Many fantasy leagues break the outfielders up by their respective positions, a quirk that creates a premium outfield position. Consider that, in many formats, the 12th-ranked center fielder going into the season was Chris Young, whose projections were comparable to the 12th-ranked second baseman going into the season (Rickie Weeks).
Defense then becomes a non-fantasy entity that can mean a lot to the fantasy fortunes of the center fielder. Play good defense, and you’ll buy yourself more time to figure out the batting part of the deal. Or at least, that seems to be what’s keeping Carlos Gomez playing in Minnesota. Let’s take a look at two young center fielders, how they are faring, and how defense factors into the decision.
Dexter Fowler – For a 23-year-old getting his first extended burn at the major league level, Fowler is acquitting himself reasonably well. His .264/.354/.405 slash line has a little bit of something for everyone. Walking 12.7% of the time assures that he can take advantage of his prodigious speed (6.5 speed score). He’s stolen 13 bases at a 72% success rate, and he’s hit three homers and 17 doubles in 273 plate appearances.
But it’s not all gravy on this train. He’s striking out 25% of the time after hovering around 20% for the large part of his minor league career. Subsequently, ZiPS RoS has him hitting .271 the rest of the season and continuing his current pace to finish with seven home runs and 25 stolen bases. Until his K-rate falls a little, that’s about the best that can be expected from this young man.
Because his offense is currently adequate, and his team is suddenly playing well, defense may not factor into his playing time too strongly. However, his team is not a strong contender in a crowded division, and things could change quickly. Pack an extended burn of strikeouts into a team-wide slump and a decision by management to focus on next year, and suddenly Fowler’s sub-par defense could become an ‘issue.’
His current 2.1 Range Factor in center field puts him in the Shane Victorino (2.3 RF) – Vernon Wells (2.3 RF) section of center field defenders. That’s the section where the offense helps the poor defense stay on the field. Is Fowler’s bat enough to offset the 5.3 runs he’s giving back on defense? Not if the major league team decides to think about his long-term future and sends him back to the minors to work on his D. That might also allow the team to showcase someone like Ryan Spilborghs for a trade.
Fernando Martinez – While his minor league team had already decided to play him at the corners, his major league team has a major league hole in center field and looks to be plugging it with their highest-ranked prospect. A look at the defense says that this is a short-term solution at best.
If major league defensive stats are still in their infancy, then minor league ones are much worse off. We can see that Martinez had a Range Factor of 2.31 in center field in the minor leagues, and that Carlos Beltran, an elite defender, had a career Range Factor of 2.7 in center field in the major leagues. Using the cruder Range Factor suggests that Martinez, like Fowler, could use some time honing his defense.
The problem in Martinez’ case, though, is that his offense won’t keep him in the position much longer. While his secondary offensive statistics are a little up and down like Fowler’s, Martinez has much more down in his numbers.
The good news is that he’s not striking out a ton (14.5%), and he’s shown improvement in that area over the last two years. His walk rate (6.8%) is in line with his minor league numbers, too.
But he’s not making good contact. He’s reaching outside the zone too much (26.5%) and not squaring the ball well (11.9% line drives). His 55.9% ground-ball percentage is positively Delmon Young-esque. Given that he’s only 20 years old, it’s a lot to ask of him to spell Beltran.
Since the team is in contention, look for Omar Minaya to target a center field platoon partner for Jeremy Reed. Relatively cheap acquisitions like Scott Hairston and Jason Michaels could take the bat out of Reed’s hands against lefties, while also letting young F-Mart work out some more kinks in the minor leagues. Those cheaper veteran outfielders would also still have value once all the injured veterans return.
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