HomeTrending MLB News2024 Positional Power Rankings: Center Field

2024 Positional Power Rankings: Center Field

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Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier today, Leo Morgenstern examined the state of left field. Now we turn our attention to those who roam center.

Well, it’s finally happened. The picture at the top of this page is not an accident. For the first time since 2013, the Angels no longer sit at the top of the center field positional power rankings. Mike Trout has officially been dethroned. It’s not just that Julio Rodríguez has usurped Trout’s role as the High King of All Center Field. Trout isn’t even in the top three. This occasion is momentous enough that I’ll be devoting a separate article to Trout’s decade-long reign, but for now, we can look at what this shift says about the state of center field in 2024.

Center field is a premium defensive position, which means that it’s always packed with talent in one form or another. Even so, this year’s class feels especially exciting. There are young players who have solidified their standing as full-blown stars, like Rodríguez, Michael Harris II, and Luis Robert Jr. There are all-world talents like Aaron Judge and Byron Buxton, who are back to calling center their primary position. Jung Hoo Lee is bringing his talents from the KBO to San Francisco, and two different Jacksons (Chourio and Merrill) will be jumping straight from the minors into everyday roles. Finally, because this is center field, there’s a collection of plus defenders who have their work cut out for them leveraging the rest of their tools into something approximating a well-rounded game. The bottom third of the rankings is home to a few placeholders, but it’s also full of promising young players who will get the chance to sink or swim at the major league level.

As you might have noticed, most of the names in the paragraph above, even the ones that belong to stars, come with some serious question marks. Will Judge still be able to acquit himself ably in center? Will Buxton’s knee allow him to stay there all year? Will the 20-year-old Jackson be able to hack it in the big leagues? What about the other 20-year-old Jackson?

This may be the year when the projections see Trout passing the baton to a passel of young stars, but it’s also the first time since we started doing this exercise that there isn’t a single team projected for at least 6.0 WAR at the position. All of this to say that if he can manage to both bounce back and stay healthy, Mike Trout could have his revenge on Seattle.

2024 Positional Power Rankings – CF

NamePAAVGOBPSLGwOBABatBsRFldWAR
Julio Rodríguez665.278.341.501.35725.92.31.75.5
Dominic Canzone14.250.306.428.3150.1-0.0-0.00.1
Cade Marlowe14.216.282.360.280-0.30.00.20.0
Taylor Trammell7.208.297.373.294-0.1-0.0-0.00.0
Total700.276.339.495.35425.52.31.85.6

That this only feels a little bit weird is a credit to Rodríguez. It should feel so, so weird, but he is very much a natural successor to Trout, a five-tool star who has now put up back-to-back five-win campaigns in each of his first two seasons in the majors. Rodríguez is a true all-around threat: According to Baseball Savant’s run values, he was the only player in baseball in the 90th percentile or higher as a batter, baserunner, and fielder in 2023. He’s gone 25-25 and 30-30 in his first two seasons, so we may as well pencil him in for 35-35.

Although his wRC+ fell from 146 to 126, most of that was due to luck evening out. Rodríguez actually raised his xwOBA by improving his hard-hit rate while both striking out and popping up less. He also showcased significantly more all-fields power, as 40% of his 32 home runs came on balls hit to the right side of the field, up from 25% in 2022. Rodríguez chases and hits more grounders than is ideal, but he’s in the number one spot for a reason. His is not the kind of game you quibble with. It’s the kind you enjoy.

Canzone isn’t a center fielder by any stretch of the imagination, starting there in the minors just 26 times. Marlowe rode some batted-ball luck to an impressive debut in 2023, and he’s actually a center fielder, though he’s currently in the minors. Still, if anybody other than Rodríguez is seeing extended time in center this season, it won’t just be Seattle’s loss. It’ll be baseball’s.

NamePAAVGOBPSLGwOBABatBsRFldWAR
Aaron Judge301.271.385.569.39721.1-0.31.33.3
Trent Grisham280.220.322.405.3181.20.31.61.4
Jasson Domínguez112.232.312.380.302-1.00.0-0.30.3
Alex Verdugo7.268.327.418.3220.1-0.00.00.0
Total700.244.348.470.34921.40.02.75.0

In a vacuum, Aaron Judge is the best center fielder in baseball. But he’s not really a center fielder, and for several reasons, they don’t play the game in a vacuum (reason number one: it’s hard to breathe in there). With Juan Soto in the fold, however, he’ll reprise his 2022 role in the middle pasture. Judge is projected for 3.3 WAR over just 301 PA in center, which would be enough on its own to put the Yankees in a tie for eighth in these rankings. What does Judge do so well? He pastes the ball. He lambasts it. He wallops it. His Baseball Savant page is brought to you by The Number 100. In each of the last two seasons, he has led all qualified players in average exit velocity, barrel rate, and hard-hit rate. He’s just on another plane as a hitter.

All that said, there’s more reason than usual to be worried about Judge. He’s losing spring training reps to a minor abdominal injury. More importantly, after surgery to address the freak toe injury he suffered in June of last year, Judge has said that the toe will require “constant maintenance.” We’ll learn in time just how many oil changes that entails, but it’s a good thing the Yanks got Trent Grisham along with Soto. The projections see the left-handed Grisham slugging a bit more in Yankee Stadium, returning to a league-average performance at the plate for the first time since 2021. Beyond him is Domínguez, who after an incandescent, agonizingly brief debut, is recovering from Tommy John surgery. The Martian is back to hitting from both sides of the plate and is slated to play in extended spring training games in April, returning around midseason. Still just 21 years old, it’s hard to know what he’ll be able to offer this season, but just take a moment to dream on an outfield that consists of a healthy and mashing Domínguez in between Soto and Judge.

NamePAAVGOBPSLGwOBABatBsRFldWAR
Michael Harris II630.285.330.478.34411.41.85.74.3
Adam Duvall49.227.287.452.314-0.4-0.1-0.10.1
Forrest Wall7.239.309.345.290-0.20.00.00.0
J.P. Martínez7.214.298.345.285-0.20.0-0.00.0
Jarred Kelenic7.242.318.422.318-0.0-0.0-0.00.0
Total700.279.326.473.34110.61.85.64.4

On an Atlanta team packed to the brim with players possessed of loud tools, Michael Harris II has somewhat quietly become one of the better players in all of baseball. He’s a good hitter and an excellent baserunner and defender who has now put up at least 4.0 WAR in his first two big league seasons. Similar to Rodríguez (his American League counterpart as Rookie of the Year in 2022), Harris saw his overall offensive performance come back down to earth due to BABIP regression, despite the fact that he improved his xwOBA by 22 points. However, that increase came in somewhat bizarre fashion.

The one weakness in Harris’ game in 2022 was that he chased way too much, resulting in a miniscule 4.8% walk rate and a strikeout rate that was too close to 25% for comfort. Well, in 2023, Harris knocked his strikeout rate all the way down to 18.7%. But here’s the thing: He chased and walked at roughly the same rate. So how did he cut out all those strikeouts? He just made way more contact on pitches outside the zone, while somehow also improving his contact quality quite a bit. That not usually the kind of feat that’s repeatable, but then again, it doesn’t have to be. Harris is still just 23. He’s got time to grow up some as a hitter, but he’s already a star.

Because he plays in Atlanta, we should expect Harris to receive approximately 100% of the playing time unless he’s injured, but Adam Duvall’s return gives the team a solid backup plan.

NamePAAVGOBPSLGwOBABatBsRFldWAR
Mike Trout525.258.360.511.36921.8-0.7-2.43.8
Aaron Hicks77.232.337.363.312-0.4-0.0-0.50.2
Mickey Moniak70.236.277.424.297-1.2-0.1-0.20.1
Jo Adell21.225.289.434.309-0.2-0.0-0.10.1
Jake Marisnick7.223.286.358.283-0.2-0.00.00.0
Total700.251.346.481.35319.7-0.8-3.24.2

How the mighty have fallen. Here lies Mike Trout, buried at fourth in the positional power rankings. How did he get all the way down here? He wasn’t helped by a hamate fracture that limited him to 82 games in 2023, but the bigger problem was the 134 wRC+ he put up before the injury.

Now a 134 wRC+ is nothing to sneeze at, unless you’re Mike Trout (but if you are Mike Trout, please don’t sneeze at it, because I’m terrified that you’ll strain an oblique or something). ZiPS projects a 137 wRC+ for Trout, and while only Judge has a higher mark among center fielders, it’s miles below Trout’s standard. So what happened? The answer is scary: Not that much. In 2023, Trout made the best swing decisions of his career and his surface-level batted ball metrics looked pretty good. However, in recent years, Trout’s high-end exit velocity numbers have been declining, as have his contact and fly ball rates. Maybe this is what getting old looks like, or maybe Trout, who is still just 32 and says his lower half feels better than it has in years, can prove he’s still the best in the game. But for the first time since the WAR Wars of the early 2010s, he’ll have to do so as something of an underdog.

The last time Trout reached 500 PAs was 2019 (though he came awfully close in 2022). When he went down last year, Mickey Moniak picked up the lion’s share of the innings in center field. But with Trout and Taylor Ward secure in their roles, the Angels have something of a logjam in allocating the final starting outfield role. Aaron Hicks looks likely to be a capable backup for all three spots.

NamePAAVGOBPSLGwOBABatBsRFldWAR
Luis Robert Jr.637.267.318.492.34313.40.91.54.0
Dominic Fletcher35.240.303.368.294-0.7-0.10.30.1
Kevin Pillar14.237.282.408.297-0.2-0.00.00.0
Andrew Benintendi7.272.342.396.3220.00.0-0.00.0
Rafael Ortega7.232.320.360.302-0.1-0.00.00.0
Total700.265.317.482.33912.40.81.84.1

If the first tier of these rankings is reserved for teams with MVP-caliber stars projected for All-Star-level performance, then this marks its final entry. Luis Robert Jr. bounced back from a 2.1-WAR 2022 season in more ways than one. His 128 wRC+ was a marked improvement, but the big number was a counting stat: 145 games. A healthy Robert put up 5.0 WAR and 38 homers while exceeding 100 games for the first time in his career.

Always a boom-or-bust kind of player, Robert was much choosier at the plate in 2023, and it led to success, just not in the way you’d anticipate. Swinging at better pitches didn’t enable him to put the ball in play more. His 68.5% contact rate was the sixth-lowest among all qualified players and nearly seven percentage points below his 2023 rate, while his strikeout rate jumped nearly 10 percentage points. And yet, he managed to slash his groundball rate and nearly double his barrel rate by optimizing his hard contact. His exit velocity fell on groundballs but jumped on line drives and fly balls. When he hit the ball in the air, he really hit it. He ended with a .278 ISO, and of course, those 38 home runs. More booms, more busts, more fun.

It appears that Fletcher and Pillar will be platooning in right field. As the small side of the platoon, Pillar should be free to back up all three outfield spots with his brand of high-effort defense and wing-and-a-prayer offense.

NamePAAVGOBPSLGwOBABatBsRFldWAR
Harrison Bader448.249.307.400.306-2.81.46.02.1
Brandon Nimmo196.267.362.436.3495.8-0.60.41.3
Tyrone Taylor35.235.291.423.307-0.20.10.30.2
Starling Marte21.263.322.398.3140.00.1-0.10.1
Total700.254.322.411.3182.71.06.73.7

Last season, the Mets checked in at third on this list. The reason for their fall was simple: they picked up Harrison Bader on a one-year deal, shifting Brandon Nimmo and his like-clockwork 130 wRC+ into left field. While the move may be a downgrade in terms of center field production, it fills an obvious need for the team. If you’re a fan of diving catches in the gaps, then tune into the Mets this season. If you’re repulsed by closeups of people touching their mouth guards with their grubby fingers, then maybe don’t.

After being traded at the deadline in 2022 and picked up on waivers in 2023, the 29-year-old Bader is now on his fourth team in three years. He can’t get on base like Nimmo (not that many players can), but he sure can run balls down in center when he’s healthy. It’s now been a few years since Bader was anywhere in the vicinity of league-average with the bat, but he doesn’t have to get all that close as long as he’s doing his thing with the glove.

Should Bader get hurt again, Nimmo is quite familiar with view from center field in Flushing. However, the options behind him are pretty uninspiring, and if and when an injury comes, the cavernous maw of obvious need will open up once more.

NamePAAVGOBPSLGwOBABatBsRFldWAR
Byron Buxton350.237.309.488.3376.60.73.02.3
Manuel Margot231.269.324.398.3140.1-0.1-1.40.7
Willi Castro98.248.308.389.303-0.90.30.00.3
Austin Martin14.230.330.320.296-0.2-0.0-0.10.0
Max Kepler7.244.326.444.3320.1-0.00.00.0
Total700.249.314.440.3245.70.91.53.4

Buxton’s knee feels good, and the Twins are hoping for 80 games in center from the preternaturally talented and perpetually injured star. The last time he hit that mark was 2019, when he played 86 games in center. However, for the first time since 2019, Buxton is coming off a season in which he was (ever so slightly) below average at the plate. Still, that 98 wRC+ came during a season in which injuries to his lower half sapped his power. As long as he’s healthy, there’s no reason to believe that Buxton can’t mash. He still boasts top-end speed, and despite not playing in the field at all in 2023, it’s not unreasonable to believe that he’ll continue his brilliance in center field. He just needs to stay healthy. Pretty please, let him stay healthy.

Nowhere is the role of backup center fielder more important than in Minnesota. Rather than bringing back Michael A. Taylor, who excelled in Buxton’s stead in 2023, the Twins traded for Manuel Margot. Unlike Buxton and Taylor, Margot’s defense is closer to good than great. However, his offensive floor is higher than Taylor’s, and his career 109 wRC+ against lefties should make him a useful platoon bat at a corner when Buxton is in center.

NamePAAVGOBPSLGwOBABatBsRFldWAR
Jung Hoo Lee581.289.350.423.3349.2-2.50.52.9
Luis Matos35.265.324.401.3170.1-0.0-0.20.1
Austin Slater35.245.331.391.3170.10.0-0.00.1
Mike Yastrzemski35.232.322.424.3230.2-0.00.00.2
Tyler Fitzgerald14.220.279.371.282-0.40.0-0.10.0
Total700.282.345.419.3319.2-2.50.23.3

There are plenty of reasons to be excited about Jung Hoo Lee. For starters, he’ll be an honest-to-goodness everyday center fielder, something the Giants, who posted a league-worst -7.5 defensive runs and 0.4 WAR at center in 2023, have sorely missed. Lee’s final season in the KBO was a bit of a letdown because a fractured ankle limited him to 86 games, but in his case, a down season means a .318/.406/.405 slash line for a wRC+ of 139. The 110 wRC+ ZiPS projects for him is also a marked improvement over the 86 San Francisco’s center fielders put up in 2023.

But it’s not just that Lee is poised to be a massive upgrade over what the team ran out last year. Whether or not his extremely groundball-heavy approach limits his power, Lee possesses an extremely fun swing, with a stance reminiscent of TJ Friedl’s, and he’s poised to immediately become one of the most entertaining players in the majors. A great defensive center fielder and a doubles and triples machine, the fleet-footed Lee will make the most of Oracle Park’s spacious outfield on both sides of the ball.

We expect the Giants to fill their corner outfield spots by committee, with the left-handed Michael Conforto getting his fill of left, the left-handed Mike Yastrzemski shifting over to man the big side of the platoon in right and the right-handed Austin Slater getting time in both corners. After a tough 2022 season, Luis Matos destroyed the minor leagues before running an 87 wRC+ over 76 games with the Giants last season. He spent more time in center than any Giant, despite the fact that his defense graded out shockingly poorly in center field. While he’s hitting the ball harder after packing on 10 pounds of muscle over the offseason, the addition is unlikely to have done his range any favors.

NamePAAVGOBPSLGwOBABatBsRFldWAR
Cedric Mullins602.254.320.420.3203.81.40.82.8
Colton Cowser49.236.338.378.3170.2-0.1-0.10.2
Jorge Mateo28.235.282.379.286-0.60.20.10.1
Ryan McKenna14.218.293.354.285-0.3-0.00.00.0
Austin Hays7.261.316.435.3230.1-0.00.00.0
Total700.252.320.415.3183.11.50.83.2

How’s this for a tale of two seasons? In 2023, Cedric Mullins was running a 125 wRC+ with 14 stolen bases and 11 home runs before a strained groin derailed his season in July. After his return in August, his wRC+ dropped to 55, his exit velocity dropped by 1.5 mph, and his strikeout rate jumped by more than six percentage points. He put up 2.0 WAR before the injury and -0.2 after it. The funny thing is that after all that, Mullins’ .320 projected 2024 wOBA is almost exactly the same as the .321 we projected for him in 2023. A healthy Mullins seems like a pretty good bet to bounce back, but it’s fair to wonder how healthy he is, after dealing with a minor hamstring issue earlier in spring training.

Should he miss time, there are some interesting players behind him. Colton Cowser struggled in 26 games with Baltimore in 2023, whiffing more than you’d like. He may not have the glove for center either. However, he’s done nothing but hit in the minors, and he’s currently terrorizing the Grapefruit League. Jorge Mateo, an excellent defensive shortstop by trade, was off to his own fantastic start in 2023 when he suffered a hip injury that may or may not have been the reason for the utter collapse in his performance.

NamePAAVGOBPSLGwOBABatBsRFldWAR
James Outman511.237.330.428.3295.20.21.22.6
Enrique Hernández147.235.300.384.297-2.4-0.2-0.60.2
Jason Heyward21.248.320.410.3170.0-0.00.10.1
Chris Taylor14.228.316.390.308-0.10.00.00.0
Mookie Betts7.279.377.514.3800.40.0-0.00.1
Total700.237.324.418.3223.10.00.83.0

The Dodgers jumped eight spots from last season, because rather than a question mark, James Outman is now an exclamation point, a borderline star with a 4.4-WAR season in his back pocket. We should definitely expect some regression, as he very nearly had the highest strikeout rate in the league, and his 118 wRC+ looks much, much shinier than his 84 DRC+. However, he improved dramatically in the second half of the season, putting up a 132 wRC+ (after a 102 in the first half) and more than doubling his walk-to-strikeout ratio. Outman walks a tightrope at the plate, walking a ton and pulling the ball in the air to make up for solid but unspectacular quality of contact. However, he runs the bases well and plays good defense. If he’s just a league-average hitter, that’s still enough to make him an above-average center fielder.

As he did in the second half of the 2023 season, Enrique Hernández will likely get some of the starts when the Dodgers face left-handed pitching. Although he rebounded once he returned to the Dodgers, Hernández has now put up a wRC+ in the low 70s in each of the last two seasons. Both he and Chris Taylor will be backing up positions all over the field.

NamePAAVGOBPSLGwOBABatBsRFldWAR
Leody Taveras532.260.318.415.317-1.10.43.02.2
Evan Carter112.255.354.411.3351.5-0.20.70.6
Travis Jankowski42.246.343.321.301-0.60.00.30.1
Adolis García7.244.309.466.3310.10.00.10.0
Jose Barrero7.217.279.374.284-0.20.0-0.00.0
Total700.258.324.409.319-0.40.34.03.0

The Rangers have jumped all the way from 24th in 2023, and there are two big reasons for that. The first is that Leody Taveras is coming off a 2.2-WAR season in which he put up a career-best 98 wRC+, knocking more than four points off his 2022 strikeout rate and adding six points to his hard-hit rate. Taveras is an excellent center fielder, and if he can continue to be a nearly-league-average bat, as both ZiPS and Steamer expect him to, he’ll once again be a real boon to his team.

The second reason is that an infusion of youth has the Texas outfield looking increasingly solid. Whether or not he starts the season with the big club, Wyatt Langford is almost certain to arrive soon, and he’ll likely get some time in left field, allowing Evan Carter to slide over to center. Travis Jankowski has also combined passable offense with excellent center field defense (and hair). In all, this is a pretty good situation.

NamePAAVGOBPSLGwOBABatBsRFldWAR
Jazz Chisholm Jr.581.248.312.453.3273.01.20.62.7
Bryan De La Cruz49.265.317.426.321-0.0-0.1-0.10.2
Nick Gordon28.257.301.407.305-0.4-0.0-0.20.0
Vidal Bruján21.244.311.368.299-0.4-0.0-0.10.0
Jesús Sánchez14.252.323.445.3300.1-0.00.00.1
Dane Myers7.256.313.391.307-0.1-0.0-0.00.0
Total700.249.312.446.3252.21.00.23.0

The Jazz Chisholm Jr. center field experiment seemed to work last year. He certainly looked the part, and he put up solid defensive metrics according to OAA and DRP (though DRS and UZR were less convinced). However, Chisholm was once again limited by injuries, and his 103 wRC+ marked a huge step back at the plate. His 136-wRC+ breakout in 2022 came alongside a huge drop in his groundball rate, which allowed him to knock 14 home runs in just 60 games. In 2023, that groundball rate returned to its previous level, and Chisolm’s slugging percentage plummeted. his fly balls turned into home runs at nearly identical rates in the two seasons, so the question is whether 2022 was a blip, or whether he can get back to elevating the baseball. If he can, he’s an all-around star, a threat at the plate, on the grass, and on the basepaths. If he can’t, and he just repeats his 2023 batting line (as the projections expect), well, that still equates to a very good center fielder.

The question of Chisholm’s health is every bit as tricky, though it’s both encouraging and entertaining to hear that one of the ways he’s trying to make sure he stays on the field is by cutting out what was reportedly an every-day McDonald’s habit. When Chisholm went down last season, Jonathan Davis got most of the starts in center. This year, Bryan De La Cruz can shift over from left, with recent trade acquisition Nick Gordon in a backup role.

NamePAAVGOBPSLGwOBABatBsRFldWAR
Kevin Kiermaier441.244.305.381.299-5.50.25.91.7
Daulton Varsho175.240.306.447.3231.30.22.11.0
Isiah Kiner-Falefa56.255.310.345.289-1.10.00.20.1
Nathan Lukes28.262.323.380.307-0.2-0.10.10.1
Total700.245.307.394.304-5.60.38.32.9

The Blue Jays just can’t stop acquiring center fielders. This depth chart is a who’s who of players who can go out and get the ball, which is why Toronto’s 8.3 fielding runs is the second-highest projection of any team. It all starts with Kevin Kiermaier, the greatest defensive center fielder most of us have ever seen with our own eyes. The Jays brought Kiermeier back after he put up a BABIP-heavy 104 wRC+ and 8.5 defensive runs over 129 games in 2023. Flanked by fellow center fielders Daulton Varsho and George Springer, Kiermeier led an outfield that put up 12.3 defensive runs in 2023, second only to the Brewers.

However, the last time Kiermeier played at least 100 games in back-to-back seasons was 2015 and 2016. Recent acquisition Isiah Kiner-Falefa looked good in his center field debut last year, but he doesn’t provide any value with the bat, and should Kiermeier go down, he’d be better-suited for a superutility role than being the backup center fielder. The 29-year-old Nathan Lukes might be a better option, although he might also be the only one of the five players who isn’t an outstanding defensive outfielder.

After two miserable, injury-marred seasons, Cody Bellinger put up 4.0 WAR in 2023, the second-best total of his career. However, he did it using methods that send tingles through our unsustainability sensors, and he’s back in Chicago on what is in some respects a second consecutive pillow contract. Bellinger shortened up with two strikes, sacrificing power for contact and running the lowest exit velocity and barrel rate of his career. It super-duper worked. He raised his walk rate and knocked an astonishing 11.7 percentage points off his strikeout rate. And yet, Bellinger also ended up with a .218 ISO, his best mark since he ran a .324 in his 2019 MVP season. His HR/FB went up significantly, even though his fly balls were the softest-hit of his entire career, with the second-lowest xwOBA. The projections are all putting their chips on Bellinger repeating his .327 xwOBA rather than his .370 wOBA.

Pete Crow-Armstrong is the team’s second-ranked prospect (no. 20 overall), and his defense and baserunning should be enough to make him an excellent center fielder regardless of whether he figures things out at the plate. With Bellinger back in the fold, he’ll be starting the season at Iowa, but he figures to make his presence felt at some point. That leaves Mike Tauchman, who put up a sneakily great 1.8 WAR in 108 games in 2023, to once again take over center field duties when Bellinger is manning first base.

NamePAAVGOBPSLGwOBABatBsRFldWAR
Alek Thomas546.259.313.415.314-3.30.23.42.1
Corbin Carroll63.272.354.473.3551.80.50.70.5
Randal Grichuk63.249.297.404.302-1.0-0.2-0.00.1
Jake McCarthy14.261.325.399.316-0.10.10.10.1
Jorge Barrosa14.236.313.356.296-0.3-0.00.10.0
Total700.259.315.417.316-2.80.54.32.8

From a purely aesthetic standpoint, Alek Thomas is one of the most fun players in the game. The 5-foot-11 Thomas is so fast that his legs are a blur when he gets up to top speed, and he runs the bases and plays the outfield like his hair is on fire. He takes ferocious cuts, and although he connects infrequently, he can send the ball a shockingly long distance when he does. Over two seasons, the 23-year-old owns a 72 wRC+, thanks to a high groundball rate and a propensity to chase bad pitches and watch good ones go by. However, the projections see him as just a bit below league-average at the plate this season. Should he pull that off, he’ll be not just fun to watch, but a key cog for a team that dreams of returning to the World Series.

Thomas also ran a wRC+ of literally 12 against left-handed pitching in 2023, and he didn’t start against southpaws in the playoffs. Some combination of Corbin Carroll and free-agent signing Randal Grichuk will likely take his place against lefties much of the time.

NamePAAVGOBPSLGwOBABatBsRFldWAR
Tommy Edman385.263.319.405.314-1.01.80.31.6
Dylan Carlson147.256.339.418.3291.5-0.10.20.7
Victor Scott II140.250.305.351.289-3.30.60.80.3
Michael Siani21.215.297.315.275-0.7-0.00.10.0
Lars Nootbaar7.249.352.439.3430.10.0-0.00.0
Total700.257.320.394.311-3.32.31.42.7

Well, it’s back to the drawing board in St. Louis. Last week, the team announced that super-utility-player-turned-everyday-center-fielder Tommy Edman would start the season on the IL, after his surgically repaired right wrist was still causing significant pain as he ramped up baseball activities. Lars Nootbaar might also miss the start of the season as he recovers from two rib fractures. Victor Scott II, who stole 94 bases in the minors last season, doesn’t appear to be an option just yet. As such, it looks like Dylan Carlson will be the team’s Opening Day center fielder. The projections still believe in Carlson, whose 2023 season ended in August thanks to ankle surgery. Despite improving his batted ball metrics by a metric ton, he underperformed his expected numbers by quite a bit in 2023, and he’s just a year removed from back-to-back 2.5-WAR campaigns. Nootbaar is coming off two solid seasons, and is likely destined for an outfield corner with occasional fill-in duties in center when he’s healthy again.

Edman’s center field defense was something of a revelation last season, and if and when his wrist feels better, the job will likely be his, as his utility belt has already been bequeathed to Brendan Donovan. The switch-hitting Edman never whiffs and hooks roughly a dozen homers a year inside the foul pole for homers. It’s earned him a career wRC+ of 99, which will do just fine.

NamePAAVGOBPSLGwOBABatBsRFldWAR
Jose Siri539.222.272.410.293-7.51.74.71.9
Jonny DeLuca91.232.300.414.308-0.10.0-0.50.3
Josh Lowe42.259.322.438.3260.60.20.20.3
Jake Mangum14.251.295.359.286-0.3-0.00.10.0
Richie Palacios7.249.337.381.3170.0-0.00.00.0
Amed Rosario7.267.306.392.302-0.00.0-0.00.0
Total700.227.280.411.297-7.21.94.42.5

Jose Siri is one of the most watchable players in all of baseball. An absolute defensive wizard, Siri has a combination of tools that would make anyone who lives in an apartment green with envy. He’s got the arm, the legs, and a whole lot of pop. In 2023, he managed to run a 106 wRC+ despite chasing and whiffing more or less constantly, and he did so by hitting the ball out of the ballpark approximately every single time he connected with it. The projection systems understandably see him plummeting to earth in 2024, as it would be just plain foolish to expect someone with a 30th-percentile hard-hit rate to keep running an 87th-percentile barrel rate. Still, he’ll be fun to watch, especially if you enjoy diving catches and/or swinging strikes.

Jonny Deluca and Josh Lowe appeared likely to end up in a platoon in right field, but that plan will have to be put on hold, as during spring training, Deluca broke his right hand and Lowe suffered an oblique injury.

NamePAAVGOBPSLGwOBABatBsRFldWAR
Jake Meyers392.241.308.391.305-3.1-0.12.91.4
Mauricio Dubón133.263.305.390.302-1.5-0.2-0.50.3
Chas McCormick126.251.330.430.3291.5-0.21.00.7
Joey Loperfido21.227.299.376.295-0.4-0.0-0.00.0
Pedro León14.199.285.327.273-0.5-0.00.00.0
Kenedy Corona14.218.278.358.277-0.4-0.0-0.00.0
Total700.245.310.395.307-4.3-0.53.42.5

2023 was a full-on breakout season for Chas McCormick, but both Jake Meyers and Mauricio Dubón put up their own quietly solid seasons, with Meyers putting up 1.7 WAR in 112 games and Dubón chipping in 1.9 in 132. All told, Houston’s center fielders amassed 4.6 WAR in 2023, fourth in baseball. Both Meyers and Dubón came by their WAR mainly through excellent defense, with Meyers contributing more on the basepaths but less with his bat. Meyers is more or less the second coming of Myles Straw, and Dubón is an excellent superutility player; any offense they contribute will be gravy. Meyers came into camp with a tweaked batting stance and is currently laying waste to the Grapefruit League, but really, the only time we should expect any thump out of the center field position is when McCormick is taking a break from left.

Joey Loperfido may not end up as a center fielder long-term, but he’s been rocketing through the Houston system thanks to a propensity for loud contact.

NamePAAVGOBPSLGwOBABatBsRFldWAR
TJ Friedl427.257.336.422.3300.50.7-1.11.6
Will Benson126.226.339.412.3290.10.1-0.20.5
Stuart Fairchild105.229.313.397.310-1.5-0.10.20.3
Bubba Thompson28.238.288.365.285-1.00.1-0.00.0
Jacob Hurtubise14.248.357.338.316-0.10.00.00.0
Total700.247.332.412.325-2.10.9-1.12.4

In last year’s rankings, the Reds were dead last with just 1.1 WAR. Instead, they finished in 14th place with 2.9. What happened? Well, instead of getting the 14 PAs we projected for him, TJ Friedl got 556. And instead of putting up the .322 wOBA we projected, he put up a .353 en route to a 4.5-WAR season.

So why are the Reds still all the way down here? The first reason is more fun than the second: Because this is a technical college, and Friedl is a lonely liberal arts major. He may as well have been designed in a lab to beat the projections, which have no compunctions about killing BABIP darlings, and are distrustful of soft sciences like defense and baserunning. Friedl has a career .343 wOBA and a .288 xwOBA. In 2023, the left-handed speedster had a league-lapping .146-point difference between his expected and actual slugging percentages. That bonus production came by way of hustle doubles, triples, and homers hooked just hard enough into Cincinnati’s close-enough-to-touch-them right field bleachers.

The second reason is that Friedl fractured his right wrist attempting to make a diving catch on Saturday. There won’t be a firm timetable for his return for another 3-4 weeks. In the meantime, Will Benson, fresh off an only partly BABIP-fueled breakout season, looks likely to shift over from right field to center, with Stuart Fairchild fill in cromulently, as he did in 2023, against lefties.

NamePAAVGOBPSLGwOBABatBsRFldWAR
Ceddanne Rafaela462.258.299.424.310-5.7-0.22.41.4
Jarren Duran168.257.318.424.320-0.70.6-0.50.6
Tyler O’Neill35.258.336.463.3440.60.00.10.2
Romy Gonzalez14.238.288.403.297-0.30.00.00.0
Rob Refsnyder14.262.355.399.3330.1-0.0-0.00.1
Roman Anthony7.230.317.364.302-0.1-0.00.00.0
Total700.257.306.424.314-6.20.42.12.3

Despite the optimism of the projections, it remains to be seen whether the swing-happy Ceddanne Raffaela will have the patience or power to be able to contribute with the bat. Still, anyone who’s seen him play will tell you that the 24-year-old is already an all-world defensive center fielder. After an offseason of waiting to see whether the Red Sox would buy time by signing a center fielder in free agency, it looks like the job will be his. That the team is still giving Raffaela reps at second base and shortstop probably says more about the deficiencies on their roster than in his game.

Jarren Duran is no slouch in center himself, but he looks likely to start in right and shift over to center against lefties. Duran got some help from the BABIP gods in 2023, and the projections see him settling in as just a hair below average at the plate. It’s foolish to read much into platoon splits, so take this with a grain of salt, but after running a 14 wRC+ against lefties in his first two seasons, Duran was up to 98 in 2023 (with his xwOBA going from .219 to .275). Tyler O’Neill is a very good defender as well, so the outfield should be covered at Fenway.

NamePAAVGOBPSLGwOBABatBsRFldWAR
Kyle Isbel441.252.311.402.310-4.50.42.21.5
Drew Waters196.243.313.406.313-1.50.1-0.50.5
Dairon Blanco28.259.323.389.312-0.20.20.10.1
Garrett Hampson21.244.309.351.292-0.50.0-0.10.0
Nelson Velázquez14.238.303.435.316-0.1-0.0-0.10.0
Total700.249.312.402.310-6.80.71.62.2

Kyle Isbel usually sat against left-handed starters in 2023, but this year, he looks like he’ll at least start out as the guy in center field. And that’s great. He’s a great defender. It’s just that he needs to be a great defender in order to offset his wants on the other side of the ball. Isbel cut more than eight points off his strikeout rate in 2023 while largely maintaining his excellent feel for contact and decent overall exit velocity numbers. Unfortunately, when he puts the ball in the air, he rarely pulls it or hits it hard. He’s also one of the most passive hitters in the game, especially in the zone, preferring to stay back and shoot the ball up the middle. Personally, I’d love to see what would happen if Isbel decided to be a bit more aggressive, going out and meeting the ball in front of the plate, even if it cost him some contact.

Drew Waters looks likely to get everyday at-bats in Triple-A until the Royals are ready to bring him up to the big club. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether that day comes because he’s slugging enough to offset a boatload of strikeouts, or because the team has decided that Isbel is better suited to a role as a defensive-minded super-sub than as an everyday center fielder.

NamePAAVGOBPSLGwOBABatBsRFldWAR
Parker Meadows532.231.302.381.297-8.30.62.51.5
Matt Vierling56.257.322.389.311-0.3-0.1-0.10.2
Riley Greene56.270.339.438.3371.0-0.00.20.3
Akil Baddoo21.242.326.398.316-0.00.00.10.1
Mark Canha21.262.362.411.3410.4-0.0-0.10.1
Wenceel Pérez7.244.311.364.297-0.1-0.0-0.00.0
Eddys Leonard7.239.300.376.296-0.1-0.0-0.00.0
Total700.238.309.388.304-7.40.52.52.2

With Riley Greene likely headed for right field, Parker Meadows looks to be the starter in center field, with Matt Vierling getting some time against left-handed pitching. The 6-foot-5 Meadows looked the part in center during a 37-game sample in 2023. At the plate, he put up a 94 wRC+, despite underperforming his .325 xwOBA by a bit. However, there’s a chance that Meadows ends up as yet another young Tiger who has power, but who just hits too many fly balls that aren’t quite long enough to make it out of Comerica Park. He can struggle against fastballs up and offspeed stuff down, and that might just make for too many holes in one swing. There’s quite a bit of variance among the projection systems about what to expect from Meadows, but he has a chance to prove the computers wrong.

Along with third base and a single inning at second, Vierling spent time at all three outfield spots in 2023. His defense in center has usually graded out somewhere just below fine, and his bat has generally done the same. Mark Canha didn’t spend any time in center in 2023, and at 35 he’s better suited for a corner, but his bat would certainly play. Akil Baddoo, somehow still just 25, might not join the club until an injury clears some space for him.

NamePAAVGOBPSLGwOBABatBsRFldWAR
Jackson Chourio553.258.305.411.309-5.30.60.31.6
Garrett Mitchell84.245.319.385.309-0.80.30.40.3
Joey Wiemer42.225.298.394.301-0.7-0.00.20.1
Sal Frelick14.269.338.390.319-0.0-0.00.10.1
Blake Perkins7.218.310.354.295-0.1-0.00.10.0
Total700.254.307.406.309-7.00.81.12.1

With a shiny new eight-year, $82 million contract in hand, Jackson Chourio enters the season as the presumptive starter in center and our third-ranked prospect overall. He also enters the season having left his teenage years behind a matter of weeks ago (as in: two of them), and without a big league plate appearance to his name. The projections don’t expect him to mash right away, but we’re talking about a five-tool player who already plays a great center field despite spending his time at second base until less than three years ago. Chourio will have to go through his growing pains under the bright lights in Milwaukee, and some recent errors had the team publicly waffling about whether he would actually start the season with the big club. His power will likely be more developed than his hit tool this season, but both should grow before our eyes over the next few seasons.

Garrett Mitchell played solid defense in center in a short sample before surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder cost him five months. The projections see him taking a step forward offensively and ending up as something a bit shy of a league-average player. Joey Weimer is only 25, and he was a defensive rockstar in 2023, but the future has arrived in center field, so he looks to be Garrett Mitchell’s platoon partner in right.

NamePAAVGOBPSLGwOBABatBsRFldWAR
Myles Straw406.248.317.319.285-9.31.43.01.0
Estevan Florial112.226.308.391.304-0.8-0.10.50.4
Ramón Laureano84.231.310.399.310-0.20.00.60.4
Tyler Freeman49.264.334.371.313-0.00.0-0.10.2
Will Brennan28.272.320.387.308-0.1-0.00.10.1
Chase DeLauter14.248.297.356.285-0.3-0.0-0.10.0
Steven Kwan7.277.351.385.3240.10.00.10.0
Total700.245.316.348.294-10.71.34.12.1

Myles Straw has averaged 152 games over the past three season, but Cleveland’s coaching staff has made it clear that he’s in competition with Estevan Florial for the starting center field job. With Straw, you used to know exactly what you’re getting: absolutely nothing at the plate, but excellent defense and baserunning, which made for a lopsided, but roughly average center fielder. But here’s the thing: Straw’s defense collapsed last season. Depending on which metric you trust the most, it fell from excellent to either solidly good or just above average. Either way, the whole package simply doesn’t work if Straw isn’t hoovering up absolutely everything in sight. Maybe the problem was that one home run Straw hit in August, which quite possibly sapped the rest of his strength for the entire year.

When Estevan Florial was traded from the Yankees to the Guardians back in January, Eric Longenhagen called him the diametric opposite of Straw at the plate. He’s all power and no contact. Perhaps the Guardians could put the two players’ lockers next to each other in the hopes that one will rub off on the other.

Somehow, Ramón Laureano still has barely more than four years of service time. After putting up a 119 wRC+ in the first four seasons of his career, he’s at 93 over the last two. He looks set to start in right field, and while he’s never graded out particularly well in center, his high-effort approach to defense is a lot of fun to watch.

Michael A. Taylor signed a one-year contract on Friday, and he’ll take over everyday duties in center, shifting Jack Suwinski into a corner. Taylor is entering his age-33 season, but he’s still possessed of excellent speed, and as long as he’s making great plays and unleashing 98-mph throws, he can hold down center field with no problem. He’s also got plenty of power; in 2023, he hit a career-high 21 home runs en route to a 96 wRC+, the second-highest mark of his career. Taylor has a 29.9% career strikeout rate, and in Minnesota, he thrived (relatively speaking) by following what seemed to be an organizational philosophy of aggression, looking to slug and living with the strikeouts. The projections universally see him returning to something like his career wRC+ of 82.

The preternaturally patient Suwinski is set to challenge Joey Gallo and Kyle Schwarber for Three True Outcome supremacy. He put up a 112 wRC+ in 2023 while walking, striking out, homering, or getting hit in 52.2% of his PAs. Suwinski also added value on defense and the basepaths. In all, it’s a great package. Ji Hwan Bae struggled at the plate in 2023, and Steamer is higher on him than any other projection system, with ZiPS projecting a 75 wRC+ and PECOTA an 83 DRC+. Bae is just 24, and after the signing of Taylor and dealing with a hip injury, we no longer expect the speedster, who contributed on the bases and graded out well defensively at center last season, to start the year in Pittsburgh.

NamePAAVGOBPSLGwOBABatBsRFldWAR
Johan Rojas371.247.292.364.286-10.71.23.10.7
Brandon Marsh294.247.327.398.316-1.20.30.71.1
Cristian Pache35.228.300.360.291-0.9-0.10.40.1
Total700.246.307.378.299-12.81.44.11.9

Stop me if, now that we’re solidly in the bottom third of the league, all of these descriptions start to sound the same: Johan Rojas can absolutely fly, and his fantastic defense and baserunning will likely make him both useful and extraordinarily fun to watch, even though his light bat will drag the whole package down. In 2023, Rojas rode a BABIP tsunami to a 109 wRC+ despite barreling just one ball over 59 games, but we’re talking about a player for whom a league-average bat would represent something close to the best-case scenario this season. During the offseason, Rojas added strength and worked remotely with hitting coach Kevin Long to adjust his swing. If it turns out that the 23-year-old really can’t hack it, Brandon Marsh (and platoon partner Cristian Pache) could end up moving back to center, with Whit Merrifield taking over left. But it’d be more fun if Rojas could hack it.

NamePAAVGOBPSLGwOBABatBsRFldWAR
JJ Bleday371.213.316.382.308-0.4-0.5-5.00.8
Esteury Ruiz168.249.316.369.302-1.01.3-0.70.6
Lawrence Butler140.236.291.381.291-2.1-0.0-0.20.3
Seth Brown14.232.298.437.3140.1-0.0-0.00.1
Max Schuemann7.214.307.316.281-0.2-0.00.00.0
Total700.227.311.379.303-3.60.8-5.91.8

It appears that JJ Bleday will be Oakland’s center fielder to start the season, with Esteury Ruiz moving over to left field. What is there to say about Bleday, possessor of the most made-up-sounding name in baseball? Well, he walks a lot, and hey, walks are good! Unfortunately, 2019’s fourth-overall draft pick is now 26, and we have yet to see his excellent eye translate into hard contact, or, well, much contact at all. He doesn’t play great defense in the outfield, and he has a .183 batting average over 147 big league games. He’s going to need a lot more walks to overcome all that.

The defensive metrics are split on Ruiz’s center field defense, but he can fly, and he’ll manage to swipe plenty of bags, even if he has to steal first base in order to do so. Lawrence Butler, a power-over-patience 23-year-old, seems more likely to get his shot in a corner should Bleday give up the starting job.

NamePAAVGOBPSLGwOBABatBsRFldWAR
Victor Robles455.245.319.372.304-6.30.5-0.51.1
Dylan Crews105.225.289.355.283-3.3-0.61.10.1
Lane Thomas77.251.313.437.3230.1-0.0-0.30.3
Jacob Young42.249.308.336.286-1.20.1-0.00.0
Eddie Rosario14.248.297.418.307-0.2-0.0-0.10.0
Alex Call7.236.334.378.315-0.0-0.0-0.00.0
Total700.243.313.376.302-10.90.00.21.6

The Nationals have their sights set squarely on the future, but Victor Robles is an all too real reminder that it’s not here just yet. Robles, who debuted in 2017 and has been Washington’s Opening Day center fielder since 2019, appears set to fill that role one last time. A back injury held Robles to just 36 games in 2023. We should note that in those 36 games, he put up a 112 wRC+ thanks to an unprecedented improvement in plate discipline, but we shouldn’t do much more than note it.

Second overall pick Dylan Crews saw just 14 games of action in Single-A before being promoted to Double-A Harrisburg, but we’ll have to wait and see exactly how much of a hurry the team is in to get him to Washington. Crews certainly looks like the total package, but he has just 159 professional plate appearances under his belt. Lane Thomas had a career year in 2023, but he spent nearly all of his time in the corners rather than center. Alex Call got the plurality of the center field innings in 2023, but with the signing of Eddie Rosario, he looks set to start the season in the minors. The club has said that they expect Rosario to spend some time in center, despite the fact that the last time he played more than nine innings there was 2017. Jacob Young went 13-for-13 in stolen base attempts in just 33 big league games last year and has blazing speed, though he showed very little thump. All of this to say that Robles isn’t the only placeholder.

As of Sunday, 20-year-old shortstop Jackson Merrill, San Diego’s first-round draft pick in 2021, has won the center field job. I’m not trying to be cute when I call Merrill a shortstop. Until the start of spring training, he’d spent just 45 minor league innings in the outfield, not one of them in center field. Merrill ranks 30th on our Top 100 Prospects list, but amazingly, he’s only the fourth-ranked Jackson.

Merrill is starting the season in the majors both because of the names behind him on the depth chart and because he can really hit, though this aggressive promotion means that we’ll be watching him finish his education at the big league level. After injuries limited him to 45 games in 2022, his 2023 numbers weren’t necessarily eye-popping: He put up a combined 108 wRC+ across High- and Double-A while running a high groundball rate and showing a lack of plate discipline. The leap to the NL West after just 46 games in Double-A might be a big one for Merrill, who is — and let me stress this part again — just 20 years old. Still, he makes hard contact to all fields, and could grow into more power sometime between now and when he’s old enough to rent a car. Likewise, only time will tell whether he can move up from the fourth spot on the Jackson power rankings.

NamePAAVGOBPSLGwOBABatBsRFldWAR
Brenton Doyle525.233.278.384.286-24.71.18.90.5
Sam Hilliard126.225.303.418.311-3.30.1-0.50.1
Nolan Jones35.271.361.477.3600.5-0.00.30.2
Bradley Zimmer14.200.289.313.271-0.8-0.0-0.0-0.0
Total700.232.287.393.294-28.41.28.60.8

Brenton Doyle was called up in late April, and despite playing in just 126 games, he won the 2023 Gold Glove going away, finishing at or near the top in just about every defensive metric. Coors Field has a ton of real estate to cover, and Doyle’s elite speed and arm strength made him the perfect person for the job. As for his offense, well, did I mention how great a defender Doyle is?

Doyle’s .593 OPS was the fourth lowest in baseball (minimum 400 PA), and his 35% strikeout rate was the absolute highest. That won’t cut it anywhere, least of all in Colorado. Doyle chased everything, but even when he swung at strikes, he didn’t hit the ball hard and he whiffed way too much. Doyle has been working on his swing, and he did show improved contact ability at the end of the 2023 season and in spring training. With his speed, we should expect him to have better BABIP luck this season.

The projections, doing what they do, expect Doyle to regress toward the mean on both offense and defense. Because his game is as lopsided as you could possibly imagine — Santa seesawing with an elf — that regression is enormous. For the whole package to work, Doyle needs to live up to the projections on offense, taking the huge leap up to Myles Straw levels of production (there’s something I never thought I’d say), while defying them on defense to remain one of the very best defenders in the game.

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