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Previewing the 2022-23 free agent class: Center field

MLBTR continues to go around the diamond to check in on the upcoming free-agent market. In recent weeks, we’ve looked into the catchers and gone around the infield/corner outfield. Today, we’ll turn our attention to a center field class that falls off sharply after its top duo.

Tier Of His Own

What more can be said about Judge’s 2022 campaign? It was an all-time offensive performance. Judge hit 62 home runs, cementing himself in the history books and connecting on 16 more longballs than anyone else in the game this season. He slugged .686, the highest mark for a qualified hitter in a full schedule since 2004. Judge also led all qualified hitters this season in on-base percentage (.425) and finished fifth in batting average (.311). He’s the sport’s preeminent slugger, owner of an obscene 60.9% hard hit rate. Judge is also tremendously patient and has gotten some early-career strikeout concerns very much in check.

As far as 2023 goes, few players project to be more impactful. He’ll be the top overall player on the free agent market, and he’s in position to land one of the largest deals in major league history. The primary factor working against Judge is that he’s a bit on the older side for a first-time free agent, heading into his age-31 campaign. That’ll likely keep him from landing a decade-long commitment, but he has a chance to set the average annual value record for a position player over an eight or nine-year term.

There’s no question about Judge’s offensive potential, although he’s not likely to be a long-term fit in center fit. A natural right fielder, he played more center field for the Yankees this season due to the roster composition. He held his own, with public metrics like Defensive Runs Saved, Ultimate Zone Rating, and Statcast’s Outs Above Average all pegging him as a hair better than par. Judge’s 6’7″, 280-plus pound build isn’t a traditional fit for center field, but he’s a good athlete and consistently posts plus defensive marks in right field. Teams are pursuing Judge primarily for what he can do in the batter’s box, but he’s a defensive asset as well and demonstrated this year he’s capable of manning center field if needed, at least early in the deal. Judge will receive and reject a qualifying offer, although it’s unlikely to have an impact on his market.

Clear #2

Nimmo took more than five years to reach the majors after going in the first round of the 2011 draft. While it took him some time to get to the big leagues, he almost immediately hit the ground running and has been a productive player throughout his Mets tenure. Nimmo has posted well above-average offensive rate stats in every year since 2017, with an on-base percentage of .367 or better in each season of his career. While he’s never topped 17 homers, he’s settled in as an excellent top-of-the-lineup table setter. Since the start of 2020, only five qualified hitters (Juan Soto, Freddie Freeman, Bryce Harper, Judge, and Paul Goldschmidt) have been better than Nimmo at reaching base.

The main knock on Nimmo has never been about his productivity on a rate basis, but rather his lack of volume. He’s dealt with several injuries throughout his professional career, and he entered the 2022 campaign with just one 400+ plate appearance season on his resume. He stayed healthy through all of 2022, though, tallying a personal-high 151 games played and 673 trips to the plate. Teams may still have some lingering trepidation about investing in a player who spent time on the injured list in every full season of his career before this one, but he hits the market having proven himself capable of performing at a high level over 162 games.

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Like Judge, Nimmo has spent extended stretches of his career in the corner outfield. He’s played almost exclusively up the middle the past two years, however, and he’s proven himself an adept defender. Public metrics unanimously had him as an above-average center fielder in 2021. Those estimators were more divided in 2022, with DRS pegging him a few runs below average while Statcast had him as six runs above par. At the very least, he looks like an adequate defensive center fielder, and some teams might see him as a plus. Nimmo is somewhat quietly one of the better outfielders in the sport, and he could be rewarded for his excellent platform season with a nine-figure deal. He’ll receive and reject a QO.

Players Coming Off Down Years

Duvall hit 38 home runs a season ago, but he managed just 13 round-trippers in 315 trips to the plate this year. Duvall strikes out a fair amount and rarely draws walks, leading to an on-base percentage of .301 or lower in each of the past three years. He’s a low-OBP slugger who plays plus corner outfield defense at his best. The Braves relied upon him for a career-high 382 innings of center-field work this year. Public metrics felt he held his own up the middle, but he’ll be 34 next season and his disappointing offensive year was cut short in July when he underwent surgery on his left wrist.

Bradley is a former Gold Glove winner and was one of the game’s top defensive outfielders at his peak. His offensive production has waxed and waned throughout his career, but he was an above-average hitter as recently as 2020. Bradley has unfortunately been among the game’s least effective hitters in each of the last two seasons, though. He followed up a .163/.236/.261 showing last year in Milwaukee with an only slightly improved .203/.255/.311 mark over 370 trips to the plate for the Red Sox and Blue Jays in 2022. Even with his defensive ability, he could be in minor-league deal territory this winter.

Herrera posted a serviceable .260/.310/.416 line with the Phillies in 2021, leading the Phils to bring him back as part of a spotty center field mix entering this season. The switch-hitter missed some time early due to an oblique strain and hit only .238/.279/.378 across 197 plate appearances. Philadelphia released him in early August, and he didn’t catch on elsewhere for the stretch run.

Cain hit .179/.231/.234 in 43 games with the Brewers this year. Milwaukee released him in mid-June, shortly after he crossed the ten-year MLB service time threshold. Cain didn’t sign elsewhere and has spoken about how much he’s enjoyed spending additional time with his family. He hasn’t officially called it a career, and the respected veteran would presumably have some minor league opportunities if he wanted to give it another go, but it seems likely his playing days are behind him.

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Depth Players

Phillips is a plus defender at all three outfield spots. He owns one of the game’s top throwing arms and is an excellent baserunner. Yet he’s simply not been productive enough as a hitter to merit more than fifth outfield playing time, and he’s coming off a dismal .144/.217/.249 showing in 225 plate appearances split between the Rays and Orioles. Phillips went unclaimed on waivers in August and could be limited to minor league offers with Spring Training invitations.

Davis is a speed and defense-oriented player who’s suited up with three teams over the past five years. He draws a fair number of walks but doesn’t provide much else offensively. A career .185/.291/.245 hitter over 171 games, he cleared waivers after being designated for assignment by the Brewers last month.

Heyward is still under contract for 2023, but the Cubs have already announced he’ll be released at the start of the offseason. Heyward simply never hit anywhere near the level Chicago had anticipated when signing him to an eight-year, $184M free-agent deal heading into 2016. He’s a respected clubhouse presence and still a capable defender around the outfield grass, but he hits the market coming off a .204/.278/.277 showing in 48 games. It seems likely he’ll be limited to minor league offers, but the Cubs would be on the hook for all but the league minimum if Heyward cracks the majors with another team next year.

Another glove-first depth type, Almora was a regular for a few years with the Cubs early in his career. He tallied 235 plate appearances with the Reds this past season, his heaviest workload since 2019. Almora hit .223/.282/.349 and was released in September.

Once a top prospect in the St. Louis and Miami systems, Sierra has long been of interest for his elite speed and defensive ability. He has zero power, however, yet to connect on a single homer in 278 MLB games. The resulting .228/.273/.272 career slash line has left him in journeyman territory. Sierra took 96 plate appearances with the Angels this year before being outrighted off the roster earlier this month.

Hermosillo has played in the majors in each of the past five seasons, but he’s never gotten more than 31 games in any individual year. He hit .115/.250/.148 over 73 plate appearances with the Cubs this year, losing a large chunk of the season to a quad strain. Chicago outrighted him last month.

Duggar was the primary center fielder for the Giants in 2021, posting respectable numbers despite a strikeout rate pushing 30%. He didn’t get much of a big-league look this year, however, as he quickly landed on the injured list and was eventually traded to the Rangers. Duggar also suited up with the Angels briefly and posted a combined .153/.225/.222 line in 80 plate appearances between the three clubs. He was designated for assignment by the Halos in September and elected free agency after clearing waivers.

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Brinson was a top prospect and was twice at the center of a major trade before exhausting his rookie eligibility. Given a few extended runs by the Marlins, he never overcame dismal strikeout and walk numbers to fully tap into his athleticism and power potential. Brinson was limited to minor league offers last winter. He had a great showing in Triple-A — as he has throughout much of his career — and earned a 16-game look with the Giants late in the year. Brinson hit three homers but struck out in 14 of his 39 MLB plate appearances before being outrighted off the roster.

Marisnick has appeared in parts of nine straight major league seasons. The past three have been in fourth/fifth outfield duty, with his glove getting him on rosters despite significant strikeout issues. Marisnick played in 31 games with the Pirates this year, hitting .234/.272/.390. He was released in August and finished out the year on a minor league contract with the Braves, struggling over 17 Triple-A games.

Allen’s speed has been his primary asset throughout his big league tenure. He’s an excellent baserunner but has drawn mixed reviews for his center-field defense and hasn’t hit much in the majors. A big 15-game showing with the Yankees in 2021 earned him 134 plate appearances with the Pirates this year, but he stumbled to a .186/.260/.271 line before being waived in September.

The speedy Hamilton had brief looks with the Marlins and Twins this year, often in a designated pinch-running capacity. A former everyday player and 50-steal threat during his early days in Cincinnati, Hamilton has bounced around the league in recent years.

Players With Contractual Options

The Rays are certain to buy Kiermaier out rather than pay the extra $11M it’d take to bring him back. That’s only natural after his disappointing 2022 showing, in which he hit .228/.281/.369 over 221 plate appearances before undergoing season-ending hip surgery. Even as he’s gotten into his 30s, Kiermaier has remained one of the sport’s preeminent defensive center fielders. Yet he’s also spent a fair amount of time on the injured list throughout his career, at least in part due to the highly aggressive play style that makes him such an electrifying defender. Kiermaier may well be the third-best center fielder on the market this year, but there’s an obvious risk in signing a player whose game is so reliant on athleticism coming off hip surgery.

Pollock had a tough first season in Chicago after heading over from the Dodgers in a pre-Opening Day trade. The veteran outfielder hit .245/.292/.389 with 14 homers over 527 plate appearances. By eclipsing 500 trips to the dish, he escalated the value of his option from its base $10M to $13M. Pollock had a nice September, but his slow start and age make it hard to see him topping the $8M he’d have to forego to test the market. He’s likely to exercise his option and return to the South Siders.


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