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Top 20 players who will shape AL Central race

MLB.com @williamfleitch

If you can believe it, Opening Day is only three weeks away, and we're previewing each division every Wednesday. Baseball is an individual sport masquerading as a team sport, so we'll be previewing each division by counting down the 20 most pivotal players in the division. These aren't necessarily the best players. They're just the ones whose 2018 performance will be most vital to their teams' success this season, and in seasons moving forward. To keep it fair, we can only pick four players from each team.

Today: The American League Central. Tell me what you think not just about what you think of this list, but also whom I should not miss when I do the National League East next week, at will.leitch@mlb.com.

If you can believe it, Opening Day is only three weeks away, and we're previewing each division every Wednesday. Baseball is an individual sport masquerading as a team sport, so we'll be previewing each division by counting down the 20 most pivotal players in the division. These aren't necessarily the best players. They're just the ones whose 2018 performance will be most vital to their teams' success this season, and in seasons moving forward. To keep it fair, we can only pick four players from each team.

Today: The American League Central. Tell me what you think not just about what you think of this list, but also whom I should not miss when I do the National League East next week, at will.leitch@mlb.com.

Previously: NL Central | NL West | AL East 

20. Jordan Zimmermann, Detroit Tigers
You're going to notice real quick that it's tough to come up with compelling, particularly important players from the bottom three teams in the AL Central. The market has been what it has been this offseason, but if Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn and company need to stare daggers at anyone, Zimmermann -- $74 million and three years left to go! -- would make a decent target, all told.

19. Tim Anderson, Chicago White Sox
Anderson's name has popped up nationally a lot lately because Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong just broke his record for the largest contract to a player with less than one year service time. Cards fans might not enjoy the comparison: Anderson took a big step back his sophomore year. He rebounded in the second half, and, superlatives aside, the contract is reasonable enough that if he crawls himself back to average, he'll be a steal. And Anderson's probably going to be a lot better than average.

18. Michael Fulmer, Detroit Tigers
Fulmer has so much promise that if he were healthy, you could see teams lining up to help Detroit with its rebuilding project. But he's currently dealing with an elbow injury. Will the Tigers end up getting more than they would have from the Yankees? We'll see.

17. Eloy Jimenez, Chicago White Sox 
Jimenez probably won't make it to the Majors this year, or if he does, it'll just be for a few weeks in September. I bet his name is still mentioned on more White Sox broadcasts than Omar Narvaez's.

Video: Jimenez on his knee, hopes to return soon

16. Salvador Perez, Kansas City Royals
With Alex Gordon evaporating like the kids in "Back to the Future," Perez is the only man left standing from the glory days. He's signed through 2021, but the Royals probably aren't going to be any good then either. Perez will still only be 31 years old then -- how in the world is he still only 27? -- and maybe he'll sign a Yadier Molina deal to become, essentially, Kansas City Molina. With a ring, there are worse fates.

15. Nicholas Castellanos, Detroit Tigers
Yet another guy for Detroit whose trade value makes every at-bat feel a little like an infomercial, Castellanos looks like a legit hitter and a sort-of scary outfielder. The Tigers will likely find a team who cares enough about the former to overlook (or change entirely) the latter in the next few months.

14. Jorge Soler, Kansas City Royals
Soler might be the face of the Royals' "it's gonna be a long and bumpy ride so let's play the kids movement" and if so … this is not going to be a fun ride. The guy with the terrifying power in Chicago has disappeared, replaced by a guy who has the old Soler's contact and on-base issues but nothing else. He hit enough homers (24) in Triple-A to keep him in Kansas City's plans, but let us never talk about his .144/.245/.258 slash line in the Majors in 2017 ever again.

13. Danny Duffy, Kansas City Royals
Bury him a Royal!

Tweet from @duffkc41: Bury me a Royal.

(Except the Royals should totally trade him.)

12. Whit Merrifield, Kansas City Royals
If Merrifield had done in, say, 2015 what he did in '17, he would be the beloved folk hero to end all folk heroes. A 29-year-old journeyman comes out of nowhere to lead the AL in steals and hit 19 homers, and he played five positions and he did this: If Merrifield were that guy for a World Series-winning team, he'd be a legend: They'd name a fountain after him. Unfortunately, Merrifield did it for a Royals team at the end of its run, and now, alas, no one really cares. He's still having the time of his life, and he absolutely should.

Tweet from @STRKC8: .@Royals @OMAStormChasers @RoyalsFarm @royalsreview @WhitMerrifield Whit on Japanese variety TV program pic.twitter.com/hNfMlLxzEL

11. Lucas Giolito, Chicago White Sox
It is looking increasingly probable that Giolito is never going to become the No. 1 we all thought he would be when he was with Washington. This is a lot different than saying Giolito is a bust or even a disappointment: Even though he doesn't throw 100 mph anymore, he's still handy to have around, and still has considerable upside. The White Sox are starting the crawl back up. Giolito is still gonna be a big part of it.

* * * * *

Halftime mascot break! AL Central mascots, ranked.

1. Sluggerrr
That is the correct number of "R"'s in Sluggerrr's name, though personally I think there should just be one "r," but with a bar over it like you would use over a repeating decimal in math class.

2. Slider
If you ask me, they should have Slider on the hats.

3. T.C. Bear
The Twins' mascot bear gets extra credit for not being an actual twin. Would have been a little too on-the-nose.

4. Paws
Paws looks a little too much like a college football mascot, though to be fair, half of college football teams are named "the Tigers."

5. Southpaw
I'm a Ribbie and Roobarb guy myself.

Watch: Youtube Video

* * * * *

Video: Will Berrios be the Twins' Opening Day starter?

10. Theoretical free-agent pitcher, Minnesota Twins
I know that Minnesota is probably still holding out for some bargain -- there is no way a contending team enters the season with that rotation -- but these guys aren't going to be free, for crying out loud. Just give Lynn a two-year deal with a high average annual value and an opt-out clause after the first year and let's move on already.

9. Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers
Here's a fun factoid: Last year was the first year of Cabrera's entire career -- including when he played for the Marlins -- that he didn't receive a single down-ballot MVP Award vote. Time is undefeated, but this can't be it already for him … can it?

8. Danny Salazar, Cleveland Indians
You keep thinking this is the year Salazar will stay healthy and put it all together … and then you see that he's not even going to be ready to start the season. He's now 28 years old: There aren't that many shopping days until Christmas.

7. Fernando Rodney, Minnesota Twins
April: "I can't believe the Twins really think Rodney is their closer."
May: "I can't believe Rodney is still the Twins' closer."
June: "How much longer are the Twins going to keep Rodney there?"
July: "Will the Twins trade for a real closer to replace Rodney?"
August: "How much longer can Rodney hang on?"
September: "Are the Twins really going to make a stretch run with Rodney finishing games?"
October: [Rodney leads the AL in saves.]

6. Yoan Moncada, Chicago White Sox
Moncada was the guy whose promise sold White Sox fans on The Big Plan and got everybody so excited in the first place. So, hey, Yoan: You can start hitting anytime now. In two cup-of-coffee stints in the Majors with the Red Sox and the White Sox, he has hit .231 with just three steals in 218 at-bats. The eight homers last year were intriguing, but this year, the restraints are off and Moncada can just go go go. He won't turn 23 until May. Let's see how fast this thing can move.

Video: 30 Clubs in 30 Days: Alonso on joining Tribe in 2018

5. Yonder Alonso, Cleveland Indians
Carlos Santana is gone, and he's replaced by a guy who just had the best year of his career at 30. Is Alonso just a launch-angle hero? Did the declining numbers down the stretch imply the league was back to figuring him out? Alonso may be the fifth hitter in the AL Division Series, so the Indians best hope the revolution is still in effect.

4. Miguel Sano, Minnesota Twins
No one knows what's going to happen with his off-field allegations -- how many games it may or may not cost him, what the Twins could or should do about it or anything else. But it is uncertainty at a time when Sano is more important to the Twins than ever. Logan Morrison is a handy power piece behind Sano. He is less handy if he is the only handy power piece.

3. Jason Kipnis, Cleveland Indians
The forgotten man of last year's juggernaut Indians team is back and healthy again, ensconced back in his second-base position (over to third, Jose Ramirez!) and may even be batting second. That's a lofty spot for someone who didn't get to be a part of last year's fun, but Kipnis sure is launching the ball this spring.

2. Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins
Buxton has gone from can't-miss prospect to "Wait does this guy have any idea how to hit a baseball?" to "Watch this dude play center!" to, well, something close to the five-tool darling we all thought he was in the first place. Quite a journey for a guy who just turned 24. If Buxton's batting eye can improve just a little bit more, everything else is in place. At this point, the question is whether he's a just building block … or something potentially magnificent.

1. Francisco Lindor, Cleveland Indians
Lindor actually took a step backward in batting average and on-base percentage last season, though he still had 178 hits and still has a walk-to-strikeout ratio that would be iffy in 1986 but will work just fine in 2018. But the leap forward in power was something to behold: "Little" Lindor hit more homers in 2017 than Albert Pujols (who essentially only hits homers anymore) has hit in two seasons. Lindor, obviously, does everything else splendidly, and is quickly becoming one of the unmissable players in the game. He won't turn 25 until the season is over, and he's as close to being the face of baseball as you'll find. Lindor is already a legend in Cleveland, three years into his career. Wait until he helps the Indians win a World Series.

Video: 30 Clubs in 30 Days: Lindor breaks down his approach

* * * * *

We finish this preview, as we will with all of them, with predictions. I apologize in advance because these predictions are guaranteed to be correct and thus I'm a little worried I'm spoiling the season for you.

Cleveland Indians: 98-64
Minnesota Twins: 82-80
Chicago White Sox: 76-86
Kansas City Royals: 64-98
Detroit Tigers: 59-103

Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.

Yonder Alonso, Byron Buxton, Jason Kipnis, Francisco Lindor, Yoan Moncada, Miguel Sano