The Come Up: Central Divisions a Prospect Powder Keg

The typically mediocre AL & NL Central look like a '24 prospect hotbed.

In terms of pure output, recent years have not been kind to either the National League or American League Central divisions. Neither division has put a team in the World Series since 2016. That year famously saw the Chicago Cubs win their first title in over a century over Cleveland (a rare sight of two clubs from MLB Central Divisions succeeding in the same year). Since then, only the 2017 Cubs, 2018 Milwaukee Brewers, and 2019 St. Louis Cardinals have progressed past the divisional round. Those teams, however, won only a combined four games among them (three of them coming from Milwaukee) in the NLCS.

Best guess is that the trend doesn’t change that much in 2024. Both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus project the Minnesota Twins to win the most out of the two divisions. The former has them at 87 and the latter at 89. St. Louis follows them with 83 from FanGraphs and 85 from BP (oddly, each projection equals enough to win their division). Beyond that, the expectation remains profound mediocrity where the standings are concerned.

Mind you, that doesn’t mean that the respective MLB Central Divisions won’t be worth watching. That may have been the case in years of a more recent vintage. However, there is enough prospect pedigree ready to break through into the Major League ranks that could flip the script for these two division lineups. It won’t necessarily make them more competitive. But it could make them must-see television for a group of teams that has been anything but since 2016.


Big Picture


The MLB Central Divisions feature 40 of the Top 100 Prospects in baseball, according to MLB Pipeline. The Cubs lead the way with seven of that total, followed by Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati all sporting five. Minnesota, Detroit, and Cleveland each have four. St. Louis has three, the Chicago White Sox have a pair, and the Kansas City Royals have one on the board. Twenty-two of the 40 have an ETA of 2024. Simple math that shakes out very positively in matters of watchability.

It should be noted that some of the names listed have already made their big league debut. The Cardinals’ Masyn Winn is one. Noelvi Marte in Cincinnati is another. The Cubs’ Pete Crow-Armstrong and Michael Busch each debuted (albeit with the latter still in Los Angeles). Another two — Milwaukee’s Jackson Chourio and Colt Keith in Detroit — have already signed big extensions and should be rostered on Opening Day 2024.

So the divisions have the volume. But in order to determine what exactly will take these divisions from Bad and Uninteresting to Not Quite Good but I’m Dialed requires us to parse through specific skill sets and larger roster context. As such, we’ll sort the rookies into three categories.

First, we’ve got the Movers and Shakers. The guys that will make a genuine impact and be present in their respective Rookie of the Year race. They’re not only a lock for an extended run with the top club, but a large role. Then we’ve got the Josephs. Named for the long-form version of a cup of coffee (or Joe, in the vernacular), these guys will get at least an opportunity for regular playing time, be it in April or in August. They’ll start with no real guarantee but will have every opportunity to latch onto a starting spot. We’ll wrap up with the guys on legitimately bad teams, but their presence alone makes them worth a split screen on MLB.TV.


Impact Level: Movers & Shakers


Names: Jackson Chourio (MIL), Colt Keith (DET), Noelvi Marte (CIN), Paul Skenes (PIT)

The three position players noted here are each projected to finish as the top rookie at their position. Skenes likely would be if his timeline wasn’t so uncertain. So even if none of these four teams are projected to reach the postseason, there’s going to be a sizeable impact here.

Each of Chourio and Keith has already signed big extensions. Chourio is MLB Pipeline’s No. 2 prospect, with power to all fields and speed to make him a multi-dimensional threat. Even in a crowded Milwaukee outfield, he should be the standout. On a Milwaukee team that seems to win every year in a relatively unexciting fashion, Chourio’s skill set is loud and should make them a much more visually engaging ballclub.

Keith isn’t on quite the same level tools-wise, but let’s not pretend like there are a bunch of offensive stalwarts in the Detroit lineup. With decent power from the left side and a demonstrated ability to go opposite field in his time with the minors, Keith can be an ISO monster in his rookie year. And as an objective observer, what else do you want from a hitter?

Marte is the exception here, as he did see major league time last year. But he’s got a real chance to latch onto the third base gig in a crowded infield mix. Marte is interesting because he’s enigmatic. He’s flashed power. He’s flashed speed. But the only thing we’ve seen consistently is the hit tool. The potential for more dramatic things makes him a tantalizing addition to an already enjoyable lineup.

Skenes could be the real treasure here, though. Last year’s No. 1 overall pick vaulted to Double-A before year’s end. He has a triple-digit heater and a devastating slider. The Pirates are hoping to be competitive. It’s almost too simple. He’s going to appear at some point in 2024. Even if contention is a fool’s hope for the Bucs this year, Skenes pitching in semi-meaningful games will be too tasty a treat to avoid.


Impact Level: Josephs


Names: Pete Crow-Armstrong (CHC), Cade Horton (CHC), Masyn Winn (STL), Joey Ortiz (MIL), Brooks Lee (MIN)

There is more variance with this group than the top four guys. The mix features some who could start Day 1 and others who might need another crack in the minors before nabbing a big league job.

Pete Crow-Armstrong is an interesting case study within that concept. He could absolutely man centerfield on Opening Day. His bat looked woeful in a minuscule sample, but when you play the level of elite defense that he does, though, will my eyeballs care? That’s PCA’s signature, anyway. And it ensures he’ll be around, it’s just a matter of the timeline. Should the Cubs bring back Cody Bellinger, then that might push it back a bit.

Within the same organization lies one of the game’s upper-tier pitching prospects. Cade Horton should appear at some point in 2024, whether as a starter or maybe a multi-inning reliever with the top club. What will make him appealing is that he stands in contrast to most of what’s happening with this current staff. Light on velocity, Horton brings a high-90s fastball with movement. The Cubs haven’t seen an injection of energy like that in a pitching prospect since, well…

Winn and Ortiz are in similar spots in that they will each get the first crack at an Opening Day roster spot. Each team does have contingencies, though, if more seasoning is needed. Winn at short, Ortiz at third for now. Winn has decent power, but it’s his speed and his arm that will make him a joy to watch. A defense-obsessed individual like myself might just faint at the first ball he fields in the 5-6 hole. Not entirely dissimilar defensively, Ortiz will get his shot due to his hands and instincts. At the hot corner, both will be an asset for Ortiz and provide massive visual appeal for us.

And if hands and instincts are your thing, let me introduce you to Brooks Lee. While he doesn’t have a spot on the Minnesota infield yet, his hit tool and the aforementioned defensive skill set mean he likely will before 2024’s out. That’ll be a nice change of pace for a Minnesota squad that is only mildly interesting for its offense and not so much its defense.


Impact Level: MLB.TV Worthy


Names: Kyle Manzardo (CLE), Brayan Rocchio (CLE), Colson Montgomery (CWS)

Neither Manzardo nor Rocchio is expected to get the lion’s share of time at their respective positions to start the year. But they’ll be interesting once they slot in. Manzardo is a pure hitter. He doesn’t have massive power for a first baseman, but his hit-to-all-fields approach should be really entertaining on a Cleveland team short on offense. Rocchio built an early reputation for being cerebral, which should be entertaining to watch on the infield and on the basepaths.

Which brings us, finally, to Colson Montgomery. There is almost nothing about the Chicago White Sox in the upcoming season that will make them interesting (other than Dylan Cease’s eventual new team). Montgomery should be able to take over the starting spot at the six sometime in 2024. He’s drawn comparisons to Corey Seager. Need I say more?


Dawn of Contention Entertainment


I’ve had a steady rotation of teams I typically watch for the last few seasons, outside of my “favorite”. Teams that have the right mix of defense or pitching or new faces that make them appealing to watch. I’m looking for the fun. Never in my wildest dreams would a Pittsburgh or a Cincinnati be in that rotation. In the name of fun, though, there’s zero chance I’m missing a Paul Skenes start or a couple of plate appearances from Jackson Chourio.

And that’s really what we’re all after in today’s MLB, right? So few teams are actually trying to compete that we become starved for something new and/or entertaining. The MLB Central Divisions are a living contrast. No team is actively trying to win, especially up against their coastal counterparts. What they are giving us in 2024, however, is an absolute ton of fun on which our eyeballs can feast.

Randy Holt

Randy Holt is a staff writer for Pitcher List & a depth charts analyst for Baseball Prospectus. He's a self-identified Cubs fan who has become more agnostic, instead obsessing about quality defensive baseball wherever he can find it. Randy has a sport management degree from the University of Florida, as well as degrees from Embry-Riddle & Arizona State. When not wasting away on the husk of Twitter/X, Randy is a high school English teacher & a baseball and golf coach.

One response to “The Come Up: Central Divisions a Prospect Powder Keg”

  1. Josiah DeBoer says:

    I suspect that for most of the past decade, the Central divisions have had an outsized number of high-level prospects because, for most of the past decade, the central divisions have had numerous rebuilding teams. I suspect that the reason that these teams aren’t winning consistently is primarily due to payrolls – only the Cubs have a reputation as big spenders and, beyond them, only the White Sox and Cardinals consistently carry even average payrolls. Each of the other SEVEN teams is regularly in the bottom third of baseball in terms of spending (arguably the Twins are closer to the Cardinals than the other seven, but they seem pretty committed to slashing payroll moving forward).

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