The National League Central was no cakewalk in 2013, and the top three teams in the division appear to be in a good position to make it a battle again in 2014. All of those teams could receive significant boosts from young players who aren't currently on their rosters, but are simply waiting for their opportunity. Some of those players will face MLB-caliber competition for the first time this spring, treating fans of their teams to always-optimistic glimpses of the future.
Of course, on the other side of the spectrum resides a group of players who have been through the spring training grind numerous times. Those players are at it again to try and prove to their respective teams that they can still contribute. For many of those guys, this spring could represent final chances at returning to the majors.
Here are a few NL Central players from both of those pools to watch this spring:
Familiar face: Mark Reynolds. Reynolds failed to secure a big-league contract despite topping 20 home runs for the sixth consecutive season. The 30-year-old infielder should have a great shot at cracking Milwaukee's roster; the team's current first-base options include Hunter Morris, Sean Halton and Juan Francisco. Reynolds led the league in strikeouts from 2008 through 2011, but has 202 career home runs in parts of seven seasons.
Keep an eye on: Mitch Haniger. The 23-year-old outfielder posted very good on-base percentages in A-ball in 2012 and 2013 before coming down to earth a bit in his first exposure to High-A. However, Haniger has earned plenty of praise for his defense and is one of the few position players nearing the upper levels of Milwaukee's system who has a chance to make some sort of MLB impact.
Familiar face: Scott Moore. Moore is the only player on St. Louis' NRI list who has big-league experience. The 30-year-old utility player, who was the No. 8 overall pick in the 2002 draft, received a career-high 228 plate appearances for the Astros in 2012 and hit .259/.330/.448 while playing five different positions. He spent the entire 2013 seasons in the minors with the Athletics organization.
Keep an eye on: James Ramsey. The Cardinals' first-round pick in the 2012 draft has already reached Triple-A on the strength of very good on-base ability. Ramsey posted a .373 OBP in 2013 and followed that up by reaching base at a .384 clip against good competition during Arizona Fall League play. The Cardinals will likely break camp with a full outfield, but the unit is only an injury or two away from Ramsey -- or similar minor-league outfielder Stephen Piscotty -- having a case for a shot in the majors.
Familiar face: Chris Coghlan. The 2009 NL Rookie of the Year went from a regular with a .321 batting average to a light-hitting utility player in just a few years. He was non-tendered by the Marlins after last season and comes to Chicago hoping to land a role similar to the one he served in Miami in 2013, when he appeared at five different positions despite not being particularly good at any of them. The Cubs already employ a similar player in Donnie Murphy, who slugged .530 in part-time duty in 2013, so that will hurt Coghlan's chances.
Keep an eye on: Kris Bryant. After being selected No. 2 overall in the 2013 draft, all Bryant did was hit .336/.390/.688 across three levels. The 22-year-old third baseman didn't stop there; Bryant earned MVP honors in the Arizona Fall League after hitting .364/.457/.727 with six home runs in 20 games. Luis Valbuena, who hit .218/.331/.378 in 2013, is slated to be the Cubs' Opening Day third baseman with Mike Olt also in the mix for the job, but both players will spend quite a bit of time looking over their shoulders at the fast-rising Bryant.
Familiar face: Chris Dickerson. He's never had more than 299 plate appearances in a season, but the 31-year-old outfielder has showed fairly well as a part-time player. Dickerson owns a lifetime .262/.339/.406 line at the big-league level while spending time at all three outfield positions. He wasn't great in a cameo for the Orioles last year but provided a little bit of pop, something the Pirates could use off the bench.
Keep an eye on: Jameson Taillon. Taillon, thought of by many as the Pirates' top prospect, has a chance to earn a spot in the team's rotation out of spring training -- particularly if the Bucs don't re-sign A.J. Burnett. The 22-year-old right-hander made it as far as Triple-A last season, posting a 3.73 ERA with 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings at two minor-league stops.
Familiar face: Jeff Francis. After completing his second tour of duty with the Rockies, Francis is back in the Reds organization for the second time. The 33-year-old southpaw posted a 3.72 ERA in 12 starts for Cincinnati's Triple-A affiliate in 2012 before being granted his release. Francis finished that season in Colorado and remained there in 2013, getting roughed up to the tune of a 6.27 ERA in 70⅓ innings. There was a silver lining to Francis' poor season -- he struck out a career-high 8.1 batters per nine innings. Offensive environments aren't a good fit for Francis, but he clearly still has the ability to fool hitters on occasion and might be able to find a place on a big-league roster somewhere.
Keep an eye on: Robert Stephenson. Stephenson missed some time with a leg injury in 2013, and ended the season with a 2.99 ERA and 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings in three minor-league stops. The 20-year-old right-hander has only 16⅔ innings above A-ball under his belt, but the Reds could fast-track him to the majors if he dominates like he did in his first two professional seasons.
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