Spring Training Teasers: Couch Side’s top five center fielders for 2012

BY BRANDON J. SMITH, Couchsideshow.com contributor

As part of The Couch Side’s MLB positional power rankings, we turn to Centerfield, arguably one of the more important positions in the game.

But first, here is my 10-6 to build anticipation

10. Cameron Maybin, San Diego Padres

9. Dexter Fowler, Colorado Rockies

8. Drew Stubbs, Cincinnati Reds

7. Chris Young, Arizona Diamondbacks

6. Shane Victorino, Philadelphia Phillies

Now onto the cream of the crop, the five best centerfielders in the game right now.

5. Michael Bourn, Atlanta Braves 

The Braves leadoff hitter split time between Houston and Atlanta last season, and he still led the NL in stolen bases with 61. He’s a fantasy goldmine, simply put. He has two gold gloves in his short career, and rates favorably with his defense. What is he expected to achieve this year? The projection model ZiPS has him hitting .270 with 97 runs scored, and 56 stolen bases. I’ll take that, you’ll take that, and we’ll all take that.

Boston Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury set personal bests on batting average, home runs and RBI last season. Photo by: Chris Walton / Flickr

4. Jacoby Ellsbury, Boston Red Sox 

This was a tricky one; Ellsbury in 2011 had a near MVP season at the dish, only to have his teammates do their best to sabotage those efforts, which they did. Assuming the Red Sox won’t self destruct with a montage of alcoholic behavior, and unhealthy food choices, they’ll be back in the postseason, and so will the 4th best centerfielder in baseball. Jacoby had a herculean spike in power last year. The HR totals from his first four healthy seasons look like this,

2007: 3

2008: 9

2009: 8

2011: 32

That’s pretty remarkable, almost Jose Bautista-like. The question of whether or not he has a season close to that production remains to be seen, but it would be hard to believe that his peripherals would enable him to improve on such a feat.

Consider that he bats leadoff, and likely took advantage of pitchers trying to gain fastball control early on, and served meatballs for him to sauté. I’m not saying that Ellsbury lucked into this power, but pitchers are going to be aware of his newfound ability, and find ways to adjust. Ellsbury must accordingly do the same, so I don’t see the same numbers repeating itself. At the same time, he’s still going to be damn good.  As a leadoff hitter, I don’t think he gets 100 RBI again, but he’ll have around 20 bombs, bat .300, get on-base over a .350 mark, steal around 40 bases, and play good defense in a tough centerfield in Boston.

3. Curtis Granderson, New York Yankees 

The Grandyman still can, and will be one of the more excellent and philanthropic players in the game. I can go on about his offense skills (and I will), but his off-field work immediately come to find when I think of this man. His charity and what he does with this unique position of influence makes him one of my favorite all around players. He’s not great defensively, but that’s no secret, what he brings is an all around excellent, and consistent offensive game.  He hit 41 home runs last year and led the AL in runs scored and RBI, and he’s likely to continue that trend. He’ll benefit more if Jeter gets on-base at a higher rate as well. He also stole 25 bags and hit 10 triples. Don’t let the .264 battering average fool you, he offset that with a .364 on-base percentage. Because of Grandyman’s multi-faceted hitting skills, and aid from the short porch in New Yankee Stadium, he was a 5 wins above replacement player (WAR) in 2011. To simplify, he was worth five extra wins to his team in comparison with the average major leaguer. Such value cannot be overlooked, the Yankees didn’t when they traded for him, and will continue to benefit from his production on a loaded team.

2. Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates 

It would be wise to start calling him “McClutchen,” because Pittsburgh dug deep into their pockets and gave their star player an extension worth $51 million over the next six years, keeping him through age 30. A marvelous deal for one of the rising stars in the game, and finally one that the Pirates can use to successfully market in order to bring back fans and increase revenue. I love the trend of small market teams locking up young stars in general. The Tampa Bay Rays are the perfect model for this when they gave long term deals to Evan Longoria and Matt Moore, and it’s great to see the Pirates doing the same. So what will they get from this newly minted millionaire? At the very least 25 home runs, around a .280 batting average, .370 OBP, 100 RBI, and at least 20 stolen bases, making him a key piece to that Pittsburgh lineup. He plays with flair in CF, which great speed and athleticism allowing him to cover ground, and make tough catches with the Alleghany as his backdrop. As someone who was a last minute addition to the most recent All-Star game thanks to injury and players bowing out, it’s very possible that McCutchen could be starting over the next six years, but he’ll have tough competition with the best centerfielder in baseball.

1. Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers 

Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp almost won the National League MVP last season, hitting .324 with 39 home runs and 126 RBIs. Photo by: SD Dirk / Flickr

What can’t Matt Kemp do? Almost nothing, apparently, because he has the stones to project that he’ll become the first 50 home run- 50 stolen base player in history. I like this enthusiasm and reckless abandon, it means that a guy is hungry for more, and won’t settle for a near Triple Crown season in which he hit .324 with 39 HRs and 126 driven in. When the next best player in your lineup is an injured and declining Andre Ethier, you’re going to have issues scoring runs, and yet Kemp was able to have an amazing season, while being robbed of an MVP award. Going back to WAR, Kemp was worth 10 wins (lead all of MLB) to the Dodgers, and it shows given how porous the rest of the offense preformed.  Kemp did win a gold glove in CF last year too, but it seemed a bit like a popularity contest, because when you compare Kemp with his peers defensively, and he’s not as good as some even in his own division (D-Back fan bias showing, but also objectivity). This is not to say he isn’t athletic, because he is, but he’s not the best when it comes to covering ground. But that is neither here or there, because his average defensive skills have no impact on his offensive prowess. It would be hard to imagine him exceeding his numbers from last year, but who knows, he could go 50-50, or simply settle for 40-40. He’s that good, and it’s why Matt Kemp is the best centerfielder in baseball.

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