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Prospects to Know in 2021 - AL Central

fantasy baseball prospects MLB prospects rookies call-ups

The Super Bowl is over and we are officially on to baseball season! So what better way to celebrate the new baseball year than by talking about prospects?

Last week, I took a look at the prospects to know in the NL Central. This week we're switching leagues and taking a look at five prospects to know in the AL Central. Last year saw Luis Robert break out with a monster rookie season for the White Sox, Willi Castro put up a good second half for the Tigers and James Karinchak emerged as the closer of the future in Cleveland. This year we've got a bunch of former first-round picks who could be ready to make an impact in fantasy — including a former No. 3 overall pick.

Can they live up to their draft positions and match or exceed what we saw out of the AL Central rookies in 2020? Let's find out.

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Chicago White Sox: Andrew Vaughn, 1B (ADP 310)

Highest Level: A+
2019 stats: 55 G, .278/.384/.449, 6 HR, 36 RBI, 15.5 K%, 12.2 BB%

The hype is growing around the former No. 3 overall pick in the 2019 draft. After splitting time between Rookie League, Single-A and High-A in 2019, Vaughn was receiving much praise for his hitting ability and power while playing at the White Sox alternate site last year. Much of the speculation now has Vaughn competing this spring for the designated hitter role in the Opening Day lineup, and even if he doesn't get the role right away he'll likely be getting the call very early into the season according to MLB.com writer Scott Merkin.

Vaughn played three games in the Arizona League before splitting the rest of his time between Kannapolis and Winston-Salem in his debut year. He showed consistency at the plate with nearly identical numbers between Single-A and High-A:

G BA OBP SLG HR RBI K% BB%
Winston-Salem (A+) 29 .252 .349 .411 3 21 13.5 12.7
Kannapolis (A) 23 .253 .388 .410 2 11 17.5 13.6

The on-base percentage and walk rate took a slight dip following his promotion to High-A, but he also improved his strikeout rate at Winston-Salem. Vaughn is looking like he could be a good, power-hitting first baseman with a solid average, and he could end up being one of the better value picks in late rounds. Managers should keep an eye on how he performs during Spring Training, but he could be a good player to draft and stash on the bench until he gets a full-time role — as it appears to be a matter of when he gets it and not if he will.

 

Cleveland Indians: Triston McKenzie, RHP (ADP 186)

Highest Level: MLB
2020 stats: 8 G, 6 GS, 2-1, 3.24 ERA, 0.900 WHIP, 33.1 K%, 7.1 BB%, 33.1 IP

With the departures of Carlos Carrasco and Mike Clevinger, McKenzie could end up being the second-best pitcher in the Cleveland rotation this year. Despite missing all of 2019 due to lat and pectoral muscle strains, McKenzie looked sharp in his major league debut last year with a 10-strikeout performance over six innings of one-run ball against the Tigers. He continued to put up great strikeout numbers to the tune of a 33.1 percent strikeout rate, which ranked him 11th in the majors among pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched. And those strikeout numbers don't appear to be a fluke, as he only has one season in the minors where he didn't post at least a 30 percent strikeout rate and 12 percent swinging strike rate. In 2018, he only recorded a 24 percent strikeout rate and 10.1 swinging strike rate at Double-A.

Looking into some of his numbers a little deeper it appears he did get slightly lucky at times, but not significantly so as his .205 xBA and .422 xSLG were higher than his actual marks by only 26 and 54 points respectively. His 3.64 xERA was also only a slight tick up from his 3.24 ERA. Something to keep an eye on though is how will McKenzie respond to working more innings this year. It appears that Cleveland kept him on somewhat of a pitch limit last year, which seems appropriate after missing all of 2019 plus the lack of Spring Training or a minor league season. Out of his six starts, only three saw McKenzie pitch at least five full innings as he appeared to have a limit of somewhere around 80 pitches or so. But even with some potential regression McKenzie will still be a great source of strikeouts in fantasy this year, and managers might want to consider drafting him a round or two earlier than he's currently going — even as high as picking him ahead of Frankie Montas who currently has an ADP of 155.

 

Detroit Tigers: Matt Manning, RHP (ADP 377)

Highest Level: AA
2019 stats: 24 GS, 11-5, 2.56 ERA, 0.980 WHIP, 28.1 K%, 7.2 BB%, 133.2 IP

Detroit saw top pitching prospects Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal make their big league debuts last year, and Manning was all set to join them until he was shut down due to a right forearm strain. Manning was able to avoid surgery though, and now he's set to make his debut some time in 2021. Current speculation has Manning as unlikely to make the Opening Day roster, but he'll likely get a call up early on in the season after the Tigers can secure another year of control for him. Manning brings a lot of strikeout potential to the table, as he owns a career 30.3 percent strikeout rate over four years in the minors and has never recorded a rate below 28 percent. On top of the strikeout rates, Manning has also shown better control in each stop while climbing through the minor leagues. Since posting an 11.5 percent walk rate and 1.294 WHIP between Low-A and Single-A in 2017, Manning watched those numbers improve to a 7.2 percent walk rate and 0.980 WHIP at Double-A in 2019.

Manning reached the 100 innings pitched mark in both 2018 and 2019, so in theory he would be able to dive right in for a full season's workload in 2021. But that forearm strain that shut him down — despite reports that he is healthy and it is no longer an issue — could end up having Detroit take things slow with him. Fellow Tigers pitching prospect Alex Faedo was shut down around the same time as Manning with a forearm strain as well, and Faedo ended up having to undergo Tommy John surgery — something Detroit will be looking to avoid with Manning. Assuming that Manning is fully healthy and there are no limits placed on him this year, he could end up being one of the top rookie pitchers in the American League in 2021. Manning should be a top target to acquire in dynasty formats, and in deeper leagues he is a good late-round pick to stash on the bench until his call up. In shallower leagues managers should wait until he officially gets promoted, at which point he should be the number one target off the waiver-wire.

 

Kansas City Royals: Jackson Kowar, RHP (ADP 693)

Highest Level: AA
2019 stats: 26 GS, 7-10, 3.52 ERA, 1.240 WHIP,  23.2 K%, 6.9 BB%, 148.1 IP

Kowar threw 148.1 innings across 26 starts between High-A and Double-A in 2019, marking his highest single-season total in both his collegiate and professional careers. And even with an increased workload while jumping up two levels, Kowar managed to show improvement from his debut performance in 2018. He saw his strikeout rate improve from 20.6 percent in 2018 to 23.2 percent, while his walk rate dropped from 11.2 to 6.9 percent. Between High-A and Double-A, Kowar's numbers were better at Double-A as he posted a 25.2 percent strikeout rate and a 6.8 percent walk rate at Northwest Arkansas to go along with a 3.51 ERA and 1.265 WHIP.

If there had been a minor league season in 2020 Kowar would have probably had a good shot at cracking the Opening Day roster, but instead he is one of the numerous prospects who have had their potential major league arrivals delayed because of it. As it stands now, Kowar will likely start off the year back in the minors, although he will get a chance to show his stuff this spring as he is one of the Royals non-roster invites to Spring Training. All that being said though Kowar could still make his way to Kansas City sooner than later this year, as the Royals don't exactly have the most solidified rotation right now. Managers in dynasty formats should start looking into stashing Kowar for when he finally gets the call, but managers in redraft leagues shouldn't bother drafting him now, barring a stellar Spring Training performance. Once he gets called up though managers should look at him as a solid streaming option, and if he can string together a couple of good starts in a row he could quickly become rosterable in most formats.

 

Minnesota Twins: Alex Kirilloff, OF (ADP 274)

Highest Level: AA
2019 stats: 94 G, .283/.343/.413, 9 HR, 43 RBI, 7 SB, 18.5 K%, 7.1 BB%

One of the most heralded hitting prospects in the Minnesota system, Kirilloff has been hampered by injuries in the minors. His first season in 2016 ended early when he suffered a torn UCL which required him to undergo Tommy John surgery and forced him to miss all of 2017. He shone at the plate in 2018 during his first year of full-season ball, where he slashed .348/.392/.578 with 20 home runs and 101 RBI in 130 games between Single-A and High-A. But he started off 2019 on the injured list at Double-A with a wrist injury, which was likely a contributing factor to the drop in his triple-slash line down to .283/.343/.413 in 94 games. He also saw his strikeout rate increase to 18.5 percent in 2019, which was up from his 15.3 percent mark in 2018.

Reports out of the Twins alternate site last year said that Kirilloff was putting on a hitting clinic, and he eventually made his major league debut in the Twins' Wild Card Game against the Astros where he finished 1-for-4 at the plate. Now with Eddie Rosario signing with Cleveland, Kirilloff has a good shot at securing a starting role in the outfield in Minnesota out of Spring Training. Assuming he remains healthy he should hit for a good average and be a good source of power, with a floor of 15 homers and a .270 average and the potential to far surpass that. He will probably be the second-most likely guy on this week's list to crack the Opening Day roster as a starter behind McKenzie, and he could be a very interesting late-round flyer in most formats.



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