Nico Hoerner is the most interesting name to watch. The 2018 first-rounder skyrocketed through the system to make his MLB debut late last season, and while his .282/.305/.436 output didn’t exactly set the world on fire, it capped an impressive rise for a 22-year-old in his first full pro season. The Cubs hope there’s a potential everyday option at second base here. We could also see 27-year-old Robel Garcia and his light-tower power get another audition, though his contact skills (or lack thereof) are a notable red flag.
The organization lacks high-end, MLB-ready pitching prospects, but it wasn’t that long ago that righty Adbert Alzolay was considered to be just that. He was limited by a triceps injury last year and pitched just 81 2/3 innings between the minors and a brief MLB call-up, but his strikeout numbers are intriguing. Other rotation options include Cory Abbott, Tyson Miller and Justin Steele, but no one from the bunch is regarded as a blue chipper.
Shogo Akiyama will be one of the most interesting “rookies” to watch this season. He’s of course new to the MLB circuit but no stranger to playing professionally, having starred for Japan’s Seibu Lions over a nine-year career in Nippon Professional Baseball. A career .301/.376/.454 hitter in Japan, Akiyama hit .296 or better with at least a .385 OBP in each of his final five seasons with the Lions.
The Reds are suddenly a somewhat veteran club, so there aren’t many rookies who’ll be trusted with an Opening Day role. Well-regarded catcher Tyler Stephenson could be summoned in the event of an injury to Tucker Barnhart or Curt Casali. Shortstop Jose Garcia drew some eyes with a big spring showing but has yet to reach Double-A. He probably needs some more minor league time.
If a starter goes down, right-hander Tony Santillan has steadily climbed the ranks, although he struggled in a pitcher-friendly Double-A setting a year ago. Still, with the Reds set to potentially lose both Trevor Bauer and Anthony DeSclafani to free agency next winter, they’ll probably want to get a look at Santillan at some point.
The bullpen has a host of potential options — Vladimir Gutierrez, Reiver Sanmartin, Joel Kuhnel and Tejay Antone among them. Gutierrez has worked as a starter but struggled enormously in Triple-A, and his power fastball would seemingly play well in relief. Kuhnel has already made his MLB debut.
The Brewers signed 10 Major League free agents this winter, traded for several players who’ll be on the Opening Day roster and don’t have a particularly well-regarded farm. All of that is to say — their rookie contributions might be few and far between. (To be fair, there are some semantics at play here; neither Keston Hiura nor Luis Urias is technically a rookie despite lacking a full season in the Majors. Both are highly intriguing young players.)
Jacob Nottingham might be called upon should Omar Narvaez or Manny Pina fall to injury. Outfielder Tyrone Taylor made his MLB debut last year but is buried behind a host of more experienced options. Former first-round pick Corey Ray has yet to debut but also finds himself on the wrong end of that deep outfield mix. Milwaukee picked up Mark Mathias in a small trade with the Indians and kept the versatile infielder on the 40-man roster, but it might take multiple injuries and/or a huge Triple-A showing to get to the Majors.
Righty Devin Williams leads the pack of bullpen candidates, having debuted with a 3.95 ERA in 13 2/3 frames last year. Right-handers J.P. Feyereisen and Angel Perdomo figure to emerge at some point, too, and waiver claim Eric Yardley provides a left-handed option who posted big numbers in Triple-A with the Padres last season. Rotation candidates include righty Drew Rasmussen, who had a nice year in Double-A in ’19. Trey Supak was rocked in seven Triple-A starts after a solid Double-A showing himself.
Right-hander Mitch Keller barely still qualifies a a rookie and should have a rotation spot for much of the season. Keller, long one of MLB’s premier prospects, was clobbered in his debut effort, but it’ll be interesting to see how he fares without the juiced ball and (presumably) without the prior front office/coaching staff’s emphasis on a two-seam fastball.
The Bucs have already talked extension with third base prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes — one of the game’s best defensive minor leaguers. Hayes didn’t have a great year at the plate in Triple-A in 2019, but he’ll open the season there and should break into the big leagues this year. As the club’s potential third baseman of the future, he’s a definite name to watch.
After that pairing, there’s a drop. Jason Martin and Jared Oliva might get some time in the outfield, and depending on injuries middle infielder Kevin Kramer and first baseman Will Craig are possibilities.
It feels like Nick Burdi has been a prospect forever, but the 27-year-old was healthy and opened some eyes this spring with a good showing. He’s undergone both Tommy John and thoracic outlet surgery but boasts a triple-digit heater when healthy. Blake Cederlind and Cody Ponce could see time in the ’pen, as JT Brubaker could in the rotation.
St. Louis Cardinals
Among NL Central prospects who could plausibly debut in 2020, outfielder Dylan Carlson is perhaps the most highly regarded. A consensus top 20 minor leaguer who belted 26 home runs, stole 20 bases and posted a combined OPS north of .900 between Double-A and Triple-A last year, Carlson is viewed as a potential cornerstone piece. He’ll have to stave off Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas and fellow rookie Justin Williams, but Carlson has the highest ceiling of the bunch.
Yadier Molina just keeps on going, so there’s little hope of Andrew Knizner seeing meaningful time unless there’s an unfortunate injury to Molina. But Knizner is touted as a potential starting catcher himself and is more or less MLB-ready. Likewise, infielder Edmundo Sosa is ready for an MLB look but lacks an obvious path given the team’s veteran infield mix.
Left-handers Genesis Cabrera and Kwang-Hyun Kim give the Cards a southpaw option both in the rotation and in the bullpen. Kim, long one of the better pitchers in the Korea Baseball Organization, had an eye-opening spring showing. Right-hander Junior Fernandez tops the list of intriguing bullpen candidates thanks to a sub-2.00 ERA in the minors last year and a heater that averaged nearly 97 mph on a brief MLB cup of coffee.