Under normal circumstances, the 2020 Major League Baseball season would be rounding into its first full month of action. However, these are far from regular times and due to the global shift in the norm, whether MLB Opening Day is delayed — or even outright canceled — is anybody’s guess.
Therefore, since the trivial is more necessary than ever, here is a look at the (currently anticipated) MLB top ten players, by position, for the 2020 campaign.
To say there is an embarrassment of riches in heart of the outfield currently would be a ridiculous understatement. Mike Trout and Cody Bellinger, aka the reigning MVPs of their respective leagues, call center field their homes. There is former World Series MVP in George Springer tossed in as well, for good measure. The group could have been even deeper, had Ronald Acuna Jr.or Ketel Marte still been slated to stick in center in the new year.
Yet even with the departures, there are few positions that boast the type of top end talent currently in center. While it is easy to fixate on Trout and everything has done and is yet to do, there is also a tremendous blend of skill at the role currently. The all-around ability of Springer is something to behold, while the top highlight of any evening could come via the glove of Victor Robles, Ramon Laureano, Kevin Kiermaier, Jackie Bradley Jr.or Byron Buxton. Lorenzo Cain and Starling Marte remain productive mainstays, while the bundle of energy that is Whit Merrifield is headed to the outfield full-time as well. If that isn’t enough, top prospects Luis Robert and Cristian Pache are the brink of adding even more exciting young talents to the role.
Here’s a look at the best of the best in the heart of the outfield; and the many avenues they took to get there.
1. Mike Trout, Angels
An anticlimactic start to things, but here we are. The game’s consensus top player enters his age 28 season as the best player of all-time at his age by WAR. His 72.8 wins are 3.9 better than his closest all-time peer competition, a guy by the name of Ty Cobb. His 72.8 career WAR is 86th all-time, as he passed both of this year’s Hall of Fame selections Larry Walker (72.7) and Derek Jeter (71.3) last season.
Yet, while Trout continues to affirm his legend at all-time pace, it is still worthwhile in focusing on his distance from package in the present. He won his third AL MVP in 2019, hitting .291 with 45 home runs, scoring 110 runs and driving in 104, all while missing the final three weeks of the season with a foot injury. Trout also led the AL in OPS for the third straight season (1.083), on-base % for fourth-straight season (.438) and OPS+ (185) for the fifth consecutive year.
The scariest thing is that he is still getting better. His 12.3 extra-base hit % was a career-high, while his rate of swinging at strikes outside of the zone hit a career-low 19.1%. Over the past two seasons, Trout’s walk and strikeout rate have been nearly equal at 20.2% and 19.2%, respectively. To put it squarely, as he approaches 30, he’s becoming more of a sure thing, more often.
2. Cody Bellinger, Dodgers
Depending on the unpredictable future of Mookie Betts and if he ever actually plays for the Dodgers or not, this could be Bellinger’s sole season projected as primary center fielder. But regardless of alignment, only Trout surpasses his ability or production among those projected at the position.
Bellinger claimed NL MVP honors via an NL-best 9.1 WAR season that included 47 homers, 121 runs scored and a league-high 351 total bases. He also excelled in both the outfield and at first base, winning his first Gold Glove in right field.
What was most impressive about Bellinger was the maturity he displayed at the plate. His average grew over 40 points to .305, via a far more disciplined eye and management of the strike zone. Bellinger grew his on-base % to .405 from .343, increased his walks by 26 to 95 total and cut his strikeouts substantially to 105 from an average of 149 annually his first two seasons. He still swings with bad intentions every time up; however, he is benefiting from more selective engagements.
3. George Springer, Astros
Springer enjoyed the best all-around year of his career in 2019, hitting a career-best 39 homers, along personal highs in RBI (96) and across his total split line of .292/.383/.591/.974. This came while he was limited to just 122 games, due to a mixture of hamstring and concussion issues. Had he not twice lost this time, Springer could have realistically become the first centerfielder to hit 50 home runs since Andruw Jones in 2005.
Regardless, Springer made saw his third-straight All-Star selection and finished seventh in AL MVP voting. He is line to be a massively sought-after free agent this winter, as Houston has some tough financial decisions on the horizon in regards to holding its core together.
4. Whit Merrifield, Royals
Merrifield made his first All-Star appearance in 2019, a season where he led the American League with 206 hits and 10 triples. He also set personal highs with an .811 OPS, 105 runs scored and 315 total bases. While he didn’t lead the AL in stolen bases for a third consecutive season, he did manage to swipe 20 bags on the year.
Although Merrifield made the majority of his starts at second base a year ago, he still made 77 appearances in the outfield. His versatility and price tag (a total of $13 million due through 2022) makes him arguably the game’s greatest value performer.
5. Lorenzo Cain, Brewers
After a top 10 finish in NL MVP the prior year, Cain’s production at the plate tailed off in 2019. His OPS dropped over 100 points to .697, stolen bases declined from 30 to 18 and OPS+ fell back from 119 to 81 and his .325 on-base percentage ranked 36th among all outfielders who qualified for the batting title.
Where Cain did not erode however was with the glove, where he won the game’s longest overdue Gold Glove. He ranked second among center fielders in both defensive runs saved with 22 and with a 2.4 defensive WAR. He is not quite a defense-only type yet, but a turnaround at the plate would be timely.
6. Starling Marte, Diamondbacks
The Diamondbacks outbid the Mets among others to land Marte this winter, who was the most prized available piece of the Pirates’ retooling effort. They will add one of the game’s most consistent contributors in the process to the heart of their outfield. He produced a .295/.342/.503 split in 2019, coupled with 23 home runs, 31 doubles and 97 runs scored. Marte’s 25 stolen bases marked the seventh straight season he bested 20 swipes.
7. Ramon Laureano, Athletics
Few are as capable of creating excitement as often or in as many different ways as the 25-year-old, came on a big way last season. He hit .288 with 24 home runs and 13 stolen bases, but so in a consistently thrilling manner. In the field, he unleashed perhaps the game’s best center field arm to the tone of 10 assists, including two double plays. Although he is prone to getting a bit too excited at times — as his league-high seven errors indicate — the ‘Laser Show’ is a thrilling bundle of ability to behold.
8. Victor Robles, Nationals
At just 22, Robles’ 2.7 dWAR was tops among all outfielders, while his 12 assists led all center fielders and were the third-most overall. But the most stunning part of Robles’ game is just how wide-spanning his range truly seems. He doesn’t have to make a ton of diving or sprawling catches, simply because he is so fast that he gets to everything with time to spare. His 29.3 60-yard-dash speed makes him the fastest outfielder in the game and contributed to his 28 stolen bases as well.
9. Aaron Hicks, Yankees
When he’s healthy, Hicks’ production would easily slot him within the top five of this group. He produced an .874 OPS between the first half of 2017 and with the 2018 campaign combined, totaling 37 homers, 130 runs scored along with a .260/.382/.491 split line over 197 games. However, the run has twice been interrupted by significant injuries, first an oblique injury in 2017, then an elbow issue that required Tommy John surgery, which ended his 2019 as well.
10. Kevin Kiermaier, Rays
There are several players (such as Byron Buxton and Jackie Bradley Jr.) that fall into a similar range as Kiermaier; glove-first, speed types that bring little to the plate, but save it with their defensive abilities. Kiermaier picked up his third Gold Glove Award in 2019, while his 48 defensive runs saved are tops among all center fielders since 2017. Most remarkably, he’s accomplished that while notching triple-digit games played only once.
Conversely, his .706 OPS is sixth-lowest among center fielders with at least 1,200 at-bats over the past three seasons.
Top Prospects: Luis Robert (White Sox #3), Jared Kelenic (Mariners, #11), Cristian Pache (Braves, #13)
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