2021 Positional Power Rankings: Center Field

This morning, Kevin Goldstein kicked off the outfield rankings in left. Now we shift our attention to center field, home to the game’s best player.

What a fun time for center fielders. We still have Trout, but there are only a couple of genuine stars after him. Instead, a changing of the guard is afoot. Luis Robert, Ramón Laureano, Trent Grisham, Kyle Lewis, Cristian Pache. All of those players could conceivably headline our list in future years, and we get to spend 2021 learning who will take the jump. At the same time, a handful of veterans have remained productive into their 30s, headlined by Aaron Hicks, Starling Marte, and Lorenzo Cain. There are a ton of plausible All-Stars here and quite a few players who probably won’t be back for next year’s edition.

As you might expect, our rankings get very jumbled in the middle. Marte and Lewis rank 16th and 17th, for instance, and I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash if they were 10 spots higher. These are not anyone’s personal rankings, but rather a projection based on ZiPS, Steamer, and our playing time estimates. Go ahead and disagree with the list; you won’t be alone.

2021 Positional Power Rankings – CF
1. Angels
Mike Trout 672 .281 .421 .586 .411 51.9 1.3 -3.1 7.4
Juan Lagares 14 .234 .290 .337 .269 -0.6 0.0 0.1 0.0
Jo Adell 7 .242 .297 .399 .296 -0.2 -0.0 0.0 0.0
Dexter Fowler 7 .223 .317 .380 .302 -0.1 -0.0 -0.1 0.0
Total 700 .279 .416 .576 .406 51.0 1.3 -3.0 7.4

You didn’t actually think Cody Bellinger pipped Trout, did you? Trout is again projected to be the best player in baseball, and the top center fielder in the game by a healthy margin. One of these years, he’ll slow down but if 2021 is the season, the projections will be as surprised and disappointed as anyone.

The only point of concern for me here is playing time. We’re projecting 672 plate appearances for Trout, a total he hasn’t reached since 2016. There are mitigating circumstances — injuries he elected not to play through, a virus you may have read something about — but it’s nonetheless concerning because Trout isn’t a kid anymore. He’ll turn 30 this August, and that big frame of his has a lot of miles on it now. I hope my elders will forgive me, but as a fellow 29-year-old, I feel qualified to mention that this is a strange time for the human body. My back hurts for no good reason, I’m weirdly tired all the time, and I get stiff sitting in a car after two hours. And I’m not a professional athlete with a young child!

None of this should be cause for alarm. It’s just that, if I were to place a wager, I’d feel pretty good about taking the under on that PA tally. And of course it goes without saying that if Trout goes down, there’s no cavalry coming to save the day for the Angels.

2. Dodgers
Cody Bellinger 532 .277 .373 .555 .379 26.9 0.7 1.0 4.6
Chris Taylor 126 .250 .328 .433 .323 0.3 0.1 -0.7 0.4
AJ Pollock 35 .252 .309 .472 .325 0.1 0.0 -0.0 0.1
DJ Peters 7 .200 .281 .372 .281 -0.2 -0.0 -0.0 -0.0
Total 700 .270 .361 .526 .365 27.1 0.8 0.3 5.2

Cody Bellinger has become a fascinating player, and not for the reasons Dodgers fans were no doubt hoping for after his 2019 MVP season. Bellinger had a down semester in 2020, and it wasn’t just because of a .245 BABIP. He posted the lowest exit velocity numbers of his career, chased a few more pitches off the plate, and looked lost against lefties. It’d be easy enough to write this off given the small sample, but his production suspiciously resembled his 2018 performance, another good-not-great campaign marked in part by real struggles against southpaws. Four years and 2,000 plate appearances into his career, it’s not clear whether he’s a superstar, a star, or a very good player with platoon issues.

The good news is that down-year Bellinger is still a 3-4 win guy and there’s obvious upside from there. The Dodgers themselves are as stacked as ever and very well-equipped to do their usual positional rotation thing if the incumbent needs a few days at first base or to sit against the occasional tough lefty. How stacked are we talking? Well, our projections have backup center fielder Chris Taylor set to accrue 2.1 WAR this year (and in only 528 PA because Dodgers), which is more wins than 14 teams can expect from their center fielders all season. Pretty good team over there in Chavez Ravine.

3. Blue Jays
George Springer 588 .271 .357 .495 .358 18.5 -0.2 -1.9 3.8
Randal Grichuk 56 .245 .296 .477 .320 -0.1 -0.0 -0.4 0.2
Jonathan Davis 35 .220 .303 .354 .286 -1.1 0.0 0.0 0.0
Breyvic Valera 14 .260 .322 .376 .301 -0.3 -0.0 -0.1 0.0
Josh Palacios 7 .225 .294 .342 .276 -0.3 -0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .265 .348 .483 .350 16.8 -0.2 -2.3 4.0

I’m not really a shoe guy but even I’m looking forward to seeing Springer’s electric blue kicks. A bit of a late bloomer, Springer is still finding ways to shore up his game. Two years ago, he notched the highest wRC+ of his career, and followed that up with his lowest strikeout numbers to date. He’s living proof that players can get better as they age and that at least a few hitters are capable of becoming more selective with time and reps.

The big question going forward will be how long Springer can last as a Role-70 type of player, because this signing indicates that the Blue Jays have committed to winning now. He has the athleticism to age gracefully, but he’s also a 30-plus year old who will be playing on turf 81 times a year, at least once his team gets back to playing in Toronto. That puts the Blue Jays in an interesting spot where they have a number of veterans (Springer included) who are probably as good as they’ll ever be paired with a coterie of youngsters still enduring growing pains. Complicating the picture, at least for this season, is whether the Grade 2 oblique strain Springer was recently diagnosed with will delay his Jays regular season debut.

This is all happening at a time when one of Toronto’s division mates projects as the best team in the American League, another is the defending league champion, and neither of those two are the Boston Red Sox. The Jays weren’t exactly one move away from becoming division favorites, which is what makes the Springer deal so compelling. It’s not really in this franchise’s nature to make a splash; I wish them well.

4. Twins
Byron Buxton 588 .257 .305 .492 .330 3.4 2.7 7.8 3.6
Jake Cave 63 .248 .309 .426 .311 -0.7 -0.1 -0.3 0.1
Keon Broxton 28 .188 .266 .331 .259 -1.6 0.0 -0.0 -0.0
Max Kepler 21 .248 .337 .475 .342 0.3 -0.0 0.2 0.1
Total 700 .254 .305 .479 .326 1.4 2.6 7.7 3.8

What I would give to see Buxton get those 588 plate appearances. He’s only crossed the 500 mark once — hell, he’s only batted 340 times once — and that was back when he was still figuring things out. Now, he’s a star. The numbers are always a little goofy with him — a 1.5% walk rate looks weird even accounting for last season’s small sample — but the production and entertainment value are undeniable. Simply put, Buxton breaks the mold of what we expect an elite baseball player to play like. Nobody in the game is capable of moving quite like him, and whether he’s laying out in the outfield, bashing a homer, or flying around the bases, he’s phenomenally entertaining.

He also can’t help but run into the center field wall every so often, which means we’ll likely see some combination of Cave, Kepler, and Broxton in center at some point. Cave got a bit exposed in regular action last summer, but he’s a perfectly capable fourth outfielder. There was a time when Broxton was everyone and your cousin’s favorite fantasy sleeper; that time was 2017. Expect Kepler to spend most of his time in right and slide over to center once a month or so.

5. Padres
Trent Grisham 616 .246 .348 .440 .336 7.1 0.2 5.4 3.4
Tommy Pham 35 .262 .358 .432 .339 0.5 0.1 0.0 0.2
Jorge Mateo 28 .219 .262 .361 .263 -1.4 0.0 -0.0 -0.0
Jake Cronenworth 21 .267 .337 .399 .317 -0.1 -0.0 0.0 0.1
Total 700 .246 .345 .435 .332 6.0 0.3 5.4 3.6

Grisham is Exhibit A on the list of reasons why first rounders get chance after chance. At the end of the 2018 season Grisham, seen as one of the best amateur bats in the nation when he was drafted in 2015, was a .238 hitter in the minor leagues. That winter, Eric and Kiley listed him as the 14th best prospect in a shallow Brewers system, writing “Grisham has physical talent (he once projected, for us, as an average regular) that may resurface with some approach changes, but this current iteration probably isn’t a big leaguer.”

Look at him now. Grisham’s passivity at the plate, once a potential problem, is now clearly an asset. He’s walked in nearly 12% of his big league PA and he’s done plenty of damage when he gets the bat off of his shoulder. He’s also grown into pretty good wheels as he’s gotten older: per Statcast, he’s in the 96th percentile for sprint speed. Sometimes, things just click for a guy all of the sudden.

Pham hasn’t played center at all since 2018, but could step in in a pinch. Ha-seong Kim isn’t listed here, but he would also be an interesting fit as an occasional center fielder. He has the requisite speed, and if the Padres are grooming him for a super-utility role, you’d think he’d make it out there eventually. Then again, a new country, a new league, and one other new position is probably plenty to throw his way for now.

6. White Sox
Luis Robert 644 .261 .314 .478 .331 5.7 0.8 4.0 3.4
Adam Engel 35 .229 .285 .370 .281 -1.2 0.0 0.2 0.0
Billy Hamilton 14 .221 .284 .303 .258 -0.8 0.1 0.1 -0.0
Adam Eaton 7 .261 .342 .404 .322 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .259 .313 .468 .326 3.7 1.0 4.3 3.5

Robert was pacing for a four-win campaign as a rookie, which would make him a cornerstone of Chicago’s future even without the obvious room for growth. The 23-year-old flexed his light-tower power on several occasions last season — most notably when he nearly hit one out of sight in the first round of the playoffs — and there are reasons to think he could do so more often as soon as 2021.

The first is that Robert’s strikeout rates were quite a bit higher in the big leagues than in the minors. Most players whiff more often once they come up, but his climbed quite a bit. Related to that, the pitch that most gave him fits was the four-seam fastball, which isn’t particularly common for power hitters. While he missed a fair number of breaking balls too, he mauled sliders when he did connect. I’m optimistic that he’ll catch up to big-league heat more often as he sees more of it — remember, he’d barely played 100 games above A-ball before last season. If he makes even slightly more contact, Robert will become one of the game’s premier center fielders, the kind of player who can be a star even if he does strike out nearly 30% of the time.

7. Athletics
Ramón Laureano 644 .247 .324 .450 .327 6.1 1.5 2.0 3.4
Ka’ai Tom 21 .226 .297 .381 .289 -0.5 -0.0 0.0 0.0
Buddy Reed 14 .197 .254 .320 .246 -0.8 -0.0 0.0 -0.0
Luis Barrera 7 .238 .282 .354 .272 -0.3 -0.0 0.0 0.0
Mark Canha 7 .241 .348 .442 .336 0.1 -0.0 -0.0 0.0
Skye Bolt 7 .203 .271 .343 .265 -0.3 -0.0 0.0 -0.0
Total 700 .245 .321 .443 .323 4.3 1.5 2.1 3.4

In just a couple of years, Laureano has gone from a talented but flawed curiosity to a star in his own right. He’s never had a five-win season, in large part because he’s never played nearly enough games. But even if he’s a little short of that bar on talent, he compensates with pizazz. He’s not the only player who can run, hit, field, and throw out there, but it’s hard to think of someone who does all four as emphatically, and with such a well rounded highlight package. If he played in New York he’d be… well, MLB still wouldn’t know how to make him a household name, but at least a few more casual fans would be in touch with his defensive wizardry and mutant arm strength.

He’s day-to-day with a side injury right now, and provided that it’s nothing serious, he should get just about all of the playing time in center. If it does linger, the A’s don’t have many good options in reserve. Tom is kind of interesting, although perhaps not as a starting center fielder; Reed is the inverse, in that he can play center but isn’t remotely interesting.

8. Yankees
Aaron Hicks 581 .238 .358 .432 .339 8.3 0.7 -1.8 2.9
Brett Gardner 91 .239 .330 .419 .321 -0.1 0.1 0.1 0.3
Mike Tauchman 21 .249 .332 .402 .312 -0.2 0.0 0.2 0.1
Estevan Florial 7 .209 .267 .340 .260 -0.4 -0.0 0.0 -0.0
Total 700 .238 .353 .428 .335 7.6 0.8 -1.5 3.3

New York has an enviable situation up the middle. On a rate basis, Hicks has been one of the best center fielders in baseball over the past several years. Last season’s healthy campaign notwithstanding, though, he’s not on the field all that often. When he does play, his combination of patience and power makes him a formidable bat in the Yankees order, and he was one of just seven players who worked more walks than strikeouts in 2020.

On days Hicks can’t answer the bell, Gardner and Tauchman will prove capable stand-ins. Gardner is basically a very slightly slower version of the player he’s always been. Tauchman may never have another season like the one he put together in 2019, but his career wRC+ sits right at 100 in 476 PA. That’s exactly where we have him projected in 2021, and if that’s your team’s third-string option at a premium defensive position, your team must be pretty good.

9. Diamondbacks
Ketel Marte 392 .287 .347 .475 .345 5.7 0.2 0.4 2.0
Tim Locastro 175 .256 .337 .389 .316 -1.9 0.8 -1.0 0.4
Daulton Varsho 98 .248 .318 .422 .314 -1.3 0.1 -0.1 0.2
Stuart Fairchild 28 .226 .295 .350 .279 -1.2 -0.1 -0.1 -0.0
David Peralta 7 .271 .329 .437 .324 -0.0 -0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .271 .338 .441 .331 1.3 1.0 -0.7 2.6

What a fun little situation this is. On the team’s website, Arizona’s depth chart has Marte starting at both second and center. While the kid can undoubtedly cover a lot of ground, that setup seems a tad optimistic.

Regardless of where he plays, it’s safe to predict that Marte’s production will settle somewhere between the MVP numbers he registered two years ago and last year’s disappointing follow-up. His 2019 season is a clear outlier, and one wonders how many of those 32 dingers can be pinned in part on the juiced ball. But Marte also had a higher launch angle and pulled more balls in the air that year, both relevant factors that have nothing to do with the composition of the cowhide. Pulling the ball and hitting it in the air more often seem like replicable adjustments, given that he’s made them before, but time will tell. There’s a wide range of outcomes in play for him this year, and he could be anything from an average regular to a star depending on his power. Finally, it’s also worth mentioning that Marte’s walk totals cratered last year as well; I’m tempted to just write it off.

When Marte plays elsewhere, Locastro will probably be the primary caretaker in center. He’s both the league’s fastest player and the guy most likely to get plunked, which seems like a tenuous long-term combination. He did manage to trade a few HBP’s for walks last year, which a) probably hurt less and b) was every bit as effective. He strikes me as a good fourth outfielder who would be stretched in everyday duty.

10. Rays
Kevin Kiermaier 525 .232 .297 .397 .294 -10.2 1.3 7.6 1.9
Manuel Margot 133 .256 .316 .405 .307 -1.1 0.3 1.2 0.5
Brett Phillips 42 .190 .288 .350 .276 -1.5 0.1 0.5 0.1
Total 700 .234 .300 .396 .295 -12.8 1.7 9.3 2.5

Kiermaier and Margot essentially do the same thing, playing sterling defense in center while chipping in enough at the plate to bat eighth instead of ninth. On paper, a platoon makes sense: both are below average hitters overall but each has a career wRC+ slightly above 100 when they’re facing opposite-handed pitchers. Of course, Margot will start plenty often in left and right, so a true job share probably won’t be in the cards. The important thing here to note is that the Rays have excellent cover in center if Kiermaier goes down for an extended period.

Phillips seems like the kind of player who gets poached by the Rays, produces a three-win season out of nowhere, and then fades into obscurity. Rationally, that three-win season probably won’t happen, not with his contact issues. Happily, he won’t fade away too much, as his walk-off single in Game 5 of last year’s World Series will go down as one of the best moments in franchise history.

11. Red Sox
Alex Verdugo 399 .287 .348 .450 .338 3.2 0.4 1.3 2.0
Jarren Duran 210 .266 .315 .378 .297 -5.8 0.3 -0.3 0.2
Enrique Hernández 56 .247 .320 .440 .320 -0.4 0.0 -0.2 0.2
Danny Santana 14 .241 .288 .436 .302 -0.3 0.0 -0.0 0.0
Hunter Renfroe 14 .232 .297 .476 .320 -0.1 -0.0 0.0 0.0
Marcus Wilson 7 .217 .286 .372 .282 -0.3 -0.0 -0.0 -0.0
Total 700 .275 .333 .427 .322 -3.8 0.7 0.7 2.4

Nobody alive can match Mookie Betts‘s blend of talent and charisma, but Verdugo did about as well as he could have in an impossible situation. In his first extended crack at everyday work, the newcomer proved that his bat-to-ball skills could hold up in regular action. If you want to get picky, Statcast’s xBA and xwOBA metrics think he over-achieved pretty dramatically, and nobody really expects him to maintain a .371 BABIP. He doesn’t have to though, as there’s room for him to take a step back and still be a productive regular.

That’s all the more true if he’s capable of handling center, which he’ll be asked to do after Jackie Bradley Jr.’s departure. It’ll be a bit of a stretch for him, as most scouts expect he’ll wind up in a corner eventually. Duran could sneak into the picture during the second half of the season, though he’s hardly guaranteed to do so: He hasn’t had any statistical success above A-ball and evaluators are split on his long-term upside.

12. Cubs
Ian Happ 413 .246 .346 .464 .342 5.7 -0.2 -2.1 1.8
Jake Marisnick 217 .240 .296 .425 .304 -4.1 0.3 -0.1 0.4
Nico Hoerner 49 .269 .330 .389 .309 -0.7 -0.0 0.1 0.1
Cameron Maybin 21 .242 .321 .369 .300 -0.5 -0.0 -0.0 0.0
Total 700 .246 .329 .443 .326 0.5 0.1 -2.1 2.3

It’s not exactly a platoon, but Happ figures to spend quite a bit of time at other positions besides center. He appeared in left 28 times last season and played right on seven occasions as well, mostly in late-inning duty when Billy Hamilton or Albert Almora Jr. came in to caddy. That arrangement will likely continue in 2021, with Marisnick filling the reserve role. This allows David Ross to squeeze Happ’s bat into a premium position most nights while retaining the flexibility to upgrade defensively in close and late situations.

It took Happ a while to settle in as a major leaguer — it’s hard to believe that he played 99 games in Iowa back in 2019 — but he’s made up for lost time, registering more than 3.5 WAR in his last 115 games spread across two seasons. He led the Cubs in homers, wRC+, and WAR last season, and one can argue that he’s now the team’s best player. I wouldn’t go that far, but the 26-year-old is clearly a vital part of the present and future in Wrigleyville.

In previous generations, Marisnick would have been a fifth outfielder; we don’t have those anymore, so he’s a fourth outfielder instead. He’ll play plenty, and we can expect him to offer his usual mix of good defense, tons of swing-and-miss, and the occasional chip shot into the left field bleachers. Hoerner should spend most of his time on the dirt. Maybin is somehow only 33.

13. Cardinals
Harrison Bader 476 .230 .317 .403 .308 -5.8 0.7 5.1 1.7
Dylan Carlson 168 .248 .318 .427 .315 -1.0 -0.2 1.1 0.6
Lane Thomas 56 .225 .293 .383 .289 -1.6 -0.1 0.1 0.0
Total 700 .234 .316 .407 .308 -8.4 0.4 6.3 2.3

Bader’s defensive prowess and on-again, off-again relationship with his bat makes for a delicate skill set. Tons of strikeouts and meager power output is always a tough combination, but it’s a little easier to make it work when you can run balls down like Bader. After more than a 1,000 PA of competent, if inconsistent production, I think it’s safe to put him in the Jackie Bradley Jr. tier of outfielders who are playable in their down years and borderline stars when the BABIP gods are in a good mood.

Bradley provides a useful comparison because they’re both elite defenders who have posted wildly divergent offensive seasons year to year. Looking over Bradley’s career, he’s been a two-win player even in his bad seasons, and there’s no reason to think Bader can’t follow a similar pattern. If anything, Bader has a little more wriggle room to tank offensively, since he’s probably the better defender of the pair. I’ve long been skeptical of his ability to hold an everyday job, but for me and any other lingering holdouts, I think it’s time to come around.

In the day leading up to publication, Bader hit the shelf with forearm soreness. He’s battled the injury all spring, and he’s expected to miss at least the first two weeks of the regular season. That opens the door for Carlson to start in center, at least to begin the year. He’ll probably see more time in right, and could conceivably stay there even in the interim if the Cards pivot and decide to start Thomas in center instead.

14. Mets
Brandon Nimmo 413 .243 .376 .427 .348 10.2 -0.1 -4.4 2.0
Kevin Pillar 154 .248 .288 .405 .291 -3.7 0.3 0.2 0.2
Albert Almora Jr. 126 .241 .289 .373 .281 -4.2 -0.1 -0.4 -0.0
Mallex Smith 7 .238 .307 .344 .284 -0.2 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Total 700 .244 .340 .411 .323 2.1 0.2 -4.6 2.2

On a per game basis, Nimmo is one of the game’s 10 best center fielders. With average pop, terrific on base skills, charming retrograde hustle, and the versatility to play all over the outfield (though often not well), he’s a huge asset to the Mets.

At least, he is when he can get on the field. Nimmo managed 2020’s equivalent of a full season last year but has never played in more than 140 games, and has suffered a series of maladies over the last five years. In that time, he’s hit the Injured List with a strained hamstring, collapsed lung, bruised finger, and a stiff neck that required a trip to the 60-day IL. Those injuries are a lingering concern, particularly for a max-effort guy who could theoretically injure himself sprinting to first base after a walk.

Fortunately, the Mets have plenty of depth behind him. Pillar is in the autumn of his career but can still offer second-division starter production in center. The bottom has dropped out of Almora’s bat in recent years but he’s likely to make the team out of camp, too. These veterans give New York tons of flexibility in the late innings, and allow Nimmo the occasional day off for the inevitable bumps and bruises.

15. Brewers
Lorenzo Cain 497 .270 .343 .385 .315 -5.4 1.0 4.3 1.7
Jackie Bradley Jr. 175 .229 .315 .407 .308 -3.0 0.2 0.9 0.4
Avisaíl García 14 .262 .322 .424 .315 -0.1 -0.0 0.0 0.0
Tyrone Taylor 14 .233 .285 .407 .292 -0.4 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .259 .334 .391 .313 -8.9 1.2 5.2 2.2

Cain barely featured last season before opting out, which means it’s now been more than two years since his last productive campaign at the dish. As the rest of the league set home run records, Cain posted some of the worst numbers of his career in 2019. He was playing through a bunch of nicks and knocks to be fair, and it’s to his credit that it didn’t affect his work out in the field. But, at 34, you have to wonder how much he can still offer as a hitter.

Even if Cain is a diminished player, the Bradley signing still seems like a strange fit. As it stands, the Brewers are heading to battle with two defensively-minded center fielders in the lineup. That’s an odd choice for a team with a strikeout-heavy pitching staff and a bandbox for a home park. Not bad, just odd.

16. Marlins
Starling Marte 630 .273 .325 .428 .319 0.2 1.7 -2.9 2.1
Jon Berti 35 .241 .331 .350 .300 -0.6 0.2 0.1 0.1
Magneuris Sierra 21 .242 .284 .331 .266 -1.0 0.0 -0.0 -0.0
Monte Harrison 14 .207 .273 .341 .266 -0.6 0.1 -0.0 -0.0
Total 700 .269 .323 .420 .316 -2.0 1.9 -2.8 2.2

Fun fact: Starling Marte led the league in games played last year with 61, a quirk of joining Miami before the Marlins hit the meaty part of their back-loaded schedule.

Moving away from the minutiae, I’m surprised to see Marte this far down our list. He’s been a three-win player in just about every season of his career and was tracking for that in 2020 as well. There are nits to be picked in his game and underlying batted ball metrics but no smoking gun suggesting serious decline is underway. The best way to read his forecast then is as a hedge. So long as Marte retains his 70-grade wheels and below average strikeout rate, he’s a good bet to be who he always is: a solid first-division regular who can do a little bit of everything and steal a lot more bases than your average bear. I think our forecasts are a little pessimistic here. On my personal list, for 2021, I’d take him over several guys a little higher up on the page.

To play devil’s advocate with myself: There’s a case to be made that Marte is the kind of player who could fall off quickly, though. If he loses a step, it’s not clear that he has the right approach or enough juice to be more than an average regular if he has to shift to a corner, particularly since he’ll presumably also lose a lot of the hustle doubles and triples that help buoy the profile. Similarly, Marte’s consistent production at the plate belies a shaky foundation in his offensive game: he already hits for more power than most guys in his exit velo band and he needs to hit for average given his aggressive approach and low walk rate. At 32, Marte is one of the elder statesmen among the game’s center fielders and nobody stays young and spry forever.

17. Mariners
Kyle Lewis 644 .239 .314 .396 .305 -6.8 0.3 0.0 1.8
Braden Bishop 35 .218 .285 .324 .266 -1.5 -0.0 0.2 -0.0
Jarred Kelenic 14 .239 .300 .431 .308 -0.1 -0.0 -0.1 0.0
Taylor Trammell 7 .214 .299 .326 .275 -0.3 -0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .238 .313 .392 .302 -8.7 0.3 0.1 1.8

Seattle fans fretting about Lewis’s projection here should just relax: It’s not like there’s any precedent for a young Mariners hitter to post good numbers for a half-season before disintegrating into a pile of forlorn misery or anything.

In all seriousness, Lewis remains a divisive player. The power is legit. When he gets ahold of one, he simply mauls the ball, and he’s capable of both turning around a Justin Verlander fastball and riding a Lance McCullers Jr. curve out to right. He also looks spry in center, an outcome that seemed unlikely after he blew out in his knee in 2016 and throughout his uneven return to health. The swing-and-miss gets a little ugly sometimes, but in about half of a season of action, he’s notched a 126 wRC+ at a premium position. That should play.

At times though, Lewis looks like a mistake hitter only. He has reverse platoon splits, which sounds like the kind of thing that won’t last, but he also whiffed on more than 60% of changeups last year, which seems like a real problem. This is a boom-or-bust kind of profile and he may be prone to streaks throughout his career. The depth of his tailspins will presumably go a long way toward shaping his contributions. So far so good, but the range of outcomes here remains wide.

18. Nationals
Victor Robles 651 .252 .322 .406 .311 -10.4 1.0 3.2 1.7
Andrew Stevenson 42 .256 .316 .385 .301 -1.0 0.0 -0.2 0.0
Yadiel Hernandez 7 .249 .317 .418 .310 -0.1 -0.0 -0.0 0.0
Total 700 .252 .322 .405 .310 -11.5 1.0 3.0 1.7

After posting history’s quietest four-win campaign in 2019, Robles didn’t hit a lick last year. The trouble started early. COVID precautions kept him out of camp until the last week before the season started, and he showed up 20 pounds heavier than expected. Once the games began, none of his numbers went the right direction, and both he and the Nats will have to hope the lost season can be pinned on some combination of a World Series hangover and pandemic-fused weirdness. The less said about his batted ball metrics, the better.

We’re thus at an early crossroads in Robles’s career. For a 23-year-old top prospect with one four-win season already under his belt, he faces an awful lot of question marks: Can he hit? Can he stay healthy? Has he really lost a step in center field or was that just the extra weight? It’s tempting to be encouraged by a new stance, strong spring training numbers, and a guy in the best shape of his li– you know, I can’t do this anymore. Robles seems to be saying and doing the right things following last season’s bad dream, but there’s nothing he can do in Florida to alleviate the concerns about his tendency to chase spin or his bottom-of-the-charts exit velocity numbers. He’s going to have to produce in games to get his career back on track. Fortunately for him, the Nationals have every chance to give him every chance.

19. Astros
Myles Straw 560 .254 .327 .327 .289 -13.2 2.8 2.0 1.3
Chas McCormick 56 .241 .315 .360 .293 -1.1 0.0 0.1 0.1
Jose Siri 42 .203 .256 .334 .253 -2.3 0.0 0.1 -0.1
Kyle Tucker 42 .268 .333 .495 .344 1.0 0.1 0.2 0.3
Total 700 .251 .322 .340 .291 -15.7 3.0 2.3 1.6

Houston’s situation is the opposite of Miami’s, in that it’s a team I’m a little surprised to encounter this high up in our rankings. Straw made the Willie Keeler thing work as a rookie in 2019, albeit in little more than a month’s worth of at-bats. Somewhat oddly for a player with his skills, he walked a ton that season. Players with a good eye and no pop eventually start getting challenged though, and that’s what happened in last year’s abbreviated campaign. Straw didn’t handle it well, notching a 40 wRC+ and a sub-5% walk rate in limited duty. He’s fast and can go run ’em down in center, but you have to hit at least a little bit to make the package work, and it’s not clear that Straw can do that.

There isn’t an established option behind him, either. Tucker has played one inning of center field in his big league career, which is one more than McCormick and Siri have played, as neither have debuted yet. The market for center fielders was dreadfully thin last winter but it’s still a bit odd Houston didn’t do more to address the position. A deal with Jackie Bradley Jr. would have made so much sense.

20. Orioles
Cedric Mullins 385 .244 .299 .391 .293 -9.6 0.9 0.3 0.6
Austin Hays 280 .260 .303 .441 .312 -2.4 -0.5 1.4 0.9
Yusniel Diaz 21 .244 .317 .406 .309 -0.2 -0.1 -0.1 0.0
Ryan McKenna 14 .235 .306 .365 .290 -0.4 -0.0 -0.0 0.0
Total 700 .250 .301 .411 .301 -12.7 0.4 1.5 1.6

Mullins has taken a winding path to this point, where he’s battling Hays for the center field job. A late-season call-up in 2018, he tread water down the stretch, which more or less made him the best player on the team and the rare Oriole who looked like a plausible part of the team’s future. The next spring, he was penciled in as the leadoff hitter and starting center fielder, which led to… a cartoonishly bad April and a season-long demotion from there.

Just as it looked like he’d missed his chance, Mullins played his way back onto the roster at summer camp last year. He hit the ground running in July and turned a fifth-outfielder role into regular duty patrolling center. His jagged career path defies a simple forecast from here, but at least one thing should help: he decided to drop switch hitting and focus on batting as a lefty only. That’s probably a wise choice for someone with a career 26 wRC+ against southpaws.

Hays has also taken a circuitous route here, debuting in 2017 and then not seeing the majors for nearly two years after that. A bad approach takes the air out of pretty impressive raw power, but he could have the athleticism and thump to handle regular work anyway. Given his production in limited time these last two years, along with the tenuous playing time situations across Baltimore’s roster, he should play quite a bit this year.

21. Reds
Nick Senzel 504 .252 .316 .425 .314 -7.2 -0.2 -0.7 1.0
Shogo Akiyama 161 .265 .340 .405 .320 -1.4 -0.3 -0.5 0.3
Dee Strange-Gordon 21 .267 .302 .342 .278 -1.0 0.0 -0.2 -0.0
Scott Heineman 7 .236 .297 .385 .292 -0.2 -0.0 0.0 0.0
Mark Payton 7 .242 .307 .411 .305 -0.2 -0.0 -0.0 0.0
Total 700 .255 .321 .417 .314 -10.0 -0.5 -1.3 1.3

Senzel still retains a bit of a sheen from his days as a top 10 prospect, but that capital will dwindle very quickly if he starts 2021 slowly. The former Volunteer will turn 26 in June and he’s posted an 84 wRC+ in his first 500ish big league plate appearances. As a prospect, we wrote that he has “a contact and power combination that will profile anywhere on the diamond” and neither of those things have come true yet. He doesn’t walk much and his max and average exit velos are nothing special. That means he needs to hit .300 to have much value at the plate and it’s hard to do that with a 23% strikeout rate. Some of his difficulty adjusting can be attributed to injury, although the amount of time he’s spent on the shelf is becoming its own problem. The projections smells a lemon.

Still, it’s clearly Senzel’s job to lose. As a major league rookie, Akiyama put the ball in play a lot, which was expected, and hit for absolutely zero power, which was not. Scouting reports suggested that he could have above average in-game power, but he posted some of the lowest exit velos in the league, with a two-degree launch angle to boot. It’s only 183 PA in very bizarre circumstances, but there isn’t much to feel encouraged about. He’ll also miss Opening Day with a hamstring injury. As a parting thought, I’ll take the “over” on 35 non-Senzel/Akiyama PAs from Reds center fielders this season.

22. Cleveland
Oscar Mercado 266 .244 .300 .376 .290 -8.4 0.4 0.3 0.3
Amed Rosario 210 .281 .318 .428 .314 -2.2 0.2 -0.9 0.5
Bradley Zimmer 140 .214 .300 .361 .287 -4.8 0.4 0.3 0.1
Ben Gamel 70 .249 .327 .385 .307 -1.2 -0.1 -0.1 0.1
Daniel Johnson 14 .241 .299 .400 .296 -0.4 -0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .250 .308 .391 .298 -17.0 0.9 -0.4 1.0

Che brutto. With the recent demotion of Mercado, Cleveland is playing musical chairs with Rosario, Zimmer, and Ben Gamel. Zimmer’s having a good spring, if anyone in the world still cares about that kind of thing, but it’s the other two who seem likelier to do a competent job until something better comes along. This feels like the right time to mention that Rosario had a three-error game last Tuesday.

If you had to bet on anyone amassing 500 at-bats in center this year, you’d probably hold your nose and go with Mercado. The 26-year-old was a pretty good player back in 2019 but swung through everything last season and didn’t look much better in Goodyear. Time will tell whether that’s fixable; if it is, his underlying contact rates and ability to handle the position defensively give him a leg up on the other options.

Cleveland is in this mess because of the club’s strange run of bad luck with center fielders. This is possibly the game’s premier player development group: The pitching depth speaks for itself, but this organization also maxed out on Francisco Lindor, José Ramírez, and Roberto Pérez. In center though, the Naquin, Zimmer, and Mercado eras followed a similar, disappointing pattern where each hit adequately for a few months before completely cratering.

23. Tigers
JaCoby Jones 455 .231 .298 .402 .297 -10.9 0.3 -0.1 0.7
Victor Reyes 182 .274 .308 .402 .301 -3.8 0.1 1.1 0.4
Akil Baddoo 35 .199 .265 .321 .255 -2.1 -0.0 -0.4 -0.1
Daz Cameron 14 .220 .290 .357 .280 -0.5 -0.0 -0.0 -0.0
Niko Goodrum 7 .227 .297 .387 .292 -0.2 0.0 -0.0 0.0
Derek Hill 7 .212 .269 .324 .257 -0.4 -0.0 -0.0 -0.0
Total 700 .241 .298 .396 .295 -18.0 0.3 0.5 1.0

If Tigers fans are still watching, they’ll see a collection of fun-bad types in center this season. Perhaps that’s not fair to Jones, who burst out of the blocks with five homers in the season’s first two weeks and had an excellent campaign going before a wayward fastball fractured his left hand. Reasonable people can disagree, but I’m not buying the mini-breakout: Jones did his damage against a weak slate of pitchers, still struck out too often, and — most importantly — it was 30 freaking games.

Behind the starter, Reyes is a good watch if you like short at-bats and can live with untapped power potential. Baddoo is a tool shed and Cameron is going to retain a bloodline-based sheen until he definitively proves he can’t hit big league pitching. He’ll probably check that box sometime this season, but hey, it’s still March, let’s dream a little.

24. Giants
Mauricio Dubón 406 .264 .309 .391 .299 -8.3 -0.5 1.1 0.7
Heliot Ramos 140 .232 .294 .381 .288 -4.1 -0.7 -1.0 -0.1
Steven Duggar 70 .232 .297 .352 .280 -2.6 -0.1 -0.3 -0.0
Mike Yastrzemski 63 .254 .334 .453 .331 0.5 -0.1 0.2 0.3
Austin Slater 14 .254 .344 .407 .324 0.0 0.0 -0.0 0.1
LaMonte Wade Jr 7 .238 .333 .347 .299 -0.1 -0.0 -0.0 0.0
Total 700 .253 .308 .390 .298 -14.6 -1.4 0.1 0.9

Sometimes players show up just about as advertised. If anything, you could argue that Dubón’s been a better hitter than we’d have guessed and that his positional versatility makes him more valuable than his baseball card (hey, the modern ones have WAR now) would suggest. Able to play three premium positions while keeping the line moving at the plate, Dubón is the kind of player who will probably handle a variety of jobs over a 10-year career. “Starting center fielder” may not be the optimal use of his skills, but as a stopgap until Ramos or another longer-term solution arrives, he should be adequate.

Speaking of Ramos: there’s not too much I can say here that Eric hasn’t covered in greater depth elsewhere. The odds that he’s a center fielder for long don’t seem good: he’s already losing foot speed and Oracle Park is not the place to have someone fake it in center. It’s too early to write him off the position entirely, but odds are the long-term solution for the Giants isn’t on the list above.

25. Royals
Michael A. Taylor 308 .230 .287 .394 .287 -10.2 0.5 0.8 0.3
Jarrod Dyson 224 .230 .303 .314 .272 -10.4 1.7 1.4 0.1
Whit Merrifield 77 .281 .331 .428 .322 -0.3 0.2 0.2 0.3
Edward Olivares 56 .247 .292 .382 .287 -1.9 -0.1 -0.0 0.0
Nick Heath 21 .208 .282 .298 .257 -1.2 0.0 0.1 -0.0
Bubba Starling 14 .218 .267 .331 .258 -0.8 -0.0 -0.1 -0.0
Total 700 .236 .297 .367 .285 -24.7 2.4 2.4 0.7

No matter how closely you follow offseason transactions, there are always a few players in the “oh that’s where this guy ended up” bucket come spring training. That makes for a good segue into Taylor and Dyson.

Taylor figures to get the majority of reps in center. At this point, it’s clear that 2017’s three-win season was the anomaly for a player who hasn’t mustered a .300 wOBA since. I’m getting tired of pretending to make something of last year’s statistics, but for what it’s worth, Taylor actually hit for decent power while striking out less than normal in 2020. That doesn’t do much for me, personally, but rational people can plausibly forecast a one-win season here.

Dyson’s speed and defense have aged remarkably well, but there will come a point when the bat deteriorates too much for it to matter, and he’s been testing those waters recently. He has a 54 wRC+ since the start of 2018 and, surprisingly for a fast guy who hits the ball on the ground a lot, a .251 BABIP. Hopefully he hits at least a little because he’s still magic on the bases.

Merrifield is obviously the best player on this list; I imagine his time in center will be dictated in part by how well others play and whether Kansas City keeps afloat in the standings. Olivares is interesting on paper, but the tools will likely play down due to an awful approach.

26. Braves
Cristian Pache 532 .246 .296 .404 .296 -15.4 -1.9 0.3 0.2
Ender Inciarte 133 .251 .317 .362 .294 -4.0 0.2 0.6 0.1
Ronald Acuña Jr. 35 .282 .385 .559 .391 1.9 0.2 0.2 0.3
Total 700 .248 .305 .403 .300 -17.5 -1.5 1.1 0.7

No team in the bottom 10 has more upside than Atlanta, and there’s good depth here as well. Pache’s bat is a wild card at this point. His approach needs more seasoning, he whiffs uncomfortably often, and his raw power is ahead of his ability to get to it in games. Unless he’s totally overmatched at the plate though, he should best the projections you see above. He’s an elite defender in center, and you don’t have to hit all that much to have value as an 80 glove at a key position. Billy Hamilton, for instance, posted a measly 68 wRC+ back in 2018 and was still nearly a 1.5-win player because of his defense. More recently, Lorenzo Cain and Kevin Pillar have posted similar WAR totals with slightly more thump and a little bit less defensive value. That seems like a safe floor for Pache out of the gate.

Even if he is outclassed by big league pitching, the Braves have a more than suitable fallback option. Inciarte hasn’t played much over the past two years, and was dreadful in limited action in 2020. But he’s also only a couple of years removed from a string of three-WAR seasons and he’s only 30. I’m not convinced he’s cooked just yet.

27. Pirates
Anthony Alford 266 .221 .288 .357 .278 -10.8 0.7 -1.3 -0.2
Bryan Reynolds 245 .255 .327 .422 .319 -1.3 -0.4 -1.2 0.6
Dustin Fowler 119 .253 .295 .419 .300 -2.5 -0.0 -0.4 0.1
Brian Goodwin 42 .231 .305 .409 .302 -0.8 0.0 -0.2 0.0
Jared Oliva 21 .233 .295 .346 .277 -0.9 0.0 0.0 -0.0
Cole Tucker 7 .234 .296 .351 .279 -0.3 0.0 0.0 -0.0
Total 700 .239 .304 .393 .298 -16.7 0.3 -3.1 0.6

In Muriel Spark’s book Loitering With Intent, Fleur Talbot is struggling to write her first novel. After taking a secretarial job for Sir Quentin Oliver, the sinister head of a small memoir writing club called the Autobiographical Association, she soon discovers her muse. Inspired by the eclectic antics of Sir Oliver and the Association’s cast of writers, she finds her own story coming into focus.

A funny thing soon happens: As Fleur becomes dependent on the group’s increasingly bizarre behavior for source material, she notices that the actions of the characters in her book preview that of the members in the Association. No how matter how implausibly Fleur writes her characters — sudden poisonings, corruption, you name it — one of the members will soon embody that very behavior in real life.

I can only assume that Fleur is still out there, writing baseball previews somewhere, because I cannot think of another explanation for why a major league team is planning to give Anthony Alford the keys to center field.

28. Phillies
Odúbel Herrera 245 .253 .311 .419 .309 -3.9 -0.1 -2.0 0.3
Adam Haseley 161 .253 .316 .385 .300 -3.7 -0.0 -0.1 0.2
Scott Kingery 154 .229 .285 .390 .286 -5.4 0.2 0.1 0.0
Roman Quinn 98 .228 .291 .356 .279 -4.0 0.7 -0.7 -0.1
Mickey Moniak 35 .231 .284 .371 .278 -1.5 0.0 -0.3 -0.0
Travis Jankowski 7 .228 .307 .302 .272 -0.3 0.0 -0.0 -0.0
Total 700 .243 .302 .392 .296 -18.8 0.7 -2.9 0.4

Phillies center fielders project to commit the twin sins of being both bad and boring. The recent track record of players returning to action after nearly two years on the shelf is about as good as you’d think, and the question marks surrounding Herrera’s viability are less interesting than they are cringe-worthy. This is not a budding feel-good story.

And yet, it’s hard to see anyone else beating him out for the job. Kingery is having a miserable spring and recent dispatches on his swing and headspace suggest more than a hint of desperation. Haseley is on the shelf with an abductor strain, and when healthy, both his bat and glove are a bit light for regular duty anyway. I’ve spent years rooting for Quinn but I’m out after last season’s strikeout-laden debacle. Moniak is the wild card. On paper, he seems like the most likely player here to make an impact over the next five years but it’s not clear he’s ready to do so in 2021.

29. Rangers
Leody Taveras 518 .244 .307 .375 .293 -19.1 0.8 2.0 0.4
Eli White 77 .223 .289 .338 .272 -4.2 -0.1 -0.4 -0.2
Delino DeShields 56 .231 .311 .327 .281 -2.6 0.2 0.1 -0.0
David Dahl 28 .246 .301 .429 .306 -0.7 -0.0 -0.1 0.0
Joey Gallo 14 .209 .332 .486 .341 0.1 0.0 0.1 0.1
Jason Martin 7 .237 .296 .388 .291 -0.3 -0.0 0.0 -0.0
Total 700 .240 .306 .371 .291 -26.9 1.0 1.8 0.3

The Rangers have consistently challenged the uber-athletic Taveras with aggressive minor league assignments throughout his career. The pattern continued last year, as they summoned him to Arlington despite relatively little seasoning in Double-A. He held his head above water, compensating for troubling strikeout numbers with surprising thump and tidy work on the bases. Like Pache, this is a speed-and-defense skillset, just with less upside at the plate. There’s a chance that he’s not ready for a steady dose of big league pitching yet, and spends a good portion of 2021 in Triple-A.

If so, Texas has a few options at their disposal. White isn’t a likely long-term option in center, but he’s young and fast and that’s usually worth a try. DeShields is in camp on a minor league deal; if things go haywire, he could pick up a lot of at-bats in a somewhat thankless replacement level situation as Texas plays out the string. Dahl is one of the more exciting buy-low acquisitions from last winter, and I’m somewhat optimistic that a change of scenery will do him some good; most of his work will likely come in left, where he’s the projected starter.

30. Rockies
Sam Hilliard 357 .234 .296 .426 .304 -13.6 0.0 -1.4 -0.2
Yonathan Daza 147 .292 .329 .413 .316 -4.0 -0.3 0.0 0.1
Garrett Hampson 133 .255 .313 .391 .301 -5.4 0.5 -0.0 -0.0
Raimel Tapia 49 .285 .330 .423 .320 -1.2 0.1 -0.0 0.1
Chris Owings 14 .241 .295 .395 .293 -0.7 0.0 0.0 -0.0
Total 700 .254 .309 .416 .307 -24.8 0.3 -1.4 -0.1

Some team had to bring up the rear and this group has the look of a caboose. Everyone listed above is in their mid-late 20s and none of them have hit for any significant stretch of time. The guy who’s come closest, Hilliard, struck out in 37% of his trips to the plate last season. The second closest, Tapia, has parlayed a .354 career BABIP into a 78 wRC+ in nearly 900 plate appearances.

If there’s any hope at all for this crew, it comes in the form of Hilliard, who has big tools and trouble bringing them into games. He’s not impatient at the plate — he actually swings much less than average — but he misses an awful lot on balls in the zone, and pitchers can coax a whiff with just about anything in their arsenal. There’s a chance everything clicks for him and he makes enough contact to take advantage of his raw power and considerable speed, much like there’s a chance that Jay Jaffe will buy a six-pack of Coors on his next trip to the bodega.

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2 years ago

It’s odd how you find it strange that Anthony Alford is getting a prolonged look in center field. One, he plays for a rebuilding team. Two, he has never gotten consistent big league at bats, but looked fine in a tiny sample with the Pirates last year and has looked good in spring. Three, he still has the power, speed, and defense combo. Why not give him a look? He is much more interesting than anyone a cheap team can feasibly play there at the moment.

2 years ago
Reply to  dataspock1

He hasn’t had a wRC+ at any level since 2017.

2 years ago
Reply to  dl80

You don’t think injuries have factored into that? He’s never gotten an extended look and if he stays healthy all year he just might put it all together. A rebuilding team like the Pirates can afford to take on his upside unlike the Jays who are looking to compete, thus the Springer signing. It sure beats trotting out Brian Goodwin out there for 140 games or so. If he doesn’t work out, that’s fine. Travis Swaggerty may be major league ready by the end of the year anyway. It’s a risk-free scenario.

2 years ago
Reply to  dataspock1

There is a real shortage of quad-A types you can scoop up to try in center field these days. Realistically, the Pirates are just hoping that Jared Oliva seizes the job until Swaggerty is ready.

They’re a team absolutely ready to take on a post-prospect like Adam Haseley, it’s just that the position is thin enough that Adam Haseley might wind up starting. So instead you have Alford, a post-post-prospect.

2 years ago
Reply to  dataspock1

I think I’d go further and say that giving Alford and Fowler opportunities to play is exactly what a team in the Pirates position should be doing. Alford and Fowler are both previously well-regarded prospects who never got a good look in the MLB due to injuries, etc. The Pirates meanwhile could play Mike Trout in Center and still be projected to win 70 games. Both players have potentially interesting upside that could help the team in future, and the potential downside is that they miss out on 1 or 2 wins of production from some replacement level guy that wouldn’t matter in the long run anyway.

2 years ago
Reply to  dataspock1

It is odd and you’re right about Alford being just the kind of guy to put out there on this sort of team. The real discussion should be about bringing up Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent when everyone knows that The Girls of Slender Means is the superior work.

formerly matt w
2 years ago

I vaguely remember thinking that Loitering with Intent was pretty much like A Far Cry from Kensington, but I also do not remember the plot point that this preview invokes, so I obviously do not remember it that well.

Anyway, I would recommend Memento Mori, and also any story collection that includes The Portobello Road.