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The 5 players who matter most in the AL Central

From young players to crusty veterans, here are the most important players to their team in 2017.

Minnesota Twins v Chicago White Sox Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

Hello, and welcome back to my series, “A division-by-division tour that allows me to avoid writing daily 1,000-word features that roughly translate to, ‘Look, it’s only April, I don’t know.’” The idea is that these individual players work as a proxy for their entire teams — as these players go, so go their teams.

If you think it’s a stupid concept, note that I selected Jarrett Parker for my pick for the Giants, and both he and his team are struggling. Also, if you don’t like the idea, give me some time. It’s only April. My columns can get better. Small sample.

Anyway, here are the canaries in the coal mine for every team in the AL Central:

Detroit Tigers - Jordan Zimmermann

The Tigers are the Angels in a different stage of the cycle of franchise life. There is no sense in rebuilding, not when Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander are both excellent, not when Justin Upton and Anibal Sanchez are untradable, and not when Ian Kinsler has the power to demand a contract extension with every trade. This is a franchise that has nothing to lose by giving it the ol’ college try one last time.

Here, look at the cover of their 2017 yearbook:

Exactly. That might be an artist’s conception, but who’s to say in this topsy-turvy digital age? It’s the perfect slogan. The roster the Tigers have built is a roster that absolutely could work. Question mark. Without much of a minor-league system to deal, and with the budget tapped, this is the roster they’re charging forward with. Totally defensible.

In this not-all-in-but-not-even-a-little-bit-out mode, they’ll need some players to do better. Justin Upton, for example. Not sure who thought that would be a good move.

Uh, give me one second ...

Look, it doesn’t matter. Upton was a win-now player with enough youth to be a little win-later, and he’ll need to hit.

The Tigers have other hitters, though. Jordan Zimmermann is who gives them a chance to be the challenger the Indians aren’t really expecting. Now that Justin Verlander has established that he’s still one of the most fearsome pitching machines in circulation, the Tigers have a chance to throw a Verlander/Zimmermann/Michael Fulmer front three at the world, with reasonable options in the fourth and fifth slots.

The catch is that Zimmermann has to be good. He certainly can be. From 2011 through 2015, he averaged 194 innings, with a 3.14 ERA (123 ERA+). That’s not just OK or making do. That’s exceptional. The Tigers were right to prefer him and an extra $100 million to David Price. It’s far too easy to forget how good players were when they suffer one down season.

It’s also far too easy to have one down season stretch into two, and two down seasons turning into three, and suddenly you’re Matt Cain. How Zimmermann bounces back directly affects what the Tigers will do this year. You knew that already, but the difference between 85 wins and 90 wins and a team you don’t want to face in the postseason might be in one player’s hands.

Kansas City Royals - Alex Gordon

The Royals of 2018 will not resemble the Royals of 2015. The three offseasons that will have separated them might as well be geological epochs, slowly but dramatically reshaping the landscape. The beloved championship team will be remembered in T-shirts and posters, bobbleheads and Blu-rays.

And there Alex Gordon will be, waving.

This is the offseason of reckoning for the Royals, with Eric Hosmer, Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, and Jason Vargas free agents to-be. Maybe I didn’t need to italicize the “and” on that last sentence, but you get the point. If the era of contending Royals baseball is going to continue, it’s going to look a lot different.

And there Alex Gordon will be, waving.

What Gordon’s success would do, then would work to soothe the Royals on two fronts. First, it would make them feel better about their 2017 season, ostensibly because he would help them win baseball games and stay relatively close in the AL Central. Second, he would make them feel better about the radical realignment of their entire roster.

“Sure, we have this dented Ian Kennedy, and, wow, totally forgot we signed Jason Hammel, but we also have Good Ol’ Alex. He’ll never leave us.”

The early returns are not encouraging, as Gordon has a .492 OPS. But Hosmer has a .493 OPS, so maybe they’re in some sort of race? Regardless, Gordon’s success is the rare two-way bellwether. He can make the Royals feel better about the present and future. And he can also, well, you know.

Cleveland Indians - Tyler Naquin

The Indians aren’t a perfect team, but they’re devoid of major holes when they’re healthy. The rotation is fantastic. The bullpen is solid, and that’s underselling it. And if Francisco Lindor is a superplayer now, as he appears to be, the lineup will be, uh, super.

The defense is an open question, though. They’re projected to have an above-average defense, according to FanGraphs, with a lot of help coming from Lindor, but I’m not sure if that factored in Carlos Santana’s adventures in right field. There will be days with Santana in right and the mending Michael Brantley in right, and defensive stats are lukewarm on both of them, which is a nicer way of saying they hate them. They’ll need a strong defensive center fielder on those days.

So best of luck, Tyler Naquin? He’s miscast as a center fielder in the majors, and it was noticeable in the postseason, with some rough moments coming under national lights. It’s possible that was a hiccup, as he’s logged 322 games in center in the minors, so he’s not exactly learning on the job. Still, the Indians would love to supplement their troika of aces with a waterbug outfield, and that’s not possible. The next option is to have a strong center fielder be the anchor for the entire outfield, and that’s not possible.

That leaves hoping that Naquin can either a) surprise defensively or b) hit enough to make them not care. Austin Jackson will help them feel better every few games, but that doesn’t take the pressure entirely off Naquin. If he’s not hitting or fielding, look for some weird ERAs and W-L records from that vaunted front three. If he’s doing both, the Indians are probably rolling.

UPDATE: At least you don’t pay for this stuff.

This probably doesn’t mean a whole lot for the Indians. And if you think that contradicts my thesis, well, buddy, let me tell you that

Minnesota Twins - You cannot possibly expect me to separate Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton

They are one. They are intertwined by the skein of baseball’s fates, super prospects who aren’t prospects anymore, who could both lead the Twins to unimaginable heights or unthinkable failures.

It’s possible that Jason Castro isn’t Joey Votto now and that Ervin Santana’s ERA will creep above 1.00 at some point, so I’m not sure if they’re likely to keep contending in 2017. If that’s the case, they’ll need both Sano and Buxton to help them feel good about the future. More than almost any other pair of young players on a rebuilding team, the two have the potential to make their team feel great about the future. They just need to play well. Simple!

The situations are different, of course. We already know Sano can demolish baseballs, and that he’s capable of being a perennial All-Star, if not a 500-homer threat. The question is if he can hit enough to allow the Twins to ignore his defensive shortcomings. When Miguel Cabrera gets into the Hall of Fame, you’re not going to hear a lot of “Yeah, but his defense” grumbling. It’s unfair to compare anyone to Cabrera, but that gives you a pretty good idea of Sano’s potential, as well as what he’ll need to come close to if his lack of a true position is never resolved.

Or he could get better at third base and stay there for a decade, making us forget he was ever a liability in the first place. He’s just 24, after all.

Buxton is hitting a distinctly un-nice .069, with 17 strikeouts in 29 at-bats, and while he’s just 23, that’s right around the age where you can’t assume everything will be fixed with additional experience. He’s a defensive titan, so it’s not like the Twins are hurting themselves by running him out there, but they would sure feel better if he proved that he wasn’t somewhere between Joe Borchard and Cameron Maybin on the tools-to-realization spectrum.

If both of them turn into All-Stars this year, the Twins do have a non-zero chance of contending after all. More importantly, though, the future will have a distinct, legible road map.

Chicago White Sox - Jose Quintana

Because if he’s hurt or on the Dallas Keuchel path to enigma town, the White Sox surrrrrrrre screwed up.

Is it too early to worry about that? Of course it is! Two starts, two schmarts. Velocity’s good. He’s still left-handed. A substantial back catalog of excellent starts. I want my team to trade for him right now.

At the same time, this is the future for the White Sox. Once they decided they weren’t going to chase the rainbow dreams of a Chris Sale/Quintana/Carlos Rodon future, they wholly committed to the idea of rebuilding. That idea includes trading someone like Quintana for all the prospects, including that one. They decided to slow-play it, though, possibly because they weren’t enamored of the packages the Astros and Cardinals were offering, which is perfectly understandable and fine.

It’s just a strategy that came with risks. This isn’t a new idea, and the White Sox aren’t discovering these risks right now. But that’s what makes Quintana the easy pick to determine how their 2017 season is going. Because it’s supposed to be a bridge season, anyway. How Quintana does determines if the White Sox are getting steel girders or duct tape for that bridge.

Could you build a bridge entirely out of duct tape? Like, a functional bridge that could handle 40 or 50 cars at a time? In theory, of course. Let’s say this theoretical bridge would have to last only one week. Is that possible? How many rolls would it take?

I think I just ruined my own day.

Anyway, the entire season of White Sox baseball hinges on Quintana being as good as he can be, which would lead to the team getting the prospects who are as good as can get. (Todd Frazier is here, too, just on a much lesser scale.)