Every year, a few top center field prospects take over everyday jobs at the major league level. Sometimes the results are quite positive, like those of Adam Jones in Baltimore and Andrew McCutchen in Pittsburgh, but sometimes it doesn't work so hot, like Jordan Schafer's first go as Atlanta's everyday guy.
This year, four guys are taking over jobs in center field in a similar manner: Drew Stubbs in Cincinnati, Cameron Maybin in Florida, Austin Jackson in Detroit and Julio Borbon in Texas. Stubbs, Maybin and Borbon have all already made their MLB debuts, to varying degrees of success, but each is being given a center field job this season with the expectation of playing every day on a contending team.
Each has been regarded as a top prospect previously, with Maybin being the most highly regarded. After being a first round pick by Detroit and being a headliner in the Miguel Cabrera trade, he was ranked by Baseball America as one of the game's top 8 prospects on their 2007, 2008 and 2009 lists, making one of the best prospects in the game by all means. Stubbs was rated as a top-100 prospect by Baseball America in 2008, although John Sickels had him as a B- prospect before the 2009 season. Jackson, the only one still qualified for prospect lists, was rated as the #41 prospect by BA in 2008 and #36 in 2009, although he dropped down on the 2010 list to #76. Borbon failed to make a BA Top 100, but he was #85 on Keith Law's 2009 prospect list, so he was certainly a highly regarded prospect as well.
Only Maybin was ever considered one of the best prospects in the game, but each has climbed through the farm system with the expectation of playing center field every day for someone. It appears that this year will be their chance, so I thought I'd take a look at what the projections say about each one.
Note (12:34 p.m.): Just to be clear, I'm not discussing all players who are starting in center field on Opening Day for the first time. These are guys who have yet to establish themselves as their team's primary center field option for an entire season. For this reason, guys like Colby Rasmus, Dexter Fowler and McCutchen are left off the list, as all of them had 490+ plate appearances in the majors last season.
Maybin, coming into his age-23 season, has primarily been held back by an inability to make consistent contact. His athleticism, power and patience made him one of the best prospects in the game, but consistently high strikeout rates have prevented him from establishing himself at the major league level in previous stints. He posted a .311 wOBA in 199 PA with Florida last season, but he posted a much better .387 mark in 343 Triple-A plate appearances. CHONE is very bullish on Maybin, projecting a 118 wRC+, which would be good for about 13 runs above average over 600 plate appearances. Other projection systems aren't as optimistic, so let's say about 10 runs above average offensively.
By most accounts, Maybin is a good defensive outfielder. CHONE has Maybin at +6 per 150 games defensively for next season, while Jeff Zimmerman's UZR projections have him at +3, so we'll take the middle ground and project him at +4.5 for next season. Put that all together, a healthy season from Maybin would be worth 3.5 WAR.
Borbon, 24, burst onto the scene with a 123 wRC+ and 19 steals in 46 games with the Rangers last season, impressing the team enough to hand him the center field job for 2010, pushing Josh Hamilton to left field and David Murphy to the bench. He's always been a high contact hitter in the Juan Pierre mold: tons of contact, minimal power, elite speed, good range, below average arm. But Borbon impressed people last year with a 8.4% walk rate in Texas, a higher mark than he had posted at any level during his minor league career. The projection systems don't expect Borbon to slow down much either, with CHONE projecting a 104 wRC+, good for about 3 runs above average over 150 games. Other systems expect more though, so we'll put him at 4 runs above average offensively.
On defense, CHONE has him at +11 over 150 games. His UZR data is too limited to provide much of a projection and his TotalZone numbers were so consistently good that we'll be optimistic with him here and go with Sean Smith's projection. If he were to stay healthy next season, the projections say that a 3.3 WAR season would be reasonable for Borbon next season.
Stubbs, 25, is the elder of the group, but he's been Cincinnati's center fielder of the future for years. Often compared to former Red Mike Cameron, Stubbs is a low contact hitter that provides an impressive combination of power and speed, and posted walk rates in the double-digits at every stop in the minors. He posted a 101 wRC+ in 42 games in Cincinnati last season thanks to an eight home run power spurt, but don't expect him to maintain that power in the future. CHONE projects Stubbs for a 92 wRC+, about six runs below average over 600 plate appearances. Most systems expect him to better than that though, some significantly, so we'll put him at two runs below average offensively. But Stubbs retains a good deal of value with his glove, one of the primary reasons that he's been a top prospect. CHONE projects Stubbs at +10.6 in the field, while his limited UZR data projects a +6 mark. We'll once again go with the middle ground (simple stuff, yeah!), and roughly project him at +8.5 defensively for next season. Put that all together, and Stubbs is projected for about a 2.7 WAR for next season if he can stay healthy.
Jackson, 23, is the lone player who still qualified for prospect lists, having not yet made his MLB debut, and that makes it unsurprising that the projection systems are least optimistic on his 2010 performance. Jackson doesn't have the power to match the other three players, which limits his upside, but he's still a balanced hitter that should make for a solid everyday center fielder. CHONE has Jackson posting a 89 wRC+ in 2010, about eight runs below average over 600 PA. Only the Bill James projections expect more, and they have a reputation for being very optimistic, and I think that this is a good example. I think that CHONE is about right here, so we'll stick with that.
Defensively, Jackson is nothing particularly special. CHONE projects him at -5 defensively next season, which is rather pessimistic, but it's based on essentially the only data we have, so we'll stick with it. Clearly, Jackson is the inferior of this group, at least at the moment, as the projections have him at 0.7 WAR for next season. So Tiger fans expecting a legitimate replacement for Granderson probably should keep their expectations low.
So clearly, if any of these guys is most likely to have some trouble next season, it'll be the one who hasn't gotten his feet wet yet, Jackson. The projection systems think that there's reason to believe that Maybin, Borbon and Stubbs can be among the better young outfielders in the game next season, thanks to solid offensive skills and quality defensive performances from a premium position. But there appear to be some very legitimate questions about whether Jackson's ready for the majors offensively, and it remains to be seen what kind of defender he will be.
When looking at the new wave of center fielders, it's pretty clear that Jackson is the inferior of the group, but even so, there's good reason to believe that he'll soon be a solid contributor on some good Detroit clubs. Until then, though, he'll likely be one of the sorer spots on the team.