Center field is one of the most demanding positions on the baseball diamond, requiring great range and versatility from the people who man the position, and there's also a long tradition of baseball legends who were center fielders, from Joe DiMaggio to Willie Mays and more. While there are two longtime center fielders in this current bunch, there's also a trio of eye-catching early twenty-somethings who could lead the division for decades to come. It's a good time to be an AL East center fielder.
Likely starting center fielder: Dalton Pompey
2014 (MLB): 17 G, .231/.302/.436, 1 2B, 1 HR, 104 wRC+, 0.0 WAR
2014 (AAA/AA/A+): 113 G, .317/.392/.469, 22 2B, 9 HR
The center fielder with the most to prove is the 22-year-old Pompey, a previously under-the-radar 16th round draft pick in 2010 who erupted onto the scene last year. Never previously ranked by any prospect lists, he left three levels in ashes during the 2014 campaign, beginning the season with a .319/.397/.471 triple slash and a 150 wRC+ in High-A Dunedin before a June promotion to Double-A New Hampshire, where he hit .295/.378/.473 with a 138 wRC+. The Blue Jays kept him going, and after a 12-game cameo in Triple-A, he even got a September call-up with Toronto, belting his first career homer off a brand name: Felix Hernandez. MLB.com had this to say about Pompey when their evaluators ranked him second in the Blue Jays' system and 44th overall:
Pompey combines elite athleticism with a good feel for hitting on both sides of the plate. He has a mature approach and is adapt at working walks. While his approach lends itself more to high contact rates than power, his bat speed enables him to drive balls. He has above-average speed and puts it to good use both on the basepaths and in center field, where he covers a lot of ground.
In addition to MLB.com's praise, Pompey was ranked 42nd overall by Baseball Prospectus and 30th by Baseball America. Not bad. Pompey can fly around the bases, as he swiped 38 in Low-A Lansing in 2013, then stole a total of 44 last year between the levels. He's the most inexperienced member of this group with only 17 career pro games entering the 2015 season, but he has the potential to hang around for quite awhile.
Likely starting center fielder: Adam Jones
2014: 159 G, .281/.311/.469, 30 2B, 29 HR, 117 wRC+, 4.9 WAR
Hindsight's 20/20, but imagine how much better the Mariners would be if they hadn't traded Jones and Chris Tillman for Erik Bedard prior to the 2008 season. Bedard was a fine lefty at the time, but history has not been kind to Seattle in the years since then. Jones has become the most recognized face of the Orioles' recent resurgence to relevancy, as he's annually averaged a 118 OPS+, 32 doubles, and 30 homers over the past four seasons while the O's made two playoff appearances and won their first division title in 17 years.
It feels like Jones has been around forever, but he doesn't turn 30 until August 5th. At this point, the righty slugger likely won't get better than he is at the moment, the prime of his career. I'm not sure if I would say he's a worthy Gold Glover, but he's definitely no slouch in center field--he can really cover some ground out there. The only hole in his game is poor plate discipline, as he's only worked 39 total unintentional walks over the past two full seasons. Although one day, he will probably meet an Alfonso Soriano-like decline, he remains a potent threat in the Orioles' lineup and (thankfully for the O's sake), one of the game's healthiest players.
Likely starting center fielder: Kevin Kiermaier
2014: 108 G, .263/.315/.450, 16 2B, 10 HR, 119 wRC+, 3.7 WAR
Kiermaier's rise to a major league starting role was even more surprising than that of Pompey. Without Kiermaier's surge last year, the Rays might not have had the confidence to move on from Wil Myers. The lefty was taken all the way back in the 31st round of the 2010 draft, a sneaky good pick by Rays management which has had a checkered draft history since they stopped picking so high. During his time in the minors, prospect analysts praised his defense in center, but they were skeptical of his offensive development despite a seemingly solid .295/.362/.431 triple slash between Double-A and Triple-A in 2013. He made a few Top 10 Rays prospect lists, but never appeared higher than eighth.
Then opportunity struck for Kiermaier in late May. While he was hitting .305/.362/.461 with a 127 wRC+ with Durham, Myers went down with a wrist injury that plagued him throughout the 2014 campaign. Kiermaier rose to the challenge and surprisingly never stopped hitting. He played very well and probably should earned some down-ballot AL Rookie of the Year votes, even though he was stuck in a crowded class with Jose Abreu and Dellin Betances, among others. Now the question is simply "can he do it again?" The defense should remain strong, but his offense will be more tested than ever.
Likely starting center fielder: Mookie Betts
2014: 52 G, .291/.368/.444, 12 2B, 5 HR, 130 wRC+, 2.1 WAR
Another almost out-of-nowhere prospect, Betts was a fifth round draft pick in 2011 who after slugging just .307 for the short-season Lowell Spinners in 2012 began to simply crush the ball at Low-A Greenville the next year, earning some notice as a lower Top-100 type prospect. Most minor leaguers will begin higher levels with some struggles, but remarkably, Betts seemed to just get better. Consider:
2013 in Low-A: 76 G, .296/.418/.477, 160 wRC+
2013 in High-A: 51 G, .341/.414/.551, 166 wRC+
2014 in Double-A: 54 G, .355/.443/.551, 177 wRC+
2014 in Triple-A: 45 G, .335/.417/.503, 158 wRC+
Those are almost absurd numbers for a rapid rise through the system, and by midseason, he was on the Red Sox. Betts receives a lot of hype, but it's tough to say it's not earned. He's a pretty terrific young player who has quickly adapted to a tough task in center after playing mostly second base in the minors, he's a quick runner who stole 40 bases between the levels last year, and he can hit. The $700,000 to pry Betts away the University of Tennessee was a hell of an investment.
Likely starting center fielder: Jacoby Ellsbury
2014: 149 G, .271/.328/.419, 27 2B, 16 HR, 107 wRC+, 3.3 WAR
No, Jacoby Ellsbury is probably never going to be exactly worth the hefty seven-year, $153 million he signed prior to the 2014 season. However, that's not the free agency game--if a player is ever actually worth what the team paid, it's the exception rather than the rule. Those Mike Mussina-type deals from 2000 don't come along every year. Ellsbury will receive about $21 million per year through 2020 to be what he is--a solid player. The Yankees needed a solid player in the outfield since there weren't any slam dunk prospects in sight. So here we are.
As has been well-documented, Ellsbury's style of play is in fact one that can age well despite popular preconceived notions to the contrary. Similarly, his label as an injury risk is overstated as well. He'll get on base a fair amount, steal more bases than almost all players in baseball with a high success rate to boot, and even flash some extra-base power. Sign me up.