MLB.com Columnist

Jonathan Mayo

Pipeline Inbox: NL Central a hotbed for prospects

Cubs, Bucs, Reds, Cards players take seven of top 10 spots in upcoming Top 100 list

Pipeline Inbox: NL Central a hotbed for prospects

It's prospect-ranking season here at MLBPipeline.com.

By now, you've noticed that we've started rolling out our 2014 lists, starting with Top 10 by position lists. And there's more to come, with second basemen, third basemen and outfielders set to be unveiled next week. All of this leads up to our 2014 Top 100 list, which will go live on Thursday, following the airing of the MLB Network Top 50 show, also to be streamed on MLB.com, at 10 p.m. ET.

With that in mind, this week's Inbox is focused on players, many of whom can already be found on the by-position lists, who could possibly be among the Top 100 prospects.

Who are your top 10 National League prospects for 2014?
-- Kenneth L., Philadelphia

I could tell you, but I'd have to ... Seriously, I don't want to divulge too much of the Top 100 list. (Have I mentioned that it goes live on Thursday?) Some of it, you could probably figure out based on the Top 10 by position lists we've launched so far.

But I'll tell you what I'm going to do, just because I like you. Here's a list of the top 10 NL prospects on the upcoming Top 100. But I'm giving it to you in alphabetical order, not ranked. You'll have to wait to see where they landed on Thursday. Assuming you were asking for fantasy-draft purposes, this still should help.

Albert Almora, OF, Cubs
Javier Baez, SS, Cubs
Archie Bradley, RHP, D-backs
Kris Bryant, 3B, Cubs
Jonathan Gray, RHP, Rockies
Gregory Polanco, OF, Pirates
Noah Syndergaard, RHP, Mets
Robert Stephenson, RHP, Reds
Jameson Taillon, RHP, Pirates
Oscar Taveras, OF, Cardinals

Has Michael Choice lost his starting job in Texas?
-- Patrick O., Bronx, N.Y.

When the Rangers acquired Choice in December from the A's, along with second baseman Chris Bostick, in return for Craig Gentry and Josh Lindblom, it certainly seemed like Choice would at least be given a shot to win the left-field job. He had, after all, made his big league debut with Oakland in 2013 after a solid Triple-A season in which he hit .302 with 14 homers and 89 RBIs.

But a funny thing happened on the way to a full-time gig. The Rangers went out and signed Shin-Soo Choo to a seven-year deal a few weeks after the trade. That would seem to end any chance for Choice to be a regular in the Texas lineup in 2014, with Leonys Martin and Alex Rios taking up most of the playing time in center and right.

This is where Choice's versatility could help him. The former first-round pick has seen time at all three outfield positions, and while he's not a speedster, he's shown an ability to handle center field capably. He could get at-bats filling in for either Martin or Rios and even for Choo on occasion. He could get some time at designated hitter as well, particularly against lefties (like Choo, Martin didn't hit left-handed pitchers well last season). So, while penciling Choice into the lineup every day no longer seems like a possibility, seeing him get semi-regular playing time appears to be feasible.

What do you think about top prospects Oscar Taveras and Gregory Polanco? Who comes first to the Major Leagues?
-- Wilfredo R., Dominican Republic

To say I like them both would be kind of understating things. This dynamic duo of Dominican outfielders figures to once again be among the highest-ranked outfield prospects on the Top 100 (not to mention the Top 10 outfielders, coming Wednesday).

Taveras can flat-out hit and is probably ready to take a crack at big league pitching. Only two things are holding him back: he's missed a lot of time due to injuries and there's a full outfield in St. Louis. After playing in just 47 games in 2013, he could use some Triple-A time. He'll turn 22 in June, so there's no rush.

Polanco has probably raced up prospect lists faster than just about any other Minor Leaguer. He reached Double-A for the first time last year and got a tiny hint of Triple-A at the end of the season. He's a multitooled player who is more about speed than power right now, but the pop should catch up eventually. A center fielder by trade, he has the skills to play right field and will begin the 2014 season at age 22.

While Taveras is a bit more advanced than Polanco, I think Polanco might get to Pittsburgh before Taveras reaches St. Louis. Most of that will have to do with opportunity -- the Pirates do not have a surefire answer for who's going to play right field in 2014, and Polanco could be ready to step into that spot after some time in Triple-A.

Last winter, I was hearing that Travis d'Arnaud would be the next Mike Piazza. A 30-home run hitter or more. In 2012, in Triple-A, he averaged 40 home runs for 162 games. Why am I now hearing that he will hopefully be a 20-home run hitter? What changed over the last year?
-- Boruch K., Queens, N.Y.

I'm not exactly sure where you're getting your information in terms of home run output. I, for one, try to stay away from statistical projections. That said, d'Arnaud has a future 60 grade for his power on the scouting scale that gives grades from 20-80. On our 2014 Top 10 catchers list, he was given ... a future grade of 60 for his power.

The one thing I would caution against is extrapolating too much from d'Arnaud's Minor League numbers. Obviously, we believe he's going to hit plenty as a big leaguer or we wouldn't have made him the No. 1 catching prospect again. But Las Vegas is an extreme hitter's park, and he played just 67 games in Triple-A in 2012, so it's a big leap to go from that to a 162-game season.

I'd like to see d'Arnaud stay healthy for a full big league season and see what he can do from an offensive-production standpoint. Whether he hits 20 or 30 homers isn't important. The fact that he has a chance to be a very good all-around catcher -- much better than Piazza defensively -- is what you should focus on.

Do you evaluate Andrew Heaney as a more advanced pitcher than Adam Conley, Brian Flynn, or Brad Hand? I believe the last two will get serious Spring Training consideration for the 25-man roster.
- Al K., Miami, Fla.

Heaney, recently crowned as our top left-handed pitching prospect, is a more advanced pitcher than the other Marlins southpaws you mention in terms of his stuff and ceiling. Obviously, Hand and Flynn are more advanced in the system, having already pitched in the big leagues.

But in terms of what each of them could become? The edge goes to Heaney, the Marlins' top pick in the 2012 Draft. Overall, his stuff is just a bit better than that of the others. You'll see that we gave him an overall future grade of 60. Conley and Flynn, the two who are still considered prospects, are more in the 50 range. Flynn and Hand may have the best shots at cracking the Miami rotation this spring, but they profile more as middle-to-back types in a rotation. Conley, when he's ready, is in about the same boat. Heaney has a chance to be a No. 2 type if everything comes together.

Chances are that we're not going to be looking at a future Marlins rotation of Jose Fernandez and four lefties (interestingly enough, that's the name of my band). And we didn't even talk about Justin Nicolino. But it's a good problem to have. There's truth to that whole "you can never have enough pitching" adage, and if your team has depth from the left side, it's nothing but a positive.

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com and writes a blog, B3. Follow @JonathanMayoB3 on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.