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30 Players: NL Central Rich With Young Pitching

By Rich Arleo

CBS Local Sports, in our 30 Players 30 Days spring training feature, profiles one young player from each Major League Baseball team leading up to opening day.

The Chicago Cubs have built a perennial winner in the National League Central and are favorites to win the division for the third straight year thanks to a young core that continues to grow and improve each season. While the Cubs are the cream of the crop, the other four clubs are not stepping stones and all feature a boatload of young talent nearing breakouts. Here are five players in the NL Central to keep an eye on in 2018.

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Ian Happ, Outfielder, Chicago Cubs

Considering Happ's strong rookie numbers (24 homers, 253/.328/.514 slash), he probably would've had more than 413 plate appearances if he was on a different team. On a stacked Cubs squad, Happ played mostly against right-handers, hitting 19 of his HRs against them. The thing is, his numbers against left-handers weren't bad (29-for-105, .276 AVG). The former first-round draft pick looks ready for a featured role this season, and while he is expected to split time with Albert Almora Jr. in center, Happ's ability to get on base has manager Joe Maddon looking his way as the lead-off hitter when he is in the lineup. That spot might hurt his RBI numbers but shouldn't stop him from getting on base or hitting home runs.

Happ has had an impressive start to the Spring, leading the Cubs with five homers while driving in nine with a .393 average through his first 28 at-bats. If Almora doesn't make much progress this season and Happ continues to improve and becomes a steady presence at the top of the lineup, his appearances against left-handers could increase as he works toward becoming an everyday player. Happ's versatility works in his advantage as well since he can play almost every position in the field. ZiPS is bullish on Happ this season as they project a large increase in playing time (139 games, 545 PAs) with 28 homers, 85 RBIs and a .255/.325/.488 slash. Expect breakout-type numbers from the 23-year-old in his second full season.

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Josh Hader, Pitcher, Milwaukee Brewers

Hader, a former 19th round pick of the Baltimore Orioles in '12, took his game to another level in '16 and jumped up prospect rankings after striking out 161 in 126 innings between Double- and Triple-A. Hader joined the Brewers last June as a reliever and quickly became one of the best in baseball, holding hitters to a .149 average with a 12.8 K/9 and 2.08 ERA in 35 games. The Brewers believe Hader has a future as a starter, but for now, they aren't going to mess with a good thing and he is locked in as the no. 2 reliever behind closer Corey Knebel.

Hader features a fastball that hangs around 95 MPH to go along with an 80 MPH slider and mid-80s change-up to keep hitters off balance. Hader's 17 SwSTR% (swinging strike percentage) would have ranked sixth in baseball had he qualified; notably below two of the best closers in baseball -- Craig Kimbrel (19.8%) and Kenley Jansen (18.2%). Hader's ridiculous arsenal helped him overcome a major control issue (4.15 BB/9 12 BB%), and the left-hander did have a bit of luck last year, as evidenced by his 3.03 FIP (almost a whole point higher than his ERA) and .233 BABIP. While Hader proved he can be successful despite being a bit wild, he could really take it up a notch if he can limit the walks. His ability to pitch multiple innings out of the pen gives him the potential to be one of the more valuable relievers in the league if he can build on his impressive debut season.

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Jack Flaherty, Pitcher, St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals have been high on Flaherty for quite some time. St. Louis used its 34th overall pick on the then-18-year-old right-hander out of Harvard-Westlake High School. After Flaherty went 14-4 with a 2.18 ERA in 25 starts between Double- and Triple-A in his fourth season with the organization, he appears ready to take a rotation spot at some point this season. The strike-thrower was inconsistent in his brief MLB debut last year, allowing 15 runs in just 21 1/3 innings over six appearances (five starts). Flaherty may need just a bit more fine-tuning at Triple-A, but that shouldn't make Cardinals fans any less enthused about what Flaherty can do for a rotation searching for depth.

Flaherty doesn't have overpowering stuff, but his sinking fastball can max out around 95 MPH. He uses his slider as his secondary pitch along with a curveball and a still-developing change-up to round out his arsenal. Despite struggling in his quick stint with the Cards, he was able to miss bats (13 SwStr%) and should be able to show off the impressive command he displayed in the Minors when he gets a longer look in St. Louis. ZiPS has Flaherty starting 29 games with St. Louis this year with a 10-9 record, 4.04 ERA and 140 strikeouts in 152 IP; numbers that would make for a very strong rookie season.

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Jameson Taillon, Pitcher, Pittsburgh Pirates

Taillon has faced his fair share of adversity on his way to the bigs since being drafted in the first round at 18 years old back in '10, including Tommy John surgery and bouts of shoulder fatigue, but nothing compared to last season when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in early May. If there was any doubt as to how strong and determined Taillon is, he returned just five weeks after surgery and pitched five scoreless innings in what was one of the best sports stories of the year. He finished the year making 25 starts and now has a 13-11 record with a 3.98 ERA in 43 starts over two big league seasons.

Now healthy and ready to go in '18, Taillon is set to have a breakout season and cement himself as an ace in the Pirates' staff. The ground-ball specialist had the 16th lowest fly-ball rate (27.6%) in the league among pitchers with at least 130 innings pitched, and his 1.7 GB/FB ratio also landed him in the top 25. Taillon's sinking fastball sits between 94-96 MPH, and he mixes in a curve as his secondary pitch with his change-up as a third option. ZiPS doesn't seem confident he can stay healthy for a full season; he's projected to start 27 games with a 3.65 ERA. Steamer projections are a bit more bullish on the starts (32) but have his ERA closer to 4.

(credit: Thinkstock)
(credit: Thinkstock)

Luis Castillo, Pitcher, Cincinnati Reds

For a guy who nobody seemingly wanted for years, Castillo had one heck of a debut season last year after a long road to the bigs. Castillo initially signed with the San Francisco Giants as an international free agent in '11 with little fanfare, then was traded to Miami in '14 who then traded him to San Diego, but he was sent back to Miami after an injury discrepancy with another player involved in the deal caused an issue with the trade. His time back with the Marlins was short-lived and he was traded to the Reds along with two other prospects for Dan Straily before last season. Despite all this movement, Castillo continued to put up strong numbers in the Minors. After he posted a 2.58 ERA with 81 K's in 80 innings at Double-A, the right-hander was called up to Cincy at the end of June and never looked back.

In 15 starts with the Reds, Castillo struck out 98 with a 3.12 ERA and 1.07 WHIP. His sinking fastball clocks in around 97 MPH, but his breaking pitches are what set him apart. According to Fangraphs' Pitch Values, his 10.1 wCH value would rank as the fifth best change-up in baseball just above Washington Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg, while his 5.1 wSL rating would be in the top 25. Castillo used this stellar arsenal to strike out 27% of batters he faced, and he did so while keeping his walk rate respectable. Can he repeat these numbers over an entire season? It will be difficult, but there's no reason to believe Castillo won't be a lock at the top of the Reds' rotation this year. ZiPS has Castillo putting forth another strong effort in his sophomore season -- 3.81 ERA, 8.41 K/9, .250 BAA, 1.20 WHIP -- and there's still plenty of room for improvement for the 25-year-old.

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