The balance of power in the American League Central shifted dramatically over the off-season. With the Tigers signing of Prince Fielder and the rebuilding efforts that appear to be underway in several other Central Division cities, the Tigers appear poised to run away with the crown. That development sets the stage for some prospects to make an impact throughout the division, including with the prohibitive favorite Detroit Tigers.
The competition for the fifth spot in the Tigers rotation has long been billed as a battle of three prospects. Left-handers Andy Oliver and Drew Smyly were pitted again right-hander Jacob Turner, with pitchers like Duane Below and Adam Wilk offering less upside and more mediocrity.
With Jacob Turner going down with tendinitis, the battle has been left to Oliver, Smyly and Below. Oliver offers the most impressive raw stuff of the group. His fastball reaches into the mid-90s consistently and he has the ability to blow the ball past hitters up in the zone. Despite that velocity, Oliver lacks a consistent second pitch and his control and command remain poor. He could probably offer some quality innings at the back of the rotation, but it will likely come with some maddening starts, plenty of walks and his fair share of strikeouts.
Smyly on the other hand is more of a command and control guy that mixes pitches successfully and has a deeper arsenal. His feel for pitching and command of the baseball should give him a chance to succeed in the big leagues over the long haul, but as the league develops a “book” on him, he will have to adjust and continue to get outs to maintain his role in 2012.
Jacob Turner is the best prospect of the bunch and many scouts considered him the odds on favorite to land the fifth starter spot. His injury darkens that picture and likely sets his full time Major League arrival back closer to mid-season. His long term potential and combination of stuff and feel give him the best chance to have an actual impact in Detroit this year, provided his arm can handle that challenge.
All three pitchers (four if you count Below) should see Detroit and will likely get starts there this year. While none of them are poised to light the world on fire this season, they should help hold down the back of a contending rotation.
The Chicago White Sox continue to confound me. After trading away several players, including outfielder Carlos Quentin, the club appeared to be in a rebuilding mode, albeit with the worst farm system in the game.
From that farm system there are a host of bullpen arms that could see time in the big leagues in 2012, though less than a handful peak my interest.
Right-hander Addison Reed ranked first on the White Sox Top 15 list and he has a chance to picking up some closing duties on the South Side this year. He has an outstanding fastball, quality breaking ball and the ability to throw enough strikes to succeed in the big leagues right now. He’s the closer of the future for the Sox and that could turn into the closer of the present before the All-Star break.
Fellow right-handers Nathan Jones and Jhan Marinez both offer plenty of arm strength as well. Marinez came over from the Marlins in exchange for Ozzie Guillen. He has mid-90s velocity but it tends to be pretty straight and he doesn’t always know where it’s going. He’s likely to be relegated to middle relief until his control improves but he could pile up some strikeouts in the big leagues this year.
Jones has been toiling away with middling performances in the minor leagues over the last two years, but scouts have noted his impressive velocity when he has his mechanics in order. His secondary pitches and control lag behind, but if he hits a hot streak this year, he could rocket to the big leagues in similar fashion to what Reed did in 2011.
The White Sox have two additional prospects that came over in off-season trades that could see big league time. Starters Simon Castro and Nestor Molina are vastly different prospects but both could help the back of the rotation this year.
For years, Castro’s size and raw stuff has intrigued scouts. He seemed to take a step back in every respect in 2011 and the Padres included him as the better prospect in the Quentin trade. At his best Castro offers a plus fastball that has reached 95 mph at times, and when combined with his occasionally plus slider, he can put hitters away in a hurry. His ceiling rests at the back of the rotation, a role he could fill at some point in 2012 if he finds a consistent delivery that allows him to throw strikes.
In 2011 Molina drew plenty of praise from prospect watchers for his sparkling season in the Blue Jays organization. When he arrived in Chicago after the Sergio Santos trade, he immediately jumped into the top five on the White Sox prospect list, but that was far more a function of the system than his actual ability.
Molina has an outstanding ability to manipulate the fastball, showing the ability to throw a four-seamer with life, a two-seamer with sink and a cutter that can get in on left-handed hitters. He also throws a curveball, slider and change-up that will all work as at least fringe-average pitches. He mixes all of his pitches well and has back of the rotation potential, including a slim shot to reach the big leagues this year.
The Indians are in the midst of a rebuilding effort of their own and they have a few arms that could help this year, particularly in the bullpen. Right-hander
Zach Putnam and Bryce Stowell and left-hander Nick Hagadone all ranked in the Indians Top 15 list and each of the three could see the big leagues this summer.
Hagadone offers the most impact potential, with the raw stuff to pitch in high leverage situations. He has a mid-90s fastball and potential 70-grade slider that could both be devastating pitches from the left side, giving him setup or closer potential depending how his control evolves.
Stowell offers impressive velocity of his own, reaching the upper-90s with regularity. What he lacks is the knockout slider that Hagadone offers and Stowell also missed some time due to injury last year. If healthy, he could find himself in the Cleveland bullpen this summer, helping bridge the gap from the starters to the end of the game.
Putnam pitched seven innings for the Tribe in 2011 and he should get plenty of chances to improve upon his performance (6.14 ERA) in 2012. He has an above-average fastball and plus splitter that he uses to induce groundballs and weak contact. His lack of a true breaking ball or other swing-and-miss pitch leaves him a little short of a high leverage role but he should still be an important relief piece. [Editor's Note: Removed because of my own foolish oversight.]
Kansas City employed several impact prospects in 2011, including first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas, both of whom have the potential to anchor the middle of the Royals next contending lineup.
This year the impact may not be as great at the big league level, but the Royals still have a trio of prospects who should make their big league debuts. Top prospect Will Myers was finally healthy in the fall and he reminded scouts why they were so high on him entering the 2011 season. He could use some time to polish his approach and begin to tap into his power potential, but his arrival in KC should come late this year, and when it does, he has a chance to hit from day one.
Left-hander Mike Montgomery battled consistency in every facet of his game in 2011 and in 2012 he will look to put everything together at Triple-A. The big league starting rotation has room for a talent like Montgomery and he could arrive in Kansas City around mid-season. At his best he can offer an easy plus fastball and curveball from the left side with the ultimate potential to front the Royals’ rotation.
Kelvin Herrera made a brief debut in the big leagues last year after racing through three minor league levels to get there. A little on the small side, Herrera can still get his fastball into the mid- and upper-90s with some effort. He has an above-average change-up that has excellent arm speed and can miss bats regularly. While he may not possess closer potential, he could help fill the sixth and seventh innings this year with an explosive fastball and some strikeouts.
From my vantage point the Minnesota Twins are in a very difficult position. The team is heavily reliant on two players coming off injury-plagued seasons in Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Without those two in the middle of the lineup, the team has a serious lack of offense and a pitching staff that while solid, isn’t so spectacular as to overcome those offensive deficiencies. Adding onto that, their minor league system is heavier on low-level talent that wont’ be ready to help this year.
Two prospects that could play a significant role in the Twin Cities in 2012 are outfielder Joe Benson and infielder Brian Dozier. Dozier has an incredible feel for hitting to go along with the all-out style of play that could keep him in manager Ron Gardenhire’s lineup on a daily basis. His abilities in the field are somewhat of a question, but most scouts do believe he can handle second base everyday in 2012.
Benson has far more impressive tools than Dozier, but has yet to put everything together for them to play in game situations consistently. Benson has shown well this spring and he could surprise Twins fans with impressive power and speed that may make him a 15-homer, 15-steal candidate as early as this season.
With many prognosticators all but handing the Central Division to the Tigers before a regular season game is even played, one may wonder what exactly is worth watching in the Central this year. With rebuilding efforts underway in Chicago and Cleveland, and the continued arrival of impact prospects in Kansas City, things could remain very interesting if you look past the standings and project out a couple of years.