Earlier today, Dan Szymborski examined the state of left field. Now we turn our attention to those who roam center.
So much of evaluating and utilizing center fielders comes down to what you want. It’s easy to forget sometimes that this is an up-the-middle, premium defensive position, like shortstop and catcher. Even if the defensive demands aren’t quite as extreme, there’s a limited number of ballplayers who can hold their own in center, and a huge premium on those who can play it well. And if you’re looking for players who can field the position competently and hit? Well, that’s an even smaller pool still.
Such scarcity makes the two clear best center fielders in baseball — Mike Trout and Julio Rodríguez — supremely valuable. As interesting as those two superstars are to discuss, most of the other 28 teams are engaged in an even more fascinating puzzle: How to maximize value at this position in the aggregate. For some, that involves building an up-and-coming potential star, like Michael Harris II or Luis Robert Jr., into the best version of himself that he can be. Other teams, like the Brewers and Tigers, are auditioning even less developed players in the hope that they’ll turn into something special.
Everyone else has to make compromises. Offense for defense, power for speed, youth for experience, and so on. That lends itself to a wide variety of team-building approaches and playing styles. For some teams, it’s a question of stretching a Bryan Reynolds defensively so he can play up the middle. For others, like the Guardians and Blue Jays, it’s the opposite — can an exceptional defensive center fielder provide so much value his bat almost doesn’t matter? Still others, like the Cardinals and Diamondbacks, know who their best outfielders are, but perhaps not which order to arrange them in. And then there are the Giants, who should have quality center field production by having Mike Yastrzemski wear a trench coat and sit on Austin Slater’s shoulders.
Not every team has a compelling star or a clever plan — a fact that will become readily apparent toward the bottom of this list — but center field is what you make of it.
2023 Positional Power Rankings – CF
Unless you’ve been in cryogenic stasis for the past 15 years — in which case, welcome back, and please cover your mouth when you sneeze — the first name on this list won’t shock you. The Angels are no. 1 because Michael Cornelius Scipio Trout Africanus remains the top man on the depth chart.
Trout has never posted a wRC+ lower than 160 in a full season, the impact of which would be profound at any position, especially up the middle. The question is whether he can play a full season, which he hasn’t done since 2020, so really that means he hasn’t done it since 2019. The Angels have a couple interesting projects in Brett Phillips and Mickey Moniak, but the more anyone other than Trout plays in center, the worse off the Angels will be.
So much of the Trout legend was built on his defying the front end of the aging curve; he’ll remain the best center fielder in the game as long as he can stave off the effects of time in the second half of his career.
If anyone were to displace Trout as the premier center fielder in the game, Rodríguez is the most likely candidate. In 2022, as a 21-year-old rookie with hyperbolic standards to live up to, Rodríguez hit .284/.345/.509 with 28 home runs and 25 stolen bases. He not only won AL Rookie of the Year, but ran away with the honor in a field that included Jeremy Peña, Steven Kwan, and the equally heralded (and nearly equally productive) Adley Rutschman.
Now that Rodríguez has his feet under him in the bigs and the rules have been tweaked to favor basestealers, 40-40 is a reasonable goal for 2023.
Overnight, Rodríguez became the face of the Mariners, probably the organization with the highest standard for affable five-tool franchise center fielders. The presence of Jarred Kelenic and Taylor Trammell lower on this depth chart serves as a reminder, like the legs of Shelley’s Ozymandias, of how difficult that is to accomplish.
Brandon Nimmo has always been a bit of a curiosity, from his developmental path to his odd on-field quirks, but after parts of seven seasons in the majors he’s staked a claim as one of the top center fielders in the game. Certainly the Mets, who re-signed him to an eight-year, $162 million contract this past offseason, think so.
After overcoming questions about his ability to stay healthy and his suitability for center field, Nimmo has shown himself to be one of the top on-base guys in the game; his 10.5% walk rate in 2022 was by far the lowest of his career. Usually, he’s closer to 15%, or even higher, occasionally tickling the bottom edges of the Soto Zone. He lacks the power and speed of guys like Trout and Rodríguez, but the cold fact of the matter is that there aren’t that many players out there who can post a .400 OBP.
Nimmo’s status for Opening Day seemed to be in doubt after injuring his knee and ankle in an awkward slide in a spring training game last week, but early signs point to his initial “week-to-week” prognosis being conservative, and he should be back on or around the start of the regular season. If not, the Mets have plenty of players who can fill in as a sort of Diet Nimmo — corner outfield starters Mark Canha and Starling Marte, specifically — but that would represent a defensive downgrade Buck Showalter’s team would likely prefer to avoid as a long-term solution.
|Michael Harris II||609||.275||.324||.462||.340||12.2||2.3||4.8||4.4|
|Ronald Acuña Jr.||56||.274||.370||.496||.374||2.6||0.3||0.3||0.6|
Michael Harris II is an absolutely electrifying talent, an excellent defensive center fielder who makes loud contact and is one of the fastest players in the game who knows what he’s doing at the plate. Once he came up to the majors a third of the way through the 2022 season, the Braves needed only a few months to decide he should be their center fielder for the next decade. He makes for a perfect complement to Ronald Acuña Jr., a right-handed hitter who can now devote most of his attention to the less physically and defensively demanding right field.
But on a list with the likes of Trout, any weakness is notable, and Harris has a doozy. Out of 205 hitters with at least 400 plate appearances in 2022, Harris was 188th in walk rate and 166th in contact rate. He also had the 12th-highest swing rate on pitchers outside the zone. Harris provides so much value with his legs and glove, and produces so much offense when he does make contact, that his struggles with contact and the strike zone are easy to live with. And considering that he only turned 22 this month, and has only one season of big league experience, maybe he’ll make improvements in that area. If he does, this fourth-place ranking could look foolishly pessimistic.
Harrison Bader, currently battling an oblique strain, is the second-best New York-based outfielder currently rushing back from injury. Unlike Nimmo, it seems Bader will miss at least some of the regular season, which is a pity. He’s the counter to the Yankees’ goal line package approach to the outfield, a fire hydrant-shaped defensive wizard who has occasionally shown decent on-base skills and double-digit home run power. And in 2022, for the first time, he really started to deploy his plus speed on the bases, swiping 17 bags in 20 attempts in just 86 games. If Bader is a league-average hitter, he will be a far above-average player overall based on his contributions elsewhere.
Is he better than several of the individual center fielders listed lower? No, but this is a team ranking, and if Bader misses significant time, one of the prime candidates to replace him is Aaron Judge, projected here to contribute one win in just 77 plate appearances. Judge made 78 appearances in center last season, second-most on the Yankees, in the Millennial sequel to Roger Maris playing center while Mickey Mantle was hurt. As a stopgap, that works defensively, but the Yankees saw fit not only to acquire Bader, but to give up a good starting pitcher, Jordan Montgomery, for the privilege. Clearly Judge’s long-term home is in right field.
|Michael A. Taylor||301||.235||.296||.362||.290||-3.6||-0.1||3.3||1.1|
The book on Byron Buxton has been out for a decade: Absolutely perception-bending speed, top-notch defense in center field, constant worry about injury. Now 29, which simultaneously feels absurdly young and absurdly old, Buxton hasn’t qualified for the batting title — even in the shortened 2020 season — since 2017. What he has done is develop an outrageous power stroke. Buxton has a .319 ISO since 2020, and he hit 28 home runs in 382 plate appearances in 2022, which is a 44-dinger pace over 600 PA. In 2021 and 2022 put together, he played in 151 games and batted 636 times, which is about a full normal season’s worth of work. He posted a 150 wRC+, 8.1 WAR, 47 homers, and 15 stolen bases from 16 attempts.
So let’s all say a prayer for his health. And in case that doesn’t work, let’s talk about Michael A. Taylor.
The Twins’ plan to keep Buxton healthy is new, which is good because nothing else they’ve tried has worked so far, but it involves a fair amount of DH time for Buxton. And every game Buxton starts at DH is another game someone else (usually Taylor) will start in center.
Taylor is a fine player to fill the Buxton sidekick role: an elite defender who’s never been an automatic out, even if his bat has always left him short of starter quality. Last season, he posted a 90 wRC+, and the projection systems have him in that vicinity for 2023. If that’s the case, the Twins could muddle along without Buxton for a while, but a dip back into the low 70s in wRC+ for Taylor could send Minnesota scrambling for other options, namely Nick Gordon, Gilberto Celestino, or maybe even Joey Gallo.
7. White Sox
|Luis Robert Jr.||581||.278||.324||.467||.342||15.3||1.3||2.2||4.1|
Luis Robert Jr. was probably always bound to slump a little after an explosive 2021, in which he hit .338/.378/.567. Robert hits the ball hard and can absolutely fly, but a .394 BABIP raised certain red flags. And sure enough, he was merely very good in 2022, under difficult circumstances: Robert dealt with a litany of freakish minor injuries and ailments that kept him to just 98 games and 401 plate appearances, ranging from a round of COVID to an injured wrist to blurred vision.
A healthy Robert is one of the best center fielders in baseball, perhaps even capable of the 8 WAR season he was on pace for in 2021 on either side of the hip injury that cost him three months. Of course, Robert doesn’t have to play to anything like that standard in order to block off the lion’s share of playing time in center for the White Sox.
Chicago’s position players are denser at the bottom end of the defensive spectrum, so if Robert gets hurt again, the other options include Oscar Colas, who’s barely played above Double-A; the well-traveled Billy Hamilton; Adam Haseley; and Leury Garcia, who has backed up every position for the White Sox through two cycles of emo going in and out of fashion. If the clubhouse chef calls in sick, Garcia gets behind the counter and steps in.
After the Bader trade at last season’s deadline, the Cardinals mixed and matched their outfield freely. Tyler O’Neill shows up at the top of the depth chart here not just because he looks like he could squat the other three players all at once, but because Lars Nootbaar and Dylan Carlson will likely spend time in the corners. In addition to starting 20 games in center for St. Louis last season, O’Neill made two starts there for Canada in the WBC.
Both O’Neill and Carlson have shown the potential for plus power; actually, O’Neill did more than that in 2021, when he hit 34 home runs and slugged .560. But 2022 was a major disappointment, as both Carlson and O’Neill saw their batting averages drop into the low .200s and their slugging percentages dip under .400. The outlook in center for the Cardinals is probably fine, but not so sunny that we shouldn’t talk about Jordan Walker.
The no. 12 prospect in baseball, all of 20 years old and not even on the 40-man roster yet, has set the Grapefruit League on fire. Now that the door is open, Walker is in the process of breaking it down. If he does head north (well, northwest) with the big league club, Walker could enter a four-man rotation in which he shares time in the outfield and DH with O’Neill, Nootbaar, and Carlson.
The Marlins sure are doing a lot this season, and that includes moving Jazz Chisholm Jr. — exclusively a middle infielder throughout his professional career — to center field. It’s a curious decision, even though Chisholm has the physical tools to play in center and provides big-time power from the left side, particularly for a player who’s listed at just 5-foot-11 and 184 pounds. Chisholm homered 14 times and stole 12 bases in just 60 games in 2022, before a stress fracture in his back put him out for the season.
The outfield presents a different challenge for the Marlins’ most visible position player. Speed shouldn’t be an issue, though it remains an open question how well Chisholm’s arm will play on the grass. The other knock against Chisholm is that while he’s not a hacker by any means, he doesn’t tend to post either a high batting average or OBP, and he strikes out a lot. Fortunately for him (if less so the Marlins) the same could be said of the other two most likely contenders for the position: Bryan De La Cruz and Jesús Sánchez.
Suffice it to say, this is a highly experimental position, but its high ranking reflects the potential to become something special if Chisholm stays healthy and adapts well to his new defensive home.
10. Blue Jays
Many teams would be content to throw George Springer out in center field every day, but not the Blue Jays, who went out and got not one but two elite defensive outfielders: Kevin Kiermaier and Daulton Varsho. Springer is now 33, so it makes sense to plan for the future. In his place, Toronto is going all-in on an interesting experiment.
Assuming Varsho and Kiermaier play together, will their combined defensive prowess be more than the sum of its parts or less, since there’s only just so much room to cover? Can Kiermaier still hack it offensively? He had a 101 wRC+ in 2021 and a 94 in the COVID-shortened 2020 season; otherwise he hasn’t posted a wRC+ better than 90 since 2017. Meanwhile, Varsho is 26, with 1,000 plate appearances in the majors; his career OBP is .306 — does his bat require that he play center and not Kiermaier? Add the Blue Jays to the list of teams with a fascinating but potentially risky center field situation.
Okay, so maybe that one season of Cedric Mullins: Downballot MVP Guy wasn’t repeatable, but the Orioles can add center field to the growing list of positions at which they seem set. Mullins, now 28 and with two more seasons of team control on his ledger, could be to the Orioles what Jose Altuve was to the Astros in 2015: the vanguard of the rebuild.
In 2022, Mullins lost 30 points of wRC+ from his previous season, saw his home run total fall from 30 to 16, and was still worth 3.4 WAR. He plays excellent defense in center, stole 34 bases last year, and provided 52 extra-base hits without suffering from undue swing-and-miss issues. Perhaps most important on a team that’s frequently struggled to put a competitive lineup together, Mullins has only missed nine games total in the past two seasons, which probably has something to do with why he dominates the Orioles’ depth chart so completely.
Mullins’ actual offensive numbers have outstripped his expected statistics the past two seasons, but that’s the only real downside for a player who’s developed into just the kind of dependable all-around player who forms the core of a winning team.
The Diamondbacks have a few moving parts to their outfield situation, with three young players who have center fielder speed. Who’s going to play center? Probably Alek Thomas, who’s played some impressive defense for Mexico in the WBC and profiles as the best defender among Arizona’s young outfielders. Franchise prospect Corbin Carroll should also get some reps in center as well. How many reps depends on whether Thomas (.231/.275/.344 in 411 PA in 2022) can hit enough to start, or whether Carroll’s throwing arm proves tenable in center or forces him to left.
It also depends on whether Lourdes Gurriel Jr. becomes the everyday DH, or whether someone like Kyle Lewis or Pavin Smith or Seth Beer makes a claim for playing time and reduces the number of at-bats available in the corners and at DH. The Diamondbacks would no doubt welcome the emergence of another big corner bat, but such an occurrence would increase the pressure on Carroll to stick in center in order to get everyone into the lineup.
|Fernando Tatis Jr.||28||.274||.355||.569||.391||1.9||0.1||-0.1||0.3|
Two seasons ago, Trent Grisham was building a case as one of the best young players in the game, but his bat has taken a step back in each of the past two seasons. In 2022, Grisham hit just .184, but provided enough value with his plate discipline (10.9% walk rate) and defense that Bob Melvin saw fit to start him in center 118 times, and Grisham was still a two-win player by season’s end. Grisham also chipped in 17 home runs, which will play at the bottom of the lineup.
The thing is, this year’s Padres have so much firepower, and so many athletes capable of playing premium positions, that Grisham might get less rope if he continues to struggle offensively and Fernando Tatis Jr. adapts well to playing the outfield full-time. Right now, Tatis is penciled in as San Diego’s right fielder once he returns from suspension, but if ever there were an athlete with the tools to excel in center field, Tatis is it.
The projections on Grisham for 2023 are solid; if he’s a league-average hitter, it’ll be hard to dislodge him from the lineup. But if Grisham’s batting average starts with a one well into this season, Melvin might be tempted to get another bat into the lineup.
|LaMonte Wade Jr.||7||.234||.331||.395||.321||0.1||-0.0||-0.0||0.0|
Speaking of teams with lots of moving parts. Giants manager Gabe Kapler likes to rewrite his outfield arrangement not only game-by-game, but inning-by-inning depending on platoon advantage and whether the game situation calls for added offense or defense.
The two major contenders for playing time in center are the left-handed-hitting Mike Yastrzemski and the right-handed-hitting Austin Slater. The former Vanderbilt Commodore finished eighth in MVP voting in 2020 but has otherwise been about as average an outfielder as you could ask for. As the lefty in this partnership, he’ll get the majority of playing time partially by virtue of platoon advantage.
Slater kills lefties — .285/.377/.468 for his career — and in 2022 posted a 108 wRC+ against same-handed pitching as well. As about a half-time player, Slater showed elite on-base skills, with a .366 OBP and 12.3% walk rate, albeit with less power (.144 ISO) than you’d want from a 27.4% strikeout rate. When Slater played center, Yastrzemski slid over to right. Other Giants will probably see the odd start in center as Kapler shuffles the lineup to find the right matchup, but Yastrzemski and Slater should see the bulk of the action and provide reasonable offense there.
The last time Kevin Kiermaier didn’t figure into the Rays’ plans for center field, Desmond Jennings and Sam Fuld were a regular part of Tampa Bay’s outfield rotation. Kiermaier’s heir presumptive is Jose Siri, who’s famous for his collection of plus tools: speed, raw power, throwing arm, glove. Last season, Siri put up 100th-percentile sprint speed, and was in the 95th percentile or better in Outs Above Average, arm strength, and outfielder jump.
If Siri had any kind of feel at the plate, he’d be a superstar; instead, he finished last season with a 6.2% walk rate, a 33.2% strikeout rate, a .268 wOBA, and a .261 xwOBA. Combined with his exceptional defense that still made him good enough to start overall — not unlike the late-2010s version of Kiermaier — but Siri’s bat remains a huge drag on his potential.
The Rays are yet another team that likes to roll out a new lineup every four innings, so when Siri is out of the game, the leading contender for center field is Manuel Margot. As a right-handed hitter who’s put up average offensive stats and occasionally dipped into elite defensive territory, Margot would most succinctly be described as Mike Yastrzemski’s Wario.
|Ji Hwan Bae||7||.255||.321||.374||.307||-0.0||0.0||-0.0||0.0|
Pittsburgh actually has a very good center fielder in Bryan Reynolds. That is, unless he plays in a corner, or gets traded, or turns out not to be that good after all.
Our projections have Reynolds getting significant playing time in the corners, which means Jack Suwinski, the TTO-heavy 24-year-old acquired in the Adam Frazier trade, can stake a claim to center field. In 2022, he posted a 30.6% strikeout rate, batted .202, and still walked enough and hit for enough power to be worth 1.8 WAR in 372 plate appearances. Suwinski’s a roll of the dice, but so is everyone else below Reynolds on the depth chart. Travis Swaggerty, the no. 10 overall pick in 2018, got a cup of coffee in the majors last season and figures to grab some playing time. Swaggerty might be the best defender among Pittsburgh’s center field options, but in the minors he has struggled to translate his raw power into useful game power.
The Pirates are going to give their high minors outfield options plenty of chances to prove themselves this season, with the implied risk that none of them is guaranteed to pan out.
Riley Greene entered the 2022 season as one of the top prospects in baseball and a likely starter in Detroit’s outfield, but because someone in the Tigers organization prompted the wrath of an evil spirit at some point in the late 2010s, Greene fouled a ball off his foot, broke a bone, and had his big league debut delayed until June.
Once ensconced in the majors, the results were okay generally, but disappointing for a prospect of Greene’s stature. Mostly, he generated too little power for the amount he was striking out. But his underlying contact rate and minor league track record suggest that he will both hit for more power and strike out less as a sophomore. ZiPS has him slated for roughly a 3-WAR season, and even without all the fancy modeling, it would make sense that if Greene struggled as a 21-year-old rookie who’d had his preparation interrupted by injury, he would continue to improve with experience.
It’s a bit jarring to see the Dodgers below the median at any position, but this has not been a normal Dodgers offseason. Los Angeles finally parted ways with Cody Bellinger this winter, though the presence of Bradley Zimmer as a non-roster invitee to spring training raises questions about whether the Dodgers can tell gigantic left-handed all-glove center fielders apart.
Trayce Thompson returned to the Dodgers last season after a four-year absence and was gangbusters in a platoon role. If he and rookie James Outman can both handle center field defensively, they’d make for natural platoon partners. Outman showed excellent patience and power in the high minors, hitting .294/.383/.586 with 31 homers across Double- and Triple-A last year. He’ll strike out a fair amount but make up for it with a swing that naturally puts the ball in the air at high speed.
And as ever, Chris Taylor is the backup plan. Unfortunately for the Dodgers, Taylor seems to be the backup plan for at least four or five different positions, and he can’t fill all of them at the same time.
We don’t have to wait long to see where Bellinger landed, as the Cubs saw the former MVP hit free agency and, as if watching The Bear, said, “I can fix him.” The fact that Bellinger won a one-year, $17.5 million guarantee as a reclamation project supports the theory that the Cubs were not the only team enchanted with the idea of rehabilitating him.
It’s a big gamble, but an understandable one. The Cubs have rich owners and will need a miracle or two in order to make the playoffs. Eventually this is going to be Pete Crow-Armstrong’s job to lose, but probably not for another year or two. Until then, if Bellinger gets hurt or his bat regresses so far that he’s unplayable, utilityman Christopher Morel is the next man up. Nelson Velázquez made 21 starts in center last season, but the main thing separating him from newcomers Mike Tauchman and Ben DeLuzio (not listed here) in the race for playing time is the fact that he’s already on the 40-man roster.
The incumbent starting center fielder…(zooooom)…in Cleveland…(zoooooom)…is Myles Straw. The former Astros pinch running specialist managed to show enough at the plate in 2021 to warrant a contract extension that guarantees him $25 million and keeps him under team control through 2028. While $25 million is an afterthought to most contenders, it’s a sizable guarantee for a team like the Guardians.
In 2022, Straw slugged .273 — yes, .273, a major league outfielder got 596 plate appearances while slugging .273 — which is more than 50 points lower than what Isiah Kiner-Falefa, a shortstop, slugged as Yankees fans were ready to run him out of town on a rail. Despite finishing dead last among qualified hitters in SLG and ISO, second-to-last in wRC+, and fifth from the bottom in xwOBA, Straw still seems to have a strong handle on the starting job thanks not only to his contract but his defense; Straw was second only to Daulton Varsho among outfielders in UZR and OAA.
Straw is projected to bounce back to a wRC+ in the low 80s, which would be palatable; if that’s the case, he should play every day in center, apart from the odd alignment that throws Will Brennan or Steven Kwan up the middle.
Milwaukee’s center field situation is a bit chaotic, but it should be fun to watch for the same reason: It involves a battle between prospects for playing time. And not just prospects, but two recent first-round picks who can run.
Garrett Mitchell put one hand on the starting job with an impressive debut in 2022, in which he hit .311/.373/.459 in 68 plate appearances. Such a small sample would be riddled with caveats under the best of circumstances, and Mitchell reached that impressive line despite striking out 28 times in those 68 plate appearances thanks to a .548 BABIP.
Frelick, drafted one year after Mitchell, is 5-foot-10, 182 pounds to Mitchell’s 6-foot-3, 215, and his offensive game is, unsurprisingly, built on getting on base rather than power. But Frelick has been a prolific on-base guy in the minors, routinely posting double-digit walk rates in the lower levels and high OBPs in Double- and Triple-A. With both Mitchell and Frelick being left-handed hitters and left field already spoken for, Milwaukee might only have room for one in the long-term. But this competition, which should take place amid the race for the NL Central, will be one to watch.
22. Red Sox
Alex Cora’s life would be a lot easier if Jarren Duran would just go out and make center field his own, but the 26-year-old didn’t make the most of an extended audition in 2022. Duran is one of the quickest runners on the team, and flashed double-digit homer potential in the upper minors, but his first go-around in Boston was marred with lapses in defense and concentration, generating criticism that by Duran’s own admission took its toll on him.
With Enrique Hernández slated to start the season at shortstop, the other option for Boston is Adam Duvall, who has his flaws but is also just two years removed from a season in which he hit 38 home runs, won a Gold Glove, and led the NL in RBI. (Perhaps the best measure of how RBI has fallen in public esteem: How few people noticed that Duvall led the NL in RBI as he got traded at midseason and won no MVP votes despite playing for the eventual World Series winners.)
Duvall has played more than 6,000 defensive innings over nine big league seasons; of those, fewer than 600 have come in center field, and roughly two-thirds of that total came last season. He could be useful there in certain situations, but despite having a lot of interesting parts, it makes sense that Boston’s center field situation in general ranks in the bottom third of the league.
Left-handed throwing, right-handed hitting outfielders are a rarity. Just four such players appeared in the majors last season, and two of those are the top contenders for the Astros’ center field job.
After consecutive two-win seasons as a slightly-more-than-part-time player, we should probably just acknowledge that Chas McCormick is good. In 727 career PA, he has 28 home runs and a career batting line of .250/.326/.425. That isn’t exactly Rickey Henderson in the pantheon of bats-right-throws-left guys, but it’s getting into Ryan Ludwick territory. McCormick, a native of West Chester, Pennsylvania, wrecked his popularity at home when he made a potentially World Series-turning catch in the ninth inning of Game 5 in Philadelphia.
Former University of Nebraska standout Jake Meyers is the other bats-right-throws-left guy in the Astros’ system, but he’s been outplayed by McCormick as the two have competed for the job over the past two years. Once Michael Brantley comes back and returns to the left field and DH rotation, expect McCormick to be the de facto starter in center. Mauricio Dubón, the right-handed-hitting utilityman, should spell McCormick against certain lefties and in defense-first situations, but McCormick’s bat ought to keep him in the lineup most of the time.
A surprisingly large number of teams are treating center field almost like catcher, in that they are willing to take a huge offensive hit at the position in exchange for top-end defense. Is Leody Taveras that, or do the Rangers just not have very many good players? Who’s to say?
Taveras is useful, an elite runner and plus defender who’s far from a no-hoper at the plate. Last season he hit .261/.309/.366, and is projected to come in with a wRC+ somewhere around 90 in 2023. That won’t get him on a Wheaties box, but it’s livable in the short-term for a team that’s still a few pieces away from playoff contention. Taveras is also one of those players who started popping up in prospect circles at such a young age that it’s impossible to get a feel for how old he is. After making the Futures Game in 2018, Taveras is still just 24 and five years away from free agency.
He’s also currently nursing an oblique strain that puts another 24-year-old former top prospect, Bubba Thompson, in line to fill in as the Rangers’ center fielder. Thompson is a 2017 first-rounder whose bat never developed as advertised; in 181 plate appearances in the majors last season, Thompson recorded just six extra-base hits while striking out eight times for every walk. He did steal 18 bases in 21 attempts, an impressive total for a player who only reached base 30% of the time. Barring some unexpected offensive breakout from Thompson or Taveras, center field will probably be an area Texas looks to improve on as the rebuild cycles into contention.
For decades, we looked to the A’s for the next innovation in baseball — “What is the New Moneyball?” is how that question usually got framed. Now, the New Moneyball appears to be to make a lot of head-scratching trades with the Braves. The fruits of two of those deals will duke it out for playing time in center field: Cristian Pache, acquired in the Matt Olson trade, and Esteury Ruiz, a former Brewers prospect Oakland acquired in the three-teamer that sent Sean Murphy to Cobb County.
Pache was once the best defensive outfield prospect in the sport, and everyone hoped the bat would catch up eventually. That hasn’t happened yet. ZiPS has Pache penciled in to hit .214/.264/.338, which is not only worse than the kind of offensive production I’ve snarked other center fielders for earlier in this list, it would represent a massive step forward from the .156/.205/.234 line he has posted in his first 332 major league plate appearances.
The big question mark is Ruiz, a plus runner and hyper-aggressive basestealer who put up monster on-base numbers in the minors. There are, however, questions about his power translating to the majors, as he hit the ball on the ground more as he moved up the chain. Given what Oakland gave up to acquire Ruiz, he’ll certainly get every opportunity to prove his doubters wrong.
|Jackie Bradley Jr.||105||.211||.276||.331||.270||-3.5||-0.1||1.3||0.1|
With Kansas City’s outfield denuded of Michael A. Taylor, Drew Waters became the likely center field starter. Waters was one of three players the Royals acquired from Atlanta last summer in a trade for the no. 35 pick in the draft. Waters crushed Triple-A pitching in 31 games after the trade, and had a pretty solid month-long audition in the majors: a 125 wRC+ in 109 plate appearances, but with a high BABIP and strikeout rate.
Waters is yet another young center fielder with impressive athletic tools who needs to either strike out less or access more of his power in games — or ideally both — in order to become a lasting big league regular. And as if Kansas City didn’t have enough problems, Waters has missed almost all of spring training with a strained oblique, which will most likely hand the job to Kyle Isbel in the short term. Isbel (no relation to the popular singer-songwriter with a similar last name), has shown some good defensive instincts but little offensive potential.
Between Bryce Harper and Juan Soto, there was Victor Robles. How long ago those days feel now. Robles has now posted three straight seasons in which his wRC+ starts with a six. A team less firmly stapled to the bottom of the NL East than Washington might have moved on from Robles by now, but here we are. Robles can still run, and he can still go get it in center, but since the World Series run he’s been one of the worst hitters in the majors at any position.
Lane Thomas also made 56 appearances in center last season, and while he’s defensively stretched there and doesn’t get on base much, he can put up something resembling a league-average batting line. Alex Call, who’s been a favorite of mine since his days at Ball State, could also see a few games here and there in center, particularly if the Robles situation continues to deteriorate.
My favorite thing about the Rockies as a franchise — apart from the exquisite use of purple in their uniforms — is their insistence on using all-contact-no-power center fielders in a home run-happy stadium: Juan Pierre, Willy Taveras, even the young Dexter Fowler before he found his power stroke. Consider Yonathan Daza through the lens of that tradition. In 2022, he hit .301/.349/.384. He’s not a great defender in center, he didn’t steal a single base last year, he doesn’t walk, and he doesn’t hit for extra bases. But he makes a ton of contact and rarely strikes out.
Particularly when factoring in his defensive limitations, Daza does seem one or two ticks short of a league-average regular. He either needs to cut down the strikeouts to single digits like Pierre or hit the ball a little harder like Fowler in order to remain a starter long-term. Once Randal Grichuk returns from sports hernia surgery a couple weeks into the season, he’ll steal some playing time from Daza and likely demolish left-handed pitching, as he has done throughout his career.
The wettest man in baseball, Brandon Marsh, shook off some of his offensive woes after being traded to Philadelphia at last year’s deadline, but will carry a much bigger load in 2023. Not only did the Phillies trade Marsh’s platoon partner, Matt Vierling, to Detroit in the offseason, Bryce Harper will be out of the lineup entirely for at least a few months, which will open up at-bats at the DH spot to Philadelphia’s corner outfielders. And while the Phillies signed Trea Turner and made extensive upgrades to their pitching staff, getting help for Marsh did not seem to be a priority.
Marsh will play good defense and probably hold his own on the long end of a platoon, but in terms of filling out other situational needs, the Phillies claimed Jake Cave off waivers and taught utility infielder Edmundo Sosa to play center field. And to their credit, both of those experiments have gone well so far this spring, as both Cave and Sosa have torn up the Grapefruit League.
Nevertheless, this is Marsh’s job for the foreseeable future. The Phillies have calculated that with so much star power elsewhere, they can live with Marsh in the lineup if he continues to play like a hirsute latter-day Cody Bellinger, and give him time to develop into something more.
Seven years after they spent the no. 2 overall pick on Nick Senzel, the Reds haven’t been able to get the former Tennessee third baseman to get a handle on major league pitching. Aspects of Senzel’s game have been fine — he gets bat to ball well, and he’s been adequate defensively in center field — he just hasn’t hit the ball hard enough to make an impact, which is an odd developmental cul de sac for a player who demolished SEC pitching. It hasn’t been easy for Senzel, who missed a big chunk of 2021 with a knee injury, and has spent most of the rest of his career besieged by a series of freak injuries and illnesses. The most recent of those, a broken toe suffered late last year, necessitated surgery from which he has not yet fully recovered.
That opens the door for another former first-rounder, Will Benson, who was acquired in a pre-spring training trade from Cleveland. Benson is big, at 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, and put up prodigious walk rates throughout the minors, but mere double-digit home run power didn’t justify strikeout rates that frequently hit the low 30s. His 2022 campaign was more promising, with an 18.7% walk rate against a strikeout rate of just 22.7%. (This far down on the list, a K% in the 20s is good.) But if he can put the bat on the ball regularly — you know, only the most important and difficult part of the job — he has the speed, approach, and power potential to stick in the majors.
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