The Best Young Center Fielders of 2007

This week, I will continue my position-by-position review of the game’s best players by examining young center fielders. The following list differs from traditional prospect lists in two ways. First, anyone under 25 is eligible. Second, I won’t give the false impression of precision by ranking players. Instead, I’ll group players according to their upsides and closeness to fulfilling their potential and order them alphabetically.

When I describe “excellent” potential, I simply mean that the player has a non-trivial chance of being among the top five major leaguers at his position during multiple seasons. In other words, these are guys who could be perennial All-Stars. These players usually have all the skills to become complete hitters and at least average fielders at their position.

When I describe “good” potential, I usually am describing a player who has the skills to become a consistently above-average starter at the position. Often, these players will have at least one major limitation that probably will prevent them from becoming top-tier players. When I describe “average” upside, I usually am describing a player with more than one major concern or limitation that suggests he probably will become an average player relative to other starters at his position.

Players who are “close to their prime” usually are within a year of reaching a level of performance that will be among the five best seasons of their career.

I don’t have a crystal ball, so I rely heavily on quantitative analysis of hitting and fielding performance to group players. These are simply estimates—any one of these players could be out of baseball at age 26 and any one could become a star. Mostly, I hope this list can help you identify exciting young players who are worth watching in the near future. Keep in mind that I focused on centerfielders who are likely to stay at that position through the prime of their career. There are many young center fielders who eventually move to a corner outfield spot, and I will write about those players next week.

Excellent Upside, Close to Prime

Grady Sizemore
24 years old | Cleveland Indians
Is there a tradeoff between power and contact rate? Indians Manager Eric Wedge says, ““you have to give up something to get something”, but I’m not so sure. Here is a breakdown of Sizemore’s strikeout rates and isolated power (slugging percentage—batting average) over the past two years:

Half-Season  SO/PA  ISOP
Early 2005    .187  .185
Late  2005    .187  .206
Early 2006    .185  .225
Late  2006    .226  .264

Up until the second half of 2006, Sizemore steadily improved his power production while maintaining an average contact rate. Something happened nine months ago to change all that, and Sizemore was striking out in over 25% of his plate appearances during the final month of the season. Sizemore managed to post an above-average on-base percentage during this stage of the season because his walk rates improved during this time, but I don’t think he is going to transform into a low-contact/high-OBP slugger in his prime. The Hardball Times 2007 Season Preview projections suggest Sizemore won’t quite repeat his 2006 successes and he’ll be more similar to the kind of hitter he was during the first half of 2006. That’s still good enough to make him one of baseball’s best center fielders as he heads into the prime of his career:

YEAR    AGE   PA  BB  SO  HR   AVG  OBP  SLG
2007     24  683  59 132  23  .276 .347 .474
2008     25  667  59 129  24  .278 .350 .480
2009     26  651  58 125  24  .280 .352 .486

Chris Young
23 years old | Arizona Diamondbacks
I put Chris Young at the top of my prospect rankings last year, and I think he’s the early favorite to win Rookie of the Year honors in the National League this year. He possesses widely undervalued skills, such as excellent patience at the plate and good fielding at a premium position, but he is also capable of hitting 20 home runs and stealing 20 or more bases this year. That combination of power and speed is going to earn a lot of attention over the next year, especially if the young Diamondbacks lineup puts the team in contention for postseason play this season.

Excellent Upside, At least two years from Prime

Adam Jones
21 years old | Seattle Mariners
I find it very difficult to assess Mariners prospects because so much of my analysis relies on comparing career trajectories of similar players. It’s difficult to find similar performances for Mariners prospects because these players are challenged through aggressive promotions moreso than any other organization in recent memory. If Adam Jones was drafted by almost any other team, he would have spent 2006 refining his skills at a new defensive position and putting up spectacular numbers for Double-A San Antonio. Instead, the 20-year-old produced pretty good .287/.345/.484 numbers with Triple-A Tacoma when he wasn’t struggling at the major league level. With Ichiro in centerf ield for the time being, it’s difficult to say what’s in store for Adam Jones in 2007. His long-term outlook is as good as it’s ever been, however. He needs to improve his plate discipline to be a complete hitter at the major league level, but his production against much more experienced competition in 2006 suggests he’s going to be a great center fielder in the long run.

Andrew McCutchen
20 years old | Pittsburgh Pirates
The 11th overall pick in the 2005 draft was the youngest player ever to reach Double-A Altoona last year, and he could get some experience in the National League as soon as this year. McCutchen launched 17 home runs last year and his patience at the plate is above average; he has never posted an OBP below .352 at any level of competition during his brief career as a professional ballplayer. He was 40-for-50 in stolen base attempts last year and could become a legitimate threat to lead the major leagues in stolen bases in a couple years. McCutchen is a solid fielder in center field; when he was shifted to left field in Spring Training to get more at bats, Pirates manager quipped, “It’s not like we have to wonder whether Andrew McCutchen can play center.”

Justin Upton
19 years old | Arizona Diamondbacks
Upton earned a $6.1 million signing bonus in 2005, and promptly hit like a future big leaguer before slumping badly during the latter half of the Midwest League season:

First Two Months .297 .393 .406
Final Four Months .248 .328 .416

He started hitting more home runs as the season wore on, but all of his other skills deteriorated. Some observers claim Upton was bored and wasn’t investing full effort in his performance at South Bend, but Upton claims he struggled when pitchers made adjustments during his second and third time through the league. In an October 2006 interview published in the Arizona Republic, Upton also cited the grind of his first full season of baseball:

“I’ll be the first one to admit that around mid-August I got real tired. I just couldn’t get the bat going. That’s something you learn, like what kind of shape I have to come back in to play outfield. It’s tough carrying that weight and having to run such long distances in the outfield.”

He showed flashes of a future stardom during parts of last year, but he will try to put it all together at Class A Advanced Visalia in 2007.

Colby Rasmus
20 years old | St. Louis Cardinals
I have a rule of thumb concerning the number .18; if a teenager strikes out in less than .18 of his plate appearances and has an ISOP greater than .18 in a full-season professional baseball league, he has an excellent chance of becoming a good major leaguer. Lots of major league stars, including Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones, and Vlad Guerrero, achieved those rates early in their minor league careers. Colby Rasmus did too. I doubt Rasmus will ever match the offensive production of that class of players, but he is going to be a very valuable player if he can maintain above-average contact and power skills while playing center field in the major leagues.

Good Upside, Close to Prime

Matt Kemp
22 years old | Los Angeles Dodgers
Kemp predictably experienced a dropoff in home runs after his 27-home-run performance at hitter-friendly Vero Beach in 2005, but he improved other facets of his game and reached the major leagues in only his third full season of baseball. Kemp responded to instruction at Double-A Jacksonville and cut down on his strikeouts while demonstrating more patience at the plate than he had earlier in his career. His commitment to better pitch selection also led to the purchase of performance-enhancing contact lenses this Spring. Kemp was a promising basketball prospect in high school, and he is athletic enough to remain in center field. The Dodgers’ acquisition of Juan Pierre, however, could cause Kemp to get more playing time in the corner outfield positions.

Felix Pie
22 years old | Chicago Cubs
Pie was on pace for a breakout season in 2005 before he injured his ankle, but he rebounded from the injury and a slow start to the 2006 season to put together a solid performance as one of the youngest players in the Pacific Coast League last year. While Pie has great speed and the potential to hit 15 to 20 home runs for the Cubs as soon as this year, his plate discipline is a work in progress. He is a free swinger with the potential for Corey Patterson-like deficiencies in fulfilling potential and reaching base at a reasonable rate.

Good Upside, At least two years from Prime

Dexter Fowler
21 years old | Colorado Rockies
Most organizations passed on Fowler during the 2004 draft because of his strong college commitment, but the Rockies picked him up in the fourteenth round and offered him nearly $1 million to change his mind. Fowler is a five-tool talent, but not all of his tools are translating to baseball skills; his stolen base success rate is mediocre despite excellent speed and he didn’t hit for much power outside of his hitter-friendly home park in 2006. He is listed at 6-foot-4 and has plenty of room to grow into a stronger and more complete hitter, and Fowler followed up his first full-season performance with a strong showing in the pitcher-dominated Hawaii Winter Baseball League. He is a candidate to break out as one of baseball’s elite prospects in 2007, but he will be tested by more experienced pitchers and a more challenging hitting environment at Modesto’s John Thurman Field.

Carlos Gomez
21 years old | New York Mets
Gomez skipped high Class A at age 20 and had a solid season at Double-A Binghamton, hitting .281/.350/.423 over 120 games. He was also 41-for-50 in stolen base attempts, but his low walk rate and high strikeout rates are indicators of an overly aggressive plate approach that limits his value as a hitter. Gomez is best suited for center field, where he covers a lot of ground, so he may need a change of scenery to get some playing time as long as Carlos Beltran is in the Mets starting lineup.

Gorkys Hernandez
19 years old | Detroit Tigers
The Tigers brought Hernandez from Venezuela to the Gulf Coast League sooner than anticipated, and the teenager responded by winning the league batting title. Hernandez rarely walked last year, but that’s not uncommon among young hitters who are able to put the ball in play often, and his walk rate should improve with experience. He was 20-for-24 in stolen base attempts, hit five home runs over 51 games, and made contact at an exceptional rate in his first season of baseball in the United States. He’s far from making an impact at the major league level, but there’s a lot to like here.

Cameron Maybin
20 years old | Detroit Tigers
After missing his first eligible half-year of professional baseball to negotiate a $2.65 million signing bonus with the Detroit Tigers, Maybin earned more attention in 2006 when Tigers General Manager Dave Dombrowski refused to include the prospect in a proposed deal for Alfonso Soriano. The center fielder posted strong numbers in the Midwest League in 2006 and observers continued to praise his exciting play and complete set of tools. Maybin’s power production was not eye-catching, but I am encouraged to see 35 extra-base hits from a teenager who is playing half his games in a tough park on right-handed hitters.
With all these positive indicators, you might be wondering why he was not listed earlier in this article. Well, Maybin struck out 116 times in 2006. I think his strikeout tendencies go unnoticed by many baseball analysts because Maybin managed to produce a nice-looking batting average that was supported by a flukish .415 batting average of balls in play (BABIP) last year. It’s true that he is very young and has plenty of time to figure out how to get the ball in play more often, but history suggests this kind of development is somewhat rare. Here are the most recent first-round picks that struck out in over 25% of their plate appearances as teenagers playing at the Class A level:

YEAR  ORG  PLAYER
2006  Det  Cameron Maybin
2005  Phi  Greg Golson
2002  Det  Scott Moore
2000  SD   Vince Faison

It’s a small sample, but the similarities among the players are striking. They all earned big signing bonuses out of high school because their athleticism, speed, and power potential earned universal praise. The players experienced mixed results in their first full season of professional baseball, but they all struggled to make contact. It is too soon to write off Golson and Moore as productive big-league players, but the point here is that none of the three players improved their contact rate enough to remain top prospects for very long. Maybin might be a better prospect than the other players on this list and there are exceptions to this trend (Elijah Dukes comes to mind), but Maybin’s risk of struggling to put the ball in play this year is much greater than is widely acknowledged.

Average Upside, Close to Prime

Michael Bourn
24 years old | Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies Minor League Player of the Year strikes out too often to hit for a high average, but his patience at the plate and game-changing speed could be enough to earn him a role at the top of a major league lineup some day. Phillies base running instructor Davey Lopes is coaching Bourn in Spring Training this year, but it’s difficult to imagine a much better base stealer. Bourn was 45-for-50 in stolen base attempts in the minor leagues last year. Over the past three seasons, Bourn has stolen 140 bases while only being caught 23 times. Although his on-base skills and speed should take him to the major leagues, Bourn does have some pop in his bat. He hit a pair of home runs during a Team USA victory over Cuba in the Olympic qualifying tournament last year.

Trevor Crowe
23 years old | Cleveland Indians
Crowe isn’t a much different hitter than Jacoby Ellsbury (see below), and the two shared a Pac-10 Co-Player of the Year award in 2005. He should hit for a high average and high OBP for the majority of his career, but he probably won’t ever hit more than 15 home runs in a season. Crowe is also the least likely player on this list to stay in centerfield primarily because of Grady Sizemore’s presence in the organization. Crowe’s 2006 season was interrupted by a move to second base, but the Indians ended that experiment before the Eastern League playoffs. Crowe should move quickly through the Indians system once he settles back into his role as an outfielder, and he could become an effective center/left fielder a la Coco Crisp.

Jacoby Ellsbury
23 years old | Boston Red Sox
Boston’s first pick from the 2005 draft is an excellent contact hitter with above-average on-base skills and very little power potential. He may be a comparable hitter to current Red Sox rookie Dustin Pedroia, but Ellsbury could be an even more valuable player because his exceptional speed increases his value on the basepaths and on defense. He could appear in the Boston lineup before the end of the 2007 season.

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