The dig against the American League Central has been the same for the last couple of years: Too many rebuilding teams. Philosophically, the days of teams trying to stockpile veteran free agents to compete with the star-studded Tigers are over. The flip side of that complaint, however, is a wave of young talent on the way across the division.
Three of baseball’s top-10 farm systems belong to AL Central clubs, according to MLB Pipeline. The young talent is beginning to arrive, from Eloy Jimenez in Chicago to Christin Stewart in Detroit to Shane Bieber in Cleveland to the resurgence of Byron Buxton in Minnesota. More gifted prospects are on the way.
Fast-forward a few years, and it isn’t hard to envision a scrum of up-and-coming young teams battling for division titles and postseason success. Here are some players to keep an eye on, coming soon.
Indians: OF Oscar Mercado
The Indians have a handful of Minor Leaguers among their Top 30 Prospects who could potentially get the call this season, including catcher Eric Haase (No. 29), infielder Yu Chang (No. 11) and outfielders Mercado (No. 19) and Daniel Johnson (No. 22). But after the showing Mercado had at big league Spring Training, working his way into the discussion of potentially breaking camp with the Tribe, he may be the first invited to The Show.
The outfield has been the biggest question mark for the Tribe this season and Mercado could be the answer, although the signing of Carlos Gonzalez could push Mercado back a little later than when he would’ve originally been brought up. The 24-year-old hit .400/.415/.750 with three doubles, one triple, three homers and nine RBIs at big league camp and got off to a solid start at Triple-A Columbus, hitting .308 with three RBIs through the team’s first three games. Along with his bat, Mercado’s plus speed and defense may make him the missing piece in the Indians’ lineup.
Royals: RHP Arnaldo Hernandez
The Royals have a few prospects at Triple-A Omaha who could be knocking on the door, including middle infielder Nicky Lopez (No. 8 per MLB Pipeline) and right-hander Hernandez (No. 26). The Royals won’t be afraid to call up prospects this season, as evidenced by their callup of No. 16 prospect, left-hander Richard Lovelady, on Tuesday.
Hernandez, 23, from Venezuela, has flown under the radar for most of his career since signing in 2012. But Hernandez began quickly rising through the system two years ago. He had a 3.55 ERA At Triple-A Omaha in 10 games in 2018. He has thrown four innings in one start this season and given up one run. Hernandez, who has a fastball that can touch 98 mph, impressed Royals manager Ned Yost throughout Spring Training.
“Got really good stuff,” Yost said. “Definitely on our radar.”
Tigers: CF Daz Cameron
Cameron opened eyes with his two-way play last summer and carried it into the Arizona Fall League, which vaulted him to No. 5 on MLB Pipeline’s Tigers prospect list. After a standout Spring Training left an impression on manager Ron Gardenhire, Cameron is keeping it up at Triple-A Toledo, batting 6-for-20 with five RBIs and five runs scored through five games for the Mud Hens. He fell a triple shy of the cycle with three RBIs on Tuesday in a performance that reminded some of his father, former Gold Glove center fielder Mike Cameron.
The Tigers want to give Cameron time to learn in Toledo, like they did with Stewart last year. They also want to give JaCoby Jones more time to try to figure things out in Detroit. But the more Cameron performs, the more the 22-year-old pushes his timetable for a Tigers team that needs dynamic position players to complement a bevy of young pitchers.
“This guy, he’s got it going on,” Gardenhire said in Spring Training. “He’s going to be a really, really good player. He’s already a good player. He’s going to be even better, I think.”
Twins: OF/1B Brent Rooker
Though Rooker is only 4-for-24 (.167) to begin the Minor League season in his first taste of Triple-A, two of his four hits have left the yard, as the Twins' No. 6 prospect continues to showcase impressive power after finishing second in the Southern League with 22 homers for Double-A Chattanooga last season. Rooker, who has continued to develop at both first base and in the outfield, has been a quick riser through the Twins' system since he was drafted in the Competitive Balance A Round of the 2017 MLB Draft and hit a pair of homers in Spring Training as part of his first invite to big league camp.
White Sox: OF Luis Robert
It took Robert, the No. 39 prospect overall, per MLB Pipeline, two at-bats in 2019 to top his entire home run total from 2018. Robert produced great results with Class A Advanced Winston-Salem in the season’s first week, with 11 hits in his first 26 at-bats, four homers overall, 12 RBIs, two doubles and three stolen bases. If not for a pair of thumb injuries limiting him to 186 at-bats overall in ’18, the 21-year-old could be pushing for a chance in the Majors this season. He has Major League-ready tools presently, but at the very least, look for him to be a quick riser through the system with the White Sox being a distinct possibility for 2020.