Saturday, March 28, 2009

NL East Preview Week 7: Center Field

The NL East has a few established stars in center field, and a few budding stars to round out an interesting group of candidates.

Carlos Beltran of New York is the best in the division and is among the best in the league. Beltran has his faults and flaws, but the talented switch hitter can beat you in several ways. With a career .281 average, Beltran also has plenty of power; he hit a career high 41 home runs in 2006, and followed with 33 and 27 in 07 and 08 respectively. He averaged 113 RBI each of the last three seasons, and 22 stolen bases a year. He’s also a very smart base runner, only being caught stealing a total of eight times during the same three year span. While not a perfect outfielder, Beltran is very solid in the field and sports a .985 career fielding percentage. Beltran is a very streaky player. He has carried the Mets on his back over the course of a month, and he’s also shrunk out of the limelight on many occasions. A veteran with his talent should be a team leader, but it is difficult to consider him as one. It’s doubtful anyone had ever heard him speak until he tried to pull a J-Roll, announcing New York as the team to beat in 2008. Apparently he meant we’re the team everyone will beat; unbeknownst to New Yorkers at the time. Beltran made a small effort to step up and be a leader at that moment, but disappeared immediately after that. What was he saying down the stretch? He is not vocal, and he just quietly goes about his business. Not that doing that is a bad thing, but someone of his stature and with his experience should step up and be a leader to a team with a bunch of young rising stars. That aside, most teams would take his production on a yearly basis. Beltran is backed-up by about twelve players on the Mets depth chart, not that it matters much. Beltran is remarkably durable and has managed to stay relatively healthy throughout his career.

Shane Victorino has developed into one hell of a ballplayer. He won’t hit .350 or slug 25 home runs, but he will be a table setter for a potent Phillies’ lineup once again, and contribute in every way day in and day out. The Flyin’ Hawaiian has a .281 average in his short career, but expect that to rise as his career progresses. Victorino hit a career high .293 last season. He also hit a career high 14 home runs and 58 runs batted in. His power certainly comes in streaks, as seven of his home runs came in July. Victorino has also stolen 37 and 36 bases in 2007 and 2008 respectively. He hit 30 doubles and eight triples in 2008. He also won a Gold Glove and has a .994 career fielding percentage. His right arm is a cannon, as he can throw any base-runner out at any time. Shane is simply a very good five-tool player that can beat a team in many ways. He was tremendous during the 2008 postseason, carrying the Phils to a few wins, nearly singlehandedly. Another great thing about Victorino; the best is yet to come. Jayson Werth is listed as his back-up, which makes for a very strong center field but weaker right field if Werth must cover for Shane.

The final three are all up and coming players in MLB, and who among them flourishes and who struggles truly remains to be seen. The player with the most upside is probably Florida’s Cameron Maybin. He could be a Juan Pierre of the past for Florida, and should be a solid lead-off hitter for them for years to come. Maybin came up from the minors for a cup of coffee last season and hit .500 in 32 at bats with two doubles, two RBI and four stolen bases. Maybin will always be a threat to run on the bases, he will makes things happen on his speed alone and will be a good center fielder. If he can consistently put the ball in play, and hit grounders and line drivers, Maybin will be a very good player. If for some reason he develops Marlins’ fever and swings for the fences too much, he will turn into a mediocre player at best. It is likely he will know his role and be a strong hitter atop Florida’s lineup, which may have just gone from dangerous to potent. Alejandro De Aza, whom the Marlins hold in high regard, is second on the depth chart. The biggest problem with Florida’s center field situation is an inexperienced player backed-up by an inexperienced player. They have a question mark out there for sure, but Maybin appears to be the real deal, and if anything, they could just run 27 prospects out there until they find one that sticks.

Lastings Milledge had a coming out party in Washington last season, after being traded out of a reserve role in New York. The young prospect showed signs of his potential during his time with the Mets, but excelled in his first full season in the everyday lineup. Milledge hit .268 in 2008, with 14 dingers and 61 knocked in. He also swiped 24 bags and amassed a .986 fielding percentage. Last year was certainly not his full potential and as he develops, Milledge will be a strong outfielder in Major League Baseball for a long time. The Nationals have a few interesting candidates as replacements in center, with Elijah Dukes and Willie Harris. Both are solid players overall and provide depth behind Milledge.

Atlanta has a fairly unknown commodity in Josh Anderson, although in his short time in the big leagues he has done very well for himself. After playing in just 21 games for Houston in 2007 and hitting .358, Anderson came to the Braves in 2008 and appeared in just 40 games. He did hit .294, with three home runs and 12 RBI. He also stolen ten bases and was caught only once. Anderson appears to have a nice mix of speed and pop, and he undoubtedly has the ability to put the ball in play and hit for a high average. Anderson should develop into a good everyday player for the Braves, and it will be interesting to see how he adjusts to playing every day in the Majors. Gregor Blanco fills in nicely behind him, but also lacks experience.

Washington and Florida both appear to have rising stars occupying center field at the moment, but could find themselves in precarious positions should either player falter, due to a combined lack of experience at the position. Center field is a position to keep an eye on during the 2009 season.

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