Center field is the easiest position to answer who the best is, as it is home to the best player in the game. It’s Mike Trout and everyone else. Who are those everybody else? Some are household names; some are new guys on the scene on their way to becoming household names. Factoring in age in determining the best players to have for the long-term, some perennially included players have dropped to the bottom or even off my list entirely. It does not mean I don’t think they are one of the best right now.
1. Mike Trout
Mike Trout is an all-time great, and he’s only 26. He finished first or second in the MVP vote in each of his first five seasons, and would have made it six straight if not for an injury last season. Instead, he finished fourth despite barely reaching 400 at-bats. At the time of his injury, Trout was on pace for a historic season, on pace for over 50 home runs and over 30 stolen bases.
After becoming a bit more of a slugger than all-around hitter in 2014 and 2015, Trout has again cut back on his strike outs the past two seasons and led the league in on-base percentage both years. He’s back to stealing bases, hitting over .300 and yes, he hits home runs still. He’s probably going to bat .300 and have an OPS around 1.000. Trout will be a threat for 40 home runs if healthy and possibly steal 30 bases. Heck, if the Angels turn him loose like they did his rookie year he could be baseball’s first 40-40 man since Alfonso Soriano in 2006. Enjoy watching him; you might never see anyone do it better.
2. George Springer
Springer has been slowly improving every season, culminating in career highs almost across the board last season at the age of 27. Springer then homered five times in the World Series, taking home MVP honors. He has fully arrived and he is in his prime. Mostly healthy the last two seasons, Springer has homered 63 times. What he really improved on last year was making contact. After striking out 178 times in 2016, Springer cut that number all the way down to 111 last year. His strike out percentage was well above average at 17.7. Despite a career low batting average on balls in play, Springer posted the highest batting average of his career. If he can keep the contact rate up, his average could climb even more.
3. Charlie Blackmon
Blackmon was a legitimate MVP candidate last year, leading the league in hitting, base hits and triples. Blackmon homered 37 times and posted an OPS of 1.000. So why do I have him third? One, he benefits greatly from playing half his games in Coors. Blackmon is a career .346 hitter at Coors versus just .264 everywhere else. With that, his OPS is over 200 points lower playing on the road for his career. Secondly, Blackmon will be turning 32 around midseason, so he’s got a few years on the other guys.
Blackmon’s game has changed a lot the last couple seasons. In his first two full seasons, Blackmon hit a total of 36 home runs, one less than he hit all year last year. He was a gaps hitter who stole a lot of bases, stealing 43 in 2015. His stolen base numbers have dropped to 17 and 14 the last two years. In fact, his 14 stolen bases last season came with ten caught stealing. Meanwhile, his power has spiked, with his home run total going from 17 to 29 to 37 the last three years. He hasn’t even really been hitting more fly balls; just more of them are going over the fences. A free agent after the season, it will be interesting to see what he does if he leaves Coors Field.
4. Byron Buxton
Long heralded as the next big thing, Buxton may have arrived in the second half of last season. Buxton was the number one prospect in baseball according to Baseball America in 2014, and the second best in each of the next two seasons. His physical tools are matched by very few, it’s only been about if and when he could put it all together. He batted only .220 over parts of two seasons heading into last year, then was batting .216 at the all-star break last season. Did something click at that point, or did he just get lucky? Buxton batted .300 in the second half with 11 home runs, showing the world what they had been waiting for. He did benefit from a .378 BABIP though, and still struck out 63 times in 57 games.
Buxton doesn’t need to bat .300 to be a star though, he has all the tools. Buxton might just be the best defensive outfielder in the game, winning the Gold Glove last year after posting 2.8 dWAR. His 24 defensive runs saved above average last year led all center fielders. Buxton is also a great base stealer, stealing 29 bases while only being caught once. And after homering 11 times in the second half, he looks like he has 20 home run power. Even as a .250 hitter, Buxton would be a good player. Does he have more in him?
5. Michael Conforto
The Mets appear to want to make Conforto their center fielder once back from injury. He is better suited to play a corner outfield spot, as he doesn’t have the range to cover center field. Conforto made 39 starts in center last year, posting a negative rating in defensive runs saved. Expected back from shoulder surgery in May, the Mets will have some decisions to make. Hopefully the shoulder injury does not have any huge impact on his bat, as Conforto broke out last season at the plate. A highly touted prospect for a couple of years, Conforto homered 27 times last season at the age of 24 before going down with the injury. He had an outstanding slash line of .384/.555/.939, a line ranking among the best in the game. Turning 25 in less than a week, Conforto could be a slugging outfielder for a long time to come.
6. Tommy Pham
Despite just playing his first (mostly) full Major League season, Pham will be 30 before the season starts. He is an interesting case in that he has always performed well, but never got a real opportunity until he was 29. Pham was a career .298 hitter in AA and .301 hitter in AAA. He performed adequately for the Cardinals off the bench in 2015, posting an .824 OPS. His numbers dropped off in 2016, but he showed some power with 9 home runs in 159 at-bats.
Pham has long since battled a degenerative eye condition, Pham has been overcoming obstacles his entire career. Finally given every day at-bats last year, Pham batted .306 with 23 home runs and a .931 OPS. That OPS placed him in the top 20 for the whole Major Leagues. He also stole 25 bases, hinting at a possible 30-30 season if he plays in 150 games. It’s quite impressive he can post such a good batting average and on-base percentage given his eyesight, hopefully it will allow him to continue to display his baseball tools.
7. Kevin Kiermaier
If Byron Buxton isn’t the best defensive outfielder, it’s because Kevin Kiermaier is. Kiermaier only played in 98 games last year thanks to injury, yet still posted 22 defensive runs saved above average. That total was only two behind Buxton. Kiermaier won the Gold Glove for center field in each of the two prior seasons, totaling 67 defensive runs saved above average. His dWAR over that three year span is 10.4. My money is still on him for the best defender in center field.
Kiermaier isn’t all glove either, and is coming off his finest offensive season. Kiermaier batted .276 last year and hit a career high 15 home runs despite the missed time. He also stole 16 bags, which would have been his second consecutive 20 steal season without injury. He’s certainly no great shakes at the plate, but he gets the job done. A solid batting average, a little bit of pop and the ability to steal a base; not a bad addition to the best glove in the outfield.
8. Starling Marte
2017 was not a good season for Marte, missing half the season due to a PED suspension. When he came back, he looked rusty and didn’t play his best ball. He finally said hello to the baseball season as it was saying goodbye, batting .322 in September with 3 home runs and 8 stolen bases. This was a reminder that Marte is a good ballplayer. The year before he had batted .311 and stolen 47 bases. Still just 29 this year, Marte should be a good hitter and a threat on the bases for a few years to come.
Over Marte’s four full seasons heading into last year, he had batted .292 while averaging 13 home runs and 37 stolen bases per year. He had twice eclipsed 40 steals in a season. He might not hit 19 home runs again like he did in 2015, as he dropped to 9 the following year. However, with a good batting average and 40 steal capability, power is not his game. Marte will be playing a mostly new position this year, after winning two Gold Gloves in left field.
9. Ian Happ
The 9th overall pick in 2015, Happ made his debut with the Cubs last year after appearing on top 100 prospect lists everywhere for two years. Happ certainly didn’t disappoint, smashing 24 home runs in only 364 at-bats. He is unlikely to have 18.9% of his fly balls go for home runs again, as they did last year. However, it is likely his contact rate and batting average will improve. Happ struck out in over 30% of his at-bats as a rookie, a number that will likely come down closer to 25%. Happ was only 22 years old for most of the season and spent less than two years in the minor leagues. He still has some developing to do.
Happ came up through the minors as a second baseman, so he also has some developing to do in the outfield. Above all that, the Cubs are putting him in center. He held his own at the position last year, posting a positive defensive runs saved in 41 starts in center field last year. Although not a large sample size, it’s a start. Only time will tell how he handles the position.
10. Lorenzo Cain
Cain is better than the tenth best center fielder in baseball right now, but he is 32. Cain’s game relies a lot on his speed, a skill that will most likely fade quicker with age than other skills. He might be a top five center fielder currently, but given these reasons, he comes in at tenth for the purposes of my list. Cain has stolen more than 25 bases in three of the past four seasons, and he uses his speed to cover a lot of ground in center field. But how will those skills look in two or three years?
Cain is also an excellent hitter. He does not have a lot of power, reaching double digits in home runs just twice, but he has hit .300 or better in three of the past four years. Last year, he bounced back from an injury-riddled campaign to bat .300 with 15 home runs. Moving to a hitter friendly ballpark in Milwaukee, there is no reason why Cain can’t equal those numbers again this year.
Ender Inciarte, Odubel Herrera, Adam Jones, A.J. Pollock, Chris Taylor, Michael Taylor, Aaron Hicks, Jackie Bradley Jr., Dee Gordon, Kevin Pillar