The lockout is still in full effect, and if the MLB Player’s Association’s latest tweet is any indication, it appears that some serious headway has to take place over the next week to ensure that the MLB regular season starts on time:
As an optimistic baseball fan, I am trying to minimize my worry about the season starting on time (especially as someone who just got a more robust season ticket package this year). And thus, I’m trying to think about possible things to look forward to in Spring Training, both in the Cactus and Grapefruit League, whenever that should begin for MLB clubs.
(On a positive note, Minor League Spring Training has begun, as evidenced by some Tweets of Bobby Witt, Jr. surfacing on social media.)
So, in this post, I am going to take a look at one impact “prospect” from each AL Central club (including the Royals) who Royals and baseball fans should be paying attention to this Spring, especially once the lockout ends.
When I say “impact”, I mean that these are prospects who not only will make noise in Spring Training play but could be a productive hitter or pitcher for their respective clubs in 2022 and beyond after not making much (if any) of an impact last season.
Therefore, let’s take a look at the five prospects to watch out for in the AL Central, doing so in city alphabetical order.
Chicago White Sox: Jake Burger, 3B/2B
The White Sox system is running on fumes, as Baseball America ranked the South Siders last in their 2022 organizational rankings.
Honestly, it makes sense.
The White Sox are currently competing not just for an AL Central crown (which they won last year), but they also are looking for their first return to the World Series since winning it all in 2005. They are obviously in win-now mode, and their current farm system reflects that, with most of their top prospects in the lower levels of their farm system.
That being said, if there is one prospect to watch in the upper levels who could have an impact on the White Sox this Spring and in 2022, it may be Jake Burger, who made his return to baseball last season after not playing since the 2017 season due to various injuries and a lost Minor League season in 2020.
A former first-round pick by the White Sox out of Missouri State in 2017, Burger was a Top-100 prospect according to Baseball America going into 2018, not an easy feat considering how loaded the White Sox system was with Yoán Moncada, Eloy Jimenez, and Luis Robert all still prospects. However, an Achilles injury suffered in Spring Training in 2018 not only put him out for the entire regular season that year but also had effects in 2019, as his heel struggled to recover post-injury and surgery.
After being added to the 40-man roster in 2021, Burger posted a .274/.332/.513 slash with 18 home runs and 54 RBI in 82 games in Triple-A Charlotte. He eventually got called up to the White Sox later in the season due to his stellar performance in Triple-A (in addition to the injury issues Chicago dealt with last year). He held his own, posting a .263/.333/.474 line in 15 games and 42 plate appearances in his Big League debut.
At first glance, he seems blocked at his natural position, as Moncada is slated to be the White Sox’s starting third baseman, and Leury Garcia is slotted in at second, according to Roster Resource. That being said, Moncada has gone through his fair share of nagging issues the past couple of seasons, and Garcia may be better utilized in a multi-position role off the bench rather than as an everyday player.
Thus, if Burger gets off to a strong start in Spring Training, or if Garcia struggles, it would not be surprising to see Burger fill in at the hot corner in the White Sox starting lineup, which would result in Moncada switching back to second base.
Cleveland Guardians: Nolan Jones, 3B/RF
Jones has been one of Cleveland’s top prospects for a while now, but he is blocked by superstar Jose Ramirez at third base and is coming off a ho-hum campaign in Triple-A Columbus. Despite being a Top-100 overall ranked prospect by most prospect experts, Jones put up a .238/.356/.431 line with 13 home runs and 10 stolen bases in 99 games 407 plate appearances with the Clippers.
Jones did post a wRC+ of 113 in Columbus, which is encouraging. Furthermore, Jones has a patient eye at the plate, as evidenced by his 14.5 percent walk rate last season in Triple-A. Unfortunately, his 30 percent K rate is concerning, and he has struggled with swings and whiffs at various points over his Minor League career.
That being said, his power tool is tantalizing, as evidenced in this opposite-field home run last season against Memphis:
Cleveland doesn’t seem intent on moving Ramirez anytime soon, so Jones’ best bet to make the Opening Day roster may be in the outfield.
The Guardians as an organization seem to value defense in the outfield, and it is likely that they will continue to employ Bradley Zimmer and Myles Straw in the outfield because of that (even though both Zimmer and Straw have their offensive limitations). However, the last outfield spot could be up for grabs this Spring.
Roster Resource doesn’t seem to believe that Oscar Mercado is capable of being an everyday outfielder. Additionally, while Steven Kwan is intriguing (and slated to be Cleveland’s starting left fielder according to Roster Resource), I am not sure if he has even a modicum of the upside as Jones (Kwan seems to be more of a high-contact fourth-outfielder type).
Jones will need to hold his own not just at the plate, but also defensively in the outfield if he wants to have a shot to be starting in one of the corner outfield spots in Cleveland on Opening Day. While the odds may be slightly against him due to his lack of familiarity at the position, Jones does have the athleticism to at least handle the outfield, even if he may not be at the defensive level of Straw or Zimmer.
Detroit Tigers: Spencer Torkelson, 1B/3B
Last season, the Tigers seemed to have a rotating door at first base with veterans Jonathan Schoop and Miguel Cabrera each seeing time there in 2021. Unfortunately for the Tigers, I am not sure that organization wants to continue that platoon in the long-term.
Cabrera is in the twilight years of his career, as he hit .256 last season with only 15 home runs and a slugging percentage under .400. As for Schoop, while he hit .278 and hit 22 home runs in 674 plate appearances with Detroit a year ago, he would have more value at the keystone position, especially since they didn’t get much from Willi Castro (.220 average) a year ago.
Therefore, it seems like the opportunity may be now for Spencer Torkelson, who’s been the Tigers’ most high profile prospect the past couple of seasons after being drafted No. 1 overall in the 2020 MLB Draft.
Torkelson is one of Minor League Baseball’s best pure hitters, as he not only played at three levels a season ago (High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A), but he also mashed at those levels as well.
In 121 total Minor League games in 2021, Torkelson crushed 30 home runs, and he also posted wRC+ marks of 171, 148, and 129 in High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A, respectively.
Even in Arizona Fall League play, Torkelson put up an OPS of 1.157 in 28 plate appearances with Salt River, and his overall hitting wowed fans and scouts alike (demonstrated in this highlight clip of Torkelson from AFL play below):
The Tigers seem to be ready to take the next step up in the AL Central standings after going through a bit of a rebuilding process. After hiring AJ Hinch as manager last season, they acquired former Boston pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez and former Cubs and Mets infielder Javy Baez this offseason, and they may have another deal left in them, as they were linked in talks with Carlos Correa prior to the lockout.
Torkelson will play at first base in 2022 if the Tigers feel that he will help them win now. And thus, this Spring will be an important one for him both in the short and long term.
If he mashes in Spring Training, it will be hard for the Tigers to leave him in the Minors, especially with a dearth of options available at first base on the 40-man roster. Roster Resource projects him to be the Tigers’ Opening Day first baseman. Even though he’s not currently on the 40-man roster, Torkelson starting for Detroit at first on Opening Day seems highly likely, unless GM Al Avila makes another splash in free agency prior to the start of Spring Training.
Kansas City Royals: Bobby Witt, Jr. SS/3B
I wanted to go another route and push for someone else to watch, especially since I talk so much about Witt on this blog. However, as a Royals fan, I had to be honest with myself.
There is no prospect in the Royals system who is more anticipated than Witt, Jr. this Spring.
And to add upon that, there probably isn’t a current Royals prospect who has a better shot at earning an Opening Day starting position than Witt, Jr. as well.
Nick Pratto still has to battle Carlos Santana, Hunter Dozier, and possibly Ryan O’Hearn for innings at first base this Spring. MJ Melendez, though on the 40-man roster, is for now still a fourth-catcher, behind backups Cam Gallagher and Sebastian Rivero, who both saw time as backups to Salvy in 2021.
Witt, Jr. on the other hand only has to battle Adalberto Mondesi and Emmanuel Rivera at the hot corner this Spring. Additionally, it’s unclear what the Royals will do with Mondesi in 2022, as it is possible that he could see some time in the outfield or even designated hitter, with the latter being a strategy to help preserve his health long-term.
Even Roster Resource is projecting that Witt Jr., will be the Royals’ starting third baseman on Opening Day (and batting in the five-hole as well).
Even though he’s not on the 40-man roster, it will be hard to leave Witt, Jr. off by the end of March, especially if he mashes in Cactus League play like he did back in 2021.
Furthermore, it only bodes well in his favor that he is getting work in at Royals camp in Surprise, Arizona while other Royals players on the 40-man roster have stay at home, due to the lockout (non-40 man players in the Royals system aren’t affected).
The eyes of all Royals fans will be on Witt, Jr., whenever Cactus League play begins in 2022…
And no other Royals prospect comes even close.
Minnesota Twins: Jhoan Duran, SP
Over the past year, the Twins’ pitching staff has seen a lot of “re-tooling” to say the least.
On Opening Day in 2021, the Twins rotation was spearheaded by Kenta Maeda, Jose Berrios, and Michael Pineda with free agent JA Happ and system product Randy Dobnak rounding out the starting pitching staff. In all honesty, before the 2021 started, it seemed like the Twins had one of the stronger rotations in the AL Central, up there with Chicago and Cleveland.
Fast forward a year later and the Minnesota rotation looks vastly different and not in a good way.
Berrios was traded away to Toronto and is still with the Blue Jays, who are looking to be a playoff team in 2022. Pineda and Happ are free agents, and Maeda is likely going to miss considerable time in 2022 as he recovers from injury. Dobnak is still with the Twins, but it is questionable what his role will be, as he struggled in 2021 after a promising 2020.
Now, the Twins are relying on their young arms, with Bailey Ober and Joe Ryan leading the way, and a lot of other question marks filling out the remainder of the rotation for 2022.
And no question mark is bigger than Duran, a Top-100 prospect who has struggle with injury the past couple of seasons.
Duran was added to the 40-man roster prior to the 2020 season, but a lost Minor League season due to COVID and an injury shutting him down in 2021 after only 16 innings in Triple-A St. Paul has left him with only one Minor League option left as he enters the 2022 season.
Due to his injury, it seems unlikely that Duran will be in the Twins Opening Day rotation. However, if he can prove this Spring that he’s healthy, it may not take long for Minnesota to bring him up from St. Paul, especially with such a lack of options at the back end of the rotation.
When healthy, Duran sports an intimidating profile, especially with a 6’5 frame, and a fastball that clocks in at over 100 MPH. The control has been a bit of an issue for Duran over his Minor League career, and that was evident in his brief time with the Saints last year, as he posted a walk rate of 17.3 percent and K/BB ratio of 1.69.
That being said, when he’s on, Duran can be absolutely dominant, as evidenced in this performance against the Iowa Cubs a season ago:
The Twins will likely take it slow with Duran to begin 2022, especially with expectations low after they finished in last place in the AL Central in 2021. Roster Resource is projecting him to begin the year again Triple-A St. Paul, where he could pitch along Jordan Balazovic, who is also a Top-100 overall prospect, according to Fangraphs.
Even though he will be starting in Triple-A, Duran is still worth paying close attention to this Spring, as he could be the key for this Twins rotation and team overall, especially if they want to escape the Central division cellar in 2022.
Photo Credit: Ralph Freso/Getty Images