Twins, White Sox will battle for AL Central

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The Post’s Joel Sherman previews the AL Central.

1. Minnesota Twins

O/U wins: 88.5

Key player: Byron Buxton. No Twin can change the team’s fortunes more by putting together his abundant skills with health. Last year, he became less patient and more powerful to the point that if Buxton had qualified for the batting title, he would have led the majors in highest homer percentage and lowest walk percentage. There is an MVP candidate here with his defense, speed and power. He has to stay off the injured list and be on the bases more.

Player who’ll need to step up: Jose Berrios. Kenta Maeda nearly won the Cy Young in his first Twins season. But Berrios is still probably the most talented Minnesota starter. Like Buxton, the skill with Berrios is so overt, you try to imagine what it would look like if he maximized what he has.

Name you’ll get to know: Alex Kirilloff. The rare player who has started a playoff game but never appeared in a regular-season game. Kirilloff failed to win the left-field job in spring training, but his time is coming.

Biggest question mark: Can Josh Donaldson stay healthy? Calf problems that devastated Donaldson’s 2018 season did the same in 2020, limiting him to 28 games and keeping him out of the playoffs. Donaldson still can have a difference-making bat, but obviously only if he is in the lineup.

How it’ll go down: The Twins have lost 18 straight postseason games — the longest streak ever among the four major North American team sports — dating to 2004. The addition of Andrelton Simmons’ defense at short and Alex Colome’s craftiness in the endgame will give Minnesota yet another chance to win in October.

2. Chicago White Sox

O/U wins: 90.5

Top White Sox prospect Andrew Vaughn
Top White Sox prospect Andrew Vaughn
Getty Images

Key player: Tony La Russa. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf has stated his biggest baseball regret was dismissing La Russa in 1986. Three-and-a-half decades later, Reinsdorf is trying to undo the past. La Russa is a Hall of Famer, but one who has not managed since 2011 and who has had a couple of high-profile intoxication issues since. Does he still have his excellence, and can he relate to such a young, talented team?

Player who’ll need to step up: Michael Kopech. He missed 2019 after Tommy John surgery and opted out of last season. He is a wild card, likely to begin out of the bullpen and — if his body, mind and control prove strong — he could eventually bring his triple-digit fastball to a rotation headed by Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel and Lance Lynn.

Name you’ll get to know: Andrew Vaughn. The White Sox have been unafraid to fast track their best prospects, including Nick Madrigal (the fourth-overall pick in 2018) and Garrett Crochet (the 11th-overall pick in 2020). So do not be surprised to see Vaughn, the third pick in 2019. Vaughn could work his way into a first base/DH timeshare with AL MVP Jose Abreu, or just play left field with slugger Eloy Jimenez possibly missing the season after tearing a pectoral muscle.

Biggest question mark: How do they handle expectations? The Padres in the NL and the White Sox in the AL have defied the conservative bent in the sport by aggressively promoting their top minor leaguers and spending money to go for it. Both made the playoffs after long absences in 2020. Welcome to the bull’s-eye in 2021.

How it’ll go down: Chicago added Lynn, Adam Eaton and Liam Hendriks to its first playoff team since 2008. The White Sox have as much talent as any team in the AL, but have some volatility based on high-end youth and La Russa’s age and baggage.

3. Kansas City Royals

O/U wins: 73.5

Key player: Adalberto Mondesi. He made his debut in the 2015 postseason for the championship Royals, but is still just 25 (younger than Pete Alonso, for example). There is so much talent here. His speed led to eight more steals than anyone last year, and he tied for the MLB lead with 10 triples in 2019. He can defend. The question is whether his offensive approach will mature. If so, he nudges toward star level. If he doesn’t, Bobby Witt Jr. is one of the majors’ best prospects, also a shortstop and coming fast.

Player who’ll need to step up: Andrew Benintendi. You would have bet on him being a fixture in Boston during the 2018 championship season with his .830 OPS and strong left-field defense at age 23. But his health and production cratered to the point that Boston sold low on him during the offseason. He is not a free agent until after the 2022 season, so the Royals are hoping to regenerate him into a key part of the lineup for at least two years.

Name you’ll get to know: Daniel Lynch. Brady Singer broke through impressively for the 2020 Royals and Lynch is expected to join him in the rotation this year. Kansas City is banking a lot of its rebuild around its young arms, and the 6-foot-6 lefty Lynch is probably the best of the group.

Royals prospect Bobby Witt Jr. during a spring training game
Royals prospect Bobby Witt Jr. during a spring training game
Getty Images

Biggest question mark: How special is Witt going to be? The second pick of the 2019 draft has yet to play above Rookie ball yet tempted Kansas City in spring to promote him directly to the majors. He is on the fast track and potentially provides a superstar to anchor a sustained run of success.

How it’ll go down: There is buzz on the Royals, but they are likely still a year away. They still might be sellers in July — Danny Duffy, Greg Holland and Jorge Soler are all in their walk years, and they could always test the market for a piece like Whit Merrifield. But they are on the right track.

4. Cleveland Indians

O/U wins: 81.5

Key Player: Andres Gimenez. The key acquisition from the Mets in the Francisco Lindor/Carlos Carrasco trade. As in New York last year, Gimenez already has shown he should be the starting shortstop, not Amed Rosario (also obtained by Cleveland). He is not Lindor, but Gimenez has skill, a high baseball IQ and — currently — a low salary. Is he a building block?

Indians pitcher Triston McKenzie
Indians pitcher Triston McKenzie
Getty Images

Player who’ll need to step up: Triston McKenzie. The 2018 Indians won the AL Central behind a rotation foursome of Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger and Corey Kluber, who combined to go 62-31 with a 2.89 ERA. All four have since been traded, with the rotation reforming around 2020 AL Cy Young winner Shane Bieber. No team has done better at maximizing starting pitching. If Cleveland is going to contend this year, it will need its rotation to be deep behind Bieber. McKenzie is arguably the most talented, with Aaron Civale, Zach Plesac, Logan Allen and Cal Quantrill also part of the inexpensive group.

Name you’ll get to know: Emmanuel Clase. He was the main return from Texas for Kluber, but missed last season following Tommy John surgery. He is back with his triple-digit fastball. With major league saves leader Brad Hand gone, Cleveland’s late-game duo could be James Karinchak (who struck out 48.6 percent of hitters last year) and Clase.

Biggest question mark: Is Franmil Reyes an offensive force? His 46 homers the past two seasons are one fewer than Juan Soto, the same as Trevor Story and one more than Mookie Betts had. Cleveland is hurting for offense. Reyes will hit cleanup.

How it’ll go down: Cleveland’s rotation may pitch it into contention, but a lineup that lacks heft beyond Jose Ramirez will be hard-pressed to score enough.

5. Detroit Tigers

O/U wins: 69.5

Key player: A.J. Hinch. Like Alex Cora, Hinch was suspended last year due to his involvement with the Astros’ sign-stealing malfeasance. Unlike Cora, he ended up somewhere new, going to a franchise that has the second-worst winning percentage (.352) over the last four years. Hinch never had a losing record in five years with the Astros. He is almost certainly going to have one this year, so improvement would be marked by successfully breaking in top prospects and upgrading the preparation standard for the team.

Player who’ll need to step up: Matt Boyd. The Tigers have young pitching coming, but it would sure help the present and perhaps the future if Boyd, Julio Teheran and Michael Fulmer could revive enough to potentially be trade chips. Boyd has surrendered 54 homers the last two seasons combined — 10 more than any other pitcher. Could a deadened ball help him?

Name you’ll get to know: Riley Greene. So much attention is on Spencer Torkelson, who was picked first overall in 2020. But the bat that will probably arrive first — especially after an eye-opening spring — is that of Greene, a lefty-swinging center fielder taken fifth overall in 2019.

Biggest question mark: How good are their three big pitching prospects? So much of Detroit’s near future revolves around Matt Manning, Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal. Is this the next Tigers wave of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello?

How it’ll go down: Miguel Cabrera will bring interest as he tries for 500 homers (13 away) and 3,000 hits (134 away). But the key to this Tigers campaign will be whether the young starters break through and if players such as Willi Castro and Jeimer Candelario show that they are a legitimate left side of the infield.

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