Welcome back to our ongoing series aimed at determining the best of the best at each position in Major League Baseball.
Our goal here is two-fold. First, we determine each current franchise’s best ever player at a position. Then we rank those players 1-30 to determine how they stack up in MLB history.
The only caveat being that the selected player must come from the current incarnation of each franchise. We recognize the Dodgers lineage tracing back to Brooklyn. However, we’ve separated the Washington Nationals from the Montreal Expos because of the complete rebrand. But don’t worry, we’ll throw in bonus players when warranted as well.
To make things more interesting, we also require that no player represents multiple franchises or multiple positions throughout the series.
Today, we’re ranking the center fielders.
What a loaded position this is. Of the 30 players we officially ranked, nine are Hall of Famers. Then there’s the group of future and hopeful Hall of Famers led by Mike Trout
Generally, it’s difficult for active players to crack the top 10 just based on the equity former players with full careers have built. Especially guys with less than 10 years in the big leagues. In Trout’s case, it wasn’t difficult at all. He has already achieved elite status. Now he’s closing in on players who are considered pillars and icons of the sport.
Along with Trout, Andruw Jones, Andrew McCutchen and Carlos Beltrán are or will be in the Cooperstown conversation. Did any of them also crack the top 10?
Find out in our ultimate center fielder rankings.
1. Willie Mays — San Francisco Giants
With Giants: 21 seasons
Best season: 1965 (11.2 WAR, .317/.398/.645, 52 homers, MVP)
If pressed to select the greatest baseball player of all time, my vote would go to Mays. The Say Hey Kid brought a mix of power, speed and defense that truly changed the game. In 1951, won the NL Rookie of the Year. In 1953, he served a year in the military. When Mays returned in 1954, he won the first of two MVP awards and just kept getting better. His 660 career home runs ranked fifth. His 24 All-Star selections are second to Hank Aaron. And his 12 Gold Gloves are the most by a center fielder.
2. Mickey Mantle — New York Yankees
With Yankees: 18 seasons
Best season: 1956 (11.2 WAR, .353/.464/.705, 52 homers, MVP)
If I had to select the second-best player in MLB history, it might be Mantle. The switch-hitting Hall of Famer won three AL MVPs while leading the Yankees to 12 AL pennants and seven World Series championships. If you value championships, then perhaps he would be your No. 1 pick here. Had knee problems not led to his retirement at age 36, his claim might be undisputed. Mantle blasted 536 career homers and his OPS topped 1.000 in eight different seasons.
3. Ken Griffey Jr. — Seattle Mariners
With Mariners: 13 seasons
Best season: 1997 (9.1 WAR, .304/.382/.646, 56 homers, MVP)
After debuting at age 19, Ken Griffey Jr. managed to surpass the immense hype that preceded his arrival to become one of baseball's all-time greats. The Kid was a 10-time All-Star and 10-time Gold Glove winner with Seattle. He was the AL MVP in 1997 and a four-time AL home run champion between 1994-99. More importantly, he inspired a generation of young players with his style and swagger.
Bonus: Joe DiMaggio — New York Yankees
With Yankees: 13 seasons
Best season: 1941 (9.4 WAR, 357/.440/.643, 30 homers, MVP)
We must pause to acknowledge the great “Yankee Clipper.” DiMaggio owns the longest hitting streak in MLB history at 56 games. He was a three-time AL MVP and two-time batting champion who also led the Yankees to nine World Series titles. Like Ted Williams, he did that despite missing three seasons (1943-45) to military service.
4. Ty Cobb — Detroit Tigers
With Tigers: 24 seasons
Best season: 1911 (10.7 WAR, .419/.466/.620, 83 steals, MVP)
Cobb is among the best pure hitters the game has seen. Though he played during the Dead Ball Era, Cobb finished with a .366 career batting average — and 12 AL batting titles — to go along with 4,189 career hits. He won the Triple Crown in 1909. He won AL MVP in 1911. He stole 897 career bases. Just imagine how much fun it would have been to watch Cobb play.
5. Tris Speaker — Cleveland Indians
With Indians: 11 seasons
Best season: 1916 (8.6 WAR, .386/.470/.502, 41 doubles)
Speaker and Cobb had careers that mirrored each other. That includes a gambling scandal that dented their reputations, but didn't keep them from reaching Cooperstown. Speaker could hit, too. He's baseball's all-time doubles leader with 792.
6. Mike Trout — Los Angeles Angels
With Angels: 9 seasons
Best season: 2016 (10.5 WAR, 315/.441/.550, 29 homers, MVP)
Still just 28 years old, Trout has already entered elite territory at perhaps baseball’s deepest and most star-studded position. In fact, his 72.8 career WAR is higher than Ken Griffey Jr’s at age 30. Trout was AL Rookie of the Year in 2012 and has since won three AL MVPs. It could — and perhaps should — be more. He's finished top four in the MVP balloting each of the last eight seasons.
7. Andruw Jones — Atlanta Braves
With Braves: 12 seasons
Best season: 2000 (8.2 WAR, .303/.366/.541, 36 homers)
Jones is among the best players not currently in Cooperstown. He's fourth all-time on the Braves home run list (368) behind Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Chipper Jones. His 51 homers in 2005 are the single-season franchise record. All that from a player perhaps better known for his defense. Jones is one of only four outfielders to win 10 straight Gold Glove awards along with Mays, Roberto Clemente and Ichiro Suzuki.
8. Richie Ashburn — Philadelphia Phillies
With Phillies: 12 seasons
Best season: 1958 (7.0 WAR, .350/.440/.441)
Ashburn has two cool places in baseball history. First and foremost, he's enshrined in Cooperstown. Right behind that, he recorded more hits (1,875) than any other player during the 1950s. His career on-base percentage (.396) is also higher than his career slugging (.382). He only hit 29 career homers, but drew 1,198 walks and hit 109 triples.
9. Duke Snider — Los Angeles Dodgers
With Dodgers: 16 seasons
Best season: 1953 (9.2 WAR, .336/.419/.627, 42 homers)
Snider was a perennial MVP candidate who somehow never actually won the award. He finished top four in the voting three times and top 10 a total of six times. Snider did make seven straight All-Star teams while leading the league in runs scored three times. He took his place in Cooperstown in 1980.
10. Jim Edmonds — St. Louis Cardinals
With Cardinals: 8 seasons
Best season: 2004 (7.2 WAR, .301/.418/.643, 42 homers)
Edmonds had a shorter Cardinals career than Curt Flood and Willie McGee and was often overshadowed by Albert Pujols. Nonetheless, he made a great impact thanks to his bat and glove. Edmonds' 241 home runs are the fourth most in Cardinals history. He also won the Gold Glove award in six of eight seasons in St. Louis.
11. Kirby Puckett — Minnesota Twins
With Twins: 12 seasons
Best season: 1988 (7.8 WAR, .356/.375/.545, 24 homers)
When Puckett retired in 1995, he was a .318 lifetime hitter and the Twins' all-time leader in hits (2,304). Six years later, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Puckett was also the driving force behind the Twins' World Series championships in 1987 and '91. His walk-off homer in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series is among the most dramatic moments in league history.
12. Andrew McCutchen — Pittsburgh Pirates
With Pirates: 9 seasons
Best season: 2013 (7.8 WAR, .317/.404/.508, MVP)
With all due respect to Hall of Famer Max Carey, McCutchen is the Pirates’ greatest center fielder. After two straight decades of losing, Cutch led Pittsburgh to three straight postseasons while winning MVP in 2013 and finishing top five in 2014 and 2015. Perhaps the five-time All-Star will eventually find his way to Cooperstown as well.
13. Carlos Beltrán — New York Mets
With Mets: 7 seasons
Best season: 2006 (7.2 WAR, .275/.388/.594, 41 homers)
Beltrán enjoyed seven excellent seasons in Kansas City. However, New York is where he peaked, earning five of his nine All-Star selections during a seven-season stint. Beltrán took it to another level in October, posting a .366/.485/.817 with 11 home runs in 22 postseason games for the Mets.
14. Fred Lynn — Boston Red Sox
With Red Sox: 7 seasons
Best season: 1979 (8.9 WAR, .333/.423/.637, batting champ)
Lynn was a nine-time All-Star who moved around a lot. Boston was the first of five stops during his 17-year career. It's where he truly excelled, winning both Rookie of the Year and MVP in 1975. He won the AL batting title in 1979 and finished his Boston tenure with an impressive .308/.383/.520 line.
15. Hack Wilson — Chicago Cubs
With Cubs: 6 seasons
Best season: 1930 (7.4 WAR, .356/.454/.723, 56 homers, 191 RBIs)
Wilson's time with the Cubs was surprisingly brief. He only spent six seasons on the north side, but his production was extraordinary. In 850 games, Wilson hit .322/.412/.590 with 190 homers and 769 RBIs. His 191 RBIs in 1930 are still a major league record. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979.
16. Christian Yelich — Miami Marlins
With Marlins: 5 seasons
Best season with Marlins: 2016 (4.9 WAR, .298/.376/.483, 21 homers)
Yelich only played 239 games in center field for Miami. That's good enough for us. With all due respect to Juan Pierre and Preston Wilson, they only averaged a 1.5 WAR in nine combined seasons with the Marlins. That's like an average month now for the current Brewers outfielder.
17. Chet Lemon — Chicago White Sox
With White Sox: 7 seasons
Best season: 1977 (5.9 WAR, .273/.343/.459)
Lemon won a World Series with Detroit in 1984. However, some people might not remember he started his career in Chicago and earned two of three All-Star selections while with the White Sox. Overall, Lemon enjoyed a rock solid 16-year career, hitting .273/.355/.442 with 215 homers.
18. Vada Pinson — Cincinnati Reds
With Reds: 11 seasons
Best season: 1961 (7.5 WAR, .343/.379/.504)
Pinson debuted at age 19 and played 18 seasons in MLB. Oddly, his best seasons came before he turned 26. Over his first seven seasons, Pinson hit .302/.349/.485 with 125 homers and 139 stolen bases. During that time, he accumulated 40.2 of his 54.7 career WAR, which puts him ahead of Eric Davis.
19. César Cedeño — Houston Astros
With Astros: 12 seasons
Best season: 1972 (8.0 WAR, .320/.385/.537, 55 steals)
Cedeño was the total package for Houston, providing speed, power and defense that was likened to Willie Mays early in his career. In 1972, he became only the second player in history to hit 20 homers and steal 50 bases in a season. The first was Lou Brock.
20. Amos Otis — Kansas City Royals
With Royals: 14 seasons
Best season: 1978 (7.4 WAR, .298/.380/.525, 32 steals)
It's close between Otis and Willie Wilson. Otis posted a 44.8 WAR in 14 seasons with Kansas City, while Wilson had a 42.4 in 15 seasons. Thus, Otis gets the nod. The speedster batted everywhere in the lineup while earning five All-Star selections and four top-10 finishes in the AL MVP voting.
21. Devon White — Toronto Blue Jays
With Blue Jays: 5 seasons
Best season: 1991 (6.3 WAR, .282/.342/.455, 17 homers)
White's time in Toronto was relatively short, but is still remembered fondly by Jays fans. He was part of two World Series championship teams in 1992 and 1993. White’s game was tailor-made for the fast track at Rogers Centre. He won five of his six career Gold Glove awards in Toronto while stealing 126 bases.
22. Adam Jones — Baltimore Orioles
With Orioles: 11 seasons
Best season: 2018 (4.8 WAR, .285/.318/.493, 33 homers)
It's close between Jones and Paul Blair. Over 11 seasons, Jones averaged a 2.9 WAR with Baltimore. Over 13 seasons, Blair averaged a 3.0. We sided with Jones because he had a big advantage in the offensive numbers and a slightly better all-around game. Though if you prefer Blair’s eight Gold Glove and three World Series appearances, we couldn't blame you.
23. Dwayne Murphy — Oakland Athletics
With Athletics: 10 seasons
Best season: 1980 (6.9, .274/ .384/.380)
Murphy’s wide-ranging stat lines confirm he was a team player. He could hit for power when needed, as evidenced by his 27- and 33-homer seasons. He could set the table, as evidenced by his 353 walks and 55 sacrifices between 1979-82. And he could play defense. Otherwise, he wouldn't be a six-time Gold Glove winner. A truly underrated player.
24. Josh Hamilton — Texas Rangers
With Rangers: 6 seasons
Best season: 2010 (8.7 WAR, .359/.411/.633, 32 homers, MVP)
Hamilton popping up on this list wasn't something we expected. It turns out he played more career games in center than any other position. That fact, coupled with a group of uninspiring Rangers options, made him the choice. He’s a former MVP who ranks third all time among Rangers hitters with a .901 OPS.
25. Steve Finley — Arizona Diamondbacks
With Diamondbacks: 6 seasons
Best season: 1999 (4.9 WAR, .264,.336/.525)
Finley’s best all-around seasons came in Houston and San Diego. This choice is mainly about his contributions to Arizona's World Series championship team in 2001. Finley slashed .365/.441/.462 during that October run and had two hits in Game 7. That gives him the edge over the similarly skilled A.J. Pollock.
26. Carlos Gómez — Milwaukee Brewers
With Brewers: 6 seasons
Best season: 2013 (7.6 WAR, .284/.338/.506, 40 steals)
Gorman Thomas had a longer Brewers' tenure, but Gómez posted a higher WAR (19.0 to 18.4) in six seasons compared to 11. Here's another somewhat surprising discovery: According to Baseball-Reference, Gómez is the 11th-most valuable position player in Brewers history.
27. Mike Cameron — San Diego Padres
With Padres: 2 seasons
Best season: 2006 (4.4 WAR, .268/.355/.482, 22 homers)
The two best options — Steve Finley and Kevin McReynolds — are represented elsewhere, so come on down, Mike Cameron. For two whole seasons, Cameron patrolled center field in San Diego. Hey, at least they were good seasons. He posted a 7.6 cumulative WAR to hold off the challenge of Mark Kotsay.
28. Kevin Kiermaier — Tampa Bay Rays
With Rays: 7 seasons
Best season: 2015 (7.1 WAR, .263/.298/.420, 12 triples, Gold Glove)
Kiermaier’s defense gives him the clear edge over Melvin Upton Jr. He’s a three-time Gold Glove award winner who has posted an average 4.2 WAR over six full seasons with Tampa. Upton’s was a mere 1.9 over eight seasons.
29. Charlie Blackmon — Colorado Rockies
With Rockies: 9 seasons
Best season: 2017 (5.5 WAR, .331/.399/.601, batting title)
Blackmon didn't really break through until his age-27 season. Six years later, he has a batting title, a top five MVP finish and four All-Star selections to his credit. He also possesses one of MLB's best beards and refuses to stop spitting.
30. Denard Span — Washington Nationals
With Nationals: 3 seasons
Best season: 2014 (4.3 WAR, .302/.355/.416)
Reminder: We're not officially including Montreal Expos players on this list. That doesn't look like such a good decision when Denard Span gets a coveted spot while Andre Dawson and Marquis Grissom are left off. But hey, Span did lead the NL with 184 hits in 2014. That counts for something.
Previously in this series:
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