The NL Central was one of the most talked about divisions in the back half of last season. The Cardinals, Pirates, and Cubs surged forward to control the three best records in baseball. For the Cubs, eventual rookie of the year Kris Bryant helped his team grab the second wild card spot while taking the league by storm. And the merchandise industry. With 23 of the top 100 MLB.com prospects being held by the NL Central heading into next year and many of those players with a 2016 ETA, it is only fitting to look at who might be the next Kris Bryant. Who will be called up in the next couple years and make an immediate impact that captivates the league?
With the Brewers and Reds in the midst of rebuilding, it is fair to say that although prospects like the Brewers’ shortstop Orlando Arcia (#6 MLB.com prospect) and Reds outfielder Jesse Winker (#34 MLB.com prospect) will likely have their shots in the Show, they will probably not have as big of an effect on the pennant race next season. For that reason, I did not include either team’s prospects despite them both having five top-100 prospects each. Fortunately, the Cardinals, Pirates, and Cubs all also have prospects knocking at the door who have the potential to impact the race for the NL central.
Willson Contreras (age 23) – C, Bats: R/Throws: R, Cubs (#1 C prospect, #50 overall prospect)
In Contreras, the Cubs have another young bat. With a smaller catchers fame of 6’1″ and 175 pounds, he led the Double-A Southern League in average (.333) as well as XBH (46). He also posted a strong wRC+ of 156. He began his 2015 campaign splitting time with Schwarber behind the plate in the minor leagues, but was seen as more likely to stay as a catcher with his above average arm. This allowed his former teammate to be called up as a left fielder while he continued developing his game in Double-A. He has the potential to be above average defensively if he can reach higher levels of consistency in his foot work, as noted by Dan Farnsworth at FanGraphs. His biggest step last year was improving his plate discipline and strength. Contreras ended the season with a walk rate of 10.9% ,higher than his previous year of 8.8 in A+, while cutting his strikeout rate down 8.9% to 11.9% in the process. He profiles as an athletic, contact hitting catcher who will provide many more doubles than homers. With more refinement, he could soon draw comparisons to Jonathan Lucroy.
The near future for Contreras is uncertain. He will more than likely stay in the minors next year, most if not all of it in Triple-A, to develop further due to the durable Miguel Montero and veteran David Ross holding down the backstop for the Cubs. This is not to mention Kyle Schwarber, who could very well still have a future as a catcher (there have been rumors of him being the personal catcher for Kyle Hendricks in 2016). However, the contracts for Montero and Ross are up in 2017 and 2016, respectively. With Montero showing signs of decline, Ross closing in on retirement, and Schwarber’s uncertainty as a long-term catching option, Contreras will soon have a window of opportunity to establish himself as the everyday catcher for the Cubs. The question is if it will be next year or the year after.
Tyler Glasnow (age 22) – RHP, Pirates (#2 RHP prospect, #10 overall prospect)
Outside of the 1-2 punch of Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano, the rest of the Pirates 2016 starting pitching does not look promising. Last year, the projected 2016 Pirates 3-5 starters Jeff Locke, Jon Niese,and Ryan Vogelsong had a FIP of 3.95, 4.41, and 4.53 respectively, all noticeably higher than the 2015 league average among qualified candidates (3.71). The Pirates farm system will be looking to fix this sooner rather than later in the form of two young pitchers: Glasnow and Jameson Taillon. For now, let’s focus on Glasnow. With his mammoth 6’8″ frame comes a high quality arsenal. His fastball and curveball both grade as plus or better pitches with an average changeup to compliment them. The issue with Glasnow is his command. In 41 IP in Triple-A during the second half of the season, Glasnow had a disturbingly high BB/9 of 4.83 (although his K/9 of 10.54 is also something to highlight). The problem stems from his mechanics, as his lanky body can sometimes make his pitching motion too long. An issue, but a fixable one. He draws comparisons to Tommy Hanson and, with projected improvements in his walk rates, looks to be on the verge to take his turn in the League.
It is more than likely that Pirates fans will get to see Glasnow get his turn this year. During the epic NL Central race last year, Pirates fans pleaded for Glasnow to be called up, but the Pirates decided to keep him in Triple-A to continue developing. A shaky back half of the starting rotation that also has questions of durability should allow the highly touted prospect to make his debut sometime this season. The timetable of this debut, however, is uncertain. GM of the Pirates Neal Huntington was quoted as saying that Glasnow and Taillon, the next prospect to be talked about, will appear in the second half of the season if not sooner.
Jameson Taillon (age 24) – RHP, Pirates (#54 overall prospect)
The former second overall draft pick has certainly has had a mountain to climb to regain his status as a top prospect. He was close to reaching the MLB until injuries set in. Following his 2014 Tommy John surgery, he missed last year as well after surgery to repair an inguinal hernia. With almost 30 months of not pitching in-game, he is now going through the normal pitching progression in spring training. Taillon features the same pitching arsenal as Glasnow, but with slightly less explosive stuff and better command. In 110 IP in Double-A in 2013, he posted a 8.7 K/9 and a mere 2.9 BB/9. These are strong numbers, but old ones. Regardless, Taillon is still projected to be a top of the rotation starter if he can stay healthy and show that his recovery is complete.
Depending on how well Taillon does in spring training and the beginning of the minor league season, he could be the first of these five prospects to make his 2016 MLB appearance. With the issues previously noted about the Pirates rotation, he has a big chance at seeing a good amount of innings at the major league level next year. If Taillon shows that he can pick up where he left off in 2013, he will be a strong presence in the Pirates rotation.
Alex Reyes (age 21) – RHP, Cardinals (#3 RHP prospect, #13 overall prospect)
Reyes is, in my opinion, the most dangerous man on this list. He is a young pitcher with explosive stuff in an organization that thrives in developing and refining young pitchers. And although I hate to admit it being a Reds fan, they have one of the better catchers in the game in Yadier Molina, who has been praised for working well with his staff. His fastball is his best pitch, hovering in the mid-90s, but has been clocked reaching triple digits (with spotty command) when he rears back. He also features a powerful curveball that he can use to throw for a strike as well as to get batters to chase. These two pitches are well complimented by his changeup, which although is just average, he knows how to use to make his other two pitches better. Reyes has been known to overthrow and lose command, but has the potential to settle as he is still only 21. He was handed down a 50-game suspension last season because of marijuana use that he will continue to serve at the start of next season. Before the suspension, he posted a 13.77 K/9 in 34.2 IP in Double-A after having a 13.71 K/9 in 63.2 IP of A+ ball. Yes, you read those numbers right. Oh, yeah, and he only gave up one home run all of last season.
Reyes knows how to pitch and, if he shows more development in his command in the minors next year, has a good chance at making his MLB debut. He may have even had a shot at making the Cardinals team out of spring training if he did not have to start the 2016 year under suspension. The Cardinals have a solid starting rotation that held up as one of the best last year, and one that added a good pitcher in Mike Leake, so there is no immediate rush for Reyes. However, do not be surprised if a mid-season call up of Reyes takes the league by storm in either the back end of the bullpen or even in the starting rotation itself.
Josh Bell (age 23) – 1B/OF, Bats: S/Throws: R, Pirates (#2 1B prospect, #49 overall prospect)
Bell was taken as a corner outfielder out of high school but, with the Pirates loaded outfield and Bell’s below average defensive capabilities, he was moved moved to the gaping hole in the Pirates organization: first base. At 6’2″ 235 pounds, most expected him to thump the ball. To this point the switch-hitter has failed to show he can produce more than average power. This is due to his swing, in which his bulky lower half is not fully utilized. His strong suits are hitting for contact and good understanding of the strike zone. Last year he posted 130 wRC+ with a solid 0.88 BB/K ratio through 426 PA in Double-A, only to one-up those numbers with a ridiculous 174 wRC+ and 1.40 BB/K ratio through 145 PA in Triple-A. Though in all 571 combined PA, he managed just 40 XBH. It is unlikely he will develop more pop which means the continued success of his contact hitting skills and development of defense at first are all the more important to watch.
Since the Pirates do not have a solid option at first base, the unspectacular Michael Morse and John Jaso will more than likely give way to Josh Bell sometime next season. He will, however, start in the minor leagues and be given some extra time to develop his defensive work before being called up. It is plausible to see Bell being plugged into the Pirates late season lineup to provide a team with a questionable pitching rotation (that may or may not have Glasnow or Taillon in it) a boost in offensive production.
2015 showed that former rebuilding teams could quickly emerge to be competitive by stacking their farm systems and having their young, talented players surge through the minor leagues. For the NL Central in 2016, I can see this trend continuing. With FanGraphs projecting the NL Central to have the Cardinals and Pirates chasing the Cubs for a playoff birth, prospects for these teams could mean the difference down the stretch between being a buyer and a seller, and getting a pennant or wild card birth. There’s a lot to be excited next season for these young players. With spring training games under way as I write this post, the wait is almost over.
I am a third year ISE student at the Ohio State University who is blogging to stay active about talking all things baseball. I would appreciate any helpful advice or feedback on my writing style or flow of logic.