Ranking MLB's 10 Best Center Fielders Ahead of 2021 Spring Training

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 7, 2021

Ranking MLB's 10 Best Center Fielders Ahead of 2021 Spring Training

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    With Opening Day of the 2021 season now just weeks away, we're carrying on with our rankings of Major League Baseball's best players at every position.

    Having already done the best left fielders, we're moving on to the game's top 10 center fielders.

    While there are three players who absolutely had to be at the top of this particular list—you can guess who they are—the other seven slots could have been filled by twice that many candidates. Whether they're actual stars or they have star-caliber talent, there's simply a lot of good players in center field these days.

    In actually narrowing down our list, we considered players' recent track records and their upside and downside for the coming campaign.

    We'll begin with some honorable mentions and then count 'em down.

    See also: The top 10 first basemen, second basemen, third basemen and shortstops.

5 to Watch

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    Cristian Pache
    Cristian PacheAssociated Press

    Mauricio Dubon, San Francisco Giants

    He had a respectable 101 OPS+ in 2020, and you'd never know from looking at his five outs above average that he was a newbie in center field.

             

    JaCoby Jones, Detroit Tigers

    He's typically had a knack for making hard contact, and last year it served him well as he posted a 127 OPS+ in 30 games before he broke his hand.

                 

    Tim Locastro, Arizona Diamondbacks

    He can steal first base! Also, he's the fastest runner in MLB and maybe its best pure fly-ball catcher as well.

             

    Cristian Pache, Atlanta

    He hit his first major league home run in last year's playoffs, but he's about to be better known for his glovework. Per Jim Callis of MLB.com, there isn't a more talented defender among prospects.

          

    Nick Senzel, Cincinnati Reds

    If ever there was a candidate for a post-hype breakout, why not a guy who hit .312/.388/.508 in the minors and who was a consensus top-10 prospect as recently as 2019?

First 5 Out

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    Byron Buxton
    Byron BuxtonBrynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins

    He's one of baseball's best defenders, and he's found something at the plate as he's racked up a 117 OPS+ over the last two seasons. Still, whether he can hold up over 162 games remains a good question.

             

    Lorenzo Cain, Milwaukee Brewers

    After signing Jackie Bradley Jr., the Brewers quickly clarified that Cain is still their center fielder. And as a .288 career hitter with heaps of defensive runs saved and outs above average, he's indeed a good one.

               

    Kevin Kiermaier, Tampa Bay Rays

    As a three-time Gold Glover and a two-time Fielding Bible winner, he has a strong claim to the throne as baseball's best defensive center fielder. The catch? An 82 OPS+ since 2018.

          

    Starling Marte, Miami Marlins

    He probably deserves to have more than two Gold Gloves and one All-Star nod on his record. But at 32, he's likely past the peak of his once-outstanding athleticism.

           

    Alex Verdugo, Boston Red Sox

    He put up a 126 OPS+ and 2.2 rWAR in 2020, but that was A) in spite of well-below-average peripherals and B) as a right fielder and left fielder. We're thus not quite ready to buy in to him as a star center fielder.

10. Brandon Nimmo, New York Mets

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Age: 27

    Key 2020 Stats: 55 G, 225 PA, 8 HR, 1 SB, .280 AVG, .404 OBP, .484 SLG, 146 OPS+

    2020 WAR: 1.8

    For all the talk about the New York Mets possibly signing George Springer over the winter, it was never going to be a bad thing if they moved ahead with Brandon Nimmo in center field.

    After all, the guy can hit.

    More specifically, the guy can see. His excellent eye for the strike zone has allowed him to rack up the majors' seventh-highest walk rate since 2017. And while he probably has only 20-homer potential at best, his .322 average against the shift underscores his capability of padding his on-base percentage with consistent hits.

    Because Nimmo isn't as bad against left-handers as he's sometimes made out to be, he's a candidate for a .400 OBP as a regular in 2021. The Mets will gladly take that even if it means living with his subpar defense in center field.

9. Aaron Hicks, New York Yankees

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Age: 31

    Key 2020 Stats: 54 G, 211 PA, 6 HR, 4 SB, .225 AVG, .379 OBP, .414 SLG, 121 OPS+

    2020 WAR: 0.7

    As if he didn't already have enough trouble staying healthy, Aaron Hicks was supposed to need eight to 10 months to recover after having Tommy John surgery in October 2019.

    But because the pandemic delayed the start of the 2020 season until July 23, there was Hicks in center field for the New York Yankees on Opening Day. He missed only six games all season, and his already good eye became that much better as he racked up the league's third-highest walk rate.

    Hicks says he's 100 percent healthy, which might mean his throws will once again be highlight-reel material. He also has his eye on 30 home runs, which isn't a stretch given that he topped out at 27 in 2018.

    Ultimately, Hicks is one of only three center fielders with at least a 120 OPS+ and 10 rWAR since 2017. So if not for his durability issues, there'd be no doubting his status as a top-10 center fielder.

8. Ian Happ, Chicago Cubs

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    Paul Beaty/Associated Press

    Age: 26

    Key 2020 Stats: 57 G, 231 PA, 12 HR, 1 SB, .258 AVG, .361 OBP, .505 SLG, 131 OPS+

    2020 WAR: 1.4

    Following a pretty good rookie season in 2017, Ian Happ regressed in 2018 and spent much of 2019 in the minors.

    The Chicago Cubs simply needed Happ to cut down on whiffs after he had carried an ugly 36.1 strikeout percentage in 2018. He especially had to improve against fastballs, which bedeviled him with a 24.1 percent whiff rate within the strike zone in '18.

    Happ has answered that call and lowered his strikeout rate to a reasonable 26.4 percent since his return in 2019. He's likewise drawn walks at an 11.6 percent clip, and he's coming off career bests for average exit velocity (90.5 mph) and hard-hit rate (48.5 percent) in 2020.

    Hence how Happ has racked up a 130 OPS+ and 23 homers in 115 games since his banishment ended. He'll be one of the league's top offensive center fielders if he keeps that up in 2021.

7. Ramon Laureano, Oakland Athletics

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Age: 26

    Key 2020 Stats: 54 G, 222 PA, 6 HR, 2 SB, .213 AVG, .338 OBP, .366 SLG, 100 OPS+

    2020 WAR: 1.5

    Ramon Laureano wasn't on many radars going into 2018. That changed when he made a categorically absurd throw from the warning track to complete a double play in August of that year.

    Apropos of that, nobody will be surprised to hear Laureano's defense has generally been in the black for outs above average, defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating. If he keeps it up, he's bound to win a Gold Glove eventually.

    Offensively, last year was a letdown for Laureano after he had provided the Oakland Athletics with a 129 OPS+ across 2018 and 2019. Yet there were positives, including the lowest swing rate and highest contact rate of his career.

    Ideally, Laureano will carry those improvements over and get back to hitting the ball hard in 2021. If so, we'll witness the best version of a player who's already fifth among center fielders in rWAR since 2018.

6. Luis Robert, Chicago White Sox

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    Paul Beaty/Associated Press

    Age: 23

    Key 2020 Stats: 56 G, 227 PA, 11 HR, 9 SB, .233 AVG, .302 OBP, .436 SLG, 101 OPS+

    2020 WAR: 1.8

    At the time he signed a six-year, $50 million contract with the Chicago White Sox last January, Luis Robert had yet to take so much as an at-bat in the major leagues.

    But if nothing else, the White Sox were rewarded for their confidence in Robert on defense in 2020. Aided by his superb speed and efficient routes, he racked up an AL-high 10 outs above average en route to winning a Gold Glove.

    At the plate, Robert's rookie campaign started with a .960 OPS through August and ended with a .409 OPS in September. He developed holes up and in and low and away, which are the kind that any self-respecting pitcher will see and exploit.

    It's far from out of the question, however, that Robert will close those holes and more consistently show off his booming power. That's his path to becoming an annual 30-30 threat in addition to one of MLB's premier defenders.

5. Kyle Lewis, Seattle Mariners

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Age: 25

    Key 2020 Stats: 58 G, 242 PA, 11 HR, 5 SB, .262 AVG, .364 OBP, .437 SLG, 126 OPS+

    2020 WAR: 1.7

    Kyle Lewis immediately became a top-100 prospect after the Seattle Mariners drafted him 11th overall in June 2016, but then he suffered a terrible knee injury the following month.

    After that, Lewis' stock faded as he struggled to stay on the field and racked up too many strikeouts when he could. So when he finally joined the Mariners in September 2019, the hype was relatively muted.

    Well, now he's the reigning AL Rookie of the Year with a 128 OPS+ and 17 home runs through 76 games. And it's a good sign that he dramatically improved both his walk and strikeout rates in 2020, mainly by decreasing his out-of-zone swings while increasing his in-zone swings.

    Because Lewis is also a pretty good (and occasionally great) defender, he's already looking at a future as a perennial All-Star. If he can improve on his .239 average against fastballs, he might even have MVP upside.

4. Trent Grisham, San Diego Padres

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    Age: 24

    Key 2020 Stats: 59 G, 252 PA, 10 HR, 10 SB, .251 AVG, .352 OBP, .456 SLG, 122 OPS+

    2020 WAR: 2.4

    Many baseball fans had their first introduction to Trent Grisham during the 2019 National League Wild Card Game, when his crucial error led to the Milwaukee Brewers' ouster.

    Yet there was little question that the San Diego Padres were making a worthwhile gamble when they acquired Grisham in November 2019. He had put himself on the map with a .300/.407/.603 line in the minors in '19, and his defense looked like an asset in spite of his killer error.

    Ultimately, Grisham's defense was the best part of his star-making turn in 2020. He isn't the fastest outfielder, but nobody got better jumps than he did as he amassed seven outs above average and won a Gold Glove.

    Offensively, Grisham proved playable against left-handers while racking up generally above-average peripherals. As such, he doesn't have to get better at anything to settle in as a 20-20 threat and a frequent Gold Glover.

3. Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Age: 25

    Key 2020 Stats: 56 G, 243 PA, 12 HR, 6 SB, .239 AVG, .333 OBP, .455 SLG, 113 OPS+

    2020 WAR: 1.7

    Cody Bellinger has had a Jekyll and Hyde thing going on over the last four seasons. 

    Starting with his rookie year in 2017, his OPS+ has gone from 143 to 120 to 169 to 113. His performance against left-handers and his chase rate have endured similar fluctuations. And now, the Los Angeles Dodgers star has another challenge to overcome after having shoulder surgery last November.

    Even still, there's no downplaying Bellinger's upside. He's been an elite hitter in half his seasons, and at least one of his lesser years wasn't that bad. To wit, he posted above-average peripherals as he underperformed his xwOBA in 2020.

    It also bears mentioning that Bellinger won a well-deserved Gold Glove in 2019 and then led all defenders with 11 outs above average in 2020. So no matter which version of him shows up in 2021, he'll be one of the game's top center fielders.

2. George Springer, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Age: 31

    Key 2020 Stats: 51 G, 222 PA, 14 HR, 1 SB, .265 AVG, .359 OBP, .540 SLG, 140 OPS+

    2020 WAR: 2.2

    When the Toronto Blue Jays inked George Springer to a six-year, $150 million deal in January, they made a pact with one of baseball's most reliable outfielders.

    Springer has accounted for 27.5 rWAR since his debut for the Houston Astros in 2014, which ranks fifth among all outfielders. He's also one of seven players to do better than a 125 OPS+ in at least six of the last seven seasons.

    After Springer was revealed as one of the main beneficiaries of Houston's sign-stealing scandal in 2017, there were obvious questions about how he would perform in 2020. But so much for that. He posted a career-low strikeout rate and a new personal high for xwOBA on his way to typically excellent results.

    Though Springer will likely move to right field within the next few seasons, for now there's every reason to believe he'll carry on as one of baseball's great center fielders.

1. Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Age: 29

    Key 2020 Stats: 53 G, 241 PA, 17 HR, 1 SB, .281 AVG, .390 OBP, .603 SLG, 168 OPS+

    2020 WAR: 1.9

    Yes, Mike Trout is the best center fielder in Major League Baseball. Please try to contain your surprise.

    If there's any argument to the contrary, it starts with his defense. His metrics (see here and here) have been all over the map, and now we know about the related story that he's slow to react at the crack of the bat. There might also be a crack in his own bat, as 2020 saw him post his lowest OPS+ since 2012.

    Of course, a 168 OPS+ is still a superb mark. And Trout deserved better given that he posted new personal bests for average exit velocity (93.7 mph) and hard-hit rate (55.1 percent). His speed was also ship-shape, finishing in the 94th percentile.

    In short, the key skills that have put the Los Angeles Angels superstar on an all-time trajectory are still there. He should be in the running for his fourth AL MVP award in 2021.

                   

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.