2016 Positional Power Rankings: Center Field

Time to turn our attention to center field, the eighth position we’ve tackled since Dave Cameron kicked off the series with an informative introduction.

Used to be, you put a fly catcher in center and didn’t worry too much about offense, even if he batted leadoff because he was fast. Willie McGee and Otis Nixon come to mind, though their on-base percentages were decent enough, maybe. They didn’t have power, though. Those years, the position’s isolated power was around 10% worse than league average.

These days, it seems the position has evolved. There are center fielders now who don’t count fielding as their best strength, and their collective power is now closer to average than it used to be. Even Kevin Kiermaier — in some ways a throwback, defense-first burner — has decent power. Maybe down table, around two thirds down the list, you’ll find some guys that would have fit on any 80s squad in center.

But Leonys Martin, Billy Hamilton, and Odubel Herrera are today’s maybes instead of yesterday’s sure things, it seems. Today we wonder if Odubel’s defense is as good as his tools, or if Martin will ever hit lefties, or if Hamilton will ever hit righties. In any case, they provide diversity where some other positions have lacked it. There’s a long way from Yoenis Cespedes to Billy Hamilton.

Let’s separate the burners from the bombers among today’s center fielders!

Looks like two or three stars, a couple clearly above-average guys after that, and then a big bucket of decent. They won’t all get there the same way, but today’s center fielders can swing the stick a bit.

#1 Angels

Mike Trout 658 .300 .405 .580 .414 54.4 3.1 0.6 8.7
Craig Gentry 35 .234 .291 .306 .266 -1.2 0.2 0.5 0.1
Rafael Ortega 7 .237 .299 .318 .275 -0.2 0.0 0.1 0.0
Total 700 .296 .398 .562 .405 53.0 3.3 1.2 8.8

This ranking is not built on depth. Should (perish the thought) Mike Trout go down with a season-ending injury, the Angels’ center-field situation would drop down to the bottom of the heap. That may sound like a knock on Craig Gentry — a decent defense-first center fielder when his legs are right — but more it’s just another way to fawn about Trout.

There are so many ways to fawn, though. As August Fagerstrom pointed out in his player cap, he’s already accrued more wins than any player in the history of baseball through their age-23 season. Only Ted Williams, Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, and Ty Cobb were any better with the bat alone, and Trout adds legs and glove to the package. Or you can go the route of Tony Blengino, who found that Trout was better than Micky Mantle through the same age. Or Jeff Sullivan it up, and chronicle the way that Trout has adjusted to every single wrinkle that the league has thrown at him, like handling the high pitch, and now including now taking inside pitches yard to the opposite field.

Or you can just be succinct, as Fagerstrom was when he summed up his player cap on Trout: the best in the world.

#2 Pirates

Andrew McCutchen 665 .295 .393 .494 .379 35.3 0.9 -5.4 5.7
Starling Marte 21 .281 .336 .447 .339 0.4 0.1 0.3 0.2
Antoan Richardson 14 .239 .317 .311 .284 -0.3 0.1 -0.2 0.0
Total 700 .293 .390 .488 .376 35.4 1.0 -5.3 5.9

Is the great Andrew McCutchen losing a step?

No matter the metric, the 29-year-old Pirate has now had two straight years with negative defensive metrics, including having one of the worst first steps among outfielders last year by StatCast, while adding his first year as a negative on the base paths and the second-worst strikeout rate of his career. By success rates and overall attempts, last year was his worst with the stolen base.

That’s about all the negative we can manage here, though. He’s been amazingly healthy (only three players have more plate appearances since he became a regular in 2010) and productive (only Mike Trout has more wins over that same time period). He’s a better arm away from being a true five-tooler, with power, speed, and a hit tool that has produced a batting line that only five qualified players have topped since 2010. Last year, he became even more Joey Votto-like by taking everything up the middle and swinging less than he had in the last four years. Joey Votto in center field? Yes.

And maybe the most amazing thing is that the Pirates’ outfield defense is so good that they have not one but probably two guys who can step in should he need a blow or come up lame.

#3 Rays

Kevin Kiermaier 546 .264 .309 .408 .310 -0.9 1.0 17.3 4.0
Desmond Jennings 70 .245 .317 .381 .307 -0.3 0.2 0.8 0.4
Mikie Mahtook 49 .236 .286 .360 .282 -1.2 0.1 0.1 0.1
Brandon Guyer 35 .258 .330 .377 .313 0.0 0.1 0.1 0.2
Total 700 .260 .309 .401 .308 -2.3 1.4 18.3 4.6

Look back on that chart from Fagerstrom linked in the McCutchen writeup, and you’ll see that Kevin Kiermaier pairs elite first step with elite top speed. So his legs are a big part of why he’s so good.

But it’s also the eyes. Not only will they steam up a room, but they can see all the way from center field to between the catcher’s legs. He can see the signs. “I can see what pitches are going to be thrown” he told me this year, and that’s sort of amazing, considering Angel Pagan said he couldn’t see the plate and focused on the area around the pitcher’s mound. Consider the difference in the jump those two would get, and you’ll understand the gap between them as defenders.

And of course the Rays have decent depth behind Kiermaier, should his offense falter too much to float his defense, or should he fall to injury. Desmond Jennings would be a good center fielder if his knees can handle it, and Mikie Mahtook can handle that spot, as well.

#4 Diamondbacks

A.J. Pollock   602 .287 .340 .447 .341 8.0 2.3 7.2 4.1
Socrates Brito 84 .259 .288 .378 .288 -2.4 0.1 0.6 0.1
Jason Bourgeois 14 .251 .293 .330 .275 -0.6 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Total 700 .283 .333 .436 .333 5.1 2.4 7.6 4.2

Coming up in the Diamondbacks organization, the worry was that A.J. Pollock had the glove but was a platoon bat, and a right-hander at that. Turns out those concerns were overblown.

Yes, so far, he’s been better against lefties and less otherworldly against righties. But it’s been nearly a 1000 plate appearances now against righties, and he’s been 15% better than league average, with component stats that look completely believable next to his splits against lefties. Overall, only the two center fielders above him on this list have been better with the bat over the last two years, as he combines power and contact to make up for his relative lack of patience. And the defense has been everything that was advertised, as Pollock won the Gold Glove last year and there was no bellyaching.

An elbow issue has delayed his spring training so far, though, so it’s a little worrisome that the team traded away their other best defensive outfielder. Even with Ender Inciarte gone, though, Socrates Brito can fake a center fielder long enough to keep this squad in the top three in baseball — assuming, of course, that knowing this sort of thing is at all possible. Once Pollock is right again, it should be all systems go: his arm wasn’t all that great to begin with.

#5 Royals

Lorenzo Cain 574 .284 .333 .417 .324 2.4 1.9 9.3 3.7
Jarrod Dyson   63 .249 .308 .344 .288 -1.5 0.8 1.1 0.3
Brett Eibner 42 .228 .288 .372 .287 -1.1 0.0 0.0 0.1
Bubba Starling 21 .219 .270 .345 .269 -0.8 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Total 700 .275 .326 .406 .317 -1.0 2.8 10.3 4.0

So far in the rankings, depth has been an after thought, and the ranking has been mostly a function of the quality of the starter. But here, depth is important. Until last year, Lorenzo Cain had never stayed healthy enough all year to accrue 600 plate appearances, even when you combine all of his levels. So having a Jarrod Dyson — currently out with an oblique problem — is a good thing, even if Dyson is perhaps miscast as a starter at another position.

A healthy Cain is obviously among the best in the game. He’s coming off a career year, but since he came to the game late — he only began playing baseball in high school out of spite when the basketball team cut him — maybe it’s believable that a toolsy guy like Cain took a while to put all the pieces together.

Watch him play, and you’ll see speed, power, contact, and defense, all in heaping doses. That should continue, even for a 29-year-old coming off a career year.

#6 Astros

Carlos Gomez   595 .259 .318 .432 .325 3.4 2.0 6.4 3.6
Jake Marisnick 84 .242 .288 .378 .290 -1.9 0.3 1.0 0.3
Colby Rasmus 21 .232 .303 .434 .318 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.1
Total 700 .257 .314 .425 .321 1.6 2.3 7.4 3.9

If Cain is coming off of two seasons that prove he is able to stay healthy, Carlos Gomez might be going in the other direction. Not only was a mid-season trade to the Mets nixed for hip problems by the team doctors there, but a two-year decline in power, speed, and time on the field has seemed to prove those doctors right to some extent.

To be fair, the leaked questions about his hip didn’t manifest last year, unless they led to the hamstring strain that felled Gomez for two weeks last year, or the intercostal strain that cost him time at the end of the year. Still, there’s a general sense that the 30-year-old is in the midst of a decline that’s come surprisingly fast for such an athletic player.

Gomez still has above-average power, and speed, and outfield defense. But as those things travel towards average, we’ll notice his poor plate approach more often. And the fact that for two years now, his success rate on stolen bases has been poor to middling.

Or maybe he’ll be completely healthy this year and help solidify an impressive young team that combines good defense with pop and speed. And if he does need a blow, at least the guy behind him — Jake Marisnick — has some pop and the ability to track a fly ball.

#7 Orioles

Adam Jones 630 .274 .311 .473 .335 7.1 1.4 -0.1 3.3
Joey Rickard 35 .244 .316 .332 .290 -0.9 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Dariel Alvarez 35 .273 .299 .425 .312 -0.3 0.0 0.0 0.1
Total 700 .273 .311 .464 .332 6.0 1.4 -0.3 3.5

Here’s something strange about metrics and Adam Jones. Earlier in his career, Jones was a highlight real athletic wonder that could steal you a base, hit 30 homers, drive in all the RBIz, and talk up a postgame storm. And yet his base-running values were scratch, his overall offense was only once more than 20% better than league average, and his defense was a negative by the numbers.

The kindler, gentler Jones we’ve seen the last two years has attempted only 10 stolen bases and hasn’t hit 30 homers or driven in 90 runs. But he’s had the second-best two-year stretch of his career by weighted offense, his base-running numbers have been strong, and he’s had two straight years of strong defensive numbers. Huh.

In any case, it’s sort of amazing that someone can be as productive as he is with his nearly five-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio over his career, but Jones makes it count when he makes contact. His athleticism has made up for that poor plate approach, and has kept him on the field for volume reps — until late last year when a back injury held him out of many September games.

And if that happens again, a nearly 25-year-old right-handed Rule 5 claim from the Rays — Joey Rickard — is all that’s really in the cupboard for the Orioles. Rickard might take a walk or two, but the skinny flier will never be mistaken for Jones, for many reasons.

#8 Mets

Yoenis Cespedes 350 .263 .307 .477 .333 6.5 0.4 2.5 2.3
Juan Lagares 301 .259 .297 .366 .288 -5.4 0.3 4.4 1.0
Alejandro De Aza 28 .249 .311 .384 .303 -0.2 0.0 0.0 0.1
Brandon Nimmo 21 .229 .309 .335 .286 -0.4 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Total 700 .260 .303 .422 .311 0.5 0.6 6.9 3.4

Well, now we get to maybe the weirdest fit at center field so far. Is it unfair to say that the only thing about Yo that belongs in center is his arm? Maybe it is. But the numbers have not been kind, nor have the high-profile optics, or the choices that his teams have made in the past.

But he’s athletic and has been really good in the corner, so maybe he can fake a center field for a year or two. When you get a player to agree to a one-year contract, basically, you make it work, as the Mets have. With Michael Conforto and Curtis Granderson locking up a lot of the time in corners, the best place for Cespedes is center.

This will be a fluid outfield, though. Late leads will be protected by defensive wizard Juan Lagares, and Cespedes will either sit, or move to a corner depending on handedness matchups. Having Lagares in their back pocket makes this work, and it’s fitting that this is the Juan backup on this entire positional depth chart that’s projected to be worth more than a win.

#9 Dodgers

Joc Pederson 609 .223 .337 .414 .329 8.0 0.1 0.0 3.1
Enrique Hernandez 56 .252 .299 .388 .299 -0.6 0.0 0.0 0.1
Trayce Thompson 35 .230 .282 .403 .297 -0.4 0.0 0.1 0.1
Total 700 .226 .332 .411 .325 7.0 0.1 0.1 3.3

Now we come to a more divisive young player. Coming up out of Palo Alto, the toolsy Joc really didn’t hit a bump in the road until he got to the major leagues. The minors were full of 30/30/.300 seasons that wowed scouts and sent him skyrocketing up prospect lists. But even the player admitted that he hadn’t had to make many adjustments.

Even the first half of his first major-league season wasn’t much of a hurdle. He slashed .230/.364/.487 with a walk for every two strikeouts and hit 20 homers and good outfield defense. In the second half? He hit .178/.317/.300 with six homers and earned the scorn of fans and analysts who perceived him as unable to adjust to the big-league game plan.

Maybe the haters are right. Pederson still chased pitches down and away even though up over the plate and even inside are his strengths, and pitchers got better at hitting that hole as the season went on. He also saw more breaking pitches… but at least he swung at them less as the season went on. And at least Pederson has come to camp this year with a new swing, as weird as it looks. He knows now that he has to adjust, and he has the tools to do well if he can make it click again.

#10 Red Sox

Jackie Bradley Jr. 525 .253 .325 .408 .320 -1.9 -0.1 4.0 2.2
Chris Young 105 .239 .310 .418 .315 -0.8 0.1 0.4 0.4
Mookie Betts 70 .298 .357 .472 .358 1.9 0.4 0.7 0.6
Total 700 .256 .326 .416 .323 -0.8 0.4 5.2 3.2

Now here’s a defense-first center fielder for you. Except.

Except he will walk 10% of the time, most likely. Except he’ll have league-average power, at least. Except he won’t steal many bases, despite having great speed. And though platoons have been around forever, they seem even more prevalent in today’s game, and he’ll be part of a platoon this year. In a way, Jackie Bradley and Chris Young stand at the meeting point of old and new school.

Today’s emphasis on patience and power (and platoon) has produced a better version of that old icon, but there’s also a fair amount of risk in this projection for Bradley. Remember when he first came up and wouldn’t swing? He struck out too much and his contact was feeble. A little more aggression in the zone has worked out well for him, but he doesn’t have a great feel for contact. Young has also looked like he’s had one foot out of baseball before. Still, the power, the patience, the defense, and the platoon production give this duo a very high floor.

And if they don’t work out, Mookie Betts can play a fine center field.

#11 Cardinals

Randal Grichuk 490 .251 .297 .453 .321 2.1 0.0 1.6 2.2
Tommy Pham 175 .260 .322 .409 .318 0.3 0.5 0.8 0.8
Charlie Tilson 35 .261 .301 .349 .285 -0.9 0.0 0.1 0.0
Total 700 .254 .303 .437 .318 1.5 0.5 2.6 3.1

Randal Grichuk is a modern center fielder in an entirely different way than Bradley. Snagged from the Angels in the David Freese trade, Grichuk looked like a low-contact, poor-patience tweener outfielder without enough glove for center. But the Cardinals liked his exit velocity and athleticism, and here we are with Grichuk, starting center fielder.

He’s only played 311 innings in center, so we’ll see what happens this year. Even if the returns have been positive, there are times when he just doesn’t look like a center fielder. But Jim Edmonds has been working on him to improve his first step in the outfield, by anticipating the result based on pitch selection and the batter at the plate. With the help of better positioning from advance scouting, he could be a good defensive center fielder for a few years. This year, he seems healthy after offseason hernia surgery at least.

Behind him is yet another guy who’s been better than his scouting pedigree and minor-league track record suggest he should be. To continue our Modern Man narrative, Tommy Pham even used this here site right here to help improve his approach at the plate — trading grounders for fly balls after reading his stats, and improving his power ceiling in the process — while adding new contacts this spring to improve his defense. He’s a right-hander, so a straight platoon won’t likely happen, but he represents yet another chance for the Cardinals to produce a major-league regular where many scouts didn’t see one.

#12 Twins

Byron Buxton 567 .262 .309 .403 .309 -4.3 0.9 8.0 2.7
Danny Santana 105 .262 .292 .375 .289 -2.5 0.2 -0.7 0.1
Max Kepler   28 .252 .311 .389 .304 -0.3 0.0 -0.1 0.1
Total 700 .262 .306 .398 .306 -7.1 1.2 7.3 2.9

It was only 138 plate appearances, but it was enough to remind everyone of the cruel twists of fate that make it so difficult to turn prospects into major league stars. Five-tool Byron Buxton came up and suddenly couldn’t make contact, couldn’t hit for power, couldn’t even steal bases without being caught. His defense wasn’t even as spectacular as it was supposed to be, registering as a negative in that tiny sample.

It was only 138 plate appearances, and that should be enough to remind everyone to stay calm. Buxton should make more contact, his defense will be fine, and he will find a way to turn his plus speed into an asset on the base paths. That gives him a nice high floor. Power was always something that was more a projected tool than current one, and there was always the risk that he strike out in a quarter of his major-league plate appearances.

Even with the risk that Buxton doesn’t figure out the contact piece, the most likely outcome is that the Twins have a 22-year-old defensive asset with league-average power sitting in center field. If something happens health-wise, the Twins — who have some depth in the outfield but decided to trade Aaron Hicks away this offseason — will have to turn to a much inferior defender in Danny Santana, or up the timetable on prospect Max Kepler, who is also seen as a corner guy by most.

#13 Blue Jays

Kevin Pillar 560 .273 .309 .408 .310 -4.2 1.9 6.2 2.6
Dalton Pompey 56 .246 .310 .368 .298 -1.0 0.2 0.2 0.2
Darrell Ceciliani 42 .245 .290 .365 .285 -1.2 0.1 -0.2 0.0
Ezequiel Carrera 28 .255 .305 .351 .289 -0.7 0.1 -0.2 0.0
Anthony Alford 14 .227 .298 .342 .284 -0.4 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .268 .308 .398 .306 -7.4 2.3 5.9 2.8

Sometimes, you find yourself a center fielder, you don’t groom him for the role. In this case, the Blue Jays had a former 32nd-round pick kicking around in the minors, putting up good numbers while being too old for his level in each case. At least, too old to get the notice of scouts and prospect lists.

But when a player keeps putting up numbers, he eventually gets a shot. And Pillar showed he could do the same thing he did in the minors in the major leagues — no patience, but enough power and speed and contact to put up nearly a league-average line with plus (plus?) defense. He’s 27, so he’s not likely to improve much — that much, age at level still means — but he’s also very useful right now, and may even have a little power growth left.

Behind him comes a bevy of more traditional prospects. Dalton Pompey blew up in 2014 and showed a five-tool skill set that had him running up prospect lists. Last year was a step back, but he’s still interesting and young enough (23) that he’ll likely be the solution if Pillar gets hurt a while or takes a big step back. And behind Pompey comes Anthony Alford, just another toolsy center fielder with an increasingly sweet swing.

#14 Giants

Denard Span 546 .278 .334 .385 .316 3.6 1.7 -1.8 2.4
Angel Pagan 70 .263 .309 .356 .291 -0.9 0.2 -0.8 0.1
Gregor Blanco 42 .261 .336 .364 .307 0.0 0.0 -0.1 0.1
Jarrett Parker 21 .223 .300 .375 .296 -0.2 0.0 0.1 0.1
Kelby Tomlinson 21 .243 .296 .313 .271 -0.6 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Total 700 .273 .329 .378 .311 1.8 2.0 -2.8 2.7

It’s at least a little fitting that the Giants have the second-oldest starting center fielder in baseball in Denard Span. After all, he replaces Angel Pagan, who was baseball’s oldest starting center fielder before him. At least Span is 32 to Pagan’s 34, and at least Span has played a good center field sometime in the last five years.

Pagan’s a decent hitter, and he’ll function as center-field depth and perhaps start at another position, so he’s not worth our derision. But if — and this is a decent-sized if — Span’s hip is fine, he should go back to being an asset with the glove. While also being an upgrade at the plate. Defense, speed, and contact: Denard Span is your old-school center fielder, and he is old. I’m sure that’s how these things work.

If the hip isn’t fine, the Giants have a bevy of guys that shouldn’t play center regularly any more, but could do it for a bit. And I like Gregor Blanco!

#15 Marlins

Marcell Ozuna   595 .265 .315 .429 .322 1.6 0.6 -0.5 2.4
Christian Yelich 35 .282 .356 .414 .337 0.5 0.1 0.3 0.2
Ichiro Suzuki 35 .251 .294 .313 .268 -1.4 0.0 0.1 0.0
Cole Gillespie 28 .258 .316 .362 .298 -0.5 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Justin Maxwell 7 .220 .283 .360 .282 -0.2 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .264 .315 .420 .318 0.1 0.8 -0.2 2.6

Marcell Ozuna! I love your tools! Not in a dirty way!

Here’s a 25-year-old center fielder with power and speed… and here’s a team that was trying to sell him for much of the offseason. They’ve always been an uneasy paring, Ozuna and the Marlins, because they’ve told him to do things that don’t come natural to him. Make more contact. Go the other way more. Be more patient.

He’s made strides in those areas, and they’ll probably help him. Because right now he’s a guy that has much better minor-league power numbers than he’s shown yet in the majors, he’s pushed his strikeout rate down very close to league average, and he has shifted his batted-ball spray to the point that he’s an up the middle and opposite-field guy. And players that fit that profile, at his age, they improve rapidly.

Of course, some of that improvement may come from pulling the work a bit and improving his power, especially with the fences moving in his home park. And maybe a few more whiffs will come with it. But maybe he’ll also go back to hitting the snot out of the ball and hitting his way on base, all while playing center field in a free safety’s body. Yeah, Christian Yelich looks more like a center fielder, but the evidence to date is that he’s the backup plan — a decent one, but the backup plan.

#16 Yankees

Jacoby Ellsbury   560 .265 .323 .388 .310 -4.1 3.2 0.3 2.1
Aaron Hicks 105 .242 .318 .390 .310 -0.8 0.1 0.4 0.4
Brett Gardner 21 .255 .331 .400 .320 0.0 0.1 0.2 0.1
Ben Gamel 14 .252 .301 .379 .295 -0.3 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .262 .322 .388 .310 -5.2 3.4 0.8 2.6

This wasn’t supposed to be the Jacoby Ellsbury the Yankees bought. What happened to the 30/30 guy that blasted his way through 2011? Or the guy that stole 52 bases the year before they signed him to the big contract? Injuries, buddy. Injuries and age, that horrible cocktail that’s coming for all of us.

Last year, it was a knee sprain that took Ellsbury down for six weeks, but really it took Ellsbury down for the year. Because once he returned, he played for another 12 weeks, but he spent exactly one week with a better-than-average exit velocity. He had no power, he couldn’t make contact — something wasn’t right.

Should he get right, Ellsbury still offers enough power and speed and defense to be quite an asset for the Yankees. But he hasn’t even gotten through the spring unscathed. He was hit by a pitch and his wrist hurts. Not a good sign. At least the team made a trade for the young, athletic, emerging Aaron Hicks in the meantime. Hicks finally paired aggression within the zone with patience on pitches outside the zone last year, and he’s projected to be exactly the same with the bat — just healthier and younger. Sigh.

#17 Cubs

Dexter Fowler 574 .252 .350 .394 .329 4.9 1.3 -9.4 1.8
Jason Heyward 70 .277 .354 .437 .344 1.5 0.3 1.2 0.6
Matt Szczur 28 .247 .297 .342 .282 -0.8 0.1 -0.1 0.0
Arismendy Alcantara 14 .232 .282 .391 .291 -0.3 0.0 0.0 0.0
Billy Mckinney 7 .248 .307 .374 .298 -0.1 0.0 0.0 0.0
Albert Almora 7 .254 .285 .370 .284 -0.2 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .254 .346 .396 .327 4.9 1.6 -8.2 2.4

Speaking of aging, Dexter Fowler has done so gracefully. Well, at least in terms of what he’s done at the plate. His patience has stuck with him, he hasn’t added more strikeouts as he’s left his peak behind, and a recent uptick in pulling the ball has allowed him to re-find the power that some thought he left behind in Denver.

But on defense… let’s just say there’s no consensus on what he’s done on defense. Well, maybe there is some agreement — UZR and DRS have each thought that his defense has alternated between scratch and horrible in center, if they haven’t always agreed on what he’s done in any one particular year — but there’s little to explain the oscillation other than random variance. It’s not really the arm, or errors, and he seems to have the tools, so there’s some hope that good positioning can get the most out of him. And then, of course, there are those that say he’s just not a center fielder anymore.

That said, the outfield isn’t three separate positions as much as it is an expanse of grass that three players have to patrol. Given how strong of a defender Jason Heyward is, you’d have to think there’s an ideal arrangement for the three most likely outfielders in Chicago. And if Fowler goes down, there’s a heck of a replacement standing right next to him.

#18 Mariners

Leonys Martin 546 .244 .294 .358 .285 -11.8 2.3 6.9 1.8
Boog Powell 119 .257 .324 .339 .296 -1.6 -0.4 0.4 0.3
Nori Aoki 35 .269 .332 .356 .306 -0.2 -0.1 0.1 0.1
Total 700 .247 .301 .355 .288 -13.6 1.9 7.4 2.2

We shouldn’t pretend that Good Leonys Martin was a world-beater. He never had the power that his scouting reports thought was coming, his patience was poor, his contact ability only average — he was really a throwback legs and glove center fielder. Oh, and the arm! The arm should go into a battle with the ones dangling from Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig for Best Cuban Missle Launcher.

But Bad Leonys Martin seems to have wiped our memory banks clean of the Good version. And all that really separated the two was the luck of the bounce. Thirty-three percent of his balls in play were hits between 2013 and 2014. Last year, that number that was 27%. Otherwise, most of his metrics were right in line — there’s that poor patience, 20-ish% strikeout rate, all those ground balls, and the decent speed, and a win of defense. But the difference on balls in play was enough to rob him of all his value and send him packing out of Texas.

If you give him back all of what he had before on batted balls, you can make Martin a three-win player once again, no problem. He’s 28 and that’s not crazy. But there’s also the possibility that the two-year stretch that came before was lucky. So this is where he ends up, as an aight solution on the cheap.

Through all of this discussion of Martin, one fact remains: his teams have not trusted him against lefties. So the fact that backup Boog Powell — part of the return for Brad Miller, not the 17-year veteran of the 70s — is a lefty means that there’s an uncomfortable situation forming in center for the Mariners. Will they try to see if the right-handed artist formerly known as Death to Flying Things (Franklin Gutierrez) can handle center on a limited basis? Or will they press their luck with Martin? Or will they see what the rookie can do, against same-handed pitchers? Platoons are fine, but this one is a little strange.

#19 Reds

Billy Hamilton   553 .250 .300 .344 .284 -16.6 7.2 9.9 2.1
Jose Peraza 105 .269 .295 .367 .286 -3.0 0.4 0.2 0.1
Jake Cave 35 .235 .284 .330 .271 -1.4 0.0 0.0 0.0
Tyler Holt 7 .237 .303 .297 .270 -0.3 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .252 .299 .346 .283 -21.2 7.6 10.0 2.2

If we recalibrate our expectations, there isn’t much to differentiate Billy Hamilton from the guy above him on the list. Okay, Hamilton’s arm isn’t as strong, but his legs are obviously more of an asset. And Martin is better against righties, while Hamilton’s more natural side is the right side.

That last point is not nothing. Hamilton hasn’t been learning switch-hitting for long, and his .239/.289/.316 career line against righties does enough to tell you which is his comfortable side of the plate. Any improvement from the left side will do wonders for his overall batting line. As could — perhaps — hitting more balls on the ground and going to a more Dee Gordon-style batted-ball mix.

By only returning to his 2014 levels, Hamilton can be an asset while cheap. His base-running and defense can give him a couple wins by themselves. But if he can settle in, bunt his way on a little more, and hit some million-hoppers to third base… well, then we might be talking about someone who can be 10-15% worse than league average with the bat while being special in the rest of the facets of the game. That would send him up these rankings next year.

And if it really doesn’t work out with Hamilton, and the team can’t trade Brandon Phillips, or prospect Alex Blandino takes off this year, maybe we see Jose Peraza — another speed-first prospect, this one acquired from the Dodgers this offseason in the Todd Frazier deal — in center field. It just might work.

#20 Phillies

Odubel Herrera   595 .271 .319 .378 .306 -6.2 0.4 3.0 1.9
Peter Bourjos 77 .226 .297 .358 .286 -2.0 0.1 0.7 0.2
Darnell Sweeney 21 .230 .291 .357 .284 -0.6 0.0 -0.2 0.0
Roman Quinn 7 .244 .296 .355 .287 -0.2 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .265 .315 .375 .303 -9.0 0.4 3.6 2.0

Here’s our first Rule 5 center fielder. Odubel Herrera was an infielder with no pop or patience or glove, but with the Phillies last year he showed some power, demonstrated that hit tool that was always supposed to be there, and maybe found his natural position. I say maybe, and I say this despite double-digit value on defense. I say this maybe because I have been unfairly impressed upon by high-profile poor routes like this one:

That the first catch is as impressive as the second one is goofy gives you hope and despair in equal measures. Let’s just say he was learning the position on the fly, and that last year’s plus defensive numbers are possibly repeatable. Then Herrera will do better than this ranking. There have been hints of more patience, and he should make more contact next year. All of these things will stave off the inevitable regression in his batted-ball luck.

Peter Bourjos has lost a bit of a step to these eyes, so putting him in left makes sense. But he should at least be able to step in and provide depth if needed (and if he himself is healthy). Roman Quinn’s time is not yet, and though Aaron Altherr could maybe play some center, he himself will be out half the year with a wrist tendon problem. There’s some depth here, but it’s shaky.

#21 Athletics

Billy Burns 616 .265 .319 .345 .294 -9.8 3.9 -0.9 1.7
Sam Fuld   42 .221 .295 .320 .274 -1.3 0.1 0.2 0.1
Coco Crisp 42 .243 .317 .367 .301 -0.4 0.1 0.1 0.1
Total 700 .261 .317 .345 .293 -11.5 4.1 -0.6 1.9

You know why the Athletics got Billy Burns for Jerry Blevins? Why they didn’t have to pay more? Because Burns was a passive minor leaguer that had hit two home runs ever and probably would have to stop hitting left-handed — in fact, the Athletics even asked him to stop hitting from that side when he arrived. That kind of player doesn’t usually make it in the big leagues because there’s no reason not to throw them a strike, but the A’s thought maybe he could be a platoon center fielder that would be useful against lefties.

You know what happened last year, right? Burns became one of the most aggressive hitters in baseball, particularly on the first pitch, hit five homers in his debut, and was decent against right handers (only 5% worse than league average).

This all seems like a positive development. If he can be even 10% worse than league average against righties, his defense and base-running will float him. If he can pair that aggression with more patience as pitchers throw more carefully, we may see the return of the double-digit walk rates he put up in the minor leagues. Both of these things would help Burns tear past these projections. If not, a lefty Sam Fuld could start stealing some platoon at-bats while helping the team maintain decent production from the position. Provided Fuld is healthy — he’s out for three weeks with a bum shoulder for now.

(You’d think the A’s would have more depth here, for a team that prides itself on depth, but these A’s will not want to run Coco Crisp out in center for very long, lest he break down completely.)

#22 White Sox

Austin Jackson 588 .259 .317 .382 .307 -6.0 0.5 -1.4 1.5
Adam Eaton 63 .274 .347 .395 .327 0.3 0.2 -0.3 0.3
Leury Garcia 21 .241 .280 .323 .265 -0.9 0.1 -0.1 0.0
J.B. Shuck 14 .257 .311 .335 .286 -0.4 0.0 0.0 0.0
Jacob May 7 .236 .278 .324 .266 -0.3 0.0 0.0 0.0
Daniel Fields 7 .213 .285 .336 .274 -0.3 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Total 700 .259 .318 .380 .306 -7.5 0.7 -1.8 1.8

Was Austin Jackson supposed to get better, and didn’t? Or is he better than we think? He’s been worth 18 wins in six seasons, does that surprise you? He’s above average for his career with the bat, on the base paths, and with his glove, too.

There’s just something about his meandering season last year that seems to have turned off the market place. He was only able to get one year and $5 million despite all the above facts. Despite the fact that he was nearly league average with the bat last year, while still being a plus defender.

I suppose there are things going the wrong direction for a 29-year-old at a position where 29 is relatively old. His strikeout rate has gone up two years in a row, his power has been at its worst the last two years combined. His walk rate is nothing like it was earlier in his career, and he got caught 10 times in 27 attempts on the base paths. By speed score, though, he was still above average last year, and by the eye test, he didn’t quite look toast yet.

And with Adam Eaton on the team, the White Sox have a perfectly capable backup plan.

#23 Braves

Ender Inciarte 392 .277 .318 .372 .303 -4.3 0.9 3.6 1.5
Michael Bourn 273 .243 .307 .325 .281 -7.6 0.7 -0.1 0.3
Mallex Smith 28 .252 .311 .337 .287 -0.7 0.1 0.0 0.0
Emilio Bonifacio 7 .242 .291 .315 .268 -0.3 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .263 .313 .352 .293 -12.8 1.7 3.5 1.8

Hmm. Could the Braves want to see if Michael Bourn can recapture any of his old value and become attractive to another team? Could they want to keep Ender Inciarte cheaper by limiting his playing time? Because it doesn’t make a ton of sense to platoon Inciarte at the position.

I mean, yes, Inciarte was pretty terrible last year against lefties, putting up offense a full 63% worse than league average against southpaws. But his strikeout rate was about the same against lefties, and it was mostly batted ball stuff that separated his work against lefties and righties. And he has a very specific approach against lefties that at least sounds like it could bust the platoon advantage.

Really, for a rebuilding team, shouldn’t they give Inciarte more sample to find out if he actually is a platoon guy? More time to develop against lefties? Maybe there are arguments in both directions. In the meantime, the plan seems to be to give the 33-year-old replacement-level lefty Bourn the at-bats… against lefties. Maybe we’ll see fast-rising prospect Mallex Smith in Atlanta sooner than we think.

#24 Indians

Tyler Naquin 287 .245 .301 .361 .290 -6.1 0.0 1.5 0.6
Rajai Davis 217 .252 .297 .383 .296 -3.6 1.1 -0.6 0.5
Abraham Almonte   140 .249 .309 .380 .302 -1.7 0.1 -0.7 0.3
Michael Brantley   28 .299 .362 .449 .350 0.7 0.1 -0.1 0.2
Collin Cowgill 21 .238 .297 .352 .287 -0.5 0.0 0.2 0.1
Jose Ramirez 7 .262 .315 .375 .302 -0.1 0.0 0.1 0.0
Total 700 .250 .304 .375 .297 -11.2 1.3 0.5 1.7

Though Michael Brantley’s defense doesn’t make him a natural fit in center, his injury seems to have sent ripples throughout the pond that is the outfield in the ballpark I will only remember as The Jake despite whatever it is called now.

But really, they would have had these problems anyway. Rajai Davis is not a great center fielder any more. Abraham Almonte would have been okay, but then he got popped for half the season for a failed test. Jose Ramirez has been an infielder forever, and is probably needed there for depth. Prospects Brad Zimmer and Clint Frazier aren’t ready yet. Camp invitee Will Venable is more of a corner guy by now.

Maybe they wanted Tyler Naquin all along, but it certainly seems like they fell into this. Perhaps it feels that way because he doesn’t have standout tools. He can hack it in center while he’s young, mostly on effort and speed. He can hit a few balls over the fence, but mostly is content to have a line-drive swing that sprays the ball around. If he surprises in any facet of the game — and of course he’s tearing it up this spring — this group could take a lurch upwards. The three guys behind him all have negative defensive ratings, after all.

There’s quantity here. We’ll have to see if there’s quality.

#25 Nationals

Ben Revere 343 .300 .332 .362 .305 -3.9 2.3 -2.3 0.9
Michael Taylor 329 .232 .292 .369 .287 -8.5 0.3 1.9 0.5
Matt den Dekker 21 .252 .309 .394 .306 -0.2 0.0 -0.1 0.1
Brian Goodwin 7 .223 .292 .335 .278 -0.2 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .267 .312 .366 .296 -12.8 2.6 -0.4 1.5

Here’s where old school meets new school. Because, back in the day, you have to think Ben Revere would have gotten the Juan Pierre treatment and been a lock at the top of the lineup and in center field every day. But now we can measure better how bad his arm is, and how badly his routes steal value from his athleticism on defense. It’s not about OBP — sure, he has no patience, but he makes enough contact that he’s not terrible with the bat for a center fielder — it’s about the fact that he’s not a great center fielder, and a bat that’s 10% worse than league average doesn’t play that well on the corners.

The good news for the Nationals is that their backup plan is young and exciting, and could develop into the starter. The patience he showed in the minor leagues doesn’t seem to be translating for Michael Taylor, but the pop has, and he’s showing more of it this spring. Also this spring, he’s striking out only 23% of the time, which is still a spring stat but is at least one that fares better in smaller samples. Should he be able to cut the strikeout rate to that level, he would easily be the better option in center. His defense is already superior.

#26 Rockies

Charlie Blackmon 602 .283 .336 .435 .333 -4.6 1.7 -6.3 1.2
Brandon Barnes 49 .255 .304 .384 .300 -1.7 0.0 0.1 0.0
Gerardo Parra 42 .293 .337 .430 .331 -0.4 0.0 0.2 0.1
Raimel Tapia 7 .281 .311 .403 .308 -0.2 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .282 .333 .431 .331 -6.9 1.7 -6.0 1.4

If Coors Field has a hangover effect on the batters that play there when they leave town — Jeff Sullivan found no evidence, while I found that their fastball approach at home leaves them vulnerable on the road, perhaps — then it looks like the park factor might penalize them more than it should. Scan Blackmon’s line, for example. Even if you account for some Coors love on batted balls, does that look like a league-average line? There’s an argument that his bat is underrated, therefore.

If it’s better than league average, then he should be worth more with the bat. As for the glove… well he’s a 29-year-old who has an established baseline of meh production in center, backed up by only slightly above-average work on the corners in the past. He told me this spring that he’s spent the offseason working on running, so perhaps some extra fitness could help him there. But the defensive projection doesn’t seem off.

What you’ll notice, though, is that there isn’t a plus defensive center fielder behind him that will push him off the position. So — in the biggest outfield in the major leagues — Blackmon is the defender with whom you’ll go to war.

#27 Tigers

Anthony Gose 385 .245 .311 .352 .293 -7.9 0.9 -1.8 0.5
Cameron Maybin   294 .262 .319 .379 .306 -3.2 0.8 -2.5 0.6
Wynton Bernard 21 .257 .300 .348 .285 -0.6 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .253 .314 .363 .298 -11.7 1.7 -4.3 1.2

Watch Anthony Gose play, and you’ll be surprised that he’s projected to be a negative with the glove. The eye test has failed before, but then you can see that Gose was a positive with the Blue Jays and was always lauded for his defense on the way up. Ask manager Brad Ausmus, as I did at the winter meetings, and he’ll admit that the team is “ready to look at the way we position our outfielders” because they consistently got poor ratings on defensive metrics.

That alone would change Detroit’s ranking here, because Gose has proven he can manage to cobble together offense that’s about 10% worse than league average, even with his flaws. That sort of bat with a plus glove and his plus-plus wheels could leap frog its way out of the basement. For now, he has a full-time role, too, since his natural platoon partner Cameron Maybin is out with a wrist problem after being hit. One last chance to make his case as a full time starer.

(Nobody else is really ready to help this win-now team in center field, so hopefully Maybin gets right.)

#28 Padres

Melvin Upton 357 .214 .287 .357 .281 -8.5 0.7 0.4 0.5
Jon Jay 140 .258 .333 .346 .299 -1.3 -0.1 0.5 0.4
Alexi Amarista 98 .234 .283 .338 .270 -3.2 0.2 -0.6 0.0
Travis Jankowski   91 .250 .303 .329 .280 -2.3 0.3 0.6 0.2
Manuel Margot 14 .247 .290 .368 .286 -0.3 0.0 0.1 0.0
Total 700 .231 .298 .349 .283 -15.7 1.1 1.0 1.1

Melvin Upton has really alternated years that might be Bossman with years that have been way more Junior. And so, though he was 10% better than the league last year, and that was his best year since 2011, he was a putrid 44% worse than league average two years before. We know too much to put too much stock in last year’s resurgence, in other words.

This is an organization in flux, so it’s not surprising that the guy behind him is a 31-year-old who was replacement level last year. But Jay actually covers decent ground, and if he can re-find his batted-ball magic, he could overtake Upton and be the starter at some point next season. Seriously — Jay used to perennially find grass with 33% of his balls in play, and last year that dropped down to 25%. Even a decent middle ground makes it unclear who should start in center.

Eventually, though, it’s all about Manuel Margot. As far as Margot can go, so to will the Friars.

#29 Rangers

Delino Deshields   616 .250 .327 .360 .305 -10.4 2.8 -5.2 1.0
Drew Stubbs 56 .218 .289 .347 .281 -2.0 0.3 0.0 0.0
Justin Ruggiano 14 .247 .318 .423 .322 0.0 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Ian Desmond 7 .245 .301 .410 .309 -0.1 0.0 0.0 0.0
Lewis Brinson 7 .243 .297 .390 .300 -0.1 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .248 .324 .361 .303 -12.7 3.1 -5.2 1.1

Guaranteed, there are people yelling at this projection right now. Delino Deshields stole 25 bases last year and looked the part in center; he even walked 10% of the time. This is a Rule 5 success story, a young guy making good despite all the reports of his poor makeup! This should be celebrated, and valued higher, and it’s one of the sources for the poor team projections for the Rangers!

Except his defense wasn’t very good by the metrics, and his lack of power subtly stole from his offensive value. Once you regress his batted-ball luck to league average — he had the fortune of seeing 33% of his balls in play turn into hits, and we don’t know he owns that skill yet — his offense looks worse. And doing what he did in that park means less than doing it in other parks. So suddenly you’re talking about a guy that has a center fielder’s bat but we aren’t sure he has a center fielder’s glove.

Maybe he’ll be better next year. He really only started playing center field in 2014, at least regularly, and it can take a little time to figure out how to anticipate the ball. Maybe he’ll have the same batting average on balls in play next year! Maybe he’ll even develop a little more power. He’s only 23. If those things are true, then he’ll push this ranking north, and it won’t matter that Ian Desmond and Lewis Brinson are both capable of pushing him for time.

Actually, for the Rangers those things don’t matter, they have plenty of capable guys ready to step in there… eventually.

#30 Brewers

Keon Broxton 315 .218 .286 .365 .285 -9.7 0.2 -0.3 0.1
Kirk Nieuwenhuis 245 .232 .298 .421 .311 -2.5 0.2 -2.1 0.4
Brett Phillips 49 .255 .304 .404 .307 -0.6 -0.1 0.0 0.1
Domingo Santana 42 .251 .332 .450 .339 0.5 0.0 0.0 0.2
Eric Young 28 .232 .299 .318 .275 -1.1 0.2 0.0 0.0
Shane Peterson 21 .249 .317 .380 .306 -0.3 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Total 700 .229 .296 .391 .299 -13.6 0.5 -2.6 0.9

Yesterday, center fielder Keon Broxton laid out fully horizontal for a flying catch in right field. He flew past the right fielder, landed with the ball, jumped to his feet, and threw out the tagging runner at first base. He hasn’t hit for much power, but he’s got nine walks in 38 plate appearances this spring, is playing the best center-field defense, and it looks like he has a legit chance to start, from the team’s recent comments. That would be a good return for Jason Rogers.

On the other hand, he’s projected to strike out a third of the time, and even in this good spring stretch, he’s struck out 24% of the time. And he’s right-handed and lefty “Captain” Kirk Nieuwenhuis has gotten more playing time this spring. But the 28-year-old former Met has a whopping 18 strikeouts in 43 plate appearances, and just doesn’t have the upside of the toolsy 25-year-old behind him.

Watch them give Broxton a chance to cement his role, at least while Brett Phillips gets ready in the minor leagues. Why not? It literally couldn’t get any worse.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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8 years ago

Kind of interesting to see that Trout is a fast speed, bad first step guy.
Angel Pagan’s statement that he can’t see home plate is pretty lame. They do have Lasik surgery these days that can give you eagle vision.