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The 5 players in the NL Central who matter the most

It takes 25 players to win a championship, but not all players are created equal. Here are the most important players of the NL Central.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to our spin around the divisions of baseball, looking for each team’s most interesting/important/crucial player. These are the linchpins. These are the players whose individual performances will give you a pretty good idea of how their teams are doing.

These are the players who will serve as the canary to their team’s coal mine.

Some of them are easy choices. Some of them are picked blindly from a group of seven or eight deserving candidates. These are the most compelling players for each team in the National League Central:

Chicago Cubs - Jake Arrieta

Have you heard about how the Cubs are good now? Yes, yes, and not only that, but you might be surprised to know that a lot of their best players are young and should be good for years. Seems like a lot of people just aren’t talking about either of these facts.

So, yes, you’re tired of hearing about how the Cubs will rule the next 10 years, too. They’re almost the perfect team in the perfect situation. Almost nothing can spoil their fun.

[echo] spoil their fun

[echo] spoil their fun

Not to get all doom-’n’-gloom on Cubs fans, but take a quick step back and ask yourself a simple question: What would happen to the Cubs this year if they went through the same injuries the Dodgers had in their rotation last year? Fifteen Dodgers had to make a start last year, and just three of them made more than 20. Their best pitcher, the world’s best pitcher, made just 21.

How would the Cubs respond to that kind of last-second mess? They’ve famously curated so much position player depth that they’re not sure where to start Javier Baez, and there are several more deserving hitters in the minors. It’s here that Jake Arrieta becomes their most interesting player, because the Cubs’ answer to theoretical injuries in the rotation is probably something like, “HOW ABOUT WE JUST DON’T FIND OUT?”

Look, FanGraphs has an article about Arrieta!

What on Earth Happened With Jake Arrieta?

Oh, boy.

On TV, Arrieta looked effective. In the box score, Arrieta looks effective. But what was the deal with his fastball? This is an open question. I don’t have an answer. I just have evidence that makes me think thoughts.

Velocity readings for one game are about as meaningful as the average age of the announcers, but that doesn’t mean you can’t squint a little bit. Because without their superior pitching, the Cubs aren’t much different than the Astros. And the Astros missed the postseason last year.

St. Louis Cardinals - Aledmys Diaz

On paper, the Cardinals’ lineup looks surprisingly weak. Jhonny Peralta had a lousy year last season, and he’s hitting cleanup. Stephen Piscotty was solid, but not much more. Randal Grichuk’s OBP was below .300 last year, and Kolten Wong was a mess. Yadier Molina is still a marvel, but he’s also a 34-year-old catcher.

Matt Carpenter is the rock of the lineup, but the Cardinals need one more. In theory, that would be Diaz, who made the All-Star Game a season after underperforming in Triple-A. He showed everything: power, average, versatility. The only blemish on his season is that he got hurt.

He was unspectacular in his September return, though, and it’s worth noting that even after 404 at-bats in the majors, we still don’t know a ton about Diaz. Is he a perennial All-Star, the type of player who can hit .300 with 15 to 20 homers for the next dozen years? Or did he set expectations too high, and the modest, versatile talent he was for Memphis the year before is the player the Cardinals should expect in the future?

I’m bullish, and I’ll guess that he does help form a lineup foundation with Carpenter and Molina, along with whatever random homegrown hitter the team creates with their computer, Weird Science-style. But if you look up in July, and Diaz is just a regular ol’ middle infielder, don’t be shocked if that’s accompanied by a Cardinals team that’s sinking in the Central, wondering where their runs are going to come from.

Pittsburgh Pirates - Jameson Taillon

Imagine for a brief moment if the Pirates had acquired Jake Arrieta in the offseason. Suspend your disbelief about them playing in the same division as the Cubs, or how the Cubs wouldn’t actually part with him. In this alternate timeline, the Cubs are bad again, and the Pirates just made a whopper of a dandy of a deal, and now they have Arrieta to put behind Gerrit Cole. What would you have thought about their chances in the Central then?

Maybe Jameson Taillon is Jake Arrieta this year.

Unlikely! Optimistic to a fault! Not something we can count on! But it’s not like Taillon lacks the talent to be a top-tier talent. He matched up with Chris Sale on Wednesday night, and he looked every bit as ace-y. The stuff is there. The control is advanced.

Andrew McCutchen would be another good choice here, except the Pirates also have Austin Meadows in a glass case. With Taillon, they’re pinning their postseason hopes on a second-year player, and there isn’t really a good alternative. Their confidence in him explains a great deal of their offseason inactivity, and they will rise or fall with their unproven understudy ace.

No pressure, kid. If there’s any consolation, it’s that Tyler Glasnow will share at least some of this burden, but there might not be an unproven pitcher in baseball who’s more important to his team’s plans.

Milwaukee Brewers - Eric Thames

This one gets a little abstract, so I appreciate your patience. Eric Thames is not directly tied to the fate of the Brewers. They gave him money, and that’s all they’ll lose. The player and situation might be risky, but the move isn’t as risky, if that makes sense. If they realize they gave millions to a poor man’s Brandon Moss, they’ll shrug and say, “Worth a shot!” You should agree with them at that point.

What Thames really is, though, is a referendum on the Brewers’ scouting and analytics team. They believed in their evaluation of him more than the other 29 teams, and they pounced quicker and more forcefully on a player they thought could help.

This is important because the Brewers, as much as any team in baseball, will need that scouting and analytics team to be among the best in baseball. There’s a fine line between the Indians and Rays, with smart people on all sides, but the Indians have had just that much more of an edge over the last few years, and it took them to the World Series.

If the Brewers want to be relevant in a division that’s stacked against them, they’ll need brains. BRAAAAAAINS. And if Eric Thames has a fantastic season that makes the rest of the teams kick themselves, it should do a lot more for the confidence of the fan base than any other individual player. The Brewers are probably going to lose 90 games this year, but this is the best way to feel confident in their direction for the next decade.

Orlando Arcia hitting .330 and stealing 60 bases would help, too.

Cincinnati Reds - Amir Garrett

The Reds are not the Phillies. They don’t have a gaggle of talented players who are just coming into their own, with a mostly set pitching staff, who might be the kind of team worth adding to in a win-now capacity over the next couple years.

The Reds are not the Twins. They don’t have a couple of monster young players who were recently among the top prospects in baseball, who should anchor the team for the next decade if everything goes right.

The Reds are the Reds. They have some quality young players, but they’ll probably have to be traded before the next contending team is created. They’ll have to trade these players to create the next contending team. That means Billy Hamilton thriving would be important, but more in a what-can-the-Reds-get-for-him kind of way. Same goes for Anthony DeSclafani. Their window of on-field usefulness to the Reds isn’t closed, but it’s a lot easier to seem them helping the Reds more by playing for another team within the next two years.

That means the new core had better not screw this up. With Garrett, the Reds have a basketball player of a pitcher, a long, lanky lefty with ace potential, and they can let him grow at his own pace for a couple years along with the rest of the team. By the time the Reds are good again, DeSclafani might be making $9 million with two years left on his contract. They’ll need pitchers like Garrett to thrive and make those future decisions a whole lot easier.