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March 3, 2009

Fantasy Beat

Center Field

by Marc Normandin

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Center field is a position where you can find many of the best fantasy players around-you've got sluggers who will drive in runs, be driven in by their teammates, hit for power and average, and steal a load of bases. With that being said, the talent level on the list drops drastically near the bottom end, so if you leave it for too long come your league's draft, you'll be stuck hoping that Vernon Wells has one of his good seasons, or throwing up your hands and drafting someone like Willy Taveras or Michael Bourn solely for their stolen bases.

In leagues that do not differentiate between outfield positions, grabbing multiple center fielders can be a quality strategy; it will make your own lineup stronger and more balanced, while hurting your league mates and forcing them to rely on the corners, where the selections are not quite as attractive.

In order to make these rankings, I used the 2009 weighted-mean PECOTA projections as a base, and tweaked the results as I saw fit. This isn't a descending list of projected 2009 VORP by any means. Make sure you check out the players' 75th- and 25th-percentile forecasts on their PECOTA cards, as those may help you to make decisions between players you might be debating over.

I'm ranking the players at their primary position; if you don't see a player here, it's because he's either not good enough, or because he's been ranked at a different position. This allows me to cover more players for those of you in deeper leagues. Also, there will be one unified outfield list, but I am going to cover each position individually first.


Rank Name              Team       PA  R  HR RBI SB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  Beta
 1.  Carlos Beltran    Mets      652 106 27  96 18  .293/.385/.513  0.91
 2.  B.J. Upton        Rays      558  90 14  58 40  .267/.367/.424  0.85
 3.  Grady Sizemore    Indians   704 110 30  98 27  .269/.368/.494  0.84
 4.  Josh Hamilton     Rangers   642  91 25  94  8  .284/.351/.483  0.82
 5.  Nate McLouth      Pirates   612  93 21  78 20  .285/.365/.492  0.94
 6.  Matt Kemp         Dodgers   574  85 19  76 26  .293/.352/.480  0.97
 7.  Jacoby Ellsbury   Red Sox   569  87  7  53 42  .291/.348/.409  0.93
 8.  Curtis Granderson Tigers    613  86 22  77 11  .267/.344/.470  0.77
 9.  Lastings Milledge Nats      521  73 14  61 21  .281/.352/.442  0.85
10.  Chris B. Young    D'backs   601  85 24  82 19  .268/.341/.487  0.92

We have three players in a row with somewhat similar profiles, but subtle differences that give them each their respective ranking. Carlos Beltran should hit for a solid average, and though his power has been in decline over the past three years (his HR/FB% has dipped from 21 to 17 to 15.7 percent) he's still got plenty of pop. He's also hit .289/.368/.580 on the road from 2006-2008, and the Mets are moving out of Shea Stadium into their new digs at Citi Field this year. Last season that split was much less severe than it has been in the past, so this may not have as much of an effect as we think. B.J. Upton's forecast doesn't look that promising, but I'm basically ignoring it. PECOTA doesn't know that Upton played with a bum shoulder all of last year as he recovered from surgery; I think we're looking at more of a .280/.380/.480 season or so, and maybe with even more power (PECOTA has his 90th-percentile forecast as .298/.406/.491). Being in an improved Rays' lineup should also boost Upton's runs scored and RBI totals, and he's the best option on this list if you want steals out of your center fielder as well. Then there's Grady Sizemore, who probably won't hit for the same kind of batting average as the two men in front of him, but should be just as dangerous in the runs and RBI categories while hitting homers and stealing a few bases of his own. This is one of those situations where you can't really go wrong with any of the three, and the rankings are there simply because they have to be.

Josh Hamilton's forecast is a little lower than what I expect him to do; he may be the best hitter of these first four, but he's lacking in the steals department compared to the others. Texas had the best offense in the majors last year, but they'll miss Milton Bradley's bat. Still, expect Hamilton to load up on runs and RBI while hitting for power. I probably wouldn't draft Hamilton in the first round of a standard draft, since much of his elite value is wrapped up in context-sensitive team stats, but I wouldn't balk at taking him at the beginning of the second round.

Thanks to improved contact that has helped him cut down on his strikeouts, Nate McLouth should continue to post batting averages better than those he had before 2008. He's a well-balanced player, a 20/20 guy who would probably hold more value if he was playing for a team with more offense around him. Matt Kemp and McLouth actually profile very similarly statistically; Kemp, the younger of the two, obviously has more upside, but he doesn't have the nifty contact rate that McLouth does, which makes him more reliant on a higher BABIP for that good-looking average. If Kemp could drop his strikeouts down to about 20 percent or lower, I would throw him in front of McLouth, and never look back. Also, please note that Kemp's runs scored and RBI won't look nearly as attractive if Manny Ramirez doesn't end up in Los Angeles (PECOTA is factoring Ramirez into their offense).

Jacoby Ellsbury ended up struggling in the middle of the season once pitchers realized that he had no power and couldn't move his bat quickly enough to fend off an inside fastball, but he adjusted as the season progressed, hitting .314/.352/.463 over the last two months of the season. Overall, I think that his PECOTA forecast isn't far off from the production you can expect from him-I certainly wouldn't bet on him slugging .463 for a full season. The huge number of stolen bases is also nice, and along with his batting average and the fact that he'll hit at the top of the Red Sox lineup, it's easy to see why he's a top 10 center fielder.

Curtis Granderson is a well-balanced player who will nab you some counting stats, but he doesn't really excel in any one category, which keeps him from being ranked higher. Lastings Milledge would get more credit from me if he could display some kind of consistency or power for more than 10 minutes at a time, but at least he hit .299/.355/.448 in the second half, and he did swipe 24 bags. Chris Young needs to display better contact to become an elite-level player, but for now, he's a solid mix of homers and steals, and playing in hitter-friendly Arizona should help his numbers. One thing to remember is that his pitch selection improved last year-he swung at fewer pitches outside of the strike zone, and made better contact on the ones he did swing at. His contact rate still isn't anything to be proud of, but if he can take a few more baby steps, we might even be able to believe that projected batting average.


Rank Name             Team      PA   R HR RBI SB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  Beta
11.  Cody Ross        Marlins  404  55 18  61  6  .272/.343/.497  0.95
11.  Shane Victorino  Phils    565  84 12  53 26  .291/.352/.430  0.73
13.  Cameron Maybin   Marlins  588  83 15  57 21  .265/.347/.429  0.98
14.  Mike Cameron     Brewers  492  70 21  65 16  .254/.345/.472  0.85
15.  Jody Gerut       Padres   455  68 15  63  8  .302/.365/.500  0.92
16.  Adam Jones       Orioles  488  66 18  67 10  .278/.331/.470  0.92
17.  Torii Hunter     Angels   553  70 18  79 13  .274/.330/.447  1.06
18.  Aaron Rowand     Giants   514  59 14  66  4  .275/.336/.431  0.92
19.  Vernon Wells     Jays     525  63 16  71  6  .267/.323/.435  0.86
20.  Willy Taveras    Reds     384  53  1  24 39  .264/.320/.325  0.90

Cody Ross won't be playing in center field, but he qualifies there thanks to last year. His forecast has him down for just 404 PA, but if you prorate his counting stats to 600 PA (as he'll be playing daily in a corner), he'd have 81 runs, 27 homers, 91 RBI, and nine steals. If you need batting average more than steals, he's probably more valuable to you than Chris Young in 2009. Shane Victorino won't hit many home runs for you despite his bandbox home park, but he's in a powerful lineup that will drive him in, and he's capable of some sack thievery while on base. PECOTA seems certain that's where Victorino is going to end up-his 0.73 is one of the more confident Beta marks we've seen in all of the rankings thus far.

In contrast with Ross, Cameron Maybin will be playing center for the Fish, and though PECOTA projects to have a solid season, it won't be quite up to the elite level we're sure to see from him in the future. Regardless, this is looking like it could be a quality rookie season for Maybin-he's got a bit more pop than Victorino, but he'll be weaker in batting average unless he can drop his strikeout rate a bit-he whiffed 27 percent of the time at Double-A last year. Mike Cameron is a good pick, and like so many other hitters on this list, he'll give you plenty in the HR and SB departments, though his batting average will always be a problem. Chris Young, who comps similarly to Cameron right now, has more upside given his youth and projectability, but Cameron is a "safe" pick, in my opinion.

I wrote about Jody Gerut as having one of the PECOTA projections that deserved a closer look a few weeks back. I think the biggest downside with Gerut would be the possibility of his losing out on playing time to Scott Hairston and Will Venable; if he plays in center for most of the year, he'll have a surprising amount of value as long as he can keep on hitting at Petco. Adam Jones should play every day for the Orioles, so his counting stats should all look better than the ones listed, but I still worry about his ability to hit for power this year given his .130 ISO in '08. He's just 23 years old, so he obviously has time to develop further, but this list is for 2009, not for the long term.

From here, your options are quite boring. Torii Hunter, Aaron Rowand, and Vernon Wells are all guys who are not going to give you any less or more than you expect. None of them are even close to the level that people have said they are, and there are much better options ranked ahead of them on this list. If you're stuck and in a deep league-specific format, Hunter is probably your best bet; he provides extra power and steals relative to the other two. Wells is the second of four Blue Jays who will be on these fantasy rankings, but his placement at the bottom of the list says much about the Jays' lack of offense.

Willy Taveras is the 20th-ranked player, but it could have been Michael Bourn or Carlos Gomez or any other stolen base-only speed demons you can think of. They're actually all 20th, or this position's version of the "Just Missed" category. There are a lot of options available to you from center field if you're just in need of some extra steals, but I don't suggest going out of your way to draft any of them, especially with some of the fantastic power/speed combinations at the position. Guys like Bourn, Taveras, and Gomez have some value in head-to-head leagues with daily changes though, as you can sub them in and out if you're secure with your OBP or power stats and just looking for some help on the bases.

17 comments have been left for this article.

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