Coming into the season, neither Chicago fan base knew what they were really going to get from center field. Marlon Byrd was the newest big name acquisition for the Cubs, but most projection systems had him pegged as a roughly average everyday player. As such, Cub fans have held their breath, hoping that Marlon would end the team's revolving door in center field, one that has seen the likes of Juan Pierre, Jim Edmonds, Felix Pie, Reed Johnson and Jacque Jones, among others, in the past few seasons.
Unlike Byrd, Rios came to the White Sox from Toronto in August of last season, but expectations were tempered for this season after his almost unwatchable performance in his first stint in Chicago last season. He was the biggest waiver claim in MLB history, but continued his struggles from early in the season, finishing the year with just a 0.4 fWAR in 149 games. For a player that was worth roughly 4.4 fWAR per year from 2006-2008 and is due nearly $60M through 2014, 2009 was considered a monster disappointment for the former All Star. To say the least, it didn't look like Kenny Williams took the greatest risk by taking on Rios' deal.
But beyond their position and the city they play it in, Byrd and Rios have something else in common so far this season: they've been two of the best players in the game. Currently, both Byrd and Rios are in the top 5 in fWAR for the entire MLB, and have established themselves as two of the better hitters in their respective lineups. The two outfielders kicked off their seasons in style, each hitting a home run on Opening Day, and neither one has shown any signs of taking a dive any time soon.
Byrd was relatively surprisingly given the No. 5 spot in the Cubs' batting order, and he's taken to the position quite nicely. He's been riding an aggressive approach and the best contact rates of his career to a .347/.374/.597 line, with 6 home runs and 13 doubles in 131 plate appearances. He's walked only 3 times so far (2.3% walk rate), which is certainly concerning, but he's striking out less as well and hitting for more power than ever before. He's certainly due for some regression, but ZiPS now projects Byrd to finish with a .379 wOBA for the year, roughly 26 runs above average per 600 plate appearances. Factor in his defense, which, albeit in small samples, has graded out quite nicely so far in center field (+7 DRS, +4 UZR), and Byrd has been good for 1.9 fWAR already. In other words, Byrd has already accumulated more WAR this season than he did in all of 2009. For all of the moves that Hendry has made that I absolutely hate, this one does appear to be a winner right now.
Meanwhile, on the South Side, Rios is leading a trio of resurgent sluggers that also includes Andruw Jones and Paul Konerko. If the rest of the roster (outside of Danks) didn't totally suck so far, this team would actually be looking pretty good. After a big day yesterday (4-for-4 with a walk, a double and a home run), Rios' line is up to .324/.361/.604 on the year. Like with Byrd, he's posting easily the best contact rates of his career, and he's maintained a walk rate near his 6% career mark. But his power is back (6 HR, 1 3B, 11 2B in 29 games) and he appears to have made some legitimate adjustments at the plate. He's swinging and missing significantly less even though he's swinging more often than before, reflecting a distinctly different approach than the one we saw last fall. He's taking very few first-pitch strikes, his 46% mark is the third-lowest in the majors. He's hitting the ball into the air more often again after hitting the ball on the ground 43% of the time last season, that mark is down to 35% of the time this year. Oh, and he's already stolen 9 bases this season, which makes him one of game's more interesting power-speed players. ZiPS now projects Rios to finish the year with a .364 wOBA, about 18 runs above average per 600 plate appearances. And like with Byrd, his limited defensive numbers have been quite good this year, with +4 marks in both UZR and DRS. He's been good for 1.8 fWAR, easily the best on the team.
Between the two of these guys, both Chicago teams are receiving some huge performance from their center fielders, which is rare. As a Chicagoan, I've seen both of these teams sort through top prospects like Pie and Brian Anderson, along with well-known veterans like Edmonds and Nick Swisher. And in the end, we'll presumably see a good deal of regression from these two, especially when 2012 comes around. But right now, the situation in center field is better in Chicago than it's been since I can remember, because Rios and Byrd are actually playing some really nice baseball.