Print and Go Back ESPN.com: SweetSpot [Print without images]

Sunday, June 10, 2012
Center-field superstars: Generation Next

By Christina Kahrl



You might have been one of those children who grew up with parents who, every Saturday, turned your radio’s dial to "A Prairie Home Companion," where among other features you could reliably look forward to the segment in which Garrison Keillor welcomed you to Lake Wobegon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.” You might also be one of those adults who tunes in to hear him say that same thing every Saturday, to this day. And you might be one of those adults who does so only after following an afternoon’s worth of major league action. If you are, you might be forgiven if you have started to wonder whether ol’ Garrison wasn’t talking about children, but about big league center fielders.

That’s what comes to mind after watching Adam Jones rocket another baseball out of the ballpark to settle affairs with the Phillies on Saturday. That’s his 17th home run on the year, another reason why the Orioles shelled out at least $85.5 million to keep Jones in Baltimore through 2018. (As the always indispensable Cot’s Contracts on Baseball Prospectus reports, he stands to make another $6 million beyond that in incentives.) His adjusted OPS (or OPS+) of 146 is a career high.

It’s probably no coincidence that he’ll turn 27 in August, the age forecasters have pegged as the likely peak for most players. Informed by that, no doubt a few spoilsports already mourn the Angelos dollars spent on Jones when he’ll be 32. But the next couple of seasons should look very good for an O’s franchise that hasn’t had a center fielder this good since Brady Anderson’s run in the 1990s and that had nothing to compare beforehand.

After all, 17 home runs from your center fielder a little more than a third of the way through the year? Nice, very nice. However, it’s also good for just the third-highest tally among major league center fielders so far, and Jones probably ranks that high only because Matt Kemp is out on an excused absence on the disabled list. Josh Hamilton is out in front of all stick-bearing bipeds with 22 taters to his name, and Jones’ homer came the same day that Curtis Granderson hit yet another home run for the Yankees, his 18th.

So that’s three center fielders who could wind up with 50-homer seasons ... plus Kemp and however many he could hit. Where are we, back in the days of Willie, Mickey and Duke?

But those are just four guys, and we’re talking only home runs so far. For all the headlines Hamilton, Kemp, Granderson and Jones have already generated, you have to get into the tremendous season Andrew McCutchen is having for Pittsburgh or the just-reactivated Austin Jackson has put up for the Tigers. Hamilton and Granderson are the two on the “wrong” side of 27; the others are all just heading into their primes.

Mike Trout is “finally” here to stay, a couple of months shy of his 21st birthday, and he very well could be the best of the bunch ... except he might not even be the best teen phenom center fielder in baseball right now, because Bryce Harper is playing center field for the Nationals, and he’s proving that’s something else he can do much better than anyone might have reasonably expected of him already.

But even the ex-prospects are coming around. Dexter Fowler is at long last delivering on his blue-chipper billing for the Rockies, slugging .544. Is that a headline? No, because in this crowd, he’s just another guy, joining the Mariners’ Michael Saunders on an “oh yeah, I guess he came around” list.

There’s also a gaggle of top-of-the-order types having great years. Michael Bourn? He’s posting a .368 OBP from the leadoff slot for the Braves -- a huge part of the reason they’re third in the National League in scoring. Alejandro De Aza is having a scrapheap superfind season for the White Sox, posting a .389 OBP as the everyday leadoff man Juan Pierre could only dream of being. You’d be hard-pressed to meet folks beyond Chicago’s South Side who’ve noticed.

What’s worth noting is that all these guys have OPS+ marks above 110. A total of 16 center fielders do so far this season. That’s why I’m bemused by the concept of average not meaning quite the same thing for center fielders these days. Center fielders as a group posted a 104 OPS+ in 2011 and 101 in 2010, but right now, major league center fielders are posting a collective 110 OPS+. It's probably no coincidence that the center fielder with the worst OPS+, Marlon Byrd, was designated for assignment Saturday.

What this adds up to is that center field is moving up in the world. Among the position-playing positions, center fielders currently rank behind only the right fielders (115 OPS+) for production and are even a bit better than the first basemen (109). While MLB-wide offense is essentially flat this year relative to last, the center fielders as a group are doing better, a lot better.

Now, think on all that, even with Hamilton and Kemp and Jones having hogged the headlines, with Harper shining and Trout breaking through. Adam Jones is enjoying his moment in the sun with the promise of so many more to come. Call it a leap of faith, but I put all of that together, and I don’t think it’s out of line to suggest that we’re entering a new golden age of center-field superstars, one that isn’t dependent on just one player or one in each league, but one in which, compared to the recent past, most teams really are better off than they were.

Sure, that might defy the notion of what constitutes “average.” But maybe we’re just lucky enough to be watching the game at a time when, as Garrison Keillor might have it, maybe all the center fielders are above average.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Joey Votto
Joey Votto with the tool of his trade in the Gap -- can you say 'gladiator'?
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.