The On-Deck Circle: A.L. Central

Though they are technically Twins, there are only two things that are glaringly similar about Minnesota’s Danny Santana (5’11”, 175 lb.) and Kennys Vargas (6’5”, 275 lb.). First, they are both switch hitters. Second, the two of them were headliners on the list of unexpected breakout performers in the American League Central during 2014.

The following players, each currently part of A.L. Central organizations, have little to no experience in the majors and are not necessarily some of the league’s more well known prospects. However, similar to Santana and Vargas last year, each could end up as vital components of their respective big-league clubs before the conclusion of the 2015 campaign.

 

Jason Wheeler (LHP, MIN)

Anyone connected to baseball in Minnesota, or around the world for that matter, is anticipating the debut of Byron Buxton, the game’s consensus top prospect, at some point during the upcoming summer. However, Buxton is above the fray of our under-the-radar theme here in “The On-Deck Circle”. Wheeler, on the other hand, fits the mold perfectly.

Since being selected in the eighth round of the 2011 Draft, Wheeler has been an impressively consistent worker on the mound while rising steadily through the ranks of the Twins’ system. Though an intimidating 6’6”, 250 lb. frame would suggest otherwise, the 24-year-old southpaw has succeeded on the back of his finely-tuned finesse.

Utilizing a trio of solid pitches, which includes a fastball that normally sits in the upper 80s but has reached as high as 93 mph, Wheeler posted a 2.68 ERA and 1.19 WHIP across three levels of the minors last season. Only one of his 26 starts came with Triple-A Rochester, but that should take little away from his strong campaign. More telling of Wheeler’s ability are the 0.6 HR/9 and 3.11 K/BB ratios he posted in 2014.

With an unremarkable 6.3 K/9 for his career, Wheeler obviously relies on weak contact and able defense behind him. That approach typically plays well in the pitcher-friendly environment of Minnesota’s Target Field.

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The former Loyola Marymount standout will almost certainly begin the 2015 season back at Triple-A, but following his addition to the 40-man roster back in November, there could eventually be room for Wheeler in the Twins’ rotation behind veterans Phil Hughes and Ervin Santana.

 

James McCann (C, DET)

McCann received his first taste of the big leagues this past September and will head into spring training with the goal of unseating Bryan Holaday as the backup backstop in Motown. Though the latter has the experience, the prior definitely has the upside.

McCann, a second-round pick for Detroit back in 2011, has turned himself into a consensus top-10 prospect in the Tigers’ system over the past four years and really opened some eyes in 2014 with Triple-A Toledo. In 109 games last season, the 24-year-old catcher put together a nice .295/.343/.427 slash line to go along with 34 doubles, seven homers and nine stolen bases.

Even with his progression at the plate, it is behind it where McCann shines the most. In 2014, he gunned down 42 percent of attempted base-stealers while coaches and teammates regularly praised his leadership and game-calling skills.

Given Alex Avila’s rapid regression with the stick over the last few seasons, McCann may well work his way not only onto the 25-man roster, but ultimately into a starting role at some point in 2015. For now, if and when he does eventually beat out Holaday, McCann could be given a chance to slide into a platoon with the left-handed hitting Avila, who struggled to a .287 OBP and miserable 36.2 K% against southpaws last year.

 

Carlos Moncrief (RF, CLE)

Moncrief was originally drafted by the Indians all the way back in 2008 as a 14th-round pick. Not only that, but the Chipola College product came to the organizations as a pitcher equipped with a 95-mph heater. However, after working a combined 33.2 frames at rookie-level in 2008 and 2009, arm troubles took him off the mound and into the outfield.

The adjustments for Moncrief have taken time, but the change has indeed been for the best. Over the past two seasons, the 26-year-old slugger has put up some promising offensive numbers between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus. Those statistics include a .278 batting average, 29 homers, 59 doubles, 11 triples and 23 stolen bases.

The main negative with Moncrief, as it is with many young power hitters, is an elevated strikeout rate. While posting the aforementioned offensive marks during the past two years, he whiffed in 21.1 percent of his plate appearances.

Moncrief may not have a clear opening to fill in Cleveland’s projected lineup right now, but as we all know injuries can quickly alter that. Given the recent health history and lackluster production of veterans such as Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, the Indians could find themselves scrambling for a bat. With Moncrief already holding a spot on the 40-man roster, the team will almost assuredly give him a look if the opportunity arises.