The Magic Twenty (Center Field)

You know the age-old question: “Who would you take if you were starting a team from scratch?”

No good debate about young players can go on without some version of that question being brought into the mix. In the spirit of that, Craig and Aaron will each be choosing an entire team made up of 24-and-under players. The goal here is to draft the best team for the long haul, starting in 2005 and ending whenever the last guy decides to join Jesse Orosco in retirement (2095, or thereabouts).

The rules are simple and just slightly longer than those for Fight Club:
- Craig and Aaron alternate picking first at each position.
- Each player they pick must be 24 years old or younger in “baseball years” this season.
- Each player must play the/a position they actually play currently or in the very near future (in other words, no Albert Pujols at third base).
- Money and contracts are not an issue.
- They start picking at 9 (right field) and move down to 1 (pitcher).
- They’ll each pick a starter and a reliever, for ten positions total.

It’s that simple. And away we go …

CENTER FIELD
 
TEAM      #     PLAYER                   REAL TEAM                AGE
Aaron     1     Rocco Baldelli           Tampa Bay Devil Rays     22
Craig     2     Laynce Nix               Texas Rangers            23

AARON: Okay, I am playing this game under protest. We decided before starting this that we’d alternate picking first at each position. We started with rightfielders last week, so you got your hands on Miguel Cabrera, arguably one of the most valuable properties in all of baseball.

Now we’re at centerfielders and I pick first. So who do I have to choose from? Uh … Rocco Baldelli, Corey Patterson, Laynce Nix, David DeJesus and Grady Sizemore. Don’t get me wrong, I think all of those guys have a good shot at becoming very nice players, but this is like if we held a Girlfriend Draft and you picked first for the “Jessicas” and I got the first pick of the “Beatrices.” Life just isn’t fair, I guess.

CRAIG: Just be happy I don’t saddle you with Jessica Tandy as the second choice. Besides, if you think the first Beatrice choice is bad, the second one will vaporize your brain. (Warning: link is not safe for human beings. DO NOT CLICK. You have been warned.)

AARON: Well, there must have been some point in the history of civilization when Jessica Tandy was good looking, right? Or maybe not. I don’t think cameras were around to document that period of time, if it did exist.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand … Beatrice Baldelli is an interesting player. He’s basically an anti-stathead guy. He was drafted out of high school based primarily on his athleticism and tools, and at the moment most of his game is based on his batting average. He doesn’t walk, he doesn’t hit for power, he doesn’t control the strike zone. He’s a hacker.

So why am I picking him? Well, he’s a 22-year-old hacker. And not only that, he’s a 22-year-old hacker who plays good defense in center field and has a career batting average of .282 through his first 210 major-league games.

I am of the opinion (and I’m sure this has been shown in various studies) that young players add plate discipline and power as they mature. So, assuming that, Baldelli’s current foundation of speed, defense and batting average looks pretty good. I don’t know that I think he’ll be a superstar, but he seems to me to have the most “upside” of the center field choices.

CRAIG: I would take Grady Sizemore, who you suggested, but I think he’s going to be a leftfielder at the major league level, so I don’t think he’s eligible. Jeremy Reed is in the same position. Which leaves me with two reasonable choices: Corey Patterson, who still isn’t recovered from a serious knee injury, and Laynce Nix, who I think is really going to struggle to handle center field defensively, especially as he ages.

Where (other than Rocco) are the good young centerfielders who can pick it? I guess we’ve been spoiled with our current generation of wonderful defenders. Carlos Beltran, Torii Hunter, and Vernon Wells are now three guys for three Gold Gloves in the AL (just two if the writers persist in kneeling in front of Ichiro!) and the NL has Mike Cameron and Andruw Jones. We’re living in a Golden Age of center field defense.

I think I’ll take Nix. I’m a little leery of a player who has struck out 93 times (and walked 17) in 312 major-league at-bats. But he hits for power, and with the defense you’ll be able to put together, I’m going to have to hit it over the fences to win any games.

AARON: Yes, I was just about to bring up the fact that my defense is way better than yours. Na na na boo boo. Wait until we pick our leftfielders … I have a feeling my defensive advantage will get even bigger.

Nix is a solid choice, although I was convinced you’d take Patterson. Nix’s K/BB ratio isn’t very appealing, but it’s hard to pass up a 23-year-old who has 39 extra-base hits and a .513 slugging percentage in 312 at-bats. Plus, he put up some very nice numbers in the minors.

CRAIG: Yes, Patterson was tempting, but the thought of him slowing down with long-term knee problems is what put me off. A Corey Patterson without wheels is much less useful.

I’m also not convinced that Baldelli doesn’t have as much upside over Nix as Cabrera does over Austin Kearns. Baldelli could be the next Duke Snider if he fills out and starts hitting for power. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Baldelli’s “Most Similar by Age” through 21 is Tris Speaker. (Take that with a grain of salt; it was the deadball era). He’s a young stud, and he’s not over his head.

AARON: The main thing that concerns me with Baldelli is that, despite what I said earlier about young players adding power and plate discipline, the fact is that if he doesn’t add those things he’s not much of an asset.

If he maintains a similar batting average and only adds a few walks and a little power, he’s looking like a .290/.340/.440 guy, give or take a few points of whatever here or there. .290/.340/.440 from a centerfielder is pretty good, but it’s nothing to get all hot and bothered about (trust me, Craig is very hot and very bothered thinking about Cabrera in right field). Plus, if he has a bad year and only hits .250, he’s going to be a huge sinkhole in the lineup. I guess I am banking on him learning to walk at a reasonable pace and maturing into a 20-25 homer guy.

CRAIG: I think Baldelli will add power; it’s hard to imagine a well-built 21-year-old player who doesn’t. He will also draw more walks. It’s whether he can do this and still improve his batting average that will be the concern, but if he stays away from injury I’d say he has a good chance to do that, be a consistent .300 hitter and 20/20 man. That’s got a lot of value; when the titans of the American League match Johnny Damon versus Kenny Lofton in center field, you start to realize that .310/.360/.460 is a wonderful place to be.

As for Nix, I think I’ll be happy if he can have 40 more points of slugging than Baldelli and 40 less of OBP, and not kill me in the field. Nix makes me think of Gorman Thomas, which is a pretty good thought. As a young player, Thomas had injury woes and severe suckage problems, and didn’t really arrive until he was 27; if Nix can have a smoother time of it he could put up some good HR and RBI numbers and get very expensive in five years’ time.

AARON: I was checking out their career “splits” and saw that Baldelli, a right-handed hitter, has done significantly better against left-handed pitching thus far:

            AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA
vs LHP     .306     .354     .475     .829     .278
vs RHP     .280     .317     .389     .706     .240

Not too surprising, I guess. He hasn’t hit for any power against righties, but the fact that he’s been able to post a .280 batting average against them is encouraging.

Some recent studies I’ve read suggest that right-handed batters, given enough playing time, are about 10% better against left-handed pitching than they are against right-handed pitching. Baldelli is at about 16%, using GPA as the judge.

On the other hand, Nix, a left-handed hitter, has struggled against southpaws and done very well against righties:

            AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA
vs LHP     .191     .240     .362     .602     .199
vs RHP     .294     .327     .540     .867     .282

All the small sample-size warnings apply to both players, of course, and particularly with Nix, who has just 50 plate appearances against lefties in his career. Still, you might end up needing to find Laynce a platoon partner.

Previous Positions:
- The Magic Twenty (Right Field)

The Teams So Far:

POSITION            CRAIG                    AARON
Right Field         Miguel Cabrera (1)       Austin Kearns (2)
Center Field        Laynce Nix (2)           Rocco Baldelli (1)
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