One of the chief reasons the NL Central has garnered a reputation for being one of Major League Baseball's most competitive, talent-oriented divisions is in large part to player development in the minors.
Each team in the division has, to some extent, predicated their success through the MLB Draft and an overwhelming percentage of each club's rosters have come from home-grown talent. This year looks to be no different than from past seasons.
With spring training almost here, many teams' top prospects will look to leave a lasting impression on their respective organizations. But which players should be placed in the "upper-echelon" category of prospects?
Let's break down the top 20 prospects in the NL Central for 2012.
St. Louis: three
Oscar Taveras has three professional seasons to his credit and has impressed scouts in every step of his development. The 19-year-old Dominican Republic native is a budding start with legitimate five-tool capabilities.
In 2010, Taveras batted .303 with eight home runs, 45 RBI and a .526 slugging percentage between two rookie levels. His performance warranted a promotion to start 2011, and he wouldn't disappoint.
The left-handed-hitting outfielder batted an amazing .386 with eight home runs, 62 RBI and posted a remarkable 1.028 OPS in the Midwest League.
The scary part about Taveras' game is that he's still growing into his body, which could push him through the Cardinals' system if he continues his dominance through the upper minors.
Signed by the Philadelphia Phillies as a non-draft pick free agent in 2008, Jonathan Villar made his way to the Astros' system in 2010 and has quickly become one of the preeminent base-stealing prospects in the entire minors.
In 2010, the Dominican native nabbed a combined 45 stolen bases between low and high-A ball, batting .260 with five home runs, 55 RBI and 79 runs scored in the meantime. Last season, he logged 34 stolen bases and amassed 14 home runs, 52 RBI and scored 78 times.
Villar has exceptional fluidity and range at shortstop and projects to be a perennial Gold Glove winner for years to come. The only knock to his game at this point is his inconsistencies at the plate. Once he shores that up, he'll look to be Houston's shortstop of the future.
The Brewers are top-heavy in pitching talent on the farm and Tyler Thornburg is one of the preeminent talents featured. He's been one of the most impressive youngsters in the entire minors over the past two seasons.
In his rookie campaign in 2010, Thornburg tossed 23.1 innings of solid ball, posting a 1.97 ERA and 14.7 K/9 IP ratio in the meantime. His eye-opening performance elevated him through low-A and high-A ball in 2011 where he garnered a combined 2.57 ERA and struck out 160 batters in just 136.2 innings of work.
Thornburg's stock is soaring at the moment and if he's able to prolong his success through next season, there's a legitimate chance he could break through to the majors late in 2013.
The only question at this juncture is whether or not his 5'11", 185-pound frame will hold up as the competition elevates.
Jed Bradley was high on many teams' draft boards last June and, needless to say, the Brewers were ecstatic that the exemplary left-hander fell to them at 15th overall.
In his junior season at Georgia Tech, Bradley went 7-3 with a 3.49 ERA, striking out 106 batters in just 98 innings. He also held batters to a feeble .239 BA and, believe it or not, conceded just one home run to the opposition all season.
The 21-year-old southpaw has three credible pitches at his disposal and uses each to his liking. He touched 94 MPH with his fastball, 83-84 MPH with his changeup at the Arizona Fall League last fall and also worked on polishing his low-80s slider. He's got a fluid throwing motion that needs little-to-no refinement.
Trey McNutt wasn't considered a top-tier prospect coming out of Shelton State Community College in 2009, but after a few years in the minors, he's quietly developed into one of the Cubs' top young pitching talents.
After a solid rookie year in 2009, McNutt made his way through three levels of the minors in 2010. Between low-A, high-A and double-A ball, the 6'4", 220-pound righty went a combined 10-1 with a 2.48 ERA, striking out 132 in just 116.1 innings of work. He spent his entire 2011 campaign in double-A and struggled mightily, going 5-6 with a rather unsightly 4.55 ERA.
Despite his mishaps last season, there's no questioning what he brings to the table. He can run his fastball up to 95 with great command and also has an interesting curveball/slider combination. Word on the street says the Cubs will want him in the majors in the very near future.
Taylor Jungmann torched the competition in his final season at Texas, and when the Brewers took him at 15th overall at last summer's draft, it's safe to say they found their future No. 2 starter.
Last season, Texas' ace went 13-3 with a 1.60 ERA and struck out 126 batters in 141 innings. He also held opponents to a remarkable .165 BA and garnered a sumptuous 0.86 WHIP. He can run his fastball up to the mid-90s with solid command and his curveball is also a plus-pitch.
In a Brewers farm system largely devoid of top-tier pitching, Jungmann will have the opportunity to absolutely sprint through the system. He's expected to start his inaugural season in high-A ball and work his way up from there, though it's clear Milwaukee intends on pushing him up to the majors by 2013.
George Springer was one of the most highly-touted prospects featured in last summer's draft and it's easy to see why. He is a complete ballplayer in every sense and has legitimate five-tool makeup.
In his last season at Connecticut, Houston's first-round pickup posted a .343 BA and slugged his way to 12 home runs, 77 RBI and 23 doubles. He also managed a .450 on-base percentage and .608 slugging percentage while also logging 31 stolen bases.
Given his baseball prowess and time spent in college ball, Springer won't need much time in the minors for the Astros to promote him to the majors.
Simply put, he's one of the most refined young players to come out of last June's draft and will look to become a superstar-caliber talent for years to come.
The Cubs took a gamble on 18-year-old shortstop Javier Baez at last June's draft, but their investment will go a long way toward shoring up their infield for the prospective future.
Still relatively unknown by Chicago fans, Baez has enough athletic ability to play second and third-base at the major league level, though is still extremely raw for his age and will need at least two seasons in the minors to refine his game. However, there's no denying his defensive aptitude and overall upside.
In his rookie campaign last season, Baez had just 18 total plate appearances but the Cubs quickly promoted him to low-A ball. He's expected to start his 2012 campaign at low-A Boise and work his way up from there.
Jarred Cosart was one of the Phillies' top pitching prospects before being dealt to Houston via trade last summer. He now looks to break through to the majors for the Astros in the very near future.
Drafted fresh out of high school in the 38th round of the 2008 draft, Cosart has three years of pro experience to his credit and has showed signs of being a workhorse at the big-league level.
In 2010, he went 7-3 with a 3.79 ERA and struck out 77 in 71.1 innings at low-A ball. Last year he scooted his way up to double-A ball, where he struggled in his seven starts, posting an ERA of 4.71 and an underwhelming 1.69 K/BB ratio.
The Astros have a bevy of top pitching prospects in their system and Cosart may have the highest ceiling of all. His fastball can touch the mid-'90s and his hammer-action curveball is easily the best in Houston's system.
Look for him to start 2012 in double-A and break through to triple-A by season's end.
Signing as a non-draft pick in 2005 at 16 years old, Wily Peralta has spent five solid seasons in the Brewers' system and is almost ready to contribute at the major-league level.
In 2010, the bulky right-hander and Dominican Republic native went the distance by going 8-6 with a 3.79 ERA and 104 strikeouts in 147.1 innings of work. However, he struggled with command issues and conceded 64 walks, leading to an abhorrent 1.41 WHIP.
He bounced back in 2011 by going a combined 11-7 with a 3.17 ERA in 150.2 innings, striking out 157 and walking just 59.
Peralta can touch the low to mid-'90s with his fastball and has a plus-slider and changeup that will serve him well at the next level. He's clearly Milwaukee's top prospect heading into this season and has a shot at breaking camp with the big-league team out of the bullpen to start his 2012 campaign.
Another prospect sent to Houston from the Phillies' system, Jonathan Singleton is widely considered to be the Astros' top youngster heading into this season.
The 6'2", 215-pound first baseman is athletic as they come and uses his prowess to his advantage in the batter's box. In 2010, Singleton batted .290 with 14 home runs and 77 RBI in 104 games in low-A ball and followed that up last year by batting .298 with 13 home runs and 67 RBI in high-A ball.
Singleton is also a capable defender, as well. He carries a career .989 fielding percentage and 8.73 range factor, and his wing span makes him an ideal target at first base.
At just 20 years old, Singleton is already a seasoned minor league talent and shouldn't need any more than two seasons down on the farm before he's ready to contribute for the Astros at Minute Maid Park.
The Pirates have a number of extremely talented arms in their system, but not a whole lot of positional stars to speak of. Starling Marte is probably one of Pittsburgh's best positional prospects.
A 23-year-old center-fielder with a considerable amount of defensive range, Marte is an above-average athlete who may be on his way to the big leagues by the end of 2012. Last season in double-A, the Dominican native posted a .332 BA with 12 home runs, 50 RBI, 91 runs scored and logged 24 stolen bases.
Adding more power to his swing would make him a legitimate five-tool prospect.
Marte is currently on Pittsburgh's 40-man roster to start spring training. If he impresses, there's a chance he will get called up mid-season after some time in triple-A to refine his game a bit more.
Few prospects on this list are as MLB-ready as 23-year-old Anthony Rizzo. With four scintillating pro seasons under his belt, he's as ready as he'll ever be to contribute at the big-league level.
At the triple-A level last season, Rizzo was nothing short of sensational, batting .331 with 26 home runs and 101 RBI. He managed a .404 on-base percentage and registered a remarkable .652 slugging percentage in the meantime.
The Chicago Cubs and new President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein loved what they saw in Rizzo and traded for him in early January. In their endeavors to go young, rebuild and start from scratch, Rizzo figures to be the Cubs' first-baseman of the future.
It remains to be seen if he'll start his 2012 campaign in the minors or if he'll break camp with the big league team.
Base-stealing is an art form that few players, much less minor-leaguers, have been able to perfect. However, Billy Hamilton seems to have it down pat.
A second-round draft pick from the 2009 draft, Hamilton has provided more than enough reasons to believe he's the Cincinnati Reds' shortstop of the future.
Last season at low-A ball, the 21-year-old notched 103 stolen bases in 135 games. He batted .278 with three home runs, 50 RBI and 99 runs scored as a switch hitter, additionally.
Scouts everywhere agree that Hamilton has legitimate lead-off material at the big-league level, but that he'll need to shore up and develop his power slightly more. He's average in the field and may have to find his way to second base or possibly even the outfield in the future.
Baseball America ranks Hamilton as the Reds' No. 2 overall prospect heading into this season.
In a Chicago Cubs' farm system without any sensational positional prospects, 21-year-old outfielder Brett Jackson really stands out as a future star in the making.
Between high-A and double-A ball in 2010, the California product batted a combined .297 with 12 home runs, 66 RBI, 103 runs scored and also notched 30 stolen bases. Last season between double and triple-A, Jackson batted .274 with 20 home runs, 58 RBI, 84 runs scored with 21 stolen bases.
Jackson has impressed scouts with his five-tool makeup. He's got a strong arm, can play defense in the outfield, can run, can hit for average and has flashed instances of being able to hit for power at the next level.
If he can continue to rake at his impressive pace, there's no question he'll break onto the major-league scene early on this season.
Signed by the St. Louis Cardinals as a non-draft pick free agent in 2010, 20-year-old right-hander Carlos Martinez has all the ingredients necessary to become a future ace at the major league level.
In the Dominican Summer League in 2010, Martinez made 12 starts, going 3-2 with a exceptional 0.76 ERA. He also struck out 78 batters, held the opposition to a .144 BA and logged a 0.71 WHIP. Last year between low-A and high-A ball, he went a combined 6-5 and saw his ERA rise to 3.93. However, his strikeout abilities continued, amassing 93 punch-outs in 84.2 innings of work.
Skeptics will point to Martinez's size (6', 165 pounds) as cause for concern, but so far he's been a sensation on the mound. Baseball America ranks him as the Cardinals' No. 2 overall prospect heading into this season.
It's often difficult to find a catcher prospect who has a solid glove and can also hit for power, but Devin Mesoraco is one youngster who fulfills both requirements.
A former first-round pick from the 2007 draft, Mesoraco has only recently burst onto the scene as a top minor-league prospect.
After three underwhelming seasons, his bat exploded in 2010, batting a combined .302 with 26 home runs and 75 RBI between high-A, double-A and triple-A ball. He spent his entire 2011 campaign in the International League and batted .289 with 15 home runs and 71 RBI.
The Reds have a pressing need at catcher this season, and barring some unforeseen regression in spring training, Mesoraco will look to take over the starting role in Cincinnati on opening day.
When the Pirates took Gerrit Cole No. 1 overall at last June's draft, it's safe to say they corralled one of the most seasoned young arms in all of college baseball who has a tremendously high MLB ceiling.
In his final season at UCLA, the budding star went 6-8 and posted a 3.31 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and held batters to a .242 BA. He also punched out 119 batters in 115 innings and snagged a 1.89 BB/9 IP ratio.
His prototypical 6'4", 220-pound frame enabled him to consistently run his fastball up to the high 90s and his plus-average slider looks to be his strikeout pitch.
After making his pro debut in the Arizona Fall League where he went 2-0 with an even 3.00 ERA, striking out 16 in 15 total innings, Cole should start his 2012 campaign in high-A ball.
Word on the street says he won't need much time in the minors and could break through to Pittsburgh's rotation possibly as soon as 2013.
Undoubtedly the Pittsburgh Pirates' top overall prospect heading into this season, it's easy to forget Jameson Taillon is only 20 years old with one pro season under his belt. His physique and makeup suggest he could already be a major-league talent.
Taken second overall (after Bryce Harper) in the 2010 draft, Taillon's 6'6", 225-pound shell has had scouts raving since his high-school days.
Consequently, the lanky right-hander can run his fastball up to 99 MPH and also has a plus fastball and slider. Couple that with solid command, and Taillon is a can't-miss prospect on the mound.
In his first pro season, Taillon made 23 starts in low-A ball and went 2-3, garnering a 3.98 ERA, 97 strikeouts and a 1.19 WHIP in 92.2 innings. He's expected to move through the system quickly despite the fact he was drafted straight out of high school, and will challenge Gerrit Cole to be Pittsburgh's ace of the future.
The St. Louis Cardinals struck gold when they took high school phenom Shelby Miller 19th overall at the 2009 draft and may very well have found their future No. 2 starter in the process.
Weighing in at a prototypical 6'3", 195 pounds, Miller has all the physical tools to become a successful top-of-the-rotation starter in the big leagues.
The 21-year-old was clocked throwing in the upper 90s prior to the draft and that will only get better with time. He also features a plus-average 12-6 curveball that complements his velocity well.
Miller's physique and makeup endowed him with unquestioned strikeout abilities. In 2010, he punched out 140 in just 104.1 innings and last season sat down 170 in 139.2 for a career K/9 IP ratio of 11.4.
If he can further that success into spring training, he will have the chance at starting his 2012 campaign out of St. Louis' bullpen.