The more consideration I give to the 2016 lineup, the more convinced I am that it is falling on the shoulders (fairly or unfairly) of Byron Buxton. Let's look at the ways he impacts the lineup.
1. Lineup with Buxton leading off: Buxton, Dozier, Mauer, Sano, Plouffe, Park, Rosario, Murphy/Suzuki, Escobar.
Without Buxton leading off: Dozier, Mauer, Sano, Park, Plouffe, Rosario, Murphy/Suzuki, Escobar, Buxton/Santana.
Not only does the first lineup place players in their optimum position, it showcases a very strong lineup 1-9. We have power through the middle with Sano, Plouffe, Park in the 4-6 holes, We have a base-stealing, 1st-to-3rd demon at the top of the lineup, and what I would consider among the league leaders in the 7-9 holes.
Without him at the top, almost every player is batting out of position. Too much pressure is placed on Park, Dozier is not a leadoff hitter in the OBP sense, and it feels like every player is one spot away from his ideal place in the order. We have almost no speed at the top of the order. We rely too heavily on 7-9 to produce runs or runners without a consistent RBI presence batting behind them.
2. There has been a lot of recent discussion of OF defense. With Buxton manning CF, you can place Rosario in RF or LF, and Sano in the other corner. At least two of the three are elite defensively, all three have great arms, and Sano's athleticism and arm and bat make the team reasonable with the fly-ball pitching staff they have. Many have pointed out how valuable the athletic outfield was to the pitching staff. I don't think it is wrong to suggest that the defense was worth half of the decreased ERA among starters last year, though statistics could prove me wrong.
But if Buxton is sent to AAA, the outfield scenarios become....what's the word I'm searching for?....frightening. Sano, Rosario, Arcia? They cannot score enough runs to make up for the defensive lapses. And those lapses don't just cause runs to occur because of missed fly balls, doubles and triples. Those lapses cause mental anguish in pitchers who try to be too fine and miss their targets because of their fear of solid contact. You cannot pitch in the big leagues worried that any ball that is hit will become a problem. Defense translates into confidence in pitchers. Confidence in pitchers leads to success. The last thing I want to think when I'm a pitcher is the things I cannot do - "can't throw a fastball here to this dead-pull hitter; can't throw anything offspeed to this guy and speed up his bat; can't throw a change because he knows I need to avoid the fastball to avoid solid contact."
3. I'm not a huge believer in projections, but any scenario in which the Twins make the playoffs and win playoff games starts with Byron Buxton being a difference-maker. If he is a.290 hitter with a .365 OBP and .410 SLG, with 30 doubles, 13 triples, 10 HR, and 34 SBs, the progression or regression of every other player on the team (within reason, we can't have regression by everyone else) makes far less difference. We, in all fundamental fairness to our hopes and dreams, NEED this guy to break out. We don't need him to be the ROY, but he would need to be within the top 3.
One caveat. I'm breaking one of my cardinal rules here. I rarely watch football, because I hate the hyperbole. They start every broadcast with "If the Lions are going to win today, so-and-so NEEDS to carry the ball 20 times" or "the defense NEEDS to keep the opposition under 50% in third-down conversions." I have watched enough to know that there are many ways to win, and teams win without 20 carries or 50% third-down conversions. There isn't one thing we need, if enough other things happen.
But when I walk through the lineup, and through the defense, and through the possibilities and probabilities, it keeps coming back to this one guy. With all the known and unknown quantities on this team, if he's a bust and spends this year in AAA, I don't see a scenario where we are successful. If he's a ROY/MVP player, I don't see a scenario where we aren't a very, very competitive team with the sky as the limit.