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5 early unsung heroes in the AL Central

May 10, 2018

Considering the standings, it's safe to call the American League Central an unsung division. But whether it's the title-contending Indians, the up-and-coming Twins, or the rebuilding Tigers, Royals and White Sox, every team has an unsung hero -- someone who doesn't get enough credit for the impact he makes.These are

Considering the standings, it's safe to call the American League Central an unsung division. But whether it's the title-contending Indians, the up-and-coming Twins, or the rebuilding Tigers, Royals and White Sox, every team has an unsung hero -- someone who doesn't get enough credit for the impact he makes.
These are the players who can help teams overachieve in a season, either to take an extra step forward toward contention or to keep a team in the thick of the race. The Indians certainly know that, having watched Jose Ramirez emerge from a versatile infielder coming up to an AL MVP Award candidate last year. The Royals watched Ryan Madson blossom from a comeback story to a big bullpen piece during their World Series run of 2015. The Tigers built their run of division dominance with help from super-utility player Don Kelly, who became a cult figure in Detroit with his playoff heroics and ability to play everywhere.
This season, for a contender like Cleveland, it's a swing pitcher who finds his way into the rotation and deals like an ace. For Minnesota, it's an infielder who stepped into a void and capably filled it. For Kansas City, it's a Rule 5 Draft pick who has found his place in a restructured bullpen. For Chicago, it's an infielder who doesn't rank among the top prospects in the team's rebuild, but is outhitting everyone and enlivening the clubhouse. For Detroit, it's a versatile athlete who can play everywhere, but has filled a pressing need in the outfield.
Here's a closer look at the unsung heroes of the AL Central:

Indians RHPMike Clevinger
Why you should know about him: After fighting his way into the rotation last year, Clevinger is now a fixture. Over the 2017-18 seasons, the righty has gone 13-4 with a 2.82 ERA in 28 starts for the Tribe. Through seven starts this year, he has a 2.76 ERA with a .595 opponents' OPS.
Why you don't: Clevinger is starting to make a name for himself, but he stills borders on being the "other guy" behind Cleveland's big three of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer. The way Clevinger has been pitching, he deserves to have his name mentioned right alongside the Tribe's talented trio.
What they're saying: "Clev deserves a ton of credit. I also think guys like [Minor League pitching coordinator] Ruben Niebla, who spent a ton of time with him when he first came over here. deserve credit. I know it's early, but it's a pretty good success story. This kid's got a chance to log some innings for us. That gets exciting." -- manager Terry Francona

Royals RHPBrad Keller
Why you should know about him: Keller, 22, has emerged as one of manager Ned Yost's go-to guys in the late innings. He has appeared in 15 games already -- nearly half of the Royals' games -- and has a 2.70 ERA with a four-seam fastball that can touch 99 mph and a two-seamer that sits at 91-93.
Why you don't: Keller was a Rule 5 Draft acquisition who the Royals had hoped to develop slowly -- to the point of somewhat protecting him from high-leverage situations, at least early in the season. But the plan to have veterans Justin Grimm and Blaine Boyer take a setup role for closer Kelvin Herrera hasn't panned out. And Yost has more and more leaned on Keller, who has three holds.
What they're saying: "He's been really impressive. First time in the big leagues, and we've used him in big situations. He's got that big fastball we saw hit 99. Just an impressive kid so far." -- Yost

TigersOFJaCoby Jones
Why you should know about him: While the injury bug has bitten Detroit, Jones has helped fill gaps in the Tigers' outfield and become an everyday player, batting everywhere from the middle of the order when Jose Cabrera was injured to the leadoff spot with Leonys Martin now hurt. While his .245 average and .701 OPS aren't particularly impressive, Jones' work includes a walk-off homer to beat the Royals April 20, a game-winning run on a squeeze bunt to beat the Rays last week, and a sliding catch and double play Wednesday in Texas.
Why you don't: Jones, a former shortstop prospect who shifted to outfield going into last season, fell into obscurity once he washed out from the center-field role in Detroit. He struggled last summer at Triple-A Toledo, and he made the Tigers' Opening Day roster only when manager Ron Gardenhire promised he could find enough playing time for Jones as an extra outfielder to let him continue to develop.
What they're saying: "He's been huge. He's come out playing, shortened his swing. He still gets out of whack every once in a while, but the jumps and reads he gets on balls out there, and the excitement he brings to the team, I like that. Sometimes it's bad excitement, but it's excitement. Sometimes it's a little off-the-cuff, but it's still entertaining." -- Gardenhire

Twins INFEduardo Escobar
Why you should know about him: Escobar quietly enjoyed a breakout season in 2017, hitting a career-high 21 homers while filling in capably for an injured Miguel Sano at third base down the stretch. But Escobar has taken it to a different level this year, as he's been the club's best hitter, batting .313/.367/.626 with seven homers and a league-leading 15 doubles in 29 games. He's also been versatile, playing both shortstop and third base this season.
Why you don't: Escobar was projected to be a backup this season behind Sano at third base and Jorge Polanco at shortstop. But Polanco received an 80-game suspension for the use of a performance-enhancing drug, and Sano has missed time with a hamstring injury. It's allowed Escobar to play in an everyday role, and he's taking advantage of the opportunity.
What they're saying: "He's kind of a streaky hitter. We know he knows how to hit. He's got tremendous barrel awareness, and I think he's one of those guys that when the confidence is riding high, good things happen. Hopefully it continues for a while. He's been a big part of what our offense seems to be getting on track." -- manager Paul Molitor

White Sox INFYolmer Sanchez
Why you should know about him: Sanchez quietly has been the team's most consistent hitter throughout the season's first six weeks. He leads the White Sox with a .302 average and ranks third with 18 RBIs, not to mention having clubbed eight doubles and four triples while posting a .791 OPS. Sanchez has primarily played third base this season, but he also can play second and shortstop. And to say Sanchez is the life of the clubhouse would be an understatement.
Why you don't: At 25, Sanchez certainly is not a grizzled veteran, but he also isn't considered part of the youthful core discussed so much in Year 2 of the White Sox rebuild. He doesn't have flashy power or any high-end skill of that nature -- he's overshadowed in his own infield by Jose Abreu, Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson -- but Sanchez seems to do everything well. If All-Stars were picked on May 10, Sanchez would probably represent the White Sox on the AL roster.
What they're saying: "High energy, keeps everybody loose. Probably by example and by work, one of the most competitive and high-energy guys I've ever had the pleasure of having on the ballclub. He took on this responsibility of being kind of the guy that was going to show everybody how to get about going out there and giving it everything he's got every single day, and he does. His personality and his work ethic and his routines, everything, we are really happy to have him." -- manager Rick Renteria

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and Facebook.