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Friday, November 02, 2007

The Center Field Shuffle

A-Rod's decision to file for free agency will undoubtedly buoy the drama of the 2007-2008 offseason. I predict that his super-agent, Scott Boras, will prolong their decision until at least the holidays. As a result, the other marquee free agents - Torii Hunter, Andruw Jones, Mike Lowell (if he doesn't resign with the Red Sox), etc. - won't begin seriously negotiating with potential employers until early next year. The logic behind this is simple. No matter how much of Scott Boras is smoke and mirrors, other agents will figure that whoever loses out on A-Rod, from amongst the likely suitors there will be somebody who is then wiling to pay more for their client(s). Unfortunately, this means teams like the Giants and Dodgers, for whom A-Rod might actually make sense, might end up chasing a guy like Jones out of desperation, even though he really doesn't make sense.

Once A-Rod signs, the winter dance craze among MLB GMs is going to be the Center Field Shuffle. Besides Jones and Hunter, there are a litany of solid centerfielders available this offseason. Mike Cameron, Aaron Rowand, Milton Bradley, Kenny Lofton, and Corey Patterson are all free agents. Additionally, Coco Crisp, Boston's gold-glove-caliber switch-hitting speedster lost his position to Jacoby Ellsbury during the playoffs and will undoubtedly be used by the Red Sox as part of a trade package to replace Curt Schilling or Mike Lowell. Tampa Bay could be shopping Rocco Baldelli and/or Carl Crawford as well.

One might think that this glut of players on the market in one position would drive prices down, but quite the opposite might turn out to be true. No less than fourteen teams enter the offseason with serious questions about who will be captaining their outfields come 2008. The center field scene has undergone a considerable renovation in the last couple of seasons. Marquee names and perennial gold-glovers like Ken Griffey Jr. and Jim Edmonds have reached the point in their careers where they can no long cover the real estate, forcing moves to right field. Because of the shortage of talent at this critical position, teams have resorted to converting infielders and corner outfielder, with varying degrees of success. Bill Hall, B. J. Upton, Jacque Jones, Alfonso Soriano, and Ichiro Suzuki all became centerfielders by necessity. Only nineteen players started more than 90 games in center in 2007 (the lowest since 2000). Compare that to the other key defensive positions; 28 players started at least 90 games at shortstop, 25 at second base, and 27 at catcher. Many teams will be looking to the 2007 class of centerfielders to improve themselves, both defensively and offensively.

Let's start in the AL:

Chicago White Sox

The White Sox haven't had any stability in center field since Aaron Rowand left after their World Series championship in 2005. Since then five players have gotten 38 or more starts. The Sox have two young players who are more than adequate defensively, Brian Anderson and Jerry Owens, but neither showed a glimmer of offensive ability during extended big league tryouts in 2006 and 2007. Chicago will undoubtedly sign one of the free agents. Look for them to make a serious run on Hunter. They've been on the wrong end of his highlight reel more than their fair share as a rival to Minnesota in the AL Central, so they no how well he plays at Cellular Field (828 OPS for his career) and how well he brings balls back in a cozy confines. Hunter's bat fits perfectly into the White Sox lineup behind Konerko, Thome, and Dye. Despite his career year in 2007, competitive teams should not expect him to be better than their fourth or fifth best hitter.

Second Choice: Aaron Rowand

Minnesota Twins

With the breakdown in discussions earlier this week and the impending free agency of Johan Santana (then Morneau, then Mauer), it seems safe to say that Torii Hunter won't be returning to the Twins. We can speculate on an on about where Hunter might end up, but the more important question for Minnesota's fans is who will replace him, considering that the franchise will is unlikely to shill out for other free agents as well. Hunter has played center in Minnesota for nine season and won six gold gloves. Those are some tough turf shoes to fill. I don't think the Twins have any intention of filling them. Look for Minnesota to publicize the spring training competition between Denard Span, Darnell McDonald, and Jason Tyner. Tyner is a thirty-year-old journeyman utility outfielder most famous for beginning his career by going 1,220 at-bats without a homer. Darnell McDonald has spent a decade in the minor leagues, but is still only 29, and has shown dramatic improvements in the last couple seasons. He has outstanding speed, modest power, and decent plate discipline. Bet on him to be the Opening Day starter. Span has the most upside, at age 23. He's a slap-hitting speedster who could develop modest power. But his .267 average and 678 OPS at AAA in 2007 don't bode well for him being ready for the show.

Second Choice: Kenny Lofton

Texas Rangers

Marlon Byrd was a welcome surprise during an otherwise disappointing season in Dallas in 2007. When the Rangers dealt Kenny Lofton to the Indians in late July, Byrd was batting .358 with a .928 OPS. He was handed the starting center field job. Unfortunately, Marlon Byrd is not a centerfielder. Not only did he play poor defense during the season's final two months, his offensive numbers suffered as well. He hit only .266 with a 721 OPS after Lofton was traded. It seems likely that Byrd will assume a corner spot in '08, while the Rangers attempt acquire a true centerfielder. They will certainly make an offer to Torii Hunter. But even if they are willing to pay more than the White Sox, Braves, or Twins, their cause may be hurt by their inability to make the playoffs. If Hunter signs elsewhere, expect John Hicks to become enamored with Aaron Rowand, a gritty hustler coming off a career year. Even if they do overpay, Rowand could be a good match for Texas. The ballpark will suit him both offensively and defensively. He's been to the playoffs twice in the last three seasons, winning a ring in '05 with the White Sox. He could provide a much-needed spark in the Rangers clubhouse.

Second Choice: Corey Patterson

Oakland Athletics

Mark Kotsay is an outstanding, underrated defensive outfielder, but his offensive production has declined dramatically every season since his first year in Oakland (2004) and he's missed extensive time to injuries almost every season. Nick Swisher is an excellent rightfielder, but in center he is average at best. Oakland will likely give Chris Denorfia a shot in 2008 as well. Denorfia, acquired from Cincinnati for reliever Marcus MacBeth, hasn't been given a fair shot in the big leagues yet. His minor-league stats suggest he should hit for a high average, draw quite a few walks, and will probably develop moderate power (15-20 HR). As such, he fits perfectly into the Oakland lineup as Kotsay's replacement, assuming he can hold his own defensively. Nonetheless, don't be surprised if Billy Beane deals one of his top starters, Haren or Blanton, to Boston for Coco Crisp and a couple of pitching prospects.

Second Choice: Coco Crisp

Baltimore Orioles

It seems unlikely that Baltimore will renew Corey Patterson's contract. He showed signs in 2006 that he might again be on the verge of realizing his always incredible potential, but took another step backward again in 2007. Undoubtedly there will be a GM, manager, or hitting coach somewhere who will believe that they can make Corey into a late-blooming superstar, but the Orioles have had their chance. That said, while the Orioles may have the desire and even the funds to chase a premier free agent like Hunter or Jones, they have been labeled one of the most undesirable franchises in baseball because of their pushy, overzealous owner and their propensity for firing managers and racking up steroid allegations. In order to get somebody to take a chance on them, they're going to have to take a chance as well. One option would be Mike Cameron, an outstanding defender with good power coming off of an injury and a stimulant suspension. However, I think Baltimore should go as high-risk high-reward as possible. After all, there are three teams with significant advantages over them in their division. And nobody says high-risk high-reward quite like Milton Bradley.

Second Choice: Mike Cameron

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