Detroit Tigers fans have become familiar with keeping tabs on top prospects over the last several years. With many familiar top prospects in the AL Central graduating to the MLB, it’s time to take a stab at finding the next wave of lower-minors players that will become MLB regulars.
The AL Central currently has no shortage of top prospect firepower. Recent Detroit Tigers callups Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal both project as rotation stalwarts in the coming years, with Matt Manning not far behind. Twins shortstop Royce Lewis is a potential five-tool star. The White Sox are counting on Nick Madrigal and Andrew Vaughn to form a strong tandem on the right side of the infield for years to come. Of course, flamethrower Michael Kopech is also in the fold for Chicago once he is healthy.
The top tier of prospects that will replace these players on AL Central top prospects lists is apparent. Rising Tigers stars Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson are ready to replace the young Tigers pitchers at the top of the list of players fans can’t wait to see. George Valera and Nolan Jones of the Indians, as well as Bobby Witt Jr. of the Royals, are certainly making their fair share of prospect noise as well. However, there are also some relatively unknown players in the division that have a chance to be really good MLB players.
The Next Wave
Projecting prospects is extremely difficult, especially those that are so far away from the MLB. Detroit Tigers fans have seen this first-hand, as once-promising rotation hopefuls like Beau Burrows and Kyle Funkhouser have lost their momentum and are now relegated to low-leverage bullpen innings. Meanwhile, Skubal pinned his ears back and shot up Tigers’ prospect boards over his time in the minors, leaving behind his poor draft pedigree and recent Tommy John surgery. That being said, there are some tremendous publicly available resources, like FanGraphs, to help sort through the massive crop of minor league hopefuls.
Many of the next top prospects are likely players in college and high school that have yet to be drafted. However, there are some promising prospects in the lower levels of the minors that could rise to the top. The following players have some combination of physical projection, pedigree, and loud tools that give them a shot at being in the next group of AL Central top prospects.
Daniel Espino, SP, CLE
Cleveland has a well-documented history of developing pitchers. In the past few seasons, the organization has developed Cy Young favorite Shane Bieber, as well as promising young pitchers Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac.
Teenage pitchers are the riskiest breed of prospect, but Espino has the arm strength and craftiness, even as a 19-year-old, to command real excitement about his future. He touches 99 miles per hour with his fastball and has flashed a plus slider and curveball. Look for Espino to become more consistent on his way to becoming the next developmental success story for the Indians.
Lenny Torres, SP, CLE
Similar to Espino, Lenny Torres is another Cleveland Indians teenage pitching prospect. Torres, who the Indians selected with pick 41 in the 2018 draft, can hit mid-to-high 90s with his fastball. He complements the fastball with a tight slider that has shown flashes of becoming above-average and a changeup that he hasn’t had to throw much in his limited pro ball experience.
The key for Torres will be to refine his fastball command. He struggled to throw strikes at times in high school, though FanGraphs remains optimistic that he can develop average command. Like most high school pitchers, durability is also a concern for Torres. At 6’1 190, he is about 25 pounds lighter than Espino and may need to add to his frame in order to withstand the workload of a long pro season.
Brayan Rocchio, SS, CLE
Rocchio is a talented defensive shortstop with plus bat-to-ball skills. He produced a 107 WRC+ in low A ball last year, despite only being 18 years old. His ability to put the bat on the ball led to an impressive 13 percent strikeout rate, especially for a young player of his age.
The key to Rocchio’s development will be his physical maturation. Rocchio is currently listed as 5’10 150 and it is unclear how much more he will grow or whether his frame will allow him to add some thickness. If he is able to grow a bit more and put on some muscle to help in the power department, Rocchio has a shot at developing into a five-tool player for the Indians.
Erick Pena, OF, KCR
Peña was one of the most highly-touted international prospects available in the 2019 signing period before signing with the Royals for nearly 4 million dollars. Despite still being 17 years old, he is extremely physically advanced for his age, standing at 6’3 180.
Peña has yet to play a game in the minors, but, by all accounts, his large frame and sweet swing allow Royals fans to dream on his offensive upside. Kings of Kauffman discussed some potential outcomes for Peña, suggesting that he has the tools to become a middle of the order hitter for the Royals.
Misael Urbina, OF, MIN
Minnesota signed Urbina during the International signing period in 2018, and, since then, all he has done is impress. In his debut season in rookie ball last year, Urbina showed off his bat control, striking out only 6.5 percent of the time.
Moving forward, he projects more as a line-drive hitter than a masher. That being said, FanGraphs believes he can develop average power. There are question marks about whether Urbina will be able to play up the middle in the MLB as he grows and fills out, but his advanced approach and barrel control give him a chance to make an impact even if he is relegated to the corners defensively.
Bryant Packard, OF, DET
Referring to Packard as one of the next top prospects in the division may be a bit of a stretch, as he doesn’t have the full package of tools that evaluators often look for when grading top prospects. Packard will be relegated to the corner of the diamond on defense, where the Tigers hope he can hold his own. He is certainly not a burner out of the box and he won’t win you any games with his speed.
That being said, Packard’s bat has a chance to be good enough to carry him to becoming an MLB regular. He has legitimate above-average power and he has shown a good feel for the barrel in his time in the lower minors. Cutting back on strikeouts will have to be a point of emphasis for Packard, as he struck out nearly 25% of the time in 2019. The sample size is admittedly small with only 160 professional at-bats under his belt, but his track record shows he can hit. Not to mention, Packard has a great personality and is a fun guy to root for. He has the makings of a future fan-favorite in Detroit.