Five Young Game Changers in NL Central

While many MLB analysts are forecasting the Cardinals as the front runners to win the NL Central, the division will likely be the most competitive in baseball. The X Factor for many teams could be the clubs’ youngest players. Let’s break down the youth that stand a good chance of being their team’s difference makers in 2015.

Cardinals – Kolten Wong

Wong has come a long way from getting picked off to end game four of the 2013 World Series. This guy is a legitimate threat at second base. That’s hard to find.

Kolten Wong
Kolten Wong

He had his ups and downs last year, as his early inconsistency led to a late April demotion.

Was he disappointed? Mad? Of course.

Rather that sulk in his misery, the Cards prospect went down to Memphis and worked. Many young players have a tendency to pout and waste time after they get sent to the minors.

Wong took it in stride and came back a better and more confident player.

Kolten Wong has power, notching 12 home runs last year in 113 games. He’s also lightning fast, being the only Cardinal to boast double digits in stolen bases with 20.

After his first full season in the big leagues ending on a high with a walk off homer in game two of the NLCS, Wong should be coming into this season with the confidence it takes to turn heads.

Pirates – Gregory Polanco

Heralded prospect Gregory Polanco was tearing the cover off the ball in AAA Indianapolis early last season, leaving fans wondering when he’d get his chance in the bigs. In perfect business of baseball fashion, the team waited for after the “Super Two” deadline to promote Polanco.

He showed up as advertised, hitting .338/.416/.441 in his first 16 games after his June promotion. The rookie then started to slide, hitting .201/.272/.311 in his following 73 games. Not great.

There are multiple explanations for Polanco’s downturn. Big league pitchers make adjustments once they receive the scouting report on a guy. Pitchers started to pound him inside with hard stuff and abused him away with junk.

His strikeout and walk rates stayed consistent with his minor league numbers, but he just wasn’t making solid contact. Polanco said this spring that he believes his troubles were based on fatigue. More specifically, that his hands were tired. Playing winter ball in the Dominican and going through a full season took a toll.

Polanco thinks he’ll make the necessary adjustments to have sustained success this year. If he does, the Pirates will be in business. The 6’4″ 235lb slugger is a freak. He has a rocket for an arm, tremendous speed, and he’s still growing into his frame.

If Gregory Polanco is the player the Pirates expect him to be, the best outfield in baseball might be in Pittsburgh.

Brewers – Khris Davis

Prior to last season, the Brewers had so much confidence in Khris Davis that they decided they could trade Nori Aoki and have their star player Ryan Braun change positions to get Davis in the everyday lineup. Davis rewarded the Brewers with 22 home runs and 61 extra base hits, tied for 10th in the NL.

That’s the positive. The negative for Davis is plate discipline.

In 549 plate appearances last season, he walked only 34 times, leaving him with an OBP of .299. That’s a far cry from his career minor league .392 OBP.

Davis carried a minor league reputation as a very patient hitter. Through his first full season in the majors, he was anything but. Maybe he put too much pressure on himself. Regardless, the Brewers believe they’ll see a more selective batter this season.

This guy has what every team around the league is looking for…power.

We’re talking 30-plus home run potential. Only three guys in the National League hit 30 or more last season. Khris Davis might add himself to that list this year.

Reds – Billy Hamilton

56 stolen bases from your leadoff man…Where do I sign?

As a former pitcher, I can tell you the game changes when Hamilton gets on base. Here’s the problem, though…Billy Hamilton has a really tough time getting on base. In 611 plate appearances last year, he walked only 34 times. Not ideal. He also struck out 117 times.

That’s ok if you’re a power hitter. It’s not going to cut it if you’re a major league leadoff hitter.

Billy Hamilton is a tremendous athlete, but he’s still evolving as a baseball player. The Reds are hopeful that a full season of big league experience will springboard him into a more successful 2015. If he’s able to draw more walks and cut down on the punchouts, the Reds are going to score plenty more runs.

Cubs – Kris Bryant

I don’t know about you, but I’m excited to watch this kid play in the big leagues, though we aren’t sure when that will be. Chances are, just like Gregory Polanco last season, it will be sometime after the “Super Two” date has passed. This would give the Cubs another year of control over the young slugger.

Chicago has built their minor league system around a rare commodity in baseball…power bats. They have a lot of them. Kris Bryant might just be head and shoulders above the rest.

Bryant hit 43 home runs in 138 minor league games last season. That’s ridiculous.

I know minor league stats don’t always translate to big league success, but…Wow. As for this spring, Bryant is holding his own, batting .480 with an MLB-leading eight home runs.

This guy is a potential game changer. If the Cubs are smart (pause for laughter), this kid will be in the show soon.

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Listen below to hear why former MLB infielder Alex Cora likes the Cards to win the division.