NL Central Top Prospects 2012: Who’s Hot and Who’s Not, April Edition

As hard as it is to imagine, the first full month of the minor league baseball season is in the books. And while much baseball has yet to be played, we can already start to gauge the stock of many of the game’s top young prospects.

In February, we went ahead and ranked the top 20 prospects in the National League Central division.  With May already here, how have many of those prospects performed and which youngsters who didn’t manage to crack our preseason list have impressed and disappointed thus far? Let’s find out.

Hot: Jameson Taillon

April Line (A+ Brandenton): 0-1, 1.93 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, .176 BAA, .273 BABIP, 1.44 FIP, 11.6 K/9, 1.4 BB/9, 5.8 H/9 (4 GS)

Arguably the most prized arm featured in the Pirates’ system, Taillon has looked nothing short of stellar early on in his second full minor league season, showing obvious improvements in command and a real ability to hold hitters in check.

Through his first four starts of the season, the lanky yet still athletic 6’6″, 225 pound righty leads all Florida State League starters in strikeouts per walks (8.00), third in WHIP (0.80) and also comes in as fourth in hits per nine innings pitched (5.8). Additionally, his strikeout rate of 32.7 percent ranks third overall and his impressive 1.44 FIP currently ranks second.  If Taillon continues to produce at such a high level across the board, the Pirates will have no choice but to promote him to double-A by season’s end.

Not: Zack Cox

April Line (AAA Memphis):.203/.253/.351, 2 HR, 3 RBI, 6 R, .149 ISO, 53 wRC+ (79 PA)

One of the premier offensive talents featured in the 2010 draft, Cox has steadily progressed through the Cardinals’ system since his rookie season as a 21 year old. Now 23, Cox has already made his way to triple-A ball to start this season. Unfortunately, he hasn’t exactly lit up opposing pitching the way the Cardinals would have probably liked to see.

In 79 plate appearances this season, the Arkansas Southern product has seen his strikeout rate spike tremendously from where it was last season. In 2011, Cox garnered a strikeout rate of 16.9 percent between high-A and double-A ball. This season, he’s upped that to a healthy 24.1 percent. Add in his porous .264 wOBA thus far, and it’s clear that he’s labored against upper-echelon minor league pitching.

Hot: Billy Hamilton

April Line (A+ Bakersfield): .398/.481/.591, HR, 10 RBI, 24 R, 29 SB, .202 ISO, 216 wRC+ (104 PA)

The Reds aren’t terribly deep on the farm as far as positional prospects are concerns, but Hamilton clearly stands out as a elite-level talent at all phases of his game.

In his first career go-around against advanced-A pitching this season, the speedy utility infielder has greatly improved his suspect hitting abilities across the board.  Last season, Hamilton flashed little to no power  against low-A pitching, posting a slugging percentage of .360 and .082 ISO. This season, he’s absolutely crushed the ball while lowering his strikeout rate (17%) by nearly five points and elevating his walk rate (14%) by over five points.

To top it all off, the 21-year-old Mississippi native has nabbed 29 stolen bases in just 23 games. It will be interesting to see if he’ll surpass his 103 stolen base total from last season.

Not: Brett Jackson

April Line (AAA Iowa): .233/.330/.419, 2 HR, 8 RBI, 11 R, 4 SB, .186 ISO, 105 wRC+ (100 PA)

Easily the top positional prospect in the Cubs’ system at this point, Jackson has gotten off to a slow start early in his fourth professional season.

Widely considered as a legitimate five-tool prospect, Jackson has struggled at the plate early on this season. After posting a solid .297 BA and outstanding .254 ISO in 215 plate appearances at the triple-A level last season, Jackson has witnessed a noticeable drop in both categories, posting a .233 BA and .186 ISO in exactly 100 plate appearances this season.

Despite his early struggles this season, a permanent big league promotion doesn’t seem too far off at this juncture. If he doesn’t improve his plate discipline from now until then, however, it will be tough for him to succeed a the top of Chicago’s lineup.

Hot: Anthony Rizzo

April Line (AAA Iowa): .373/.420/.693, 7 HR, 19 RBI, 15 R, SB, .338 ISO, 208 wRC+ (81 PA)

Brought over to Chicago this past winter along with new president of baseball operations Theo Epstien, Rizzo has given the Cubs every reason to believe he’s their first baseman of the future so far this season.

The 6’3″, 220 pound Fort Lauderdale native has absolutely crushed Pacific Coast League pitching this season, showing that he can hit for power as well as for average. His scintillating .693 slugging percentage ranks fifth-best among all PCL hitters and his 1.113 OPS falls just behind Mike Trout for eighth-best.

There were question marks regarding Rizzo’s big-league future after posting a .141 BA and .102 ISO in 153 plate appearances last season with the San Diego Padres. However, if his hot-hitting down on the farm persists, it won’t be long before he make his debut for the Cubs.

Not: Jonathan Villar

April Line (AA Corpus Christi): .207/.258/.264, 7 RBI, 10 R, 11 SB, .059 ISO, 53 wRC+ (91 PA)

One of the handful of prospects the Astros acquired through the Roy Oswalt trade in 2010, Villar has made a name for himself as an elite defensive shortstop with exceptional range. However, the one thing that has been in question thus far in his career has been his inconsistencies at the plate, and they’ve been on full display early this season.

In his first few games in double-A ball, Villar has struggled with strikeouts and his ability to get on base. In 91 plate appearances, the 20-year-old Dominican native has posted a strikeout rate of 26 percent and a walk rate of just 6.6. He’s moreover generated concerns with his power, garnering just a .055 ISO that ranks second-worst among all Texas League shortstops.

There’s no doubting that Villar has tremendous upside as an all-around baseball player. Great defensive range, speed on the bases and adequate hitting abilities all work in his favor. However, he’ll need to right his early-season struggles from a power standpoint if he’s set on breaking through to Houston’s infield.

Hot: Oscar Taveras

April Line (AA Springfield): .330/.358/.659, 6 HR, 20 RBI, 9 R, SB, .307 ISO, 168 wRC+ (90 PA)

Signed by the Cardinals out of the Dominican Republic at just 16 years old, Taveras already has two professional seasons in the low minors under his belt and has produced adequately from an offensive standpoint in each. This season, however, the 6’2, 180 pound outfield has looked nothing short of dominant at the plate. 

In 90 plate appearances this season, Taveras has crushed opposing pitching to the tune of a .307 ISO that ranks fourth-best among all Texas League outfielders. He’s also tied for the league lead with six home runs and has also garnered the league’s fifth-best wOBA (.422).  You’d be hard-pressed to find another 20-year-old that’s managed to post numbers similar to his 2012 yield.

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