B/R MLB 500: Top 40 Center Fielders
The B/R MLB 500 started its patrol of the outfield by taking a look at corner outfielders. It's now time to take a look at the guys in the middle.
Center field is similar to shortstop in that it tends to be a home to some of the most talented all-around players. But since it's more of an offensive position than shortstop, we came up with the following scoring system: 20 points for hitting, 25 points for power, 20 points for baserunning, 25 points for defense and, like with all other players, 10 points for health.
As always, hitting entails more than just what happens after the ball leaves the bat. Results do count for something, but so does the process. Each player's approach will be taken into account.
Power is less complicated, but results will be taken into account just as much as scouting reports. A player may have tremendous natural power, but his score will be lowered if he has a hard time making it show up in games.
For baserunning, it's all about whether a guy can steal bases and how well, and whether or not he can get around the bases better (or worse) than the average player.
Defense is also simple. How well can a guy get after balls in center field, and does he have a good throwing arm at his disposal?
For hitting, power, baserunning and defense, keep the following in mind: A score that's, say, 10 out of 20 is not a failing score. That's an "average" score. Anything better is above average. Anything below is below average.
As for health, that's basically 10 free points unless there's a reason(s) to dock points. The scoring is subjective, but the general rule of thumb is that a player is only getting less than five points if he has a potentially career-altering injury.
Lastly, here's a reminder that the whole idea is to round up guys we'd want on a team in 2014. That means top prospects who could potentially make an impact are in play, and they may be ranked higher than you think. And if there are any ties, the edge goes to the player we'd rather have.
That about does it, so let's go ahead and make these guys the center of attention.
Note: All prospect writeups/scores were created by B/R's MLB Prospects Lead Writer, Mike Rosenbaum.
The statistics that informed the following analyses came from all over, so we'd certainly be remiss if we didn't dish out some shout-outs.
Baseball-Reference.com was the go-to site for basic statistics. FanGraphs provided more complex data, most notably the data concerning plate discipline. Brooks Baseball also helped with that, and the site's tracking of spray charts for hitters is another thing that came in handy.
If you're wondering where all the injury information comes from, the credit is owed to the injury databases kept by Baseball Prospectus.
40. Billy Hamilton, Cincinnati Reds
A switch-hitter, Billy Hamilton has quick wrists from both sides of the plate, which allows him to generate above-average bat speed and be short to the ball. However, his overall inconsistency is concerning, as Hamilton struggles to keep his weight back and will lunge at too many offerings within the strike zone. He controls the zone relatively well, but also makes far too much weak contact for someone who projects as a dynamic leadoff hitter. Still, with his speed, Hamilton could develop into a .270-plus hitter with refinement to his swing(s).
Hamilton actually does a nice job creating backspin carry by driving through the baseball, especially from the left side of the plate, where he showcases a more leveraged swing. However, the switch-hitter lacks the necessary strength to generate consistent over-the-fence pop. As has been the case throughout his career in the minors, though, Hamilton will always be an outstanding source of doubles and triples in a given season, and probably even some inside-the-park dingers.
Hamilton is the fastest player in baseball. Hands down. He has the ability to put enormous pressure on opposing defenses; his feet literally never stop moving on the field, and he’s always looking ahead to take an extra base. After setting a professional record last season by swiping 155 bases in 132 games, Hamilton has actually been more efficient on the basepaths this season. The only difference is that the contact and on-base skills that he showed last year have not translated this season at Triple-A Louisville. If he becomes an everyday guy, Hamilton should have no problem surpassing 60 steals in a given season.
After moving from shortstop to center field last fall, Hamilton has made noticeable improvements this year in regard to his jumps and routes to the ball. As one might expect given his speed, Hamilton has plus range in the outfield and can get to virtually any ball provided it’s in the air. He still needs work on his first step, but the wheels help him compensate even when the route is sketchy. His arm action at shortstop was awkward and rushed at times, but it’s played well in center field, where he can afford to have a longer stroke on the backside.
Despite the fact that he does everything at full speed—as if he had a choice—Hamilton has stayed off the disabled list during his young career. He dealt with a sore hamstring early in the spring, but it hasn’t bothered him since the start of the minor league season.
With speed that grades as a 90 on the 20-80 scouting scale, Hamilton boasts arguably the most dynamic tool among all prospects. He’s regressed at this dish this season at the Triple-A level, but the bat should continue to come along as he gains experience against advanced pitching. At worst, Hamilton profiles as a high-level fourth outfielder and pinch runner. If he develops as hoped, however, Hamilton has the potential to be one of baseball’s premier top-of-the-order, up-the-middle players.
39. Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins
Byron Buxton is a rarity in that he’s a teenager with a realistic ceiling of a plus-plus hitter at maturity. While his off-the-charts bat speed and direct bat path will give him a chance to hit at the highest level, it’s the mature approach and pitch recognition that give him the chance to be one of the game’s top hitters. Buxton has a plan each time he steps up to the plate, as he consistently works deep counts and drives the ball with authority to all fields. The bat has exceeded all expectations this season and will only continue to improve as he moves up the ladder.
Buxton’s power was regarded as his weakest tool when the Twins made him the No. 2 overall pick in 2012. However, his advanced approach and impressive bat have allowed it to develop ahead of schedule this season, as he’s showcased plus raw power to all fields that should ultimately translate to 20-plus home runs annually at maturity. Beyond that, Buxton should always be an extra-base machine and rank among the league leaders in total bases.
Buxton’s speed is another plus-plus tool and a product of his insanely good athleticism. Despite his lack of experience, he’s already viewed as an elite baserunner capable of taking an extra base with relative ease. His speed also caters to his present ability and future potential as a base stealer, and amazingly, it even plays up thanks to his high baseball IQ. At maturity, Buxton should easily amass 30-plus steals annually.
With all that’s already been said about Buxton’s speed and overall baseball savvy, his projection as an elite defender in center field shouldn’t come as a surprise. While he has the athleticism and wheels to get almost every ball, Buxton’s jumps and aggressive (but direct) routes are especially impressive for a player his age.
Buxton has avoided the disabled list in the early going of his promising career, which has undoubtedly helped him make an impact on the field and move up the organizational ladder. As long as he can stay healthy, he should continue to enjoy a rapid ascent to the major leagues.
With potential plus tools to his name, it’s obvious why Buxton is regarded as baseball’s consensus No. 1 prospect. Beyond his eye-popping natural ability, the outfielder possesses secondary skills that are uncommon in a player his age. To put it simply: Buxton has the ceiling of one of the game’s best players, if not the best, in his prime.
38. David DeJesus, Tampa Bay Rays
David DeJesus has become more and more patient as his career has gone along, and his plate discipline always has been and indeed still is quite good. When you have these things, you can draw your share of walks. But 2013 hasn’t been the best BABIP year for DeJesus, and that has something to do with the fact that he’s been hitting fewer line drives. It’s usually easy to chalk that up to declining bat speed, but the fact that he is suddenly doing more damage against fastballs suggests that’s not the case. A more logical explanation is that there's been some bad luck at play in DeJesus' season.
By his standards, DeJesus's power is right about where it should be. He's not much for home runs, which is indeed distressing given how many fly balls he hits. But he knows where the gaps are, and he's capable of plugging both the left-center gap and the right-center gap for doubles and triples. He can also still get around quickly enough to lace balls down the right field line. He's good enough at doing these things to save par as an average power hitter for the position.
DeJesus doesn’t move as well as he used to, and that was never more clear than it was in 2012, when he had more caught-stealings than successful steals. He’s barely been thieving at all this year, but he’s still useful as a baserunner. He can get around the bases well enough and has been more mistake-free on the bases than he’s ever been. That's a perfectly fair trade-off.
DeJesus could easily have been stashed in the corner outfielder ranks, but he’s played center field far more often than he’s played the corners in 2013 thanks to the Chicago Cubs’ lack of a better option. And despite all the miles he has on his legs, DeJesus can actually still play a decent center field. He can be slow to get going, but he reads the ball well and still has enough athleticism to close the distance. He’s also still perfectly willing to give up his body to make a catch.
DeJesus hurt his shoulder bad enough when he ran into a wall in June that he had to spend some time on the disabled list. But what’s equally concerning is that he’s racked up quite a few injuries over the years—separated shoulder, strained hammy, thumb surgery, you name it—and that he’s now on the verge of turning 34.
DeJesus has never been a great player, and he’s not about to become one at his age. But he’s a veteran who can get on base and still hold his own running the bases and playing defense.
37. Alejandro De Aza, Chicago White Sox
Alejandro De Aza is pretty good at working the count and has solid plate discipline to boot. That’s usually a mark of a high-walk guy, but De Aza has actually seen his walk rates go down each of the past two seasons after walking nearly 10 percent of the time in 2011. Meanwhile, his whiff and strikeout rates are up from where they were last year. And since De Aza isn’t hitting line drives at the rate he did last year, it’s no accident that his BABIP is down. This is how one goes from being an easily above average hitter to only a slightly above-average hitter.
De Aza’s power is in better shape than his hitting. His HR/FB rate is much closer to the rate he showed in a small sample size in 2011, and he’s still keeping the doubles and triples coming even without an inflated line-drive rate. He does the bulk of the damage to his pull side, but he does have the power to drive the ball over the left fielder’s head. His isn't explosive power, but it'll do for solid.
Here's the good news: De Aza is a guy who can steal bases and take extra bases when running the basepaths. He has the speed to do so. But this doesn't make him a great baserunner. He stole 26 bases in 2012, but also got caught a dozen times. His efficiency has been better in 2013, but not by much. And while he can do useful things with his speed, he can be careless. De Aza was picked off five times and ran into seven outs on the bases last year, and he's shown the same habits in 2013.
De Aza rated as a poor defensive center fielder in 2012, and the metrics like what they see this year even less. He’s made an inexcusable number of errors for an outfielder, and he looks much more comfortable playing left field than he does playing center field. He doesn’t seem sure of his routes when he plays center, and he doesn’t have elite speed to make up for it by closing quickly on balls.
De Aza suffered a fracture in his right ankle in 2007 that cost him 102 games. In 2008, he suffered a fracture to his left ankle that cost him the season. One doesn’t want to put too much stock into such injuries, but it’s hard to ignore them. It's also worth noting that De Aza turns 30 soon.
De Aza has tools, but 2013 has been a rough year for his bat and an even rougher year for his glove. He's not a bad player, but we're about to meet a lot of center fielders who are better than him.
36. Jackie Bradley Jr., Boston Red Sox
Jackie Bradley’s weaknesses as a hitter were exposed this season in the major leagues, as he demonstrated a tendency to stride early, open up with his front side and try to pull pitches on the outer third of the plate. In the past, he’s been successful when he’s using the entire field, serving line drives from line to line. Bradley’s approach and plate discipline will give him a chance to hit at the highest level, as he’s a patient hitter who has a plan each time he steps up to the dish. Furthermore, he’s a smart hitter who understands how to make adjustments against advanced pitching. For all those reasons, Bradley has the makings of a .280-plus hitter in the major leagues.
With a swing and approach geared toward hard contact, Bradley will never offer much in the power department—likely seven to 12 homers annually. However, he should be a consistent source of doubles and triples throughout his career.
Although Bradley is technically only an above-average runner, his speed on the basepaths plays up thanks to a high baseball IQ and superb instincts. He takes aggressive leads and picks his spots to steal bases, and he takes an extra base as well as any player in the minor leagues.
While he stands out for his plate discipline and on-base skills, Bradley’s greatest strength is his defense in center field. The 23-year-old makes it look easy out there with above-average speed and tremendous instincts that result in plus range. He gets excellent jumps and consistently takes a direct route to the ball while showcasing closing speed in all directions.
Bradley suffered a wrist injury at South Carolina that ultimately delayed the start of his career until 2012. This season, the outfielder missed roughly two weeks in May with right biceps tendinitis.
Bradley will never wow with his tools, but he’s a consistent, well-rounded player who projects as an above-average center fielder with a hit tool and on-base skills that profile ideally at the top of a lineup. While he’s performed poorly in the major leagues this season, Bradley should settle in nicely once he’s given the chance to play on an everyday basis.