I struggled with this list of center fielders for a couple of reasons. First off is that two players that would have been in my top five, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, will be playing left field in 2013. Secondly, another top five player (Michael Bourn) is still unemployed, and I have no idea where to put him. Thirdly, another top five player (Josh Hamilton) is now a right fielder. So essentially, three of the top five center fielders in baseball in 2012 aren't ranked on this list, and another one of them doesn't even have a home yet this winter. Great.
Remember: this list (and all of the lists we'll be rolling out this week) reflect the order I'd prefer to have the players for the 2013 season. I don't care about 2016, I don't care about 2010, I care about 2013. Got it? Good.
10. Dexter Fowler, Rockies
The Rockies vastly overvalued Fowler in trade talks this winter, and while it makes sense for them to do it, it makes even more sense for teams to immediately hang the phone up when hearing their price. Fowler's great 2012 season was almost entirely a creation of Coors Field, after he posted an OPS that was 264 points higher at home than on the road. Think about that: 264 points of OPS. The difference between Mike Trout and Kirk Nieuwenhuis is 272 points of OPS. Yeah. But even with those massive splits, I have to give Fowler's season a second though, because of his .390 BABIP, which is just absurd. Caveat emptor.
9. Curtis Granderson, Yankees
You'd think Granderson would be much higher on this list. After all, he did bash 43 homers in 2012, had a seven win season in 2011, and plays for the almighty Yankees. But Granderson is a maddening player, due to his low batting average (.232 last season, despite a not terribly low .260 BABIP), high strikeout rate (28.5% last season), and deteriorating defense (two straight years with negative UZR and DRS). With Granderson turning 32 in March and heading for free agency while playing on an aging Yankees team, there is some potential for a complete meltdown here. Or, he could have another superstar-like year, and get a team to drastically overpay him this winter.
8. Jon Jay, Cardinals
Jay has a strange reputation online as, essentially, the player that Tony La Russa preferred over Colby Rasmus that led to Rasmus getting traded to Toronto in the summer of 2011. A year and a half later, Jay has been the better player by far in comparison, but that doesn't mean he's elite and dripping with talent. Jay's career so far has been bolstered by a .348 BABIP, the tenth highest in baseball over the last three seasons. But Jay may be able to actually maintain that BABIP due to his 21% line drive rate. Jay has also barely recorded 500 plate appearances over the last two seasons, and kicking another 150 onto his total might lead to some major regression. Jay's been solid, but not great, and I'm eager to see what he'll do with a full season's worth of playing time under his belt in 2013.
7. BJ Upton, Braves
Upton drives fans and analysts crazy. He's an immensely talented player, possessing 30 homer pop and 40 steal speed. Of course, Upton has struck out 25% of the time over his career and hasn't hit better than .250 since 2008. He finished just two homers shy of a 30/30 season in 2012, and might be rejuvenated heading to a Braves team that features budding superstar Jason Heyward in right field. Or, he could continue to float along at his usual three to four win pace and provide the Braves with just the value they paid for, and not much else.
6. Angel Pagan, Giants
After being summarily dumped onto the Giants by the Mets after the 2011 season, Pagan was a key contributor towards San Francisco's second World Championship in three seasons, and earned a four year contract from the club after the season. However, Pagan's experience as a full-time player has really been limited to just the past three seasons, and one of them was a flop (2011, aided by a strained oblique). Pagan will also be 32 in July, and doesn't really possess a skillset that maintains itself as a player ages. It'll be interesting to see how Pagan's second season with the Giants goes. But still, 30 steals and a .780 OPS is fine production from a center fielder. Hell, it's good for five wins.
5. Matt Kemp, Dodgers
Kemp had a superstar 2011 season, falling just one homer shy of a 40/40 season. However, a strained hamstring deprived him of two months of play in 2012, and he was a vastly different player after he came back in the second half, posting an OPS of just .792 and homering 11 times in 70 games (after blasting 12 in the 36 games prior to his injury). That second half is what worries me about Kemp in 2013. Yeah, he's had the entire offseason to rest his hamstring. But his dropoff after the injury was dramatic, and I have to think that playing center field in the cavernous Dodger Stadium might put even more strain on his legs and continue to rob him of his speed. But we'll see what happens. A healthy Carl Crawford in left field, one of the best defenders in baseball when on point, could definitely take some pressure off of Kemp in the outfield. Like in many of the rankings I've posted thusfar, I'm very open to Kemp shifting up the list next winter, but he needs to prove that he's healthy first.
4. Michael Bourn, Unsigned
It feels weird ranking Bourn this low after a six win year, but considering he's currently jobless, I think it's about right. Bourn had the finest year of his career in 2012 with the Braves, hitting a career-high nine homers (after hitting just 13 in his entire career up to that point) while walking at a 10% rate and providing elite defense in center field. However, as a player that relies on his speed, Bourn's 42 stolen bases at a career-worst 76% success rate is a bit of a red flag. Bourn also turned 30 in December, and if his power dips to its pre-2012 levels, he could be completely different player in 2013 and beyond.
3. Adam Jones, Orioles
Jones was always a highly touted prospect that seemed a step away from breaking through the glass ceiling. Sure enough, that happened in 2012, with Jones setting new career bests in pretty much every offensive statistic. There are still significant holes in his game that likely won't improve, including his ghastly plate discipline, but 30 homers and 15 steals is more than a capable offensive output from a center fielder. It'll be interesting to see if the Jones that set the league on fire over the first two months of 2012 returns in 2013, or if the player who was solid (albeit unspectacular) over the last four months shows up.
2. Austin Jackson, Tigers
Over Jackson's first two years in the majors, he was essentially an all-glove, minimal bat center fielder. But in 2012, Jackson's offensive game took a huge step forward as he hit .300, boosted his walk rate, cut his strikeout rate, and increased his power output substantially. That full package of offense, along with Jackson's typically oustanding defense, gives you all the makings of a five win center fielder. If Jackson ran more like he did over the first two years of his career, we could have the makings of a bona fide superstar.
1. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
McCutchen has become the face of the Pirates, the franchise's most marketable star since Barry Bonds left town after the 1992 season. And quite frankly, his on-field production has just as much to do with that as his fan-friendly off-the-field persona. McCutchen has stolen 20 bases in each of his four years in the majors, and his power has steadily ticked up each year, topping out with 31 homers in 2012. McCutchen also has great plate discipline, and thanks to a BABIP spike last season, hit .300 for the first time in his career. At age 26, McCutchen is a guy who can be one of the league's brightest stars for the next five years, and will be a major part of any potential revival of baseball in Pittsburgh.