Top Rookies for Each NL Central Team in 2024

The NL Central is stacked with young talent, including these top rookie-eligible players who can make a big impact in 2024.

Jackson Chourio of the Milwaukee Brewers bats during the ninth inning of a spring training game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Camelback Ranch.
GLENDALE, ARIZONA - MARCH 24, 2023: Jackson Chourio #94 of the Milwaukee Brewers bats during the ninth inning of a spring training game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Camelback Ranch on March 24, 2023 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by David Durochik/Diamond Images via Getty Images)

The National League Central is loaded with exciting talent. Last year, several teams in the division had young players step forward and become foundational roster pieces. Even so, despite the division-wide influx of youth and the graduation of some top prospects, the division still features some of the best farm systems in the sport.

According to The Athletic, the NL Central has three of the top nine farm systems in baseball, and all five teams in the division sit in the top half of the rankings. What’s more, the prospects aren’t far from contributing at the big league level either. In fact, the division has four of the top eight favorites to win NL Rookie of the Year in 2024, according to BetMGM.

The teams in this division have a bright future ahead of them, and they will each be reliant upon some budding stars in 2024. With the division as wide open as it is, there’s an opportunity for some of the rookies in the NL Central to help propel their respective clubs ahead of the others in the division standings.

Let’s dive into some of the top rookie-eligible players who could make an impact for each NL Central team during the 2024 MLB season.

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Chicago Cubs Top Rookie: Shota Imanaga, LHP

2023 NPB Stats: 148 IP, 2.80 ERA, 1.054 WHIP, 10.6 K/9, 1.5 BB/9

Shota Imanaga signed a four-year, $53 million deal with the Chicago Cubs back in January, and he is expected to have an enormous role in their starting rotation from the get-go. Imanaga effectively replaces Marcus Stroman in the starting rotation as the second starter behind Justin Steele, and the Cubs will rely upon him to make a strong impact during his first season in Major League Baseball.

Imanaga comes over from Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), where he had a 3.18 career ERA throughout his eight seasons in the league. He is coming off one of his most successful seasons in NPB, in which he posted the second-best ERA of his career (2.80) while striking out 174 batters, which was a career-high.

The southpaw has the pitch mix to immediately slide in as an impact starter for the Cubs. If you would like to read a comprehensive deep dive into his arsenal, you can read Aram Leighton’s detailed breakdown of what makes Imanaga such an intriguing talent for Chicago.

Imanaga has a wide arsenal, headlined by a unique but effective four-seam fastball coupled with a dominating splitter. He often utilizes a slider to combat left-handed hitters. In addition, he continues to develop the usage of his cutter, and he throws the occasional taste-breaking curveball that can be effective when used in the right situations.

Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection system predicts an effortless transition from NPB to MLB for Imanaga, as the system anticipates he’ll be the most productive starter for the Cubs this season. The 30-year-old is projected to lead the pitching staff in ERA (3.55), FIP (3.55), and WAR (3.0). The system also has him slotted for a solid K/9 of 9.59 and an optimistic HR/9 of just 0.99.

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Imanaga will look to break out in his first MLB season, and he has the talent to hit the ground running and help buoy Chicago’s starting rotation from the very beginning.

Cincinnati Reds Top Rookie: Connor Phillips, RHP

2023 MLB Stats: 5 GS, 20.2 IP, 6.97 ERA, 5.92 FIP, 0.1 fWAR

2023 MiLB Stats (Double-A/Triple-A): 25 G (24 Starts), 105 IP, 3.86 ERA, 3.71 FIP

The Cincinnati Reds took an enormous leap forward last season thanks to several of their rookies breaking out and becoming foundational pieces of the roster.

Matt McLain and Spencer Steer each finished in the top six in NL Rookie of the Year voting (fifth and sixth, respectively), Elly De La Cruz took the league by storm with his electrifying highlights in his first big league stint, and the Reds had several young arms come up from the minor leagues and contribute down the stretch.

This Cincinnati roster is filled with sophomores ready to build upon their successful rookie campaigns. While the team will be relying upon several 2023 breakout players to continue their success from a season ago, the Reds will also be searching for their next rookie to make an impact, and that player could be Connor Phillips.

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Phillips is Just Baseball’s No. 83 prospect, and he can be a valuable depth option or even a strong starter at the back end of the rotation if he takes a step forward with his command in 2024.

The righty had a cup of coffee with the Reds last season, throwing 20.2 innings at the tail end of the year. In that small sample of innings, Phillips had an overall Stuff+ of 128, including Stuff+ ratings of 125 on his fastball, 142 on his slider, and 119 on his changeup. He has electric stuff and can be a strong starter for the Reds, but he will need to improve his command to make an impact this season.

In those 20.2 major league innings last year, Phillips had a Location+ of just 93, including below-average Location+ numbers on each of his pitches. While that is clearly too small of a sample size to draw a sizeable conclusion, command struggles plagued Phillips throughout his time in the minor leagues as well.

In 105 innings between Double-A and Triple-A in 2023, Phillips struck out 33.3% of batters and posted an impressive 13.20 K/9. However, his 12.3% walk rate and 4.89 BB/9 were far from ideal. Even with batters hitting less than .230 against him, Phillips posted a WHIP of 1.41 due to his ballooned walk totals.

Still just 22 years old, Phillips has plenty of time to work out the wrinkles in his game. The Reds are in a position where they can take their time with him if he isn’t quite ready in the early goings of the season. However, if Phillips displays improved pitch control and more consistency with his arsenal, he has the stuff to play a major role in the Reds’ pursuit of a division title.

Milwaukee Brewers Top Rookie: Jackson Chourio, OF

2023 MiLB Stats (Double-A/Triple-A): 583 PA, .282/.338/.467, 26 2B, 22 HR, 91 RBI, 44 SB

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Jackson Chourio is the new face of the franchise for the Milwaukee Brewers, and the top prospect will finally get to showcase his skillset at the big league level this season.

Chourio is Just Baseball’s No. 3 prospect, and he has all the tools to be a franchise cornerstone in Milwaukee. The Brewers signed him to a record-breaking extension back in November, making him the richest player yet to make his major league debut. Chourio shot through the minor leagues as a teenager, and now he’s in a position to take over in center field for the Brewers at just 20 years old.

Chourio has outstanding overall potential. He has a great feel to hit coupled with fantastic barrel control and bat speed, giving him effortless power to all fields. Chourio also demonstrates excellent speed and has the ability to steal upwards of 30 bags in a season (ZiPS has him projected for 35 stolen bases in 2024), all while being able to play a strong defensive center field.

In 559 plate appearances at Double-A last season, Chourio slashed .280/.336/.487 while driving in 89 runs and swiping 43 bases. He racked up 48 extra-base hits in his 122 games, hitting 23 doubles, 22 homers, and three triples. His effortless power led to a September call-up to Triple-A, where he hit .333 and posted an OPS over .850 in 24 plate appearances.

The Brewers have made it clear that Chourio still needs to earn his playing time in the majors, but it appears that he’s on track to be Milwaukee’s Opening Day center fielder. Chourio has the second-best odds to win National League Rookie of the Year, according to BetMGM, and the combination of his electric tools and playing time opportunity at such a premier position gives him a path to a breakout rookie season.

St. Louis Cardinals Top Rookie: Masyn Winn, SS

2023 MLB Stats: 137 PA, .172/.230/.238, 2 2B, 2 HR, 2 SB, 29 wRC+

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2023 MiLB Stats (Triple-A): 498 PA, .288/.359/.474, 15 2B, 18 HR, 61 RBI, 17 SB

Masyn Winn is a tremendous athlete with a lot of potential, and the 2024 season should be his first real opportunity to showcase why he can be the shortstop of the future for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Winn made his major league debut last season, but his first crack at the big leagues wasn’t overly successful. He put up a batting average of just .172 and posted an OPS south of .470 in 137 big league plate appearances. However, despite his poor quality of contact numbers, Winn maintained a strong approach at the plate, highlighted by a well-above-average chase rate of 25.1% and a whiff rate of just 21.6%.

Still, his overall offensive performance with the Cardinals last season was not indicative of the player he can be when things are clicking at the plate. Prior to his big league promotion last season, Winn spent the entirety of his minor league time with Triple-A Memphis, where he slashed .288/.359/.474 while limiting his strikeout rate to under 17%, walking nearly nine percent of the time, and showcasing his ability to make impactful contact.

While Winn does have some exciting offensive potential, his biggest strength is his cannon of an arm. He has one of the strongest throwing arms in the minors, and he also has the ability to bring strong defense to the shortstop position. He now has the opportunity to play alongside one of the greatest defensive third basemen the game has ever seen in Nolan Arenado, and that should serve as a major boost to his defensive development.

Winn is also a plus runner, ranking in the top 10% of baseball in sprint speed last season, and he has shown that he can make an impact in several different facets of the game. He may have some growing pains while he gets adjusted to the big leagues, but he’s primed to contribute in a big way for the Cardinals this season.

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Pittsburgh Pirates Top Rookie: Paul Skenes, RHP

2023 MiLB Stats (ROK/Single-A/Double-A): 5 GS, 6.2 IP, 4 ER, 10 K, 2 BB

Paul Skenes is widely considered the top pitching prospect in baseball, and for very good reason. Drafted first overall by the Pittsburgh Pirates last July, he has just 6.2 innings of professional baseball under his belt. And yet, Skenes was still making a strong case to break camp with the Pirates.

While general manager Ben Cherington announced that Skenes will not be on the Opening Day roster, the fact that there was even that possibility speaks to Skenes’ ability. Skenes (Just Baseball’s No. 8 prospect) still has a great shot at making an impact for the Pirates in 2024, and it’s possible he won’t spend much time in the minor leagues.

Standing at 6-foot-6, Skenes is a dominating presence on the mound. He features a power fastball that consistently touches triple digits, but his ability to locate the pitch while flashing 102 MPH is a huge separating factor. Combine his elite fastball with his wipeout slider, a pitch that he can also command at a high level, and he already appears equipped to contribute meaningful innings for the Pirates.

It will be fascinating to watch how the Pirates handle Skenes’ development. Any maturation Skenes might need could likely happen in the big leagues. However, there’s a chance the Pirates take it slow with him while he gets acclimated to a routine at the professional level and refines his arsenal.

Regardless of when he makes his MLB debut, it’s hard to imagine a rookie making a stronger impact than Paul Skenes. The Pirates drafted him to be their ace of the future, and they likely want to get him entrenched in the big leagues as soon as possible.

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Honorable Mention: Jared Jones, RHP (Pittsburgh Pirates)

It’s worth noting that Jared Jones, Just Baseball’s No. 75 prospect, could also make an impact in the starting rotation this season. Jones has been dominant this spring, consistently showcasing triple digits with his heater, and he has shown flashes of better command with his breaking pitches.

In order for Jones to crack the starting rotation for the Pirates, he will need to demonstrate improved secondary pitches. That, in addition to more consistency on the mound, will dictate how comfortable the Pirates are with rolling out the 22-year-old in the starting rotation.

The Pirates lack starter depth, and outside of newly extended starter Mitch Keller, there are a hefty amount of question marks in the rotation. Jones doesn’t have the same ace-level outlook that Skenes may have, but he does have the stuff to be an impactful middle-of-the-rotation starter if things click.

As the Pirates continue to asses who will be a building block for the franchise, Jones could be a spark for the club as they strive to emerge from their rebuild in the near future.