Due to an unfortunate data error, the numbers in this story did not include park factors upon publication. We have updated the data to include the park factors, and the data you see below is now correct. We apologize for the mistake.
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For an explanation of this series, please read the introductory post. The data is a hybrid projection of the ZIPS and Steamer systems with playing time determined through depth charts created by our team of authors. The rankings are based on aggregate projected WAR for each team at a given position.
Center field is one of the most star-laden positions in baseball at the moment, but a whole lot of those stars are dealing with injuries or coming off down years or trying to change positions. It also hurts that arguably the best player in the game figures to spend most of his time in left field this summer, but so be it. There is still plenty of center field talent — third base was the only position with more 5+ WAR players in 2012 — with a few interesting youngsters due to get regular playing time this year.
The league average center fielder hit .264/.328/.414 (101 wRC+) last summer, so the offensive bar is low compared to the corner spots. Defense is a big separator between the good and great players, though I feel like no position is more prone to the surprise 4+ WAR season. We’ve seen quite a few players pop-up out of nowhere to post star-caliber seasons driven largely by their center field defensive ratings, which can be a sketchy proposition. The established center field stars are among the best players in the world and perennial MVP candidates, so it’s no surprise teams with those players dominate the top of our rankings.
Not many positions in this series will be easier to cover than Pittsburgh’s center field situation. The 26-year-old McCutchen is one of the ten best players in the world and since he’s in the non-DH league, he’ll play as many innings in the field as humanly possible. This one ain’t rocket science. Marte, 24, will slide into center field whenever McCutchen takes a day off — he’s played 577 of 595 possible games since being called up in early-June 2009 — but otherwise he’s slated to be the everyday left fielder.
Injuries sabotaged Kemp a year ago, including a left shoulder issue — his power shoulder as a right-handed batter — that required offseason surgery. The 28-year-old also dealt with hamstring problems in 2012, which took away from his stolen base total. If healthy, Kemp is baseball’s premier power-speed threat, someone who is legitimately capable of going 40-40 and carrying a lineup. I have some concerns about his power in the immediate aftermath of the surgery, but not enough to consider him a big risk.
Schumaker, 33, is likely to open the season on the Dodgers’ bench and give Kemp the occasional day off. Gwynn, 30, is the emergency guy in Triple-A who will resurface should the starter’s shoulder or hamstring continue to bark. Schumaker can hold his own against righties and has become a little underrated in recent years, but he and Gwynn are enormous steps down from Kemp. The difference between Los Angeles’ starting and backup center fielder is arguably the biggest of any team in the game.
The Halos have arguably the best two-player center field tandem in baseball, so one of them will have to spend time in left. That would be Trout, leaving Bourjos and his brilliant defense at the more premium position. The 25-year-old has a slightly below-average offensive game built on speed, both stealing bases and stretching singles into doubles (and doubles into triples). I happen to think Bourjos has gotten overrated these last two years — this goes back to what I said earlier about surprise 4+ WAR seasons — but he’s certainly a big league player thanks to defense. If he’s going to play regularly, center field is the place to do it.
Trout, 21, will ply his trade in left and fill-in at center against tough righties on occasion. He’s a star even if his performance figures to take a slight step back following one of the best rookie seasons we’ll ever see. Wells is just kinda hanging around in his age-34 season and doesn’t figure to see much time in center without a series of injuries. Kalhoun, 25, is a personal fave who is more of a corner guy than someone capable of playing center everyday. Given the depth chart ahead of him, he’ll again be an up-and-down player in 2013.
#4 Red Sox
The Red Sox have one of the most volatile center field situations in baseball because the 29-year-old Ellsbury has been both an MVP candidate and injury bust in the last few seasons. He’s missed significant time in two of the last three years but the one exception was outstanding, a 9.4 WAR effort in 2011. That said, he’s been something less than a three-win player in three of the last four years. Ellsbury’s good but injury prone, and we don’t know if the power spike — 16.7% HR/FB — from 2011 is actually real. He’ll try to prove it was this summer before heading to free agency.
Victorino, 32, will be the primary right fielder and backup center fielder as Bradley gets some time in Triple-A. The 22-year-old is the obvious successor to Ellsbury and is a safe bet to debut at some point this season, even if it’s just a September call-up. I do believe that if Ellsbury got hurt and missed a bunch of time again, Bradley would be the guy they stick in center everyday. Not Victorino. There’s a lot of volatility here, this unit could live up to its billing as one of the best in baseball or complete tank and be one of the ten worst.
The Tigers tweaked Jackson’s swing mechanics prior to last season, and the result was a breakout 135 wRC+ and 16 homers in 617 plate appearances. Mechanical tweaks don’t translate well in projection systems, especially after just one year, so the 26-year-old gives Detroit perhaps the best chance of any team to outperform their ranking.
Berry, 28, is a spare part who rode an early-season hot streak to plenty of playing time last year, but he’s cut from the same cloth as Campana — speedy without the guarantee of doing anything else particularly well. The 21-year-old Garcia is more of a corner guy who would only wind up in center in an emergency of blowout. Jackson is the clear starter here.
I was a big Colby Rasmus guy and I thought the Cardinals made a mistake by trading him for a few weeks of Edwin Jackson and miscellaneous relievers, but St. Louis clearly made the right decision by keeping the 28-year-old Jay. He’s turned into nearly the exact opposite of what I expected (doubles-heavy corner outfielder) and is now a legitimate leadoff type with strong center field defense. He’s quite the player. Jay didn’t show any ill-effects from the shoulder separation that cost him nearly 40 games last season, but there’s always a little concern that will linger going forward.
Robinson, 28, is the clear backup now that Schumaker is in Los Angeles while Chambers, 26, seems destined to spend another year in Triple-A. His left-handed bat could land him a bench job, however. Taveras, 20, is arguably the best prospect in baseball and likely to at least start the season in the minors. If Jay did suffer any kind of long-ish term injury, I do believe the Cardinals would plug Taveras into the lineup everyday rather than play Robinson or Chambers (or even Carlos Beltran for that matter) regularly.
The Upton era is over in Tampa Bay, but the 26-year-old Jennings will slide right over and assume center field duties. He underwhelmed offensively (98 wRC+) last summer but remains useful because he steals bases (31-for-33, 93.9%), hits for a little bit of pop (.143 ISO), and plays the hell out of the outfield. Jennings is an injury risk though, so our playing time projection might be a tad optimistic. Super Sam Fuld, 31, is the obvious backup while Ben Zobrist, also 31, figures to see most of his action at second base and in right field. He’s always available in the pinch though.
Arizona made some very … controversial? poorly received? all of the above? … moves this winter, including trading a bonafide center fielder in Chris Young. That opened the door for the 24-year-old Eaton, who put together an impressive big league debut in September (117 wRC+ and 0.8 WAR in 22 games) after a monster minor league season. The D’Backs handed him the reins to the starting job this winter and expect his combination of on-base skills, speed, and defense to prove more valuable than Young’s power, speed, and defense.
Eaton’s primary backup is the 25-year-old Parra, who has been very useful as a heavily-used reserve outfielder these last two years. He figures to see most of his action as a platoon partner for Cody Ross and a defensive replacement for Jason Kubel than as Eaton’s fill-in. Campana, 26, will start the year in Triple-A and is a pure speed guy. He won’t hit or even be an overwhelmingly great defender, so he’s the clear third-in-line.
If the Yankees had their way, the 29-year-old Gardner would be manning center field full-time this season. He is one of the game’s best defenders while 31-year-old Granderson is below-average, so flipping the two makes sense. That was the plan until Granderson had his forearm broken by an errant pitch a few weeks ago, prompting the team to say they were scraping their defensive change. They want to focus on getting Granderson’s bat back in the lineup as soon as possible rather than giving him time to adjust to left field. The Yankees are sacrificing quite a bit of (theoretical) value by sticking with their current lineup.
Mesa, 26, could open the year with the team as Granderson’s injury replacement but is an up-and-down guy more than anything. Gardner’s the oh so logical sub.
Maybin’s follow-up to his breakout 2011 campaign was solid but disappointing, as his stolen base production basically got cut in half and his power slid slightly. Then again, a .331 BABIP with a 22.0% strikeout rate maybe wasn’t the most sustainable thing in the world. The 25-year-old can still play the hell out of center field, plus his age and contract — owned $24.4 million through 2017 — ensure he’ll have the job for the foreseeable future.
Venable, 30, and Denorfia, 32, are capable of playing center on a regular basis if need be, the former moreso than the latter. They’re great role players who will see most of their action as a right field platoon. Maybin’s the clear everyday guy here despite San Diego’s center field depth.
Cincinnati made arguably the boldest move of the offseason, acquiring a long-time right fielder in Choo and sticking him in center to fill a need. He can really hit (righties, anyway) and will be a great catalyst atop a powerhouse lineup, but transitioning to center could be very messy. Choo hasn’t rated as a strong defender in right in recent years and the shift to the up-the-middle spot could lead to a lot more base hits for the opposition. It’s a risky but incredibly gutsy move.
Heisey, 28, could see quite a bit more playing in center than we’re projecting if manager Dusty Baker platoons Choo — who really struggles against lefties — liberally this summer. It would improve the defense for sure, and likely the offense if the aforementioned platoon is deployed properly. The 28-year-old Paul is an extra part who will fill-in during injuries or serve as a warm body in September.
Michael Brantley’s stint as the everyday center fielder didn’t last much more than one season, as he’s now just the third best player at the position on Cleveland’s depth chart. He’ll man left field with Bourn in center and Stubbs in right under the team’s new “three center fielders” outfield with Nick Swisher sliding in at first base.
Bourn, 30, had to wait quite a while before landing his big contract, but he brings elite speed, base-running, and defense to the Indians’ lineup. Given his fat new $48 million contract, expect the former Brave to play as many innings as possible in center while the 28-year-old Stubbs utilizes his four-tool package in right field. He has every tool but the most important one, the ability to make contact. Stubbs is a more than capable center field replacement, meaning Brantley will need to get some breaks to return to his old position regularly.
The Braves spent an awful lot of money on the 28-year-old Upton and seem at least somewhat hopeful pairing him with his brother will bring out the best in the two players. The elder Upton has been both pretty good and disappointing in recent years, rattling off 3+ win seasons for the last half-decade. People just expected more and that’s led to him being underrated. Upton’s going to hit for power, steal a ton of bases, and play serviceable at worst defense. That’s a pretty darn good player, arguably better than what they got out of Michael Bourn last year given the general work-in-progress nature of defensive metrics.
Both Johnson, 36, and Costanza, 29, are platoon bats and more emergency center fielders than someone you’d feel comfortable running out there on an everyday basis. I do wonder if Atlanta would use Justin Upton in center should B.J. get hurt, but we have no reason to believe they would right now.
GM Brian Sabean has shown these last three years that he’s happy to bring back players who helped his team win the World Series, though some (Aubrey Huff and Freddy Sanchez) haven’t worked out as well as others (Javier Lopez). The 31-year-old Pagan has settled in as a slightly above-average offensive player (108 wRC+) who will steal lots of bases but has mixed defensive reviews. Seriously, his UZR has gone from fantastic (9.0 in 2010) to awful (-14.3 in 2011) to average (0.1 in 2012) the last three years. DRS went from great in 2010 to solidly below-average these last two seasons, so believe whichever you want.
Torres, 35, returns in a platoon role and figures to see most of his action in left field alongside Gregor Blanco. His defense is his strength though, so he’s a more than solid backup center fielder. Just don’t ever expect him to repeat his 2010 performance as well.
The Athletics are one of the few teams with two legitimate center fielders on their roster, but the club has already announced their plans to use the 29-year-old Young as a utility outfielder. After a brief experiment last year, Yoenis Cespedes isn’t on the center field radar.
Crisp, 33, will start in center even though he’s an inferior player, but there’s a good chance he’ll wind up as trade bait at some point. As a legitimate leadoff-type center fielder who is owned just $7 million this year with a $7.5 million club option for next year, he should have pretty good trade value. Young would then step right in and play everyday. Oakland has some nice flexibility at a key up-the-middle position.
Only four players played in all 162 games last year, including the 27-year-old Jones. His upward power trend continued with a career-high .218 ISO, and he’s entering what should be the peak of his career. Considering how much Jones figures to play — nearly every inning of the season with the 31-year-old McLouth and 23-year-old Avery filling in on the rarest of occasions– and the chances of him outshooting his projection (pretty good, in my opinion), we might be underrating the Orioles a bit in center field.
Fowler, 26, had a breakout offensive season that was at least due in part to Coors Field — 142 wRC+ at home vs. 98 wRC+. Road stats don’t represent a player’s true talent level — almost all players hit better at home than on the road — but it’s a certainty that Fowler benefited from playing in Colorado. How much exactly? We don’t really know.
Behind Fowler are two 27-year-olds in Colvin and Young. Colvin will see plenty of time in the corner outfield spots and at first base, but Young’s spot is a little more up in the air. Fowler dealt with nagging wrist and ankle injuries last season after spending time on the DL in both 2010 and 2011, so more health issues would presumably put Young in the field on a more regular basis.
There’s a pretty great case to be made that the Nationals acquiring Span was the single best move off the offseason. The 29-year-old rebounded a bit last summer following two injury-bothered seasons, but I don’t think he’ll ever get back to the 119 wRC+ form he showed from 2008-2009. Still, a bat-control hitter with speed is a pretty useful player, especially when he’s among the best defenders at a premium position. Add in a contract that will pay Span just $11.25 million over the next two years with a $9 million club option for a third year and you wonder how GM Mike Rizzo acquired him for one Single-A pitching prospect.
Bernadina, 28, finally started to put it all together last season, though I’m not sold on the idea of a .359 BABIP being his true talent level given a strikeout rate that resides north of 20%. Regardless, he’s a very useful left-handed hitter for the bench and a more than capable center field fill-in. Bryce Harper is always a possibility in center, but he’s pushed down the depth chart.
The Brewers just signed the 27-year-old Gomez to what amounts to a four-year, $28.3 million extension about a week ago, which struck me as a pretty great deal given his age and upward-trending power numbers. His defense and stolen base ability alone make him a legitimate starting center fielder even though he strikes out a ton and rarely walks. Gomez has a starting job locked down for the first time since his age-22 season with the Twins, and he’s in a much better position to handle that role right now.
Schafer, 26, is finally in the position to get a legitimate crack at a big league bench job. He’s a left-handed hitter with a strong defensive reputation, so pretty much the typical NL reserve outfielder. Milwaukee is a little thin after Schafer, with Norichika Aoki the fallback.
#20 White Sox
|Alejandro De Aza||665||.273||.337||.406||.324||1.2||0.3||1.8||2.9|
The ChiSox have a knack for turning nothing into something, but usually on the pitching side. De Aza, 28, went from Triple-A fodder and up-and-down guy to everyday center fielder last summer, stealing bases (26-for-38, 68.4%) and drawing walks (8.0 BB%) offensively and playing the position with aplomb on defense. The 34-year-old Wise is the obvious backup since the team seems committed to keeping Alex Rios in center, so De Aza is the clear starter unless he suddenly reverts back to his pre-2011 form. That would make things a little messy on the south side.
With Josh Hamilton in an Angels uniform, the center field position in Arlington is a little more open than it had been in the past. Martin, 24, had a strong (164 wRC+) but injury-shortened (thumb) season in Triple-A last year, but he’s poised to play the position regularly as the left-handed half of a platoon with the 29-year-old Gentry. Gentry proved his worth last summer by destroying southpaws (136 wRC+) and playing strong defense, making him the obvious candidate for the right-handed half. Borbon is out of options and I suppose he could wind up starting over Martin, but that would surprise me. The Rangers didn’t give Martin $15.5 million not to play center when the job opened up.
I’m not going to say it’s now or never time for Cain, but he’ll turn 27 about two weeks after Opening Day and needs to establish himself this season if he wants to be a big leaguer long-term. Groin and hamstring issues sabotaged his 2012 season, but Cain has proven all he’s needed to prove in Triple-A these last three years. At the very least he’ll steal some bases and play strong defense. Dyson, 28, is a classic one-tool guy who will use his speed to steal bases and run down balls in the outfield. That’s it.
The Twins traded not one, but two legitimate starting center fielder this winter. Span went to the Nationals and the 24-year-old Revere went to the Phillies, bringing his speed and defense combination to a team that really doesn’t have much of that outside of Jimmy Rollins. Revere won’t hit for any power — zero homers in 1,064 big league plate appearances and just five in 1,755 minor league plate appearances — or draw walks, but he’s going to slap the ball around the infield like nobody’s business.
Mayberry, 29, is going to platoon in one of the corner outfield spots (maybe even first base? nah) and will fill-in at center when necessary. the job is Revere’s, no questions asked.
DeJesus, 33, is in the final year of his contract and is prime trade bait for the rebuilding Cubbies. It’s safe to say his hold on the center field job is temporary. Sappelt, 26, is the spare part who could sub into center in a pinch but is not a long-term answer. Lillibridge, 29, is the journeyman on a minor league contract who serves as depth and nothing more.
The real prize here is Jackson, the team’s 24-year-old top-ish prospect who looks an awful lot like a left-handed Stubbs clone. He’s got power, will draw a walk, and can play a mean center field, but his contact issues are extreme. The Cubs did overhaul his swing a bit over the winter, but that kind of stuff is in “best shape of his life” territory coming into Spring Training. We’ll need to see it in action during the regular season before we declare him cured of career-long strikeout issues (26.4 K% in over 1,800 minor league plate appearances). The job will be his to lose at some point in the next 12 months.
#25 Blue Jays
Like I said before, I was a big Rasmus guy but he hasn’t been able to put it all together yet. The 26-year-old has very legitimate power, but he’s a big-time fly ball hitter who doesn’t drew enough walks to offset the damage they do to his batting average and by extension, on-base percentage. Rasmus has a lot of talent and could really breakout at any given moment, but I’m no longer on the bandwagon.
The Blue Jays have plenty of center field depth should they need to go in another direction for whatever reason. Gose, 22, has speed and some power to go along with good defense, but he’s likely ticketed for Triple-A to start the year. The 27-year-old Bonifacio figures to see most of his time at second base and as a supersub than anything while Davis, 32, could wind up getting a lot more playing time than projected as a platoon bat. Melky Cabrera is another center field alternative, but he’s way down on the depth chart now.
Ruggiano, 30, went from journeyman to 146 wRC+ last season, meaning he’ll open this year with a full-time big league job for the first time in his career. Is he going to repeat a .401 BABIP with a 26.3% strikeout rate? Not a chance. But the power has always been legit, especially against southpaws. Ruggiano is miscast as an everyday player, but he would be useful in the right situation.
Hernandez and Silverio are both 25 and former top prospects who have lost some luster over the years, the latter due to injuries sustained during a car accident. Silverio is a Rule 5 Draft pick and could hang around on the roster for a while given the team’s situation. The 21-year-old Yelich is one of the best prospects in baseball, but he has zero plate appearances above High-A and is more of a second half candidate than anything. At the very least, expect the Marlins to delay his arbitration and free agency clocks.
The Astros found a useful piece in the 29-year-old Maxwell, who hits lefties hard (144 wRC+) and plays a strong center field. He’s a role player on a contending team but a full-timer for Houston, who is in the middle of a massive rebuilding process. Barnes, 26, and Crowe, 29, are up-and-down types while the 33-year-old Ankiel could wind up making the team as a bench or platoon player. Maxwell serves a role but the rest of the guys are just placeholders until George Springer is ready.
It’s been two years since the 30-year-old Gutierrez stayed healthy for a full season, so meeting the projection would be his most playing time since 2010. The defensive projection isn’t as strong as his track record and reputation suggest, which is a problem since basically his entire game is built around his glove. Saunders is a fine backup plan given his breakout season a year ago (108 wRC+), though the 26-year-old is not much defensively in center. Seattle doesn’t seem to like the 28-year-old Wells all that much and he could change teams before the start of the season since he’s out of options.
The Mets have the worst outfield in baseball and maybe the worst of the last decade, so it’s no surprised they’re right near the bottom of our rankings. Nieuwenhuis, 25, is the best defender of the group but he struggles to make contact and can’t hit lefties. Cowgill, 26, could fit in as a right-handed platoon partner while the 25-year-old Valdespin is more of an infielder than an outfielder. He’s had some highlight reel moments and the team seems to like him, but it’s tough to see him spending any time regularly in center.
I’m a Hicks fan despite his somewhat slow climb up the minor league ladder, though the Twins appear poised to jump the 23-year-old over Triple-A and use him as their everyday center fielder in the wake of the Span and Revere trades. Hicks is a tools machine and will do pretty much everything aside from hit for power, so he’s a younger version of Span with more long-term upside. His rookie year could be ugly though.
Mastroianni, 27, is a speedster who could wind up playing everyday in a corner spot depending on the health of Josh Willingham and production of Chris Parmalee. The injury prone Joe Benson is the only other legitimate center field option Minnesota has beyond Hicks and Mastroianni.