Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Comparing AL Central Center Fielders


This is part of an ongoing series where I rank the American League Central teams at each position. This idea stems from something they did over at Fangraphs. Their series was doing Power Rankings at each position for all of Major League Baseball, and their rankings were generated by taking their best guess at dividing playing time at the position (based on 700 PA) and using a combination of their ZiPS and Steamer projection systems. 

My process is much more subjective. The only projection system I'm using is the same one that forms my high school baseball memories into something a little more appealing than what reality suggests. Still, I rely heavily on the Fangraphs pieces, team depth charts and recent press to get a feel who's in the mix at the position. 

Previous posts: C1B2B3BSS, LF

1. Detroit Tigers

Austin Jackson, 617 PA, .300/.377/.479
Andy Dirks, 344 PA, .322/.370/.487

When a fanbase's biggest complaint about their center fielder and leadoff man is he doesn't dive for balls, you probably have a pretty good player. Austin Jackson is an excellent center fielder and last season transformed himself into an excellent leadoff man. As far as I can tell, he improved every aspect of his game at the plate. More walks. Fewer strikeouts. Better pitch selection and more contact, resulting in more power. I guess those "he tweaked his swing" stories aren't always bunk, after all. If Jackson can figure out a way to get a better break on balls in front of him, he might push McCutchen for the best center fielder in the game.

Jackson isn't going to get a lot of days off if he's healthy. However, most seasons run into a pulled hammy or similar minor injury. Even if he avoids the occasional injury related scratch, Leyland will rest him against a tough right-hander when he's struggling or it's a tough part of the schedule. With the Opening Day roster makeup, his primary backup looks like it's going to be Dirks. He won't win a chance at a starting job there, but he's played there enough in the minors to prove those days won't be a disaster.

2. Cleveland Indians

Michael Bourn, (ATL) 703 PA, .274/.348/.391
Drew Stubbs, (CIN) 544 PA, .213/.277/.333

Bourn is an interesting player. He makes his living by being very fast, very good on the bases and an elite defender. Hitting well is notably absent from that, and usually that relegates players to fourth outfielder status. Bourn pushes through that ceiling, though, by being not just good at all three, but elite. Now the Indians will just have to hope he remains so for the life of his four year deal.

Before the Indians surprised the baseball world with the Bourn signing, Stubbs seemed to be tabbed as their center fielder. So, when Bourn isn't there, Stubbs probably will be. I'll talk more about him when we cover the right fielders, though.

3. Chicago White Sox 

Alejandro De Aza, 585 PA, .281/.349/.410
DeWayne Wise, (NYY/CHW) 239 PA, .259/.293/.429

De Aza is an interesting player. I had never really looked into his performance and when I saw him in the Sox outfield, I just assumed he was a typical slappy center fielder with good defensive skills. The kind of guy you stick out there because center fielders who are good at everything are hard to find. That may not be accurate, though. In 2011, he was fantastic both in the field and at the plate in his fourth shot at a part time role in the majors. It was enough to finally earn him a full time gig in 2012. He responded by hitting a little above average and playing somewhere around average defense. He's not looking like a future star, but he's also a better player than the space filler I'd assumed he was.

As for DeWayne Wise? When I talked about the player I thought De Aza was? That player is DeWayne Wise.

4. Minnesota Twins

Aaron Hicks, Played in minors in 2012
Darin Mastroianni, 186 PA, .252/.328/.350

The Twins are going with youth and talent in center field with Hicks. I was tempted to rank them third because Hicks has skills that might allow him to do well as a rookie, but this is me hedging my bets. What are those skills I'm referring to? Good plate discipline. Good speed. Good defense. These are things that are a little more slump proof, so if he runs into a slump and it gets into his head, he might still be able to provide good value. That said, he's a rookie who's skipping Triple A and has some questions about his power. If that means relying on his batting average, well, batting average is a fickle mistress.

Mastroianni was (and probably is) the fallback plan in case Hicks didn't look ready. He's another speed/defense guy who is willing to walk if it's the way to get on base. That doesn't sound so bad, but those guys who look good in the minors as slappy, patient hitters can see their success fall away once they get to the majors and pitchers realize they shouldn't be afraid to throw strikes. Mastroianni may have seen a little of that last year as his K rate got up around 25%.

5. Kansas City Royals

Lorenzo Cain, 244 PA, .266/.316/.419
Jarrod Dyson, 330 PA, .260/.328/.322

I spoke earlier about one set of fourth outfielder skills as being fast, good on D and good on the bases without much of a hit skill. As Cain settles in for a season as the Royals' starting center fielder, we should start to get a feel for whether that's what he'll be. I'm sure the Royals would feel better about his chances of being more than that if he'd cut down on his strikeouts a bit.

Dyson is another guy who appears to get a lot of use out of his speed. He stole 30 bases in a little over 100 games last season. He just has trouble coaxing enough value out of his rabbit legs to make him valuable enough to be a starter. With his lack of power, he'd need to get his batting average much higher than the .250 or .260 range he's been in as a major leaguer so far. Tiger fans may refer to this as the Alex Sanchez Principle.

Summary

Another win for the Tigers! Woo! This is a solid group. There are no embarrassments and throwing Hicks in the mix adds some star potential beyond Jackson and to a lesser extent, Bourn.  It's a little more promising than the left field group where teams might have to rely on platoons to even get up to average production.

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