Like most years, the center field list is packed to the gills with athletes and high-ceiling players. Like most years, many of these players are center fielders for now, but won’t be by the time they get to the big leagues. The 2005 draft has the potential to go down as one of the best ever for outfielders–even with Justin Upton and Cameron Maybin already in the majors–and the first three players on the center field list are first-round picks from that year. Another shows up two slots later, and a fifth makes the honorable mention list despite a disappointing year. The usual caveats apply–one has to be in the minors, one has to be technically a prospect (fewer than 130 big league at-bats), and 2007 draftees are not eligible, but will be discussed separately.

1. Jay Bruce, Reds
Age: 20.4
Hitting: .325/.379/.586 at High-A (67 G), .333/.405/.652 at Double-A (16 G), .309/.361/.566 at Triple-A (47 G)

For those that were wondering, let’s make it official–Jay Bruce is too good for the minor leagues. He started the year in the Florida State League, a perfectly fine assignment for a second-year player, and he’s now in Triple-A; neither of his two promotions have had any effect on his productivity. That’s an enormous level of production for a player who doesn’t turn 21 until around Opening Day of next year. With 131 strikeouts in 130 games, Bruce is probably not a .320 hitter in the big leagues, but .300 isn’t hard to imagine because of his propensity for hard contact–he has 78 extra-base hits this year, and many of his doubles (he has 45 this year) are expected to turn into home runs eventually. Bruce has put on nearly 20 pounds (in a good way) since signing, and while he’s holding up his end of the bargain for now in center, right field seems the likely destination. The Reds will go into 2008 with Bruce in the outfield, and he’s one of the best prospects in the game.

2. Colby Rasmus, Cardinals
Age: 21.1
Hitting: .279/.383/.550 at Double-A (122 G)

Like Bruce, Rasmus is a 2005 first-round pick out of high school who has added 20 pounds to his frame since signing. The extra weight has led to a power breakthrough this year, as Rasmus leads the Texas League with 27 home runs. He was good-not-great in the first half of the year, but has been one of the hottest bats in the minors this month, hitting .404/.495/.854 with 11 home runs in 24 games. He’s not the overall offensive force that Bruce is, but he’s not that far behind, and he’s also more of a pure center fielder, with excellent range and a very good arm. As great as Rick Ankiel’s story is, Rasmus will play a bigger role in the future of the franchise.

3. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
Age: 20.9
Hitting: .258/.327/.383 at Double-A (118 G), .283/.298/.370 at Triple-A (11 G)

In the end, it almost seems that McCutchen’s outstanding showing in spring training was about the worst thing for him. He almost made the big league roster for Opening Day, but was instead jumped two levels to Double-A, where it took him three moths to make adjustments. Then, after he hit .306 with six home runs in his last 40 games, the team jumped him again to Triple-A. Ultra-athletic, what McCutchen needs is to accumulate good at-bats at an appropriate level, as opposed to being used as a pawn in Dave Littlefield’s desperate attempt to save his own hide. He’s not ready, and he’s still a multi-faceted talent with a tremendous upside, but there’s the risk starting to come to the surface that the over-aggressive push through the system could hinder his future.

4. Desmond Jennings, Devil Rays
Age: 20.8
Hitting: .315/.401/.465 at Low-A (99 G)

In some ways, Jennings is one of the minor leagues’ breakout players of the year, but in reality, he wasn’t a total secret. He was the Tampa Bay sleeper on my pre-season Top 10 list for the organization, and the Devil Rays had a hard time tempering their excitement for the player that some in the organization saw as a Carl Crawford starter kit. Jennings’ full-season debut this year was cut short by a minor knee injury, but he showed the potential to be an exciting power/speed threat with pure center field skills. Beyond the impressive triple-slash numbers, Jennings stole 45 bases and compiled 45 walks against just 53 strikeouts in 387 at-bats–a surprising ratio for a player generally considered to be a raw talent. Some feel that Jennings still has room to make massive improvements, a scary proposition for a player who has already shown so much.

5. Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox
Age: 24.0
Hitting: .452/.518/.644 at Double-A (17 G), .300/.364/.386 at Triple-A (84 G), .316/.409/.368 at MLB (7 G)

Ellsbury is pretty much a sure thing to become a good big league center fielder, but at the same time, he’s been the subject of a little too much hype based on his season-opening three weeks in the Eastern League. He’s an outstanding defender, and no player on this list can match Ellsbury’s barrel control, but at the same time, it’s hard to see him becoming any kind of impact player. He could hit .300, and he could steal 40-50 bases annually, but at the same time, he doesn’t walk like a leadoff man should, and it’s hard to see him hitting more that 8-12 home runs annually with his level swing and contact-oriented approach. Very good prospect, very safe bat, but not elite.

6. Jordan Schafer, Braves
Age: 21.0
Hitting: .372/.441/.636 at Low-A (30 G), .281/.345/.473 at High-A (99 G)

A third-round pick in 2005, Schafer hit just .240/.293/.376 last year at Low-A. Scouts still saw potential based on his power/speed combination and outstanding defense, as both Schafer’s range and arm rate as 60-70 on the 20-80 scouting scale. This year, the bat is catching up to the glove. After dominating for a month in his return engagement to Rome, Schafer has continued to impress in the Carolina League while playing in one of baseball’s least-friendly offensive parks. Schafer’s nine home runs in 214 road at-bats for Myrtle Beach are a better indication of his power potential than his one homer at home, as are his 48 doubles on the year, which currently ranks third in the minors. Schafer’s power has led to a longer swing and some pull-happy moments, but this is still a five-tool talent with outstanding makeup who has made a bigger step forward than anyone in the organization.

7. Fernando Martinez, Mets
Age: 18.9
Hitting: .111/.200/.333 at Rookie-Level (3 G), .271/.336/.377 at Double-A (60 G)

Martinez’s prospect stock has taken a major hit this year, but it really seems like people are suddenly too down on him. Yes, he didn’t do much at Double-A, but those numbers are hardly embarrassing, and when you consider the fact that Martinez is as old as most of this year’s high school draftees and was playing with a hand injury all year, the numbers suddenly become pretty impressive. The biggest knock against Martinez is an accurate one–there’s no way he can play center field, and he doesn’t have the arm for right. This year may have been a lost season for Martinez, but at the same time, at his age he can definitely afford at least one mulligan.

8. Dexter Fowler, Rockies
Age: 21.5
Hitting: .273/.397/.367 at High-A (65 G)

After breaking out in his full-season debut last year, Fowler got off to a horrible start in the California League, but was hitting .349/.438/.444 in 16 June games before his season was ended when he broke a bone in his wrist by crashing into a wall. Fowler has power potential at 6’5″, but has yet to find it in games, and his swing can get long at times. Even if the power never comes, Fowler already has all the necessary ingredients to be an outstanding leadoff man, with the ability to hit for average, excellent plate discipline, and the speed to swipe 40 bases a year. Fowler could have attended Harvard out of high school, so it’s no surprise that he’s lauded for his baseball intelligence and makeup. Expected to be healthy and in action for the Arizona Fall League, the Rockies hope Fowler can shake off enough rust to prove he’s ready for Double-A next year.

9. Austin Jackson, Yankees
Age: 20.6
Hitting: .260/.336/.374 at Low-A (60 G), .322/.376/.527 at High-A (62 G)

After a ho-hum first full season last year, Jackson began the year repeating Low-A, and once again provided middling production. The Yankees instructional staff worked diligently on shortening his swing and opening his stance a bit, and it’s paid off in a huge way since a promotion to the Florida State League. Jackson has plus raw power and speed, but he’s still learning how to use it in game situations, and his approach at the plate needs to become more patient as well. Defensively, Jackson is still getting by on athleticism alone, as his reads and routes both need to improve for him to stay in center, although the speed to play in the middle is definitely there. Jackson’s second-half surge creates significant excitement, but he still needs to prove it over a full season before everyone will believe in him.

10. Gorkys Hernandez, Tigers
Age: 20.0
Hitting: .289/.342/.384 at Low-A (117 G)

The prize position player from Detroit’s Latin American program, Hernandez had an outstanding pro debut in the Gulf Coast League, and his first full season has earned him a Midwest League All-Star game appearance and more laurels from the scouting community. Hernandez’s game is all about speed, as he’s a threat to turn any ball hit to the left side into an infield single, and he leads the Midwest League with 52 stolen bases while being caught only 10 times. In the field, he has good instincts and outstanding range to go with a plus arm. The biggest question concerning Hernandez’s future revolves around whether or not he’ll develop secondary skills. He has the bat speed for power, but needs to add muscle to his skinny frame in order to develop it, and he still needs to improve his plate discipline. The Tigers have no immediate pressing need for another speedy outfielder, so they’ll be patient with Gorkys.

11. Michael Saunders, Mariners
Age: 20.8
Hitting: .299/.392/.473 at High-A (108 G), .288/.373/.442 at Double-A (15 G)

Mariners officials felt like a breakout from the toolsy Canadian was imminent, and they proved to be right. Saunders took advantage of playing in High Desert to get his offense going, but his showing at Double-A so far has proven that he wasn’t simply taking advantage of his Cal League home park. Still short of his 21st birthday, Saunders is a towering presence at the plate who combines 20+ home run power with above-average speed. At his size–6’4, 205 lbs.–there are some concerns that he’ll need to move to a corner eventually, but he’s yet to lose a step since signing, and has 29 stolen bases this year. Mariners prospects are often difficult to evaluate because of the aggressive way Seattle pushes them up through the system, but Saunders’ breakout is impressive on any level.

12. Tyler Colvin, Cubs
Age: 22.0
Hitting: .306/.336/.514 at High-A (63 G), .295/.313/.456 at Double-A (55 G)

A first-round pick last year, Colvin has good numbers on the surface, reaching Double-A in his full-season debut and accumulating 225 total bases in 118 games. Unfortunately, the bad news balances out the good, for the most part. Colvin’s over-aggressive approach has led to just 14 walks in 462 at-bats, including just four in 55 games since a promotion to Tennessee. In addition, Colvin’s ability to play center has come into question, leading us to one of the tenets of prospect analysis–when there are whispers that a player might have to move off a position, the chances are overwhelming that in the end that player will move off the position. There’s lots to like here, but still lots of work to be done, and if the walks don’t reach something approaching an even marginally acceptable level, then none of his other skills will matter much.

13. Fernando Perez, Devil Rays
Age: 24.4
Hitting: .298/.413/.465 at Double-A (94 G)

After leading the league in runs scored last year, Perez has proved that his 2006 season was much more than a Cal League fluke with another strong year, only this time in the much more offensively-challenged Southern League. Perez has enough gap power to keep pitchers honest, and works the count with the best of them, but at times can become too patient at the plate, waiting for the perfect pitch and finding himself behind in the count, leading to a high strikeout total. He’s a gifted center fielder, but still learning how to use his plus-plus speed on the base paths, as he’s been successful on just 27 of 45 stolen base attempts. It’s hard to figure out where he fits in Tampa’s crowded outfield picture, but that shouldn’t have any impact on his prospect status. It’s easy to project him as an outstanding fourth outfielder/occasional starter.

14. Drew Stubbs, Reds
Age: 22.9
Hitting: .267/.360/.411 at Low-A (122 G)

Stubbs is a scout’s dream. He’s big, has tons of raw power and plus-plus speed, and is arguably the best defensive outfielder in the minor leagues. Unfortunately, there’s that pesky hitting thing that’s holding him back. As a college product playing in the Midwest League, 136 strikeouts in 122 games is a massive red flag, although he’s made some strides in the second half, batting .301/.389/.505 in 48 games since July 1st–but with 54 whiffs in 186 at-bats. People once talked about a Mike Cameron projection being the bottom end for Stubbs, but now it’s looking more like the median.

15. Ryan Kalish, Red Sox
Age: 19.4
Hitting: .368/.471/.540 at Short-season (23 G)

The Red Sox gave Kalish $600,000 as a ninth-round pick last year, and while they decided to hold him back in extended spring training this year, he was beginning to make up for lost time with a tremendous first month at Lowell before a broken hamate bone ended his season. Before the injury, Kalish impressed scouts with his gap power, advanced approach, blazing speed, and solid defensive skills. His full-season debut next year will most definitely be one to watch.

2007 Draftees

Unlike 2005, this year’s draft was anything but a good one for athletic up-the-middle players, including center fielders. The top high school hopeful was arguably Michael Main, who is instead pitching (and doing quite well, thank you) for the Rangers. Actual center fielders didn’t get selected until the 28th and 29th picks of the draft, when the Twins took the blazing fast but tiny and powerless Ben Revere, while the Giants took toolsy and incredibly raw Wendell Fairley. That Julio Borbon (Rangers, 35th overall) received a big league deal is another testament to just how good an agent Scott Boras is, and how much some scouts overrate speed at times. No matter how fast Borbon is, he’s completely bereft of any secondary skills, drawing just six walks in 40 games this year (and that’s college ball), while slugging only three home runs.

Honorable Mention

Brandon Boggs, Rangers: A little bit older than most (turns 25 in January), the former Georgia Tech star has power, defensive chops, and a propensity for strikeouts.
Trevor Crowe, Indians: After a blistering 2006 campaign, Crowe has come back to earth this year, and also projects as a left fielder in the end. The good news is that he’s hitting .322/.394/.475 in his last 50 games.
Darren Ford, Brewers: One of the fastest players in the minors, Ford has stolen 67 bases this year and drawn 58 walks, but his numbers have taken a nosedive (.235/.323/.314) since a move up to the Florida State League.
Justin Maxwell, Nationals: The best athlete in the Nats’ system, Maxwell is healthy for the first time in ages, and while he turns 24 in November and is still only in A-ball, he’s amassed 24 home runs and 34 stolen bases.
John Shelby, White Sox: The son of a pretty good defensive center fielder in his own right, Shelby Jr. moved to the outfield in midseason from second base, and has hit .308/.342/.534 at the position.

Keep An Eye On: Jason Pridie, Devil Rays: A second-round pick in 2002, Pridie had a .470 slugging percentage at Low-A in 2004 (27 doubles, 11 triples, 17 home runs), and also stole 27 bases, but he fell off the radar over the last two years due to injuries and lack of production, including a .230/.281/.304 line at Double-A Montgomery last year. After getting off to a much better start with the Biscuits this year, Pridie has exploded at Triple-A Durham, batting .317/.377/.546 in 57 games. All but left for dead going into the year, the Arizona native is back on the organization’s crowded outfield depth chart.

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