Previewing The 2023-24 Free Agent Class: Center Field

Throughout the week, we’ve covered the upcoming free agent class at MLBTR. As Anthony Franco noted earlier today, we’ll now move to the outfield. You can check out that piece for a preview of the left field/right field options available this winter, but we’ll focus here on center field — one of the relatively well-stocked (emphasis on “relatively”) areas of the position player market this winter.

Note: only players who have been on an MLB roster in 2023 are included. Ages listed are for the 2024 season.

Everyday Options

Non-tendered by the Dodgers last year, Bellinger has enjoyed a hugely successful rebound with the Cubs. In 492 plate appearances, the former NL Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player has posted a huge .316/.358/.545 batting line with 25 home runs, 20 stolen bases and a career-low 16.1% strikeout rate. He’s walking at the lowest rate of his career (6.5%) and chasing balls out of the strike zone far more than he did at his peak. However, he’s also sporting career-high contact rates on pitches off the plate (71.7%) and pitches within the strike zone (87.1%).

Bellinger missed about six weeks of the season with a knee injury, which might be the only thing that stops him from reestablishing himself as a 30-homer slugger. Were it not for that absence, he’d have had a legitimate chance to deliver a 30-30 season with above-average defense at multiple spots (center field, first base).

The 2021-22 seasons were nightmarish for Bellinger, though they came in the wake of 2020 shoulder surgery. Bellinger also suffered a fractured fibula early in the ’22 campaign that could well have impacted him at the plate even after his return. His quality of contact isn’t as impressive as it once was — Bellinger averaged 91.1 mph off the bat with a 45.6% hard-hit rate in 2019, compared to 87.9 mph and 31.7% in 2023 — but the results are hard to ignore. In a market with so few bats of note, Bellinger stands not only as one of the best but also as the youngest option available.

The Cubs will make Bellinger a qualifying offer, and he’ll reject it with little thought. They’ll be one of many teams angling to sign him this winter, but Bellinger and agent Scott Boras will probably try to see to it that whoever inks him does so to the tune of $200MM or more.

Bader’s offense in 2023 certainly hasn’t been that of an everyday player. He’s batted just .237/.280/.356 on the year — the worst performance in any of his full seasons at the MLB level. Part of that is likely due to an uptick in fly balls and decrease in the percentage of those flies that have become home runs, but Bader has probably also had a bit of misfortune on balls in play; his .268 BABIP is 50 points lower than the career mark he carried into the year.

Even with some slight positive regression, it hasn’t been a good year at the plate. Bader has never walked much, and he’s doing so at just a 5% clip in 2023. He’s putting the ball in play more than ever before (career-low 17.5% strikeout rate), but he’s rarely doing so in an impactful manner (86 mph average exit velocity).

That said, Bader’s most valuable skills are still shining. He’s a lights-out center fielder — a legitimately elite defender who’s posted 6 Defensive Runs Saved and 10 Outs Above Average in just 735 innings this season. He’s also pummeling left-handed pitching, hitting southpaws at a .317/.380/.610 clip this season. Bader’s above-average speed is on display more than ever before, too. His 19 steals are a career-best mark, and he’s only been caught three times.

Bader’s glove alone will earn him a multi-year deal, and he showed from 2018-21 that he has the potential to deliver at least average offense. In that four-year run with St. Louis, Bader hit .244/.325/.420 in 419 games. With a high floor and a ceiling in the four to five WAR range, Bader could surprise some onlookers with a strong multi-year deal this winter. That he’s ineligible for a qualifying offer only helps his case.

Speaking of preternatural outfield defenders, you’d never know by watching Kiermaier in the outfield that his 2022 season ended with hip surgery. The longstanding defensive wizard is back to vintage form and enjoying one of his best all-around seasons. The longtime Rays outfielder has logged 866 innings in center field in his first year with Toronto and racked up 16 Defensive Runs Saved and 11 Outs Above Average. He’s nowhere near his career-best 38 DRS (not a typo), but those 16 DRS rank eighth in the Majors at any position (one behind his outfield-mate Daulton Varsho in left field). His 11 OAA are tied for “only” 14th in the game.

Injuries tend to come with the territory for Kiermaier — in part due to the reckless abandon with which he plays his position — and the Jays have been good about affording him plenty of rest to keep him fresh. He also had a brief stay on the 10-day IL after a collision with the outfield wall required eight stitches in his elbow. He’s tallied just 361 plate appearances this year but turned in a nice .271/.331/.433 batting line with eight homers and 13 steals.

Kiermaier managed to land a one-year, $9MM deal in Toronto when he was coming off a notable surgery, and he’s now had a healthy and productive season. He’s not only reestablished himself among baseball’s premier defensive players, he’s turned in one of his best offensive campaigns, on a rate basis, and should be in position to command a multi-year deal. The Jays will face an interesting call on the qualifying offer. A one-year deal for Kiermaier worth around $20MM might well prove worthwhile, but the risk of injury is so substantial that they may opt not to roll those dice.

Though he’s often been used in a part-time role, Taylor is enjoying a career year offensively in Minnesota, where he’s swatted a personal-best 20 homers in just 354 trips to the plate. He’s also added 14 doubles and swiped 13 bases in 14 tries. Granted, a career-low 5.9% walk rate and career-high 33.3% strikeout rate call into question how likely it is that he can sustain this type of output, but Taylor’s .229/.281/.456 slash is roughly average, by measure of wRC+ (99).

Moreover, even if a team doesn’t expect Taylor to replicate that offense, he’s a strong enough defender that there’s a case to trot him out to center field every day anyhow. In 891 innings this year, he’s posted positive marks in DRS (5) and OAA (9). Dating back to 2017, he’s posted respective marks of 68 and 52 in those categories, ranking as one of the best defensive players in MLB — regardless of position.

Taylor’s glove alone makes him a viable source of two to three WAR, and if he shows he’s able to sustain his 2023 power surge, he could find himself in an everyday role. He’ll have a chance at landing a multi-year deal this winter. He’s QO-eligible, but solid as his season has been, he won’t receive one.

Platoon Options

He’s primarily been a corner outfielder in his career, but Duvall was signed to play center field in Boston and has done so for 448 innings during the 2023 season. That number would be higher had he not missed multiple months with a fractured wrist. Defensive metrics like DRS (-6) and OAA (-3) aren’t a fan of Duvall’s work in center, as one might expect for a 34-year-old who’s effectively playing out of position.

Duvall’s once-elite grades in the outfield corners have faded to average or slightly above in recent seasons, and the corners are probably where he’ll play the majority of the time with a new team. But he’s at least capable of handling part-time center field work, and his bat is his carrying tool anyhow. While Duvall has a penchant for low walk rates and bottom-of-the-barrel OBPs, there’s little doubting his power. He’s enjoying a nice rebound at the plate, hitting .254/.316/.543 with 19 home runs in only 310 plate appearances.

Duvall isn’t likely to sign as an everyday center fielder, but he can float through all three outfield slots and mix in time at designated hitter wherever he signs in 2024 — likely on a multi-year deal.

Gallo got out to a blistering start after signing a one-year, $11MM deal with the Twins. They’ve stuck with him throughout the year, even though his bat went cold in May and has never really rebounded. Gallo is hitting just .177/.301/.440 on the season, but he’s delivered a dreary .159/.287/.365 slash in his past 275 plate appearances. The Twins would’ve had ample justification to move on at any point, but he could yet finish out the year on their roster. Gallo recently hit the 10-day IL with a foot injury and could return during the final couple weeks.

Since being traded from the Rangers to the Yankees in 2021, Gallo carries a .166/.293/.396 batting line in 970 plate appearances. He’s smashed 53 home runs in that time — 21 this season — but also has fanned in 40.5% of his plate appearances. Someone with his power and walk rate will likely get a big league deal this winter, but it’s hard to imagine him being ticketed for an everyday role in center field, where he’s played just 46 innings this season (but has 463 innings of experience in his big league career).

Grichuk was enjoying a fine season in Colorado, slashing .308/.365/.496 at the time of a trade to the Angels. His bat has wilted since that swap, as he’s turned in a tepid .203/.253/.392 output in 154 plate appearances. Grichuk has 14 homers in 417 plate appearances overall. As is frequently the case, he’s played all three outfield spots but graded out below-average in center. Grichuk is best suited for corner work, where he has positive grades for his career. That’s particularly true in right field, where his strong throwing arm is best deployed.

Teams in need of help against left-handed pitching will surely be drawn to Grichuk’s massive .320/.386/.573 slash when holding the platoon advantage this year. He’s a lifetime .266/.314/.502 hitter in such situations as well. He’s gone unclaimed on waivers twice, but that’s likely due to a $9.333MM salary more than it is sheer disinterest in him. Grichuk makes for a fine bench bat who can be used in a larger role as injuries elsewhere on the roster might necessitate.

Infield/Outfield Hybrids

Hernandez had a great first year in Boston after signing a two-year deal, tanked in 2022, was extended anyway, and has struggled for much of the 2023 season. Since a trade to the Dodgers, he’s rebounded to the tune of a .267/.329/.427 slash, but the offense has been suspect as a whole for the bulk of the past five years. That 2021 campaign stands out as Hernandez’s only above-average season at the plate since 2019. Over the past five seasons, he owns a collective .237/.306/.394 line.

Hernandez can go get it in center field, however — evidenced by 23 DRS and 17 OAA in just 2629 career innings at the position. He’s a viable defensive option around the outfield and at second base, although the Red Sox proved this year that he shouldn’t be entrusted with anything more than emergency duties at shortstop. Hernandez has generally hit lefties well and has enough defensive aptitude and versatility to command a big league deal.

Kiner-Falefa got his first career look in center field this year, and held his own, though the Yankees have used him at the position more sparingly as the season’s worn on (in part due to recent promotions of other players). “IKF” has previously drawn plus defensive marks at third base and left field, and he’ll now hit the free agent market as a light-hitting jack-of-all-trades who can be deployed in super utility fashion. He’s hitting .240/.307/.341 on the season, which is roughly in line with his career .261/.314/.346 batting line in 2397 plate appearances.

Fourth Outfielders and Depth Candidates

Engel posted eye-popping defensive marks in center during his first two big league seasons (2017-18) and hit well in a small sample from 2020-21. He’s still an above-average defender, though not to the same extent as he was at 25-26 years of age. He’s also a career .224/.279/.349 hitter who’s battled multiple injuries in recent seasons. His glove alone will get him interest on a minor league deal though.

It’s easy to overlook just how good Marisnick has been defensively in his career. Since his 2013 debut, he ranks eighth among all outfielders with 80 DRS and 12th with 53 OAA. That comes despite the fact that nearly everyone ahead of him on the list has hundreds, if not thousands more innings in the outfield. He’s a career .228/.281/.385 hitter in 2247 plate appearances, however, and the lack of offense typically relegates him to minor league deals and bench roles.

Pillar was a human highlight reel early in his career with the Blue Jays, but his defensive prowess has understandably waned as he’s aged into his mid-30s. The Braves have only given him 24 innings in center this year, primarily deploying him in left field. Pillar has never gotten on base at a high clip, and this year’s .236/.260/.422 slash is a bit more of an extreme development of his lifetime .258/.295/.409 batting line. He signed a minor league deal with a $3MM base this past offseason and could find similar interest this winter.

Tapia has good bat-to-ball skills and speed but is light on power, evidenced by a career .273/.317/.388 batting line. Much of his production at the big league level has come at Coors Field, and he was released twice in 2023 (Brewers, Red Sox) after posting a combined .230/.308/.338 line. Tapia has primarily played left field but has 469 innings of center field work in his career. He’ll probably sign another minor league deal this winter.

Previous installments: catcherfirst basesecond basethird baseshortstop, corner outfield.

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