Need a nice warm and fuzzy feeling to cheer you up if you are trying to avoid the frigid temperatures outside? How about this – Opening Day is less than 100 days away!
As many of us are waiting for Opening Day and to unwrap gifts and spend time with family, here is an early fantasy baseball present the continuation of our look at the best fantasy keepers by position. This week it is the 2023 Best Keepers – Center Fielders.
The Typical Center Fielder
The stereotype for center fielders over the years has been a player who doesn’t hit for power but will have a good slash line and steal bases for you. While sometimes stereotypes are incorrect, this one seems to straddle the fence. Let’s look at what the average left fielder, center fielder and right fielder produced at the plate in 2022:
- LF: .250/.322/.403 19 homers, 72 RBI, 10 steals
- CF: .237/.303/.385 18 homers, 65 RBI, 14 steals
- RF: .241/.309/.385 21 homers, 75 RBI, 10 steals
What’s Out There?
In 2022, center fielders as a whole hit less homers and drove in fewer runs than corner outfielders. And they weren’t as good at the plate when it came to their slash line. So the stereotype of being better hitters didn’t prove to be correct. But at least the speed part did. The fact center fielders stole more bases makes sense considering the speed they need to play the position should carry over onto the base paths.
The power numbers are actually somewhat inflated thanks to Aaron Judge playing a chunk of games in center for the Yankees. Judge will likely see more time back in right field in 2023, leaving a possible power void at this position in 2024 outside of Mike Trout and a few other players.
Finding a center fielder who can give you some steals is somewhat easy. Finding the center fielder who can provide consistent power is much harder to find outside of the Tier 1 and Tier 2 players.
But enough of the small talk. Let’s take a look at the 2023 Top Keepers – Center Fielders.
A quick note: Ages are as of now and the listed team is who they finished the season with. A player’s team may change for 2023, ages certainly will. Players who have not spent any time in the majors are also not ranked. Prospect rankings are for another list at another time.
Jake McCarthy is one of three center fielders from Arizona who made these rankings. He is a natural corner outfielder but of his 71 starts he made in the outfield, 10 came in center. McCarthy has great speed and is coming off a .283/.342/.427 rookie season at the plate in which he stole 23 bases and hit eight homers in 354 plate appearances. Grey had a great writeup about McCarthy in his Jake McCarthy Fantasy Baseball Sleeper.
Nick Senzel has not been able to duplicate his rookie season, when he hit 12 homers, drove in 42 runs and swiped 14 bases in 375 at-bats while slashing .256/.315/.427. Injuries have been an issue with Senzel, and last season was no different as he was limited to 110 games. While on the field, he slashed .231/.296/.306 with eight dingers and 25 RBI. The the former No. 2 overall pick has the talent to succeed, but is running out of time to prove it or else he will lose playing time to TJ Friedl.
Christopher Morel had a decent rookie season, hitting 16 homers while slashing .266/.338/.477 through his first 55 games, he dropped to .194/.269/.376 over his final 58 games. But with Cody Bellinger now in center field and Nico Hoerner likely to get most of the playing time at second in 2023, Morel will likely be more of a utility player next season.
Bryan De La Cruz, Lane Thomas aren’t young players anymore, but each player broke through last season to make them worthy of being considered keepers in deep leagues. De La Cruz hit 13 homers and drove in 43 at-bats in 329 at-bats for the Marlins while slashing .252/.294/.432. The OBP is below what the average center fielder produced in 2022, but the batting average and slugging percentage were both higher.
Thomas bounced up and down between the Cardinals and the minors for three seasons before joining the Nationals in 2021. In 146 games this past season, he slashed .241/.301/.404 with 17 homers, 52 RBI and eight steals.
If you play in keeper/dynasty leagues, and since you are reading this, I assume you do, then Leody Taveras and Jesus Sanchez have been known names for a while, especially Taveras. The Rangers center fielder was a top-100 ranked prospects for years before dropping off the Baseball America and MLB Pipeline lists after 2018 while still being ranked by Baseball Prospectus through 2021.
Taveras is not a power hitter. His job is to get on base and take advantage of his speed. He had a tough time doing that in his first two seasons in the majors. In 119 at-bats in 2020, Taveras slashed .227/.308/.395 with eight steals and followed that with a .161/.207/.270 slash line in 2021 with 10 steals. But last year Taveras slashed .261/.309/.366 with 11 steals in 314 at-bats. He decreased his strikeout rate and increased his walk rate and I think he should have a solid chance of reaching 20 steals in 2023.
Like Taveras, Sanchez is a former top-100 prospect who has taken a while to settle in with the Marlins. He hit .040 in 25 at-bats in 2020 and then produced a .251/.319/.489 slash line in 2021 with 14 homers and 36 RBI in 64 games. This past season he regressed a bit, slashing .214/.280/.403 with 13 dingers and 36 RBI in 98 games. But his strikeout rate dropped from 31.1% to 26.8% last season and his 162-game average is 25 homers and 70 RBI.
Speed and Speed + Power
If you need steals, then Myles Straw is a great keeper. Straw is basically only good for steals as he produces no power numbers. But he swiped 21 bags last year and his 162-game average is 27 steals while producing a success rate of 87%.
Harrison Bader offers a good dose of power to go with his speed. While Bader hit only five homers this past season, his 162-game average is 16 homers, 52 RBI and 17 steals, the same amount he had with the Cardinals and Yankees in 2022. His career slash line is .245/.317/.405. Compare that to what the average center fielder produced in 2022 – .237/.303/.385 with 18 homers, 65 RBI and 14 steals – and you can see Bader is better in the slash line and on par with homers and steals, making him a solid keeper.
Chas McCormick was not a fulltime starter, but if given the chance in 2023, he may put up some surprising numbers. In only 359 at-bats, he hit 14 home runs and drove in 44 runs while slashing .245/.332/.407. The Astros re-signed Michael Brantley, so McCormick will likely battle for the starting job in center in spring training but should have the inside track to be the starter.
Something to Prove
Dylan Carlson looked poised to be a top center fielder keeper for years to come after the 2021 season after hitting 18 homers and driving in 65 runs while slashing .266/.343/.437. But then came 2022. He slashed only .236/.316/.380 with eight home runs and 42 RBI in 432 ABs. Carlson is only 24 and shouldn’t be written off yet.
Alek Thomas had a tough debut season with the Diamondbacks. He had a slash line of .231/.275/.344 with 8 homers, 39 RBI and four steals. But nearly all of that production came in his first 62 games (.250/.301/.406, 7 HR, 22 RBI, 4 SB) as he slumped in the second half with a .207/.242/.266 slash line. But the former top 100 prospect shouldn’t be written off yet. His career slash line in four minor league seasons is .313/.389/.499 with a 10% walk rate and his 18.4% strikeout rate matches what he had with Arizona (18.1%)
Really Something to Prove
How far has Cody Bellinger fallen? The former NL ROY in 2017 and NL MVP in 2019 was dumped by the Dodgers after the season, leading Bellinger to sign a one-year deal with the Cubs after slashing .210/.265/.389 with LA in 2022. The bright spot is he did hit 19 homers, drive in 65 runs and steal 14 bases. Bellinger has something to prove, and perhaps being out of LA and in Chicago will give him the fresh start he needs.
Riley Greene is the youngster in this tier. Only 22, he had a solid rookie season for the Tigers, slashing .253/.321/.362 with five homers and 42 RBI. His power numbers in the minor suggest he should hit more homers, so I expect an upside in his power numbers.
I actually expected more home runs out of Randal Grichuk this past year after he landed in Colorado. Grichuk managed only 19 homers but still drove in 73 runs and slugged .425. His biggest problem last season was a ground ball percentage of 50.4%, nearly 10 points higher than his career average of 40.6%. If he makes the adjustment back to his career averages, expect more homers.
Under Pressure to Produce
Brandon Nimmo signed a massive contract this offseason to remain with the Mets. Now comes the pressure to produce and live up to the contract. Nimmo played in a career-high 151 games this past season, the first time he’s topped 100 games in a season since 2018. I don’t expect huge power numbers from Nimmo as that has never been his game. But he did slash .274/.367/.433 in 2022 and he should duplicate or better than going forward.
Byron Buxton doesn’t need to prove himself as much as he needs to prove he can stay healthy. When he plays, Buxton is one of the top center fielders in the game. He hit 28 home runs this past season while driving in 51 and stealing six bases. But that came in only 340 at-bats as injuries limited him to 92 games. Since playing in 140 games in 2017, Buxton has been limited to 28, 87, 39 (out of 60), and 61 games from 2018-2021.
Ready to Bounce Back
This is what I wrote about Tyler O’Neill in my left field rankings, and the same holds true for the center field rankings: If I was writing this in 2021, O’Neill would be in Tier 1 as he hit 34 homers, drove in 80 runs and added 15 steals while slashing .286/.352/.560.
Then came 2022 and the injury bug, limiting O’Neill to only 96 games and reducing numbers across the board. I expect him to bounce back in 2023 and be much closer to the player he was in 2021.
Adolis Garcia can drive you crazy with his strikeouts. But his career 29.8% strikeout rate is about his only blemish when it comes to fantasy baseball. Garcia finished fourth in the AL ROY voting in 2021 when he hit 31 homers, drove in 90 runs and stole 16 bases while slashing .243/.286/.454. He was even better this past season, slashing .250/.300/.456 with 27 homers, 101 RBI and 25 steals. He even lowered his strikeout rate from 31.2% to 27.9%.
Given regular playing time, Dalton Varsho had a breakout season for the Diamondbacks, hitting 27 homers, driving in 74 runs and stealing 16 bases. He can play center field, right field (and left if Arizona decides to put him over there) and catcher. The only reason why Varsho isn’t ranked higher is I want to see him duplicate his 2022 season, which I don’t think is out of the question. His home rate has gone from 2.6% in 2020 to 3.5% in 2021 to 4.6% last season.
Just Missing Tier 1 Status
Cedric Mullins didn’t quite match his 2021 season in which he hit 30 homers and slashed .291/.360/.518, but he still had a very good year for the Orioles. His power fell to 16 homers, but he drove in 64 runs, more than what he did in 2021, and he stole 34 bases while slashing .258/.318/.403. Mullins will continue to steal bases and I think will get to between 20 to 23 homers, making him a great keeper.
When Bryan Reynolds is mentioned as a possible trade candidate by the Pirates, talking heads on TV line up to give the long list of teams that would love to add Reynolds. The switch-hitting center fielder completed his fourth season with a .262/.345/.461 slash line with 27 homers and 62 RBI. His 162-game average is 24 homers and 79 RBI with a .281/.361/.481 slash line and OPS+ of 127.
Like several other players in these rankings, injuries are the reason Robert is not in Tier 1. His on-field talent is amazing, but he cannot stay healthy. He appeared in only 68 games in 2021 and 98 this past year. When healthy, Robert hit 12 homers, drove in 56 runs and stole 11 bases for the White Sox while slashing .284/.319/.426. His career OPS+ in 122 and his 162-game average produces 26 homers, 95 RBI and 19 steals.
The days of George Springer being a fulltime center fielder may be closing as the Blue Jays signed Kevin Kiermaier to patrol center with Springer moving to right field. But until he no longer qualifies at the position in fantasy leagues, Springer will remain a Tier 1 center fielder. He provides power and speed, as shown by his 25 homers and 14 steals last season and his 162-game average of 36 homers, 94 RBI and 11 steals with a .269/.358/.494 slash line.
When the Atlanta Braves called on Michael Harris II to take over in center field, he took advantage of the opportunity and never looked back. Making the jump from Double-A, Harris ended up winning the NL ROY after slashing .297/.339/.514 with 19 homers, 65 RBI and 14 steals in 114 games. The power was somewhat of a surprise as he hit only 16 homers in 739 minor league at-bats. So there is a chance his 19 homers are at the top end of the scale for him, but his speed is real and so is his hit tool.
Trout at No. 3?
When it came to ranking the final three players, I went back and forth over who to rank where. Do you reward the career of Mike Trout, who many consider the best player in the game outside of Shohei Ohtani? Or do you put Aaron Judge as the best center fielder after his record-setting season? That would mean dropping Julio Rodriguez down to third after a fantastic rookie season.
As you can see, I went with Trout at No. 3, then Judge and Rodriguez at No. 1. Trout is still a great hitter, but he is also on the injured list as much as he is on the field. In only 119 games last year, he walloped 40 homers and drove in 80 runs while slashing .283/.369/.630. The only thing he really doesn’t do now is steal bases. And that fact is a second reason he is behind Judge and Rodriguez.
What a Season!
What is there to say about Judge? Even non-baseball fans know what he did last year (in case you forgot, he slashed .311/.425/.686 with an AL record 62 homers, 131 RBI and 16 steals). Despite his size, Judge is a great athlete who has turned himself into a great hitter. He was a .257 hitter in 2020, then .287 in 2021 before topping .300 this past year while maintaining a strikeout rate of 25% – above league average but by less than three percent.
But there is no way Judge can duplicate his 2022 season. The 16 steals are the first time he has ever topped nine in a season. I would be stunned if he approaches 62 homers again, though 45 is easy to believe. And Judge is 30-years-old. He isn’t going to fall off a cliff, but his best years are not ahead of him. And his days of being a center fielder are probably over as the Yankees now have Bader to play there all season, moving Judge back to right field.
Power, Speed…He Has it All
For Julio Rodriguez, his best years are ahead of him as he turns 22 on Dec. 29. Considered a top prospect in baseball for several years, Rodriguez showed what all the hype was about during his AL ROY season. Rodriguez has power, slugging .509 with 28 homers 132 games. He also has speed, swiping 25 bases. Oh, and he can hit as well, hitting .284 with a .345 OBP. The hit tool is no fluke. In his three minor league seasons, he slashed .331/.412/.543.
If you are only concerned about next year, then Judge is the top center fielder. But looking ahead three or four years, like good keeper/dynasty league players do, then Rodriguez has to be the top-ranked center fielder as he can do it all and will remain in center for the Mariners for years to come.
JJ Bleday didn’t have a great debut with the Marlins, slashing .167/.277/.309 with five homers, 16 RBI and four steals in 204 at-bats. But the Marlins won’t give up on the fourth overall pick in 2019 after a small sample size and neither should you.
Austin Slater isn’t going to give you great numbers, but he isn’t going to hurt you either. He has some speed, stealing 12 bags last year, and slashed .264/.366/.408.
Adam Duvall and AJ Pollock are both free agents and not getting any younger as Duvall is 34 and Pollock 35. But when healthy, Duvall can provide power as he has topped 30 bombs three times during his career and has the ability to play all three outfield spots while Pollock will provide about 15 homers and a .300 OBP.
Thanks for reading. If you missed any of the previous Top 2023 Keepers articles, you can find them here: