Organizational droughts: center field

Jim Rogash

When was the last time your team developed a star center fielder? If you're an Orioles fan, you almost certainly know this one off the top of your head.

Welcome to the penultimate chapter of Organizational Droughts, in which we look at the last time each organization developed a star at each position. The criteria is simple, if arbitrary: We're looking for center fielders who had a four-win season for the team that drafted him (or signed him as an amateur free agent). Willie Mays would count for the Giants, for example, but Grady Sizemore wouldn't for the Indians because the Expos drafted him.

Maybe this is just the ether talking, but if I had to choose the position with the most mystique, I'd take center field by a hair over shortstop and catcher. Center field is where the tools monsters roam. Can't be there unless you're fast, and you shouldn't be there unless you have at least a decent arm and good range. And if you're fast with an arm and some range, you're just two tools away from the tools cycle.

Center fielders are the people who do this:

You might be a catcher junkie or shortstop fetishist, but I'm a center-fielder aficionado. Tools. All the tools.

The last in-house CF of note for each team:

Still with the team

Red Sox - Jacoby Ellsbury (8.1 wins above replacement, 2011)
Dodgers - Matt Kemp (8.1, 2011)
Angels - Mike Trout, (10.9, 2012)
Pirates - Andrew McCutchen (7.2, 2012)
Nationals - Bryce Harper (5.2, 2012)

Four first-round picks and Matt Kemp. It's not a coincidence that four of the five were first-round draft picks. Tools! Which makes it pretty amazing that Kemp lasted until the sixth round of the 2003 draft. The Dodgers drafted Xavier Paul out of high school two rounds before Kemp, which gives you a pretty good idea of how fleeting and mercurial that hitting tool really is. If Paul could hit like Kemp, he'd be just as lauded and probably as rich. That's a biiiiig if, though. For a little while, the Dodgers probably thought more of Paul as a prospect:

He showed up on the Dodgers radar by accident, according to (Logan) White, who joined scout Mike Leuzinger at a tournament looking to see a hyped left-handed pitcher who never made it. White, however, liked the right fielder with the "baby fat," was confident Kemp would make the switch from basketball and signed him for $130,000.

"To be honest, I was a little naive, but I did some research and figured he could play Division I basketball, but he wasn't going to play in the NBA," said White. "He was mid-range -- not tall enough to be a big man and not small enough to be a ball handler. We drafted him and went to his home, met his mom and he signed quickly. But the first year, I would get a lot of voice messages -- 'Don't know about this Matt Kemp kid. Very long swing.' "

Of course, if Kemp went through a D-I program, he probably would have been a top-five pick by the time he was drafted.

Recent past

White Sox - Aaron Rowand (5.7, 2004)
Royals - David DeJesus (4.4, 2005)
Braves - Andruw Jones (5.6, 2006)
Mariners - Ichiro Suzuki (5.8, 2007)
Tigers - Curtis Granderson (4.3, 2009)
Blue Jays - Vernon Wells (4.2, 2010)
Rays - B.J. Upton (4.4, 2011)
Twins - Denard Span (5.1, 2012)

Not sure if Ichiro really counts, seeing as the Orix Blue Wave did most of the developing. But if not Ichiro, the Mariners have the Platonic ideal of a toolsy center fielder, Ken Griffey, Jr., backing him up.

This is probably just a coincidence, but almost all of those names have something in common, and it isn't a good thing. With the exception of Ichiro, they didn't age particularly well. The jury's still out on Span and Upton, of course, but they're both in the middle of disappointing-to-wretched seasons right now.

Not-so-recent past

Cardinals - Ray Lankford (6.2, 1998)
Astros - Lance Berkman (4.8, 2002)
Yankees - Bernie Williams (4.5, 2002)
Orioles - Luis Matos (4.0, 2003)

/looks at Matos's name

/takes off glasses, tosses them on the table

/rubs temples

Dammit, WAR.

Adam Jones wouldn't make the list because he used to be Mariners property, but he also wouldn't make it on merit -- he's never passed the four-win threshold. That's because it's a hard-to-reach threshold. It's supposed to be. That's the whole point of this exercise. It's supposed to be impossible for questionable talents to back into a four-win season.

And here we are, talking about Luis Matos.

Matos played seven seasons. He was worth 4.7 wins for his career according to Baseball Reference. Yet he makes this list. You can see the disconnect. He was rushed a little bit, so it's probably not that fair to suggest he was a non-prospect; his numbers might have superficially improved if he weren't always one of the younger players in his league.

But he was close to a non-prospect. The Orioles played him because no one answered their ad on CompuServe, and for a season, Matos was brilliant. The Orioles were 67-95 the previous year, and 71-91 with Matos's career year. See? Four wins. That's how these stats work, I'm pretty sure …

If you want to throw Matos out of the running because he makes you and your statistics look like fools, Al Bumbry is the next choice for the O's. That's a much better choice. Bumbry never lived up to his Rookie of the Year season, but he stayed with the Orioles for 13 seasons. People seemed to like him because he was polite, and he was rarely late. He wasn't exactly a star, but goodness, he wasn't Luis Matos.

Berkman was also the Astros' rep for first base and left field, and I have a feeling he'll be there for right field, too. That's technically accurate, but boring for Astros fans. The history of the franchise doesn't begin and end with Berkman getting drafted in 1997. The runner-up was Richard Hidalgo in 2000, and he had a fascinating, frustrating career. He had two transcendent seasons and a whole lot of bad ones. The transcendent seasons were enough to make this seem normal:


Finally, Lankford serves as a good reminder that this book exists and you should buy it.

Distant past

Cubs - Andy Pafko (6.6, 1950)
Indians - Larry Doby (5.7, 1954)
Phillies - Richie Ashburn (7.1, 1958)
Athletics - Dwayne Murphy (4.3, 1984)
Giants - Chili Davis (5.1, 1984)
Mets - Lenny Dykstra (4.7, 1986)
Padres - Kevin McReynolds (4.2, 1986)
Reds - Eric Davis (4.3, 1988)
Brewers - Robin Yount (5.8, 1989)

I've always been tempted to do a "most underrated" series at BN, in which I highlight the players who have been increasingly overlooked as we get further from their playing careers. Except, if they're really underrated, I wouldn't think about them at all. Andy Pafko is one of those players. I'd write 1,000 words on Jimmy Wynn, wrap a bow on it, and present him to you as the epitome of underrated center fielders. Except Wynn is in that Shin-Soo Choo area of being an obvious choice when making an underrated list, so maybe they aren't so underrated.

Pafko, though, doesn't usually show up on a list of underrated players. He had 10 straight seasons with an OPS+ over 100 and four All-Star appearances. Put it this way: I worked with Al Yellon of Bleed Cubbie Blue for two years, and he never mentioned Pafko once. No joke, I just searched the chat logs. That's underrated!

There's actually a heaping helping of underrated on that list. Richie Ashburn is one of those players who looks much better with newfangled stats, as his defense and ability to play 162 games every year really helped his value, not to mention that he led the league in OBP four times. You know that Veterans Committee. Always looking at the sabermetrics.

Dwayne Murphy is another one. Here's a list of center fielders by WAR from 1980 through 1989:

Rk Player WAR/pos
1 Dale Murphy 46.9
2 Chet Lemon 36.1
3 Dwayne Murphy 32.6
4 Willie Wilson 32.5
5 Kirby Puckett 28.6
6 Brett Butler 28.4
7 Lloyd Moseby 26.2
8 Fred Lynn 23.4
9 Eric Davis 23.0
10 Willie McGee 22.6

Though maybe that list does more to prove that Chet Lemon was criminally underrated, too.



The only center fielder above three wins in Rockies history: Juan Pierre

The highest-rated center fielder in Marlins history: Juan Pierre

Conclusion: Juan Pierre is an expansion legend.

I had Chris Young for the Diamondbacks because I forgot he came over in a White Sox trade, but that kind of counts. Adam Eaton will be there soon, though, you gotta believe me ...

There's a part of me that wonders if defensive metrics will ever get Coors Field right. Just 15 of the 58 center-field seasons in Coors history have ended with positive fielding runs, and the highest total ever is five (Tom Goodwin). The frequency of plus center fielders seems off, and the all-time season from Goodwin seems way off for all-time franchise leader. Pick any team with a normal stadium, and they'll have bigger highs and fewer lows. That seems to be unlikely to happen through pure incompetence.

In 53 seasons, the best homegrown center fielder the Rangers ever produced was Del Unser. He was good, but he was never Luis Matos good.

Few are. Few are.

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