As the offseason creeps closer and closer, we’ll continue our position-by-position look at the upcoming free agent class. We’ve already covered catchers, first basemen, third basemen, second basemen and shortstops. Next up, center field.
Starling Marte (33 years old next season): There are some other great players on this list who can play center field a bit, but Marte is your best bet if you’re looking for an everyday center fielder who can help you on both sides of the ball. Offensively, he’s been an above-average contributor for nine of the last ten years, with 2017 being his only dip. (He missed 80 games that season after testing positive for Nandrolone, an anabolic steroid.) Over the 1,134 games of his career, he has hit 126 home runs, stolen 296 bases and has a slash line of .289/.345/.451. All that adds up to a wRC+ of 118 and 30.7 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs. And he’s coming off his best offensive season to date, as he slashed .308/.381/.456, with 47 stolen bases, the most in the majors by a significant margin. (Whit Merrifield was second with 40.) His wRC+ on the season of 133 and his 5.4 fWAR were both career highs.
On the defensive side of things, Marte played primarily in left field for the first half of his career, as the Pirates had Andrew McCutchen in center. But since McCutchen’s departure, Marte moved over to center and has hardly moved off it since. Over the past four seasons, he has played exactly one game in left field, logging just three innings. Other than that, he’s been exclusively in center. According to Statcast, he has been worth 17 Outs Above Average in that span, which is the 15th-highest tally among center fielders league-wide. Although Marte just turned 33 and is older than many center fielders in the league, he was still worth 4 OAA, 20th-best among center fielders this season.
Marte is reaching free agency a little bit later than most players due to the extension he signed with the Pirates way back in 2014. As a 33-year-old, that could put a cap on how long teams are willing to commit to him being a regular in center. But the Blue Jays just gave George Springer a six-year contract to cover his age-31 through age-36 seasons. Regardless, Marte is the best option available for any team that needs a center fielder now. He won’t be eligible for a qualifying offer because he was traded midseason.
Kris Bryant (30): Bryant was already written about in the third basemen post linked above. He’s not really a center fielder, only playing 29 games there over his career so far. But his versatility will be a big part of his appeal to clubs in free agency this winter. That said, he’s likely to be considered a third baseman/corner outfielder and only an emergency option in center.
Bryant will command a huge contract because of his offensive track record and strong platform season. His line this season is .268/.356/.496, wRC+ of 123, producing 3.6 fWAR.
Mark Canha (33): If you don’t regularly watch Oakland games, you might not realize how good Mark Canha has been over the past four seasons. From 2018 to 2021, he hit .249/.366/.441. That amounts to a wRC+ of 126, which ranks 39th among all qualified hitters over that time. That’s buoyed by a 12.1% walk rate, 19th among qualified hitters over those years. His 10.4 fWAR over that span is the 18th highest tally among all outfielders.
In 2018 and 2019, he played 62 and 56 games in center, respectively. But in the shortened 2020 season, it was just 9. This year, it was 23. He’s more of a corner outfielder who can cover center in a pinch than a true center fielder. However, Statcast considers him a competent defender, crediting him with 3 OAA this season overall. And given his late-bloom career, he’s reaching free agency for the first time at a somewhat advanced age. That makes it unlikely for a team to consider him a long-term solution up the middle. But for any team that needs a corner outfielder that could slide over when needed, he’s a great option.
Chris Taylor (31): Taylor has already been discussed in the aforementioned MLBTR posts about second basemen and shortstops. While not a true everyday center fielder, he’s one of the most intriguing options on this list by virtue of his versatility. This season, he’s played 61 games in center field, and at least eight games at second base, third base, shortstop, left field and right field. In other words, he’s a proper super utility player.
2021 was his fifth-consecutive season with a wRC+ of 106 or higher. His 2021 line is .254/.344/.438, for a wRC+ 113 and 3.1 fWAR. That bat and that defensive versatility makes him a fit on just about every team in the league, meaning he should garner plenty of interest this offseason and will be one of the more fascinating markets to watch.
- Delino DeShields (29): DeShields bounced around in the minors for a few organizations this year, eventually seeing a bit of big league action with the Reds. He had a good showing in a small sample size of 25 games, slashing .255/.375/.426. That’s much better than his career slash line of .246/.327/.342.
- Jarrod Dyson (37): Dyson returned to the Royals this year on a one-year deal and hit a paltry .221/.256/.311 before being put on waivers. He was claimed by the Blue Jays, who used him primarily as a late-game defensive replacement and pinch runner. He could potentially fill a similar role for a team in 2022.
- Leury Garcia (31): 2021 was the best full season of Garcia’s career, as he hit .267/.335/.376. His wRC+ of 98 was bested only by his 107 in the shortened 2020 season, where he played only 16 games. His 2.0 fWAR in 2021 almost doubled his previous high of 1.2. The most he’s ever played in center field was 2019, where he got into 80 games there. But this year, it was just 26. He’s more super utility guy than proper center fielder, which is why he was already featured in MLBTR’s posts about second basemen, third basemen and shortstops.
- Billy Hamilton (31): Signed by the White Sox to a minors deal in March, he cracked opening day roster and has managed to hold down his spot all year. With Luis Robert getting most of the playing time in center when healthy, Hamilton was used primarily off the bench as a defensive replacement and pinch runner. In parts of 71 games this year, he hit .220/.242/.378 and stole nine bases without getting caught.
- Ender Inciarte (31): Inciarte has always been revered more for his defensive skills than his bat, but his offense has slumped to new lows over the past couple seasons. This year, in 52 games, he hit just .215/.276/.316 and got released by Atlanta in July. He signed a minors deal with the Reds but opted out of that in September. He’ll probably have to settle for another minors deal this winter.
- Danny Santana (31): Signed by the Red Sox to a minor league deal in the offseason, Santana has gotten into 38 games for them, including 13 in center. On the season, he hit .181/.252/.345 for a wRC+ of 58. He’s now two years removed from his excellent 2019 season and will probably be looking at another minor league deal this winter. He’s played second, third and shortstop in the past, but over 2020 and 2021, he’s only seen time at first base and in the outfield.
Players With 2022 Options
Jackie Bradley Jr.(32): Bradley has had a dismal season at the plate, hitting .163/.236/.261, for a wRC+ of 35. He has a player option valued at $11MM, which he will certainly take instead of heading back to the open market with that kind of platform.
Brett Gardner (38): Gardner has a player option valued at $2.3MM, but if he declines, the Yankees have a team option valued at $7.15MM, with a buyout of $1.15MM. Gardner was thrust into everyday duty this season after Aaron Hicks went down with wrist surgery and wound up playing 105 games in center. Overall, he hit .222/.327/.362 for a wRC+ of 93 and 1.4 fWAR. The Yankees may be motivated to keep him around given the uncertainty surrounding Clint Frazier, but $7.15MM would be a big raise on this year’s $2.85MM salary. They previously declined club options on Gardner in 2018 and 2020 but subsequently agreed to new contracts, which seems like a distinct possibility for this winter as well.
Odubel Herrera (30): In July of 2019, Herrera was suspended for the remainder of the season for violating the MLB-MLBPA joint domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse policy. He was designated for assignment after that season and cleared waivers, being outrighted to Triple-A. He made his way back to the roster in April 2021 and got into 124 games this season, hitting .260/.310/.416 for a wRC+ of 93. The Phillies can retain him for another year by picking up his $11.5MM option, but it seems more likely that they will buy him out for $2.5MM. However, if they do pick up the option, they’ll be able to control him for 2023 via another club option, this one valued at $12.5MM.
Jake Marisnick (31): Between the Cubs and Padres this year, Marisnick played 99 games, 52 of those in center field. He was passable at the plate when with the Cubs, slashing .227/.294/.438, but slumped after being traded to San Diego, hitting .188/.264/.208. The one-year deal he signed with the Cubs came with a $4MM mutual option for 2022. Mutual options are almost never exercised, meaning the Padres will likely just give him the $500K buyout.
Joc Pederson (30): Pederson played over 90 games in center in each season from 2015-2017, but it’s been much rarer since then: 32 games in 2018, 2 in 2019, none in 2020 and 26 in 2021. Similar to Canha, he’s more of a corner outfielder who could play center field if you really needed him to. However, his defensive prowess was below Canha’s in 2021, at least according to Statcast. Whereas they valued Canha as 3 OAA, Pederson is -5. Pederson has also seen his offensive numbers slide in recent years. After he logged a wRC+ of 116 or higher in 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019, his slash line over the past couple seasons is .227/.304/.416, wRC+ of 93. His one-year deal that he signed with the Cubs for 2021 has a mutual option valued at $10MM, which is likely to be bought out by Atlanta at $2.5MM.
Kevin Pillar (33): Pillar signed a one-year deal with the Mets this offseason that came with a 2021 salary of $3.6MM, as well as an option for 2022. It’s a $2.9MM player option with no buyout, but if he doesn’t pick it up, the team has a $6.4MM club option with a $1.4MM buyout. In 124 games this year, Pillar hit .231/.277/.415 for a wRC+ of 90, while playing all three outfield positions. It seems unlikely that the team would pick up the club option, meaning Pillar will have to decide whether he would rather take the $2.9MM contract or turn that down in favour of the $1.4MM, then try to make up the difference in free agency.
Jurickson Profar (29): Profar was already written about in MLBTR’s posts about first basemen and second basemen. He can opt out of the remaining two years and $14MM on his contract, but seems unlikely to do so, given his meager .235/.335/.336 line on the season.