Positional Case Study: Atlanta Braves Center Fielders

This is a slightly different type of article. I will look at how a single franchise has filled a single spot on the diamond. The Braves have had a pretty good track record with center fielders, developing three of the top fifty center fielders of all time, Wally Berger (#46), Dale Murphy (#37), and Andruw Jones (#9).

But when they didn’t happen to draft or sign a historically good CFer, their approach became much more patchwork. Center field is one of the most important positions on the field, and one of the most difficult to fill. Here’s how the Braves did it.

Wally Berger was a really good player who happened to play for a lot of really bad Boston Braves teams in the 1930s. But I will focus on the last three decades or so. From 1980 to 1986, and half of 1989, the Braves’ primary center fielder was Dale Murphy, a charter member of the Hall of Very Good; from 1998 to 2007, it was Andruw Jones. For the other 17 seasons, they’ve had to make do.

In 1987, they started a CF-for-CF challenge trade streak that’s remarkable to recount in retrospect:

  1. In January 1987, they traded Brad Komminsk (who’s now best remembered as a legendary tools bust) to Milwaukee for Dion James.
  2. In mid-1989, they traded James to Cleveland for Oddibe McDowell.
  3. (There were no challenge trades for the next few years. In 1991, they released McDowell, signed Deion Sanders, and traded C Jimmy Kremers and RHP Keith Morrison to Montreal for Otis Nixon.)
  4. In 1994, they traded Sanders to the Reds for Roberto Kelly. (LHP Roger Etheridge also went to the Braves, but he never made the majors.
  5. In 1995, the Braves traded Kelly to the Expos for Marquis Grissom. (OF Tony Tarasco and RHP Esteban Yan also went to the Expos, but neither amounted to much.)
  6. In 1997, the Braves traded Grissom and right fielder David Justice to Cleveland for Kenny Lofton and lefty reliever Alan Embree.)

The next year, Andruw Jones was their center fielder until 2008.

From 1980 to 1986, the Braves got 33.5 WAR from center field, an average of 4.8 WAR a year. The Braves wouldn’t come close to that number for quite some time. Still, Dion James was quite good in 1987, as the full-time center fielder, and the Braves got 3.3 WAR from their center fielders that year.

But James turned back into a pumpkin in 1988. (There were a lot of players like that in the offensive explosion of ’87 and the collective hangover of ’88.) The Braves effectively had a center field-by-committee in 1988, and the Braves never quite solved the position. In addition to James’s uninspired play, poor performances were turned in by “Royal” Albert Hall, a late-70s Braves draftee; by Terry Blocker, acquired from the Mets for a PTBNL; Tommy Gregg, acquired from the Pirates for 3B Ken Oberkfell; and Jerry Royster, signed as an FA for what would be his final season. In all, the Braves got -1.8 WAR from center field that year.

It was so bad that Murphy, by then the full-time right fielder, shifted back to center field for the first half of 1989, until the Braves picked up McDowell. Oddibe was very good immediately after the trade, and the Braves got 3.1 WAR from center field that year.

But like James, McDowell’s bat turned cold the following season, so in 1990 the Braves turned to Ron Gant, who had come up as a stone-handed second baseman. Gant handled center field for most of 1990 and 1991, with a bit of Oddibe McDowell and free agent pickup Otis Nixon sprinkled in. Gant’s glove was iffy, though, and while it seemed to be decent enough in ’90 it took a turn for the worse the following year, so the Braves got 5 WAR from center field in 1990 but only 1.9 WAR in 1991.

Gant could really hit — he was a 30/30 man in both 1990 and 1991, when that really meant something — but he couldn’t really pick it in center. So, in 1992, Gant was mostly the left fielder, with Nixon splitting time in center field with new free agent pickup Deion Sanders. The same was true in 1993, and the fleet-footed and sure-gloved duo gave the Braves consistency up the middle, as the team got 5.9 WAR from center field in 1992, and 4.0 in 1993.

Sanders started as the full-time center fielder for the first two months in 1994, but by the end of May, the team felt like making a change. So they packaged him to Cincinnati for the beguiling Roberto Kelly, who appeared to have speed, power, and defense, and was an All-Star in 1992 and 1993. But the 29-year-old’s best years were behind him, and he never lived up to his 5-tool promise. He was only decent in the two and a half months before the baseball strike, and the Braves got 1.6 WAR out of center field in two-thirds of a season.

So the Braves traded Kelly to the team that finished ahead of them in the standings in the aborted 1994 season, the Expos. And they received Grissom, a free-swinger who had led the majors in steals in 1991 and 1992 and had been an All-Star in 1993 and 1994. He won the Gold Glove for the Braves in 1995, and more importantly, he caught the final out of the 1995 World Series, the first championship for the franchise since 1957 and the only one that it has won since moving to Atlanta in 1966.

Atlanta got 1.9 WAR in center field in 1995, largely because a BABIP-unlucky Grissom saw his batting average dip to .258 that year. Grissom’s BA rebounded in 1996, and the Braves got 4.7 WAR from CF that year.

Still, Braves GM John Schuerholz wanted to obtain the starting center fielder from the team he had beaten in 1995, so, the next offseason, he traded away two-thirds of his outfield, sending Grissom and often-injured right fielder David Justice to Cleveland for Kenny Lofton and reliever Alan Embree. Braves fans decried the trade, as Justice was one of the most popular players on the team, and while Lofton played quite well, he only played 122 games as a Brave, never fitting in the clubhouse. He departed as a free agent at the end of the year and immediately re-signed with Cleveland. Still, the Braves got 8.9 WAR from center field that year, because when Lofton wasn’t playing, the Braves could count on 20-year old wunderkind Andruw Jones, who spent most of the year in right field.

Jones played nearly every inning of nearly every game for the next decade and did so at a Hall of Fame level, as the Braves got 61.7 WAR from center field over a 10-year period, best in baseball. (The Cardinals were second, having had some very good years from Jim Edmonds, J.D. Drew, and the perennially underrated Ray Lankford.)

But the Braves did not have much of a plan for Jones’s departure. For 2008, the Braves traded reliever Joey Devine to Oakland for center fielder Mark Kotsay and salary relief. As was his wont, Kotsay played okay but was occasionally injured, and in August, they traded Kotsay to the Red Sox on waivers for a minor leaguer. Gregor Blanco and Josh Anderson played center in Kotsay’s absence. The Braves got just 2.5 WAR from CF that season: not a disaster, but nothing like what they were used to.

In 2009, the Braves handed the center field reins over to Jordan Schafer, a toolsy minor leaguer who played terribly before admitting that he had been hiding a wrist injury. So they traded for another center fielder, sending minor league outfielder Gorkys Hernandez and two pitching prospects to Pittsburgh for Nate McLouth. McLouth had been a fluky All-Star in 2008 and played okay for the rest of the year, but the Braves still got only 1 WAR from center field that year.

That offseason, the Braves traded pitcher Javier Vazquez to the Yankees for pitching prospect Arodys Vizcaino and Melky Cabrera, who was seen as an outfield tweener, with a glove better suited to a corner and a bat better suited for center. However, in 2010, McLouth and Cabrera were both sub-replacement level, and the Braves were caught in the same situation that they had faced in 1988. They played Gregor Blanco in center field, then packaged him with two relievers to the Kansas City Royals to obtain reliever Kyle Farnsworth and center fielder Rick Ankiel. In all, the Braves got -1.7 WAR from center field that year.

The 2011 season started out with more of the same, as McLouth continued to play poorly, and Schafer was awful in a callup. Finally, the Braves packaged him with three pitching prospects to the Astros for center fielder Michael Bourn. The Braves received 1.5 WAR from center field, largely thanks to Bourn. It was worst in the league, but still three wins better than the previous season.

Best of all, they had Bourn for all of 2012, and the 29-year-old had a career year, as the Braves received 5.6 wins from center field. Then, he departed for free agency, and the Braves did something that they had not done in the previous three decades: they opened their checkbook for a marquee center field free agent, bringing in B.J. Upton.

As you can see, the Braves did not like to pay top dollar for center field. Almost invariably they preferred to fill the position with a prospect or someone acquired by trade, with the exception of Deion Sanders. This may be because defense tends to be undervalued while offense tends to be overvalued, so the Braves could use their productive farm system to address their center field needs by patchwork, mostly choosing to acquire light- to average-hitting glove men like Nixon, Grissom, and Bourn. The most effective hitters in center field were almost invariably players the Braves had developed internally: Murphy, Gant, Jones.

The Braves of 1987 through 2011 probably would have traded for Denard Span rather than signing B.J. Upton. It is certainly possible that team strategy has changed, as many have written about the way that teams have begun hoarding prospects like never before, so it’s possible that the Braves’ trade-and-trade-some-more will need to change, too.

Upton was a departure for the Braves in many respects, the most expensive free agent the team has ever signed, and the first time in memory that the team has looked to fill center field from the free agent market. The ink has barely dried on his contract, so I shouldn’t make too much of his early-season struggles. But it is worth bearing in mind: if past history is any guide, there’s a chance that the Braves will try to solve their next hole in center field by trading Upton in 2016 or 2017.

Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times.

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9 years ago

The Braves reportedly tried to trade for Span but couldn’t come to an agreement with the Twins. He would certainly look good sitting atop the Braves lineup right now instead of the 15M man hitting 7th.

9 years ago
Reply to  CJ

They also tried to trade for Adam Jones during the 2011-12 offseason. The biggest rumor was that the O’s wanted Prado, Jurrjens, and a pitching prospect or two in the deal. I remember the general consensus was that Jones was extremely overrated and that the Braves would be stupid to offer anywhere near that much for him. (keep in mind Prado was coming off his career worst season at this point) Also, something about how Jurrjens was really good at outpitching his peripherals and would really secure the top of the Orioles rotation…..

Nathan P.
9 years ago
Reply to  David

They also wanted Hanson in one of those offers. That was incomprehensible a year ago. Problem is I think Justin Upton is as gifted as every name mentioned in the article, so that Baltimore no-deal has been long forgotten by most Braves fans. BJ may or may not rebound but it’s a risk you take every now and then. Justin wouldn’t have happened without all this, the Braves are making their move.

Dan Ugglas Forearm
9 years ago
Reply to  David

Martin Prado also gave the Braves 5.6 WAR in 2012 while playing 5 positions. And regarding Span, I think that trade was proposed after they signed BJ Upton. Span is nowhere near as valuable in a corner, and you’re not going to move your newly acquired highest FA signing ever out of his position within weeks. Seeing as the Nats only gave up an A ball pitcher (though a darn good one, the Braves should have had no problem trading for Span. I think the situation just didn’t match up for either side.