After looking at top ten left fielders, it’s time to continue to go position by position and discuss the top ten players at it. That means that we’ll be looking at the top center fielders, with a pretty clear number one. After the obvious #1, there are 4-5 players that have star potential with their ability to play both ways at an above average level. After that, there’s a lot of defensive-first players as well, making this list unique in how there are pretty obvious tiers that each of these players fit on. Let’s discuss the top ten center fielders!
#10 Harrison Bader, St.Louis Cardinals
Projected Stats: .256/.322/.411 (.733 OPS) 15 HR 17 drs 2.9 WAR
Speaking of defensive-minded center fielders, Harrison Bader emerged as just that for the Cardinals in his rookie season last year. While he posted an alright .756 OPS, the 24-year-old’s 19 defensive runs saved (drs) and 10.7 Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) stole the show, as they were the driving force behind him posting a 3.5 WAR on Fangraphs’ scale. That automatically makes him an extremely valuable player, Bader’s progression offensively will be important for him to become a more complete player. Bader’s .358 BABIP suggests that some of his production was lucky, even with his elite speed. Plus, his 29.3% K rate is a concern, and he would put his speed to more use on the bases if he can improve on his 7.3% BB rate. Still, it was only Bader’s first season, so some improvement should come naturally. With more time and development, Bader has a chance to become a critical part of the Cardinals’ youth movement. Hopefully, he can expand upon his game to become a more complete player, and with that combined with a longer track record, he should rank higher on these lists in the future.
#9 Kevin Kiermaier, Tampa Bay Rays
Projected Stats: .247/.310/.406 (.716 OPS) 12 HR 19 drs 2.7 WAR
If Bader can’t develop into an all around player, he’ll pretty much be what Kevin Kiermaier already is. The 28-year-old Kiermaier has a career .733 OPS, but possesses a career 117 drs and a career 56.3 UZR. That’s allowed him to remain a valuable asset for the Tampa Bay Rays, though injuries once again got the best of him in 2018. Kiermaier has averaged just 97 games over the past three seasons, and played in just 88 games in 2018. He still managed to post 14 drs, but his OPS dropped to .653. Kiermaier’s walk rate and strikeout rates regressed, while his chase rate was a career high at 33.8%. He did post a more respectable .753 OPS in the second half, but in that span is walk rate still managed to decreased while his hard contact rate remained stagnant. At this point, it’s unclear what the Rays are getting from Kiermaier offensively, and it’s likely to be below average production. Still, they’re getting the best defender in center field, who also is a terrific baserunner (career 19.7 BsR, 70 SB). His injury history and consistent struggles as a hitter makes this the highest he can rank on this list, but Kiermaier’s track record of excelling in other facets of the game keeps him in the top ten for now.
#8 Ender Inciarte, Atlanta Braves
Projected Stats: .281/.336/.391 (.727 OPS) 10 HR 11 drs 2.7 WAR
Sticking with the trend with defensive-first outfielders, Ender Inciarte fits that bill extremely well. The 28-year-old has 86 drs in his career, but possesses just a .727 career OPS. 2018 was no different for Inciarte; he excelled on defense (17 drs), but struggled offensively (.705 OPS). Still, I’m more optimistic about his offense than Kiermaier’s. Inciarte’s 13% K rate suggests that unlike Kiermaier, he was constantly putting the ball in play. Meanwhile, Inciarte’s soft contact rate was south of 20% last year, and he was significantly better in the second half (.794 OPS, 40.1% hard contact rate). Hopefully, Inciarte’s offensive improvement carries over to this season; his rebound could be the difference in the Braves getting back to the playoffs. Either way, he’s a solid player deserving of a top ten spot, but isn’t enough of an offensive threat to be ranked higher than this.
#7 Starling Marte, Pittsburgh Pirates
Projected Stats: .278/.331/.432 (.763 OPS) 17 HR 4 drs 3.3 WAR
So far, we’ve talked about the value of a complete player. It sure looked like Starling Marte was on the cusp of becoming that in 2016, when he posted a .818 OPS and posted 19 drs in left field. Then came 2017, where two things happened for Marte. For starters, he was suspended for 80 games after being caught using Performance Enhancing Drugs. Since then, he’s posted just a .750 OPS, and no longer looks like the budding offensive superstar he once seemed destined to become. Also, Marte moved to center field, where his defense went from elite to average (1 drs). Therefore, Marte has gone from being an all around star to someone who’s average in all categories, though he still was solid offensively with a .787 OPS and 20 home runs last season, and posted a 3.7 WAR. He continued to decrease his strikeout rate in 2018 (18 K%), but until he can improve on his 5.8% BB rate and 36.1% chase rate, his plate discipline is still an issue. Overall, Marte doesn’t do anything particularly well, but he’s still more of an all around player than the others below him. Time is running out for the 30-year-old to realize his potential, however, and this is the highest possible ranking for him until he does.
#6 AJ Pollock, Los Angeles Dodgers
Projected Stats: .259/.321/.466 (.787 OPS) 18 HR 8 drs 2.6 WAR
So far on this list, every player has had a clear weakness that has limited them from becoming a star. For AJ Pollock, that weakness has been his ability, or lack thereof, to stay healthy. The 31-year-old played in just 12 games with an elbow injury in 2016, and has played in just 225 games in the following two seasons since. Still, Pollock is a force to be reckoned with when he’s healthy, and that on-field talent earned him a four-year contract with the Dodgers this offseason. In 113 games last season, he posted an .800 OPS while also playing tremendous defense (6 drs), earning a 2.5 WAR. Notably, Pollock’s hard contact rate jumped to 44.5%, yet his BABIP dropped to .284. He also had a .923 OPS before suffering a thumb injury, so his numbers may have been suppressed by both bad luck and by that injury. There are some concerns I have about Pollock’s plate discipline, since his chase rate spiked to 33%, while his walk rate (6.7%) and strikeout rate (21.7%) continued to regress. Still, Pollock remains an elite, all-around talent when healthy. The Dodgers do a tremendous job in keeping their players fresh and healthy, and I expect that trend to continue with Pollock. The result will likely be another solid statistical season for Pollock, though this time he should remain healthy.
#5 George Springer, Houston Astros
Projected Stats: .270/.355/.472 (.827 OPS) 28 HR -3 drs 3.9 WAR
No matter how the rest of George Springer’s career turns out, he’ll always be a Houston Astros legend. The 29-year-old won the World Series MVP in 2017 after breaking Reggie Jackson’s record with five World Series home runs, including one in each of the last four games of the seven games series. That historic performance gave Springer a lot of publicity, and with that comes greater expectations. Therefore, Springer’s 2018 performance was definitely a disappointment. His OPS fell from .889 in 2017 to .780 in 2018, while his WAR dropped to 2.9. Nothing dramatically changed from 2017 to 2018, but Springer’s hard contact rate was certainly low at 33.4%, while his 1.43 GB/FB ratio is too high for a hitter with the amount of raw power that he has. Plus, despite having solid speed, he managed to steal just 6 bases last year. It’s also not like Springer excels defensively; he’s posted -7 drs and a -4.7 UZR over his past two seasons. Therefore, Springer is a one-dimensional player at a position that requires one to be more than just an offensive threat, which he wasn’t last season. So why is he ranked in the top five? Part of the reason is simply the reality that there aren’t a lot of all around center fielders anymore; all five players ranked below Springer have bigger issues at the moment than him. The main reason, however, is that he’s still an extremely talented player who averaged a 4.5 WAR between 2015 and 2017, and could very well bounce back this season after posting an .850 OPS in the second half. We’ll have to wait and see with Springer, but for now, number five seems like the ideal spot for him coming off of a down season.
#4 Lorenzo Cain, Milwaukee Brewers
Projected Stats: .296/.369/.425 (.794 OPS) 12 HR 12 drs 4.7 WAR
When the Brewers signed Lorenzo Cain to a five-year deal worth $80 million, I was very critical, as were most people. It seemed like an overpay for a 31-year-old who seemed to be on the decline and relied a lot on speed, especially since the Brewers seemed to be set in the outfield. We’ll have to wait and see how the contract works out in the long-term, but for the short-term, signing Cain turned out to be a home run for Milwaukee. The now 32-year-old had an OPS of .813 with an on base percentage of .394, earning a 5.7 WAR on Fangraph’s scale and a 6.9 WAR on Baseball Reference’s scale. Cain increased his walk rate to 11.5%, helping him put his speed by consistently getting on base. Meanwhile, he also increased his hard contact rate to 36.3% and decreases his chase rate to 23.6%. That type of production would seem to be sustainable, but there’s a caveat. Cain’s .357 BABIP was extremely high for that average hard contact rate, and his 2.37 GB/FB ratio suggests he’s relying a lot on his speed to boost his offensive numbers. As he exits his prime, that speed will start to diminish, and Cain’s offensive production will likely suffer as a result. So will his defense, though for now, Cain remains elite defensively after compiling 20 drs and a UZR of 8.7. I am a huge fan of Lorenzo Cain. He’s been a thrill to watch throughout his career, especially with his elite defense and base running. However, age is not on Cain’s side right now, and he doesn’t have the power nor consistent offensive production to remain an All Star caliber player throughout the length of his contract. He’s still more than deserving of a top five-spot on this list, but this may be the highest we ever see Cain rank on this list; he’s certainly already reached his peak.
#3 Aaron Hicks, New York Yankees
Projected Stats: .254/.366/.458 (.824 OPS) 21 HR 5 drs 3.8 WAR
If you ever wonder why teams constantly give failed prospects second chances, Aaron Hicks is the perfect example. The 29-year-old was a massive bust for the Twins, and was traded to the Yankees for John Ryan Murphy after the 2015 season. Hicks wasn’t able to make a difference with New York after arriving, but that changed in 2017. Hicks posted an .847 OPS and a 3.3 WAR out of nowhere, and became a key piece of a Yankees team that was one win away from the World Series. Still, Hicks remained under the radar heading into 2018, and he changed that right away, with an .833 OPS and a 4.9 WAR. Hick’s walk rate was elite at 15.5%, while he increased his hard contact rate to 39.5%. Furthermore, Hick’s line drive rate skyrocketed to 21.6%, yet despite all of this, his BABIP remained low at .264. If Hicks keeps being selective and continues to hit the ball hard, eventually he’ll see better luck, and when that happens, watch out. Since he’s also a tremendous base runner (7 BsR), Hicks is the all around player that we’ve discussed and desired throughout this list, especially if his defense (-3 drs last year) rebounds to what it was in 2017 (15 drs). For a team with World Series aspirations, the Yankees will be counting on Hicks to continue to produce, and I personally believe that 2019 could be his best season yet.
#2 Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers
Projected Stats: .262/.347/.520 (.867 OPS) 31 HR 7 drs 4 WAR
Few rookies have ever performed at a similar level to how Cody Bellinger did in 2017. Just 22-years-old at the time, he had a .933 OPS with an impressive .581 slugging percentage, compiling a 4.0 WAR. Obviously, Bellinger was due to regress from those numbers in 2018, and he did. His OPS dropped to .814, while his slugging percentage relapsed tremendously to .470. While it may be disappointing that Bellinger couldn’t maintain those godly 2017 numbers, his production was still solid, and he actually made important improvements in a few key areas. For starters, he dropped his strikeout rate to 23.9%, improving his contact rate to 72.4%. His hard contact rate also remained above average (40.1%), as did his walk rate (10.9%). There’s no question that Bellinger is still the powerful slugger that he was in 2017, and assuming he continues to cut down his strikeout rate, he’ll turn into the complete hitter he’s destined to become as soon as next season. What makes Bellinger rank so high on this list, however, is his defense to pair with his impressive offensive numbers. Bellinger was terrific after moving from first base to the outfield, with 6 drs in just 507.2 innings. Assuming he plays in the outfield full-time in 2019 with Max Muncy at first base, his defensive numbers will be even more impressive. With 14 stolen bases and a 4.1 BsR, Bellinger’s also solid on the bases, thanks in large part to a sprint speed of 28.9 MPH. He’s simply a tremendous athlete, and the type of five tool talent that teams dream of having. Considering he’s just 23-years-old, Bellinger may just be getting started, and a rebound for him “down” season should definitely be expected. He’s no challenge to the #1 player on this list, but he’s an excellent choice for #2 with a combination of overall talent, production, and upside.
#1 Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
Projected Stats: .307/.448/.620 (1.067 OPS) 36 HR 3 drs 8.6 WAR
Surprise! Just kidding, I’m pretty sure people who’ve never even watched the game of baseball could have guessed that Mike Trout would rank as the top center fielder. After all, he’s indisputably the best player in the game, and could possible make the Hall of Fame right now if he were to stop player with a career WAR of 64.7 despite being just 27-years-old. What’s so impressive about Trout, is how he continues to find ways to improve. Trout posted career highs in OPS (1.088), on base percentage (.460), hard contact rate (44.4%), and walk rate (20.1%). These numbers are just unworldly, and the scary part is, Trout is still well in his prime and may simply continue to get better. Not only is Trout the best hitter in baseball, he’s also an above average fielder in center field (8 drs, 4 UZR), and stole 24 bases this season. There simply is no weakness in Trout’s game. He’s the best hitter, arguably has the best plate discipline, is one of the game’s top sluggers, and is also one of the game’s best athletes in general. He has mastered all five tools of the game of baseball, and is even a terrific teammate and extremely likable person. If he keeps this up, Trout has a legitimate case of becoming the greatest player in the history of baseball, and it’s honestly possible he already is. Watch out in two seasons, when Trout’s a free agent; all 30 teams should be trying to bid on him with all the money they have. He’s a game changing talent, and will certainly remain the best player in baseball for years to come.