Fantasy Risers: NL Central

Drew Silva
Matthew Pouliot discusses Gerrit Cole's Opening Day start, Oakland's closing situation and his favorite early pickups in the Strike Zone

This is the epic conclusion of an offseason series examining rising fantasy stars from each of Major League Baseball's six divisions. You can follow these bolded links to the American League West, American League East and American League Central. And these links to the National League West and National League East. We wrap things up in the youth-filled NL Central ...

For all the latest offseason rumors and transactions, keep it locked on Rotoworld's constantly-updated player news page and follow @Rotoworld_BB and @drewsilv on Twitter. Also, you can now access the 2014 Rotoworld Draft Guide, which is packed to the brim with projections, analysis, and fantasy advice.

Gerrit Cole, SP, Pirates

Cole was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 MLB Amateur Draft out of the University of California, Los Angeles and has more than met the hype in his first two years of professional baseball. The hard-throwing right-hander blew through the Pirates’ minor league system to an earlier-than-anticipated debut at the major league level on June 11, 2013. He wound up posting a fantastic 3.22 ERA and 1.168 WHIP over his first 117 1/3 big league frames and then provided the Bucs with a pair of excellent NLDS outings (in Games 2 and 5) that almost led to a takedown of the division-rival Cardinals. Cole threw the hardest average fastball of any MLB starter last season. He is poised to become a full-fledged ace by the end of 2014.

Billy Hamilton, OF, Reds

There hasn’t been a 100-base-stealer at the major league level since Vince Coleman of the Cardinals swiped 109 in 1987. Clubs better understand the risk of giving away outs and there’s less of a priority placed on raw speed in modern player evaluation. But unique athletes have the power to flip trends in sports -- if only for themselves, if only for a moment -- and the Reds’ Hamilton has already given the baseball world a taste of his game-changing ability. Hamilton stole a minor league record 155 bases in 2012 and also managed to hit .311 with a .410 on-base percentage while moving his way from High-A Bakersfield to Double-A Pensacola. The 23-year-old didn’t hit nearly as well in 2013 at Triple-A Louisville and there’s some question about his readiness for everyday major league duty, but his wheels are very real.

Matt Carpenter, 3B, Cardinals

Carpenter was a breakout star in 2013, leading the major leagues in hits, doubles and runs scored while registering a stellar .318/.392/.481 batting line in 157 games as the Cardinals’ primary leadoff man. He earned his first All-Star appearance, took home Silver Slugger honors at second base, and finished fourth in the National League MVP voting behind only Andrew McCutchen, Paul Goldschmidt, and teammate Yadier Molina. Carpenter will move to third base this season to make room for top second base prospect Kolten Wong, but the 28-year-old from Galveston, Texas will retain fantasy eligibility at the keystone and should be high on draft cheat sheets this spring. Carpenter ranks fourth overall at second base -- the position where he has the most fantasy value -- in the 2014 Rotoworld Draft Guide.

Jean Segura, SS, Brewers

The Brewers haven’t made many commendable moves over the last several seasons, but landing Segura in July 2012 from the Angels as the centerpiece in the four-player Zack Greinke trade looks like a big long-term win for the franchise. Segura burst onto the fantasy scene last year, batting .294 with 12 home runs, 10 triples, 20 doubles and 44 stolen bases in 146 games for Milwaukee. He was much less productive in the second half of 2013 than the first and there’s reason to expect more regression in 2014, but the 23-year-old Dominican shortstop is the type of player you want to build a team around and the Brewers are currently in the business of remaking their roster. In the 2014 Rotoworld Draft Guide, Segura is projected for 38 steals and 176 hits.

Tony Cingrani, SP, Reds

Cingrani pitched at Triple-A Louisville, out of the Cincinnati bullpen, and as a member of the Cincinnati starting rotation in 2014, and he excelled in every role. The left-hander registered a lights-out 1.15 ERA, 0.798 WHIP and 49 strikeouts in 39 1/3 innings for Louisville and a 2.92 ERA, 1.099 WHIP and 120 strikeouts across 104 2/3 frames for the Reds. That breakout year has assured Cingrani of a major league Opening Day rotation spot for 2014 and he’ll be among the first 40 starting pitchers selected in a large majority of fantasy drafts this spring. Starters who rely on deception have trouble with career longevity and Cingrani will eventually have to develop pitches to pair with his tricky fastball, but the 24-year-old should be able to fool National League Central hitters on his current arsenal for at least another summer.

Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Cubs

Rizzo made his Cubs debut on June 26, 2012 at the age of 21 and looked like a star out of the gate, batting .330/.371/.587 with eight home runs and 20 RBI in his first 116 plate appearances. The kid eventually came down to earth and in 2013 he posted an underwhelming .233/.323/.419 slash line, giving him a basically-league-average OPS+ rating of 101. But the former top-ranked Red Sox and Padres prospect has flashed signs suggesting that those lofty initial impressions weren’t far off. Rizzo slugged 15 home runs in 87 games in 2012 and he had 23 homers in 160 games last year. That number should keep rising, and as the Cubs graduate some of their top-flight prospects his RBI opportunities are likely to grow. Rizzo doesn’t turn 25 years old until August. He’s an intriguing post-hype fantasy pick for the 2014 baseball season.

Starling Marte, OF, Pirates

Marte was better than any prospect evaluator could have expected in 2013 -- his first full major league season -- batting .280/.343/.441 with 12 home runs and 41 stolen bases in 135 games. He gave the Pirates a reliable leadoff presence and Pittsburgh sailed to its first postseason berth since 1992. Now comes the encore presentation, and the inevitable talk of regression. Marte was caught stealing 15 times last season -- tops in the major leagues -- which could lead to a less aggressive approach on the basepaths in 2014. He also benefited from a .363 batting average on balls in play, a rate that does not seem sustainable. That said, the 25-year-old is a dynamic athlete with an .870 career OPS at Double-A and an .847 career OPS at Triple-A. It’s only right that he’s excelling at the next level.

Michael Wacha, SP, Cardinals

Wacha was the story of the sports world last October when he flirted with a no-hitter in an NLDS Game 4 road start against the Pirates and dominated the Dodgers in two different outings during the NLCS. The unassuming 22-year-old right-hander then made two World Series starts against the Red Sox, finishing his first taste of MLB’s postseason with a 2.64 ERA, 0.91 WHIP and 33 strikeouts in 30 2/3 innings. Combining the 2013 regular season and playoffs, Wacha owns a 2.74 ERA, 1.038 WHIP and 98 strikeouts through his first 95 1/3 major league frames. He has a hard fastball and a vicious changeup, and that classic combination has now been proven at baseball’s highest rung. Wacha ranks above more-established pitchers like Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Mat Latos in the 2014 Rotoworld Draft Guide.

Honorable Mentions

Khris Davis, OF, Brewers

Davis had a .949 OPS and 11 home runs in 56 games last season -- his first 56 games at the major league level. He’s expected to get something close to everyday playing time in 2014 and Milwaukee’s Miller Park should be kind to his power stroke.

Pedro Strop, RP, Cubs

Strop posted a promising 2.83 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 42/11 K/BB ratio in 35 innings last season after being traded from the Orioles to the Cubs as part of the Scott Feldman swap. The hard-throwing right-hander could take over as Chicago’s closer at some point in 2014.

Matt Adams, 1B, Cardinals

Adams showed glimpses of his immense power potential in 2013, tallying 17 home runs and 51 RBI in 108 games (only 63 starts). He’s expected to be the Cardinals’ regular first baseman in 2014 and will be hitting behind some very good on-base rates.

Devin Mesoraco, C, Reds

Mesoraco wasn’t able to showcase his offensive abilities as the understudy to Ryan Hanigan, but Hanigan is now in Tampa Bay. Mesoraco once slugged 26 home runs in a minor league season. He should finally be able to take advantage of Great American Ball Park as a full-timer.

Oscar Taveras, OF, Cardinals

Taveras has been ranked as a top-tier hitting prospect two years straight, but an ankle injury has delayed his arrival in St. Louis. The violent-swinging 21-year-old outfielder is thought to be healthy now and could be ready to explode into fantasy lineups this summer.