Free Agent Market: Center Field

Oh, put me in, Coach – I’m ready to play today;
Put me in, Coach – I’m ready to play today;
Look at me, I can be Centerfield

Unfortunately for teams in need of a center fielder, very few free agents can sing along to this 1985 John Fogerty classic with conviction. This is a group of aging, injury prone guys who either never were very good, or now are in steep decline.

Grady Sizemore is easily the most interesting player in this group. Assuming the Indians decline his $8.5 million option for 2012, he hits the market after three consecutive injury riddled seasons. Sizemore was once considered one of the best center fielders in baseball. He produced 21.6 WAR from 2006-2008 while missing only 5 games over three full seasons, but in the three seasons since he has produced less than 2.0 WAR and missed 276 games. He had surgery on his elbow and for a sports hernia late in 2009. His 2010 was lost to microfracture surgery on his left knee, and his 2011 was plagued by a second sports hernia and severe bone bruises on his right knee. Sizemore avoided micro fracture surgery on the right knee for now, but it is too early to tell if the arthroscopic procedure he had in October will return his knee to full health. Sizemore is still relatively young – he turns 30 in August – but his durability is obviously a huge question mark at this point. The offensive upside potential here is higher than for anyone on this list, but the knee injuries have likely ended his days as an elite defender.

The fact that Rick Ankiel is still in the major leagues is quite remarkable given his career path. After hitting .264/.337/.506 with 25 home runs for the Cardinals in 2008. Ankiel has been a disappointment at the plate and in the field since. After slugging .535 in 2007 and .506 in 2008, Ankiel hasn’t slugged more than .389 since. Ultimate Zone Rating likes his glove work in 2011 giving him a 6.9 rating in 785 center field innings, but given that 2011 is the only year he has sported a positive UZR, caution is warranted. Poor defensive outfielders with no power and sub .300 wOBAs are not hard to find. Ankiel’s value going forward is limited to fourth outfielder at this point.

Mike Cameron struggled in limited playing time for both the Red Sox and Marlins in 2011. Prior to the past two seasons, Cameron was a solid if not spectacular player. Despite a career .344 wOBA and 112.2 UZR, Cameron has struggled the past two season with injuries and limited plate appearances. At age 39 he probably should not be counted on to play full time, but would make a nice platoon partner or fourth outfielder.

Coco Crisp managed to stay healthy for much of 2011 and a result had his highest number of games played since 2007. With the increased playing time, however, came a decrease in offensive production (.327 wOBA) and declining range in the field (-5.5 UZR). The combination of declining production and a history of health problems does not make Crisp a good candidate for a full-time job in 2012, but he could be a more than adequate fourth outfielder.

Nate McLouth – a former Pirate All-Star – was an unmitigated disaster after being acquired by the Braves in the middle of the 2009 season. He was injured, ineffective, or both for the entirety of the 2010 and 2011. After posting good offensive numbers in 2007 (.364 wOBA, .201 ISO) and 2008 (.369 wOBA, .221), McLouth’s power stroke did not make the move to Altanta. He had an acceptable .342 wOBA in 84 games with the 2009 Braves, but the collapse of his power – ISO .214 before the trade, .162 after – was not a fluke. His 2010 (.283 wOBA, .132 ISO) and 2011 (.306 wOBA, .105 ISO) seasons were absolutely dreadful. Never a standout with the glove, McLouth’s defensive struggles continued in Atlanta as he “produced” a -25.9 UZR over the past two seasons, despite only playing an average of 83 games per season. At 30 years old, McLouth is the second youngest player in this grouping, but all signs point to his premature decline being permanent. His ground ball percentage has increased from 30.8% in 2007 to 47.4% in 2011. His BABIP rebounded from a horrid .221 in 2010 to .270 in 2011, which is close to his career average of .276, but his continued inability to drive the baseball with consistency suggests he may be done. His age and past productivity probably makes him worth a gamble as a fourth outfielder, but at this stage he cannot be counted on as an everyday player.

Other options include Corey Patterson, who has done acceptable glove work over the past few seasons, but is severely limited with the bat. He has not broken 100 in wRC+ since 2003 and has a career slash line of .252/.290/.400. Fourth outfielder is his ceiling at this point. Willie Bloomquist can play multiple positions, but plays none of them well and has a career .297 wOBA. He’ll be lucky to find a job in 2012. David DeJesus has played center field in the past, but should be in a corner now if he is on the field.

I am political science professor at the University of North Carolina. I grew up watching the Braves on TBS and acquired Red Sox fandom during the 1986 World Series. My other hobbies include cooking, good red wine, curing meats, and obsessing over Alabama football---Roll Tide! Follow me on Twitter @ProfJRoberts.

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Chris from Bothell
Chris from Bothell

Is Sizemore a viable left field option? Perhaps being part of a left field platoon (with time at DH or the bench to keep him as healthy as possible) will turn a CF with injury risk into a plus left fielder.