Center field is the shortstop of the outfield, as far as the minor leagues go. Future stars can often be found playing here, much like at shortstop. Yet it is also filled with players who will likely never start there at the major-league level. This does not diminish their potential, but for every “true” center fielder manning the position somewhere on the farm, there are plenty of future left and right fielders who can still be at least average to above-average big-leaguers.
Much as was done with the prior positions, the players I am listing here were primarily center fielders in the minors last season. Again, this does not mean they will end up pushing Matt Kemp to right field. That player probably does not exist in the Dodgers’ system, but he is hard to find in most farm systems. While Jackie Bradley Jr. might be coming up behind Jacoby Ellsbury in the Red Sox system, there are no obvious prospect replacements for fellow post-2013 free agents Shin-Soo Choo of the Reds, Curtis Granderson of the Yankees, or Carlos Gomez of the Brewers.
While the Michael Bourn rumors encouraged some to scream “move Kemp out of center!” (though his collision with the wall in Colorado probably did that even more), the fact is that Kemp is still just 28 years old should indicate he is capable of playing center for at least a few more years. As long as he avoids crashing into things at full speed. If he has learned nothing from that wall in Denver, he should at least call Ellsbury and see how full-speed collisions have wiped out two of his last three seasons.
That debate can rage another time. For now, here are the Dodgers’ center fielders down on the farm, starting with a familiar name.
Tony Gwynn Jr.: The 30-year-old veteran is still around to collect the $1.15 million remaining on that head-scratching two-year deal he received prior to 2011. Sure, he was dropped from the 40-man roster, but the market for light-hitting center fielders is a barren one, so Gwynn has opted to stick around (for now). Ultimately, it is not a lot of money, so the Dodgers could opt to sever ties in spring training if they would rather play a younger man in center at Albuquerque. The fact they have kept him around this long might be more out of necessity, seeing as how Kemp is coming off shoulder surgery and there are probably some doubts as to how a combination of Carl Crawford, Jerry Hairston, and Skip Schumaker could handle center (at least defensively) if Kemp is not ready for Opening Day.
Matt Angle: A 27-year-old fringe prospect snagged off waivers from the Orioles last year, Angle got off to a terrible start in Albuquerque before righting the ship and finishing with a .303/.376/.412 line. It still did not save him a spot on the 40-man roster as he was dropped late in the season. Without the right to refuse the assignment and opt for free agency, Angle is effectively a man in limbo. He could return to the Isotopes, but with Gwynn around he almost seems a bit redundant. Angle’s best hope at this point might be to have a strong enough spring to convince another team desperate for center field depth to swing a trade.
Nick Buss: The former USC Trojan has not moved as fast as most college players, only reaching Double-A as a 25-year-old last season. Now 26, Buss is coming off a fairly average season, batting .272/.328/.411 with eight home runs, 57 RBI, and 19 stolen bases. In a lot of ways, Buss is similar to Angle, only with a shade more power and less patience at the plate. He rarely walks and is often graded as average or slightly below average defensively. At best, Buss could end up a fifth outfielder, capable of playing all three positions. With Gwynn and Angle ahead of him, he might be squeezed out of a starting job at Chattanooga.
Joc Pederson: The best prospect here, Pederson probably will not play center regularly in the Majors, but at the very least he should make for a solid corner outfielder. Still just 20 years old (until mid-April), Pederson fared well against older competition in the California League last year, batting .313/.396/.516 with 18 home runs, 70 RBI and 26 stolen bases. Minor League Ball rated him as the Dodgers’ No. 3 prospect, while FanGraphs pegged him at No. 9. John Sickels said Pederson “has solid tools and terrific instincts,” while FG disagreed by saying “he lacks outstanding tools.” While the scouting community might be split, the Dodgers still think highly of Pederson. Though he ran out of steam in the Arizona Fall League, after he had played for Israel in a World Baseball Classic qualifying tournament, Pederson showed enough with Rancho Cucamonga to move up to Chattanooga for 2013. Whether he stays in center or moves to a corner will be determined in spring training.
James Baldwin III: The son of the former White Sox right-hander, this Baldwin combines blazing speed (53 steals last year) and a habit of swinging at everything (177 strikeouts). In many ways he is the ultimate raw American prospect, not unlike his fellow Dodger Dee Gordon. Baldwin hit just .209/.293/.334 with seven homers and 40 RBI for Great Lakes. MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo called him a “very toolsy center fielder with a ton of upside and a long way to go,” stressing that patience will be needed to turn Baldwin from a great athlete into a polished ballplayer. Considering the lessons learned with Gordon, plus a lack of a desperate need in Los Angeles, and Baldwin should move slowly up the ladder. He is only 21, so there is plenty of time. He could move up to Rancho Cucamonga this year or he might remain at Great Lakes.
Noel Cuevas: A 21-year-old Puerto Rican, Cuevas already fits the bill of a utility outfielder, having played 25 or more games at all three positions while bouncing around the Dodgers’ system last season. Overall he hit .267/.337/.365 and finished with 35 stolen bases. While he does not strike out often (just 40 in 288 at-bats), he rarely walks (24). Cuevas could return to Great Lakes to back up Baldwin, or more likely he will be the utility outfielder at Rancho. He projects as an organizational player only.
Jeremy Rathjen: The sleeper prospect here, Rathjen is a big kid (6-foot-6, 190 pounds), who draws a lot of comparisons to Corey Hart. The difference is that Rathjen, at least for now, can play center, as he did 45 times last year in Ogden. An 11th-round pick out of Rice last June, Rathjen hit .324/.443/.500 with nine home runs, 53 RBI, and 16 stolen bases in the thin air of the Pioneer League. The Dodgers could send him to the unfriendly confines of Great Lakes, or, as he is already 22, he could skip ahead to Rancho should Baldwin need more time in the Midwest League. Much like Pederson, Rathjen’s future could be in a corner spot, but for now the Dodgers will keep him where he is and hope that his bat was not an illusion of Ogden’s altitude and his age versus his competition.
Jacob Scavuzzo: An organizational player who saw the bulk of the time (20 games) in center in the Arizona League. Scavuzzo hit just .220/.281/.317, about all one might expect of a teenager drafted in the 21st round. He will remain behind in extended spring training and hope to fight for a roster spot with Ogden in late June.
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That’s it for the center fielders, where some talent resides, but no one guaranteed to play there in Los Angeles in the future. There is still some talent at the corners, led by a certain Cuban defector and more. Look for the corner outfielders up next (as a warning, it might be split into two parts, since there are an awful lot of ‘em).