Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Supermarket of Center Fielders

Slugger Josh Hamilton
A center fielder here, a center fielder there, center fielders everywhere. I know it sounds silly, but that little ditty describes the 2012-2013 free agent market with remarkable accuracy. Not only is this winter's market chock full of center fielders, but it's full of valuable ones. While there are very weak options at numerous other positions, outfield, and specifically center field has a number of great options. Some are flashy big name candidates like Josh Hamilton and Michael Bourn, and others are solid options with the potential for more like B.J. Upton and Angel Pagan.

Here is some general information on these 4 players:

6 Years
7 years
6 Years
7 Years

All 4 of these players are about the same age, and they have all played about the same number of MLB seasons. Angel Pagan offers the most versatility because he can hit from both sides of the plate, but rarely does sidedness change a team's decision on whether to sign a player or not. Let's go a little more in depth.

Best hitter: The best overall hitter amongst these players is Josh Hamilton. This shouldn't come as a surprise. Hamilton was the American league most valuable player in 2010. He is the only true power hitter of the bunch, notching the highest wRC+ at 140, and hitting for the highest wOBA at .387. Hamilton is a slugger, averaging about 33 home runs per season over the last three years. He easily has the highest ISO of this foursome at .292. Hamilton is the pure hitter of the bunch, and honestly, any team that signs him should seriously consider making him a corner outfielder that takes some reps as a designated hitter (pending he remains in the AL). Not only does Hamilton hit well, but he also gets on base, sporting the 2nd best BB% of these four at 9.4%. None of this is all that surprising. Hamilton is a middle-of-the-order hitter, Pagan and Bourn are best as leadoff hitters, and Upton is the lone enigma, sporting the best potential to hit both for power and to use his speed.
Michael Bourn

Best Fielder:
Hamilton -1.5 -12.6 -9
Upton -6.5 -2.4 -4
Bourn 0.4 22.4 24
Pagan 10.9 0.1 -6

When looking into fielding, metrics only tell some of the story. On the other hand, I've seen all four of these outfielders play, and the three distinct fielding metrics seen above tell the story very well. Michael Bourn is without a doubt the best fielder of this bunch. Bourn, along with Jason Heyward and Martin Prado made for the best combined defensive outfield in MLB last season. Atlanta is a larger than average sized park, giving Bourn a great deal of room to cover. Bourn's incredible speed, above average arm, and very good instincts make him the best current defensive center fielder, but speed diminishes quickly, and any team that signs Bourn to a long-team contract should know that Bourn probably won't be able to keep up this production in center field in the long-term. Interestingly, Baseball Prospectus' preferred defensive metric FRAA, values Angel Pagan higher than Michael Bourn. Fielding runs above average is not a zone-based metric, instead if looks at the plays made by the average defender at the given position and compares it to the plays made by the given player. Pagan's 10.9 is considered excellent, while Bourn's 0.4 puts him at about average. Due to the difference in calculation between these defensive metrics, a team looking to upgrade their defense in center field might see Pagan as a better short-term option as he combines average defense in terms of range and an excellent defender in terms of play-by-play comparison. 

Most Potential: The player with the most potential is definitely B.J. Upton. Upton is the youngest player of these four, with a great set of tools. Many think that Upton needs a change of scenery, as the Rays drafted him hoping for superstar potential, but he never lived up to the hype. Upton has averaged a 3.9 fWAR over his last 6 seasons, all leading up his prime years (27-32 years old). Upton has a very strong arm, great speed, and has shown the ability to hit for power. Upton's issues revolve around his high strikeout rate, ranging from 28.1% to 21.2% combined with his low walk rate, which has ranged from as low as 7% to as high as 15.2%. Josh Hamilton and Michael Bourn are clearly flashier candidates, but due to those two, Upton has the chance to fly under the radar. His relative youth, skill set, and consistently moderate productivity make him the player with the best chance to break out and become a star.
Angel Pagan
Best Value


So, Josh Hamilton is the best hitter, Michael Bourn the best defender, and B.J. Upton has the most upside, but the best value at centerfield has to be Angel Pagan. Obviously, if a team is in need of a power hitter, the only choice is Hamilton, but looking at all four players objectively; Pagan provides the best overall package. From a hitting perspective, Pagan's .334 wOBA and 113 wRC+ put him second amongst these four players in both categories, and his .152 ISO was at league average for 2012. Pagan is a versatile player; he is a switch hitter, but can also bat in many spots in the batting order. He provides above average defense, and has proven he can play well in one of the largest parks in the Majors in San Fancisco. Pagan is 31 years old, so a long-term deal would not make sense, but he might provide the best overall value over the next 3 seasons in comparison to Hamilton, Bourn, and Upton. Upton is an unknown, Hamilton is one-dimensional and has had substance abuse problems in the past, while Bourn's game is based around speed, which diminishes rapidly as age increases. 

Best Fits:

Josh Hamilton is set to make a boatload of money. From the team perspective, his best value is in a 3 to 4-year contract, but with Hamilton looking of something more in the range of 7-8 seasons, it minimizes the number of good pairings. Teams that make the most sense for Hamilton are mid-major teams like Seattle, Baltimore, and Milwaukee. All three teams would most likely attempt to move him to a corner outfield spot, but that would be a solid career move for Hamilton to accept. 

Michael Bourn is a speedster, who will immediately upgrade a team's defense in the outfield, and solidify any team's leadoff spot in the batting order. Teams that make sense for Bourn are the Yankees, Nationals, Giants, and Dodgers. 

B.J. Upton
B.J. Upton is the most difficult player on this list to place. The biggest difficulty in signing Upton will be that any team to do so will most likely end up overpaying him. If we project Upton to continue to put up ~ 4.0 fWAR over the next 4 seasons, he would be worth about $80 million. On the other hand, insider Jon Heyman of CBS Sports projects Upton to sign a contract in the 5-year $60 million range. Teams that would fit Upton include the Phillies, Nationals, Rangers, Braves, and Dodgers.

Lastly, let's consider Angel Pagan. Pagan is a solid all around player. The only knock on him is that unlike these other 4 players, Pagan has only put up really good numbers in two out of his 7 seasons in MLB. Otherwise, Pagan is a great option, due to his offensive flexibility, defensive abilities, and experience. Unlike these other four center fielders, any deal Pagan signs will most likely be shorter-term and less expensive, thus he becomes a good option to a team looking to upgrade in center field without spending a lot of money. In addition, the Giants didn't make a qualifying offer to Pagan, meaning any team that signs him won't lose their first round draft selection. A good contract for both Pagan and the team that signs him would be in the area of 4 years worth about $45 million. Teams that make sense include the Phillies, Giants, Dodgers, Rangers, Braves, and Nationals. 

In the end, all four players are solid outfield options. The only things we truly know are that all four players will become very rich men, and, going into the 2013 season, four teams will have new center fielders.

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