Now that the calendar has flipped to February, it seems like our focus has shifted towards baseball and the fantasy baseball season to come. Even if the lockout hasn't ended, we're moving forward at full steam here at the Dynasty Locker Room. We've talked a lot in recent weeks about players from last season and what to make of them moving forward, but as rookie drafts move ahead it's also important to look at prospects as building blocks as well. Nation and I will be looking at the top 100 prospects on the podcast in the coming weeks (be sure to check out our links in the widget above), and some of these names are sure to be found there. Last week I took a look at the deep American League East division and the top 15 prospects in that division (all 15 inside the top 60), but this week we shift gears to the American League Central. This division is certainly top heavy, but who else can we target in this division for success?
Bobby Witt Jr. (SS-KCR)
One of the most talked about prospects since 2019, Bobby Witt Jr. made a huge splash in spring training last year, and carried that over into a massively successful year split between AA and AAA where he compiled a .290/.361/.576 triple slash with 33 HRs and 29 SBs. With an impressive minor league record and draft pedigree to back it up, it's no question why Witt remains among the top 5 prospects on everyone's board heading into 2022. We'd like to see him cut down on the swings and misses as he piled up 131 strikeouts in 123 games last year, but make no mistake, he's a supremely talented player. Defensively, he has the skillset to play up the middle for a long time, so there's minimal concern of a position change in his future, and being able to add a 20/20 caliber player to the shortstop position is a huge asset long term. There's a reasonable chance that Witt Jr. makes his debut early in the year with the Royals, but much of that remains to be seen with the MLB and Players Association yet to finalize any type of a deal related to the current lockout.
Spencer Torkelson (1B-DET)
The first overall pick from Arizona State in 2020, Torkelson wasted little time this season in showing why he has been the best college bat in the last decade. After rising from high-A to AA and finally AAA over the course of the 2021 season, he combined for 30 HRs with a .267 average and a .935 OPS with 30 HRs. Some may point to his noticeable "struggles" with his batting average at each successive jump, but this should be expected for a first year hitter adapting to better pitching twice in the same year. Make no mistake, Torkelson doesn't have much value defensively, and the hopes of keeping him at third base seem to be a pipe dream at this point, but the bat is certainly strong enough for him to be an asset there in the long term. It's certainly possible that Torkelson breaks camp with the Tigers when baseball resumes, but I expect to see the Tigers let him see some additional at bats against pitchers in AAA with a late spring or early summer call up on the horizon if he continues to produce at the level he has been in his short minor league career.
Riley Greene (OF-DET)
Greene was a highly touted prospect when the Tigers selected him 5th overall in the 2019 draft, and though he has many tools that scouts covet, in fantasy the bat was one of the most tantalizing talents that boosted his appeal. Like many of the fast risers over the last year or so, it was was clear that Greene put in the effort with no season in 2020, and came out of the gates hot at AA, and got the call up to AAA by midseason. All told, he posted a .301 average between both levels while hitting 24 long balls and swiping 16 bases while only being caught once. I question how much staying power the speed has, but Greene certainly seems capable of adding 10 or so steals per year with a bat that has realized the power potential we never saw in 2019. I worry a bit about the uptick in strikeouts that Greene had last year as he struck out 153 times in 124 games, but hope to see that normalize as he becomes more familiar with higher level pitching. We should see a debut this season in a Tigers uniform, one that I expect to see around the same time as we see Torkelson.
Daniel Espino (P-CLE)
When the Indians took Espino in the first round of the 2019 draft, I was intrigued - as a pitcher with a lively fastball that sits in the upper 90s with two plus breaking balls he was heading to an organization that has had a penchant for developing pitching over the previous five years. We saw glimpses of that in his debut that summer, but he took it to another level last year posting 14.9 K/9 over two levels of A ball in 2021. He's not without his risks though - with an atypical wind up some scouts see a potential injury risk, especially when we consider that he hasn't seen any true workload yet. We've also seen his velocity dip during his longer outings. Despite his occasional issues with giving up the free pass, he was pegged as a prospect with above average command, and there's hope that this returns as he continues to build on his arm strength. As a 20 year old in A ball last year, Espino has some time to develop yet, and I would be surprised if he debuts before 2024.
Jose Miranda (3B-MIN)
Prior to 2021, Jose Miranda was nothing more than a mid-level prospect who showed power upside, but struggled to get on base consistently. Miranda's calling card has been making contact and hitting the ball hard though, and he delivered on every bit of his upside between AA and AAA last season with a .344 average, 30 HRs, and a BB/K rate of 42/74 in 127 games played. His style of play reminds me of another former Twins prospect, Eddie Rosario, who has always had the ability to make contact, but lacks the plate discipline to lay off the pitches he can't do damage with. Miranda's value certainly comes with the power upside and his ability to put the ball in play - depending on what your fifth category is (average, OBP, OPS) can determine how much upside he has, but he has the tools to be a .280 hitter for 20+ HRs. The Twins have a system loaded with middle infield talent, so it's unlikely he remains at second with Polanco and Arraez already at the major league level with Austin Martin and Royce Lewis also at the minor league level. He should see his first big league action this year, though without an injury to the everyday lineup it's hard to see where he fits in at this point.
Nick Pratto (1B-KCR)
The emergence of Pratto for Kansas City last year was one of the better story lines in minor league baseball. After some scouts left him for dead after a 2019 season in high-A that saw him strikeout 164 times and hit for a .191 average, Pratto used the 2020 season to refine his swing and stance, and that paid immediate dividends in Spring Training last year when he hit for big power. Despite the swing and miss numbers, his eye at the plate has always been good to pick up on pitches he can drive, and his discipline was much stronger last season as he nearly doubled his walk rate. This resulted in a season split between AA and AAA where he blasted 36 HRs with a .265 average, and a .988 OPS. The change to his mechanics has completely altered how he grades out, and if he can continue to improve on his strikeout numbers, could be a strong bat in the middle of the Royals lineup for a long time. Depending on positional need for the Royals, Pratto has spent time at first and in corner outfield spots lending to the positional versatility he has to get into the Royals lineup quickly. This should help him make a debut sometime during the summer of 2022.
Jhonkensy Noel (1B-CLE)
Another hard hitting first base prospect, Noel was an international prospect from the Dominican who signed in 2017 based on his elite level exit velocity and bat speed. He makes good contact for a power-hitting prospect, and makes good contact to all fields. Last season he punished baseballs at A-Ball with 19 HRs in 64 games to the tune of a .340 batting average. I have concerns with how pull-happy he gets at times when trying to generate the long ball, and his plate discipline leaves a lot to be desired as he only drew 17 free passes last season. The power is undeniable against both left and right-handed pitchers though, as we saw last season, and if you've seen any of the clips the Indians have posted of him on Twitter then you know he's as beastly as they get. He may be ranked high for some based on how raw he still is, but he's absolutely worth a flier. Expect to see him start the year at High-A or AA, and he should be on the trajectory to make the bigs some time in 2024.
MJ Melendez (C-KCR)
In a year where we saw Salvador Perez be one of the most prolific power-hitting catchers in MLB history, Melendez was tearing the cover off the ball for the Royals' AA and AAA affiliates this year with 41 HRs of his own. Melendez doesn't have the strongest defensive game for a catcher, and that could cause him to shift to another position while playing backup to see additional at bats at the Major League level where his bat is already advanced. His pitch recognition and plate discipline also grew last season as we saw him double his walk rate, while cutting his strikeouts down to 115 in 123 games. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Melendez and Perez in some sort of catcher and designated hitter platoon at some point this season, but expect that to come in the latter part of spring this season. Though it may be a while before he becomes an everyday backstop, he has the talent and upside to lead the position in HRs for a long time.
Brayan Rocchio (SS-CLE)
Another international signing for the Indians in 2017, Rocchio is among the safer players further down the board due to his exceptional defensive abilities and feel for contact. Though we didn't see him at all in 2020 due to travel limitations, the switch-hitter had a much more splashy season in 2021 when we saw his power materialize to slug 15 HRs while stealing 21 bases. This type of fringy power has seen his stock improve from his original profile into someone who can hit at the top of the order. While I would like to see his walk rate improve, he makes contact so easily that this may never come to fruition. With the tools he has and the realized power potential, Rocchio could post some nice 15/15 lines over his career, but I don't expect to see the high upside power that we see with many of the other SS prospects in the Top 100. After a season that saw him reach AA, a likely 2023 or early 2024 debut seems to be in the cards for the Guardians.
Austin Martin (SS-MIN)
Another in the long line of productive hitters produced by Vanderbilt, Martin was an easy choice by the Blue Jays at the top of the 2020 draft board. A polished hitter, Martin has a strong hit tool, plus plate discipline, and middling power potential. A .370 hitter at Vanderbilt, his first taste of minor-league ball saw him hit for a .270 average, but featured a health 60 walks to 83 Ks in 93 games highlighting the upside he can provide to the top of the lineup. He's also effective enough in the running game where he could threaten for a 15/15 campaign if the power develops. There's a lot of question where his long term home on the field is - he's played all over the diamond in college and minor league ball, and that could impact the value he provide long term. Martin is another of the safer prospects because of his advanced feel for hitting and ability to work counts, even if his power is never fully tapped into at the big league level. I expect to see him make a debut some time during the 2022 season, though he may have to wait to find a full time gig in the Twins lineup.
Tyler Freeman (SS-CLE)
Freeman has an almost unparalleled ability to make contact, and we've seen him place the ball in gaps over four years at the minor league level with high success. Though he's probably a better fit at second base long term (part of the reason he's a little bit lower on the list), his bat to ball ability set him apart from other prospects, even in comparison to Rocchio. Another of the drawbacks on Freeman's profile, however, is the lack of power projection he has, and he's not as willing to draw the free pass - a trend we've seen with some of the other high-contact players here in the AL Central. He also has some sneaky speed, and wouldn't be surprised to steal 10-15 bases regularly in his prime. Depending on what your fifth category is can change his valuation, but Freeman is a prospect that's likely to make his debut for the Guardians some time this season.
Royce Lewis (SS-MIN)
The first overall pick in the 2017 draft has had a bumpy minor league career plagued by injuries and inconsistency at the dish. Lewis was promoted aggressively with reasonable success before mechanical hiccups stalled his development in 2019. He had an excellent Arizona fall campaign that year before a slew of injuries brought his development to a stand still. Lewis hasn't taken the field since 2019, continued to progress in alternate camp in 2020, but an ACL injury abruptly ended his spring training in 2021. It remains to be seen what adjustments he can continue make when he returns to the field this spring as he hasn't progressed above the AA level yet, and lost development time over the last two seasons along with his struggles in 2019 bring question to his prospect pedigree. When healthy, he utilizes all fields with his plus hit tool and power that have seen him hit for 15 HRs in a season along with plus speed that makes him a consistent threat on the bases. There's a possibility that we see him take the field in 2022, but where he ends up playing is as much of a mystery as whether he can continue to make up for his lost development time at the plate.
Jackson Jobe (P-DET)
The top prep arm in the 2021 draft was selected third overall by the Tigers after he shot up draft board by taking an upper 80s fastball into a mid-90s offering with a plus slider. His arsenal continued to improved leading up to the draft as he offers what many scouts feel was the best slider in the draft - a low 80s offering with 3000+ rpm and a change up that shows as an above average third offering. He also features a curveball that flashes, but is unlikely to be a fourth plus pitch at this point. His delivery is easily repeatable, and he has the ability till up the strike zone with ease. There is an associated risk profile that comes with most prep pitchers however, keeping expectations tempered at this point. The 19 year old will likely spend most of this season in A ball, and we shouldn't expect a debut before 2025.
George Valera (OF-CLE)
Of the prospects at this range on the board, Valera has the one of the highest upside potentials in the group. Despite his youth, he has an advanced feel for hitting at the plate paired with outstanding plate discipline and impact power. We saw him explode for 19 HRs last season in 86 games, and there's still room on his frame to add additional power to his game. Valera's work to improve his pitch selection saw him cut down on his strikeout rate as well, giving him a much safer floor than we saw earlier in his career. Despite a strong showing last season, we did see his numbers dip in action against AA pitchers - these numbers include a noted regression in K and walk rates as well. The upside his here for a 25 HR guy that can pair a solid average with an ability to get on base, and if he continues to progress in a similar fashion, we could see him emerge in 2024 for Cleveland.
Asa Lacy (P-KCR)
The Royals wasted no time in making Asa Lacy their number one pick in the 2020 draft as he showcased one of the more dominant seasons pitching in the SEC in recent memory. "Stuff" is something that's never been a problem for the young southpaw who features a mid-90s fastball paired with two plus breaking balls and a surprisingly polished changeup. Command has been a totally different question for Lacy during his career that materialized at Texas A&M, and quickly got out of control last season in A-Ball where he walked 7 batters per 9 innings. Slotted similarly to other left-handed starters on the list with control problems, these prospects have mechanical hurdles that they'll need to overcome to achieve the loft heights their pedigree suggests. Lacy is one of those players as his delivery isn't effortless, causing him to work more than he should have to to harness his arsenal. There's still hope for the young Royals lefty, and if he can make the mechanical adjustments he needs to this season should regain a littler shine on his stock. Either way, I don't expect to see Lacy before the 2024 season, and expectations should be reasonably adjusted.