When it comes to unforeseen breakouts in the National League Central during 2014, two young Chicago pitchers, one starter and one reliever, immediately come to mind. Both Kyle Hendricks and Neil Ramirez debuted in the bigs last summer to little fanfare, but each will enter the upcoming season with plenty of promise and expectations following outstanding rookie efforts.
The following players, all a part of N.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 Hendricks and Ramirez last year, each could end up as vital components of their respective big-league clubs before the conclusion of the 2015 campaign.
Corey Black (RHP, CHC)
Speaking of youthful arms in the Cubs organization, Black could be the next in line to make his mark at The Friendly Confines. Whether it be as a part of the rotation or out of the bullpen, this 23-year-old hurler, armed with a four-pitch arsenal that includes a fastball capable of touching 100 mph, is likely just a couple of finishing touches away from getting a shot at the show.
Holding Black back just a bit is the fact that he has yet to spend any time above Triple-A. In 2014, he put together a 3.46 ERA, 1.38 WHIP and 8.6 K/9 while logging 124.1 innings across 26 appearances (25 starts) for Double-A Tennessee. Though the slightly-built (5'11", 175lb.) righty has started 61 of his 62 games over the past three seasons, he probably projects best as a late-frame asset or swingman at the highest level.
Black's modest size and typically decreasing velocity during long outings combine to significantly hinder any outlook as a No. 4 or 5 starter in the majors, but that is not to say it is impossible. Over his minor-league career to this point, he has averaged just under five innings per start. However, with improved control (4.5 BB/9) to streamline his pitch count, Black could realize a future at the backend of a big-league rotation.
Jason Rodgers (1B/3B, MIL)
For a power hitter set to turn 27 years of age in the middle of March, the time for Rogers to progress into a productive major leaguer is fast approaching. The big slugger received a September callup to Milwaukee last year and will be looking to win a spot on the 25-man roster during spring training.
With veteran corner infielder Mark Reynolds, who blasted 22 home runs for the Brew Crew in 2014, now under contract with division rival St. Louis, the role of part-time / pinch-hitting power source is open in Miller Park. Rogers fits that mold perfectly, as he slugged .489 while belting 18 homers and 29 doubles between Double-A Huntsville and Triple-A Nashville last season.
A clear path to at-bats for Rogers in Milwaukee during 2015 could be contingent on the continued struggles of newly acquired first baseman Adam Lind when squaring off against left-handed pitching. Lind is one of those hitters with a severe platoon split that is backed up by a long track record (.588 vs LHP, .860 vs RHP). The right-handed hitting Rogers could certainly seize this situation and form a formidable duo for the Brewers at the position.
After posting an impressive .252 ISO over 232 plate appearances at the Triple-A level last summer, Rogers obviously has loads of potential going to work at a hitter's haven like Miller Park (No. 5 according to ParkFactors.com).
Elias Diaz (C, PIT)
With Russell Martin now gone and the other backstops on the Pirates' active roster going by the names of Francisco Cervelli, Tony Sanchez and Chris Stewart, it should go without saying that the catcher situation in Pittsburgh is anything but settled. Given the chance, Diaz might just step up and stake a claim.
Diaz has never tasted the majors and has set up shop behind the plate in just 10 Triple-A games during his six-year professional career. However, scouts praise the 24-year-old Venezuelan's strong throwing arm and Baseball America named him the Eastern League's best defensive catcher in 2014.
As far as offense goes, Diaz has not displayed much in the power department yet, but combined a fantastic .373 OBP with a solid 14.4 K% across 624 plate appearances between 2013 and 2014. He has some speed for a catcher and could be a steady source of runs batting at the top of the lineup.
Diaz will likely begin the 2015 season back at Triple-A Indianapolis to undergo a little more grooming. If he continues to progress at the same year-over-year rate, it would not be surprising to see him in at least a backup role for the Buccos at some point in 2015.