Commentary

Young NL center fielders struggling

Maybin, Rasmus, Schafer, Fowler, Young all showing growing pains early on

Updated: May 12, 2009, 10:09 AM ET
By Eric Karabell | ESPN.com

Leading Off
I think it stinks that Cameron Maybin isn't ready to play in the majors, in part because I really thought he was, but mostly because I like to see young players emerge. It really has little to do with fantasy baseball. Nothing against the oh-so-exciting Cody Ross, but if you look at Maybin, you can see he's got the build and the tools that means he should (eventually) be a star. We should root for new blood in the bigs.

Of course, now Maybin will be "starring" or doing something else for Triple-A New Orleans. I'm not surprised today, because a few weeks ago it was obvious Maybin was in over his head. Pitchers had figured him out, and he appeared to lack confidence, a notion the Marlins have since confirmed as the reason for changing their outfield. I had planned to write my article about those young National League center fielders flailing away in the majors a few weeks ago, but I still thought Maybin had a chance to turn things around, and then good things happened to a few others, like Colby Rasmus getting an opportunity, Dexter Fowler running wild one day, and more.

In a 10-team standard league, Maybin probably shouldn't have drawn much interest in the first place, but the hype machine connected to a young player with such a power/speed combination makes him very enticing. It's no different with Rasmus, Fowler and Jordan Schafer. Even when they don't have the numbers, fantasy owners will believe they are coming because, unlike un-sexy veteran options, these kids haven't officially failed yet. Meanwhile, veteran Cody Ross does his thing and we say he'll end up with the numbers we thought, 20-80, something like that. With extreme youngsters, that's not the case.

Why did Maybin get sent to the minors? Ultimately the Marlins couldn't afford him hitting .200 and delivering poor at-bats, no matter how much upside there is. There's a big difference between him painfully struggling -- and it is painful not just for the player, but for those watching regularly -- and Jimmy Rollins doing it. One of those guys is a former MVP. When you recently turned 22 years old, you get sent to a place where you carry your own suitcases because you haven't earned it. Rollins will get all season to turn things around.

Cameron Maybin
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireThe Marlins hope Cameron Maybin can learn some plate discipline down in the minors.
There was quite a bit made in March about the new corps of rising young NL center fielders, but they aren't offering fantasy owners much at this point. Let's expand the scope a bit, and make this column about center fielders I have thoughts about, for now and the future.

Cameron Maybin, Marlins: I didn't care that he was striking out a ton, and I don't believe the Marlins did, either. Everyone on that team whiffs like crazy. Maybin is capable of strong pitch recognition, having walked quite a bit in the minors; he just wasn't making any adjustments and doing it. I don't think hitting him eighth in front of the pitcher for most of his at-bats was a good thing, but batting him second didn't exactly fire him up, either. Florida management thinks it's a confidence issue. I think the guy will still be a star. I projected 12 home runs and 25 steals, and while he's not likely to do that this season, because the Marlins might leave him in New Orleans for months, don't give up on him in keeper formats. For more on Maybin, check out Monday's Out of the Box. Chris Coghlan is a more mature hitter at this point, and he should earn a good amount of playing time. I don't think he'll be ownable in 10-team formats, either, though.

Colby Rasmus, Cardinals: Manager Tony La Russa hasn't pushed him, giving him the fourth outfielder spot out of the spring and easing him into the lineup in proper situations. For example, Rasmus hasn't faced many lefties, which is a good thing since he looks anemic at the plate against them (.105 batting average). He's holding his own otherwise, though he seems reserved in his swing, looking to make contact rather than hitting for power, and he has rarely attempted to steal. You would remain affixed to first base as well if you hit ahead of Albert Pujols. Ultimately, Rasmus will lose playing time when Rick Ankiel returns from his DL stint. That might be a good thing. Rasmus is ready for the majors, but not for regular play. I could see 10 homers and 10 steals this season, but be cautious in expectations. Like Maybin, he's 22, and it wouldn't surprise me if Rasmus heads to Triple-A Memphis when Ankiel is ready, assuming Chris Duncan continues to rake. Ultimately Rasmus seems more of an Ankiel type (25 homers?) than a pure base-stealer, but 2010 will be his breakout season. I'm definitely on board.

Dexter Fowler, Rockies: You might think I'm nuts to question Fowler's place in the majors, since he stole five bases in a game a few Mondays ago, but has anyone noticed he hasn't stolen a base since? Let me look up the next time he'll face the Padres' Chris Young. Fowler reminds me of Maybin, a tall, rangy, speedy center fielder who can take a walk. Fowler is walking, while Maybin isn't. Defensively they're both more than ready. And Fowler hasn't been, until the past two weeks, afraid to run. I could see Fowler getting demoted soon as well, because certainly the Rockies have other options. Look, Seth Smith should be playing every day. He has terrific plate discipline and enough power to warrant playing left field, a Daniel Murphy-type who can field if you will, but as long as Ryan Spilborghs and Brad Hawpe hit and Fowler plays, someone has to sit. I was surprised Fowler made the Rockies out of the spring, as he looked overmatched against hard throwers, especially hitting left-handed. Now that fantasy owners have forgotten about the five-steal game, he's owned in a third of ESPN leagues and falling. This is wise, and why one should barely, if ever, look at a player's pace. He's not going to be stealing 53 bases. He might not reach 20. Three weeks ago his pace was for like 100. Again, in 2010 I could see 15 home runs and 25 steals, but not now.

Jordan Schafer
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJordan Schafer hasn't had a homer or any RBIs since April 8 despite playing every day.
Jordan Schafer, Braves: I got a good look at him opening week and this past weekend, both in Philly, and it seems relatively easy to overwhelm him with either high fastballs or off-speed stuff away. He's just not difficult to pitch to. Schafer homered twice in his first three games, fantasy owners got really excited, and he hasn't done so since. Not only that, he doesn't have any RBIs in more than a month, and only one stolen base all season. The Braves hit him eighth almost exclusively, love his defense and really don't have other options, with the limited Gregor Blanco struggling in the minors. Meanwhile, Schafer's strikeout rate is, I would say, a bit of a problem, but apparently not for manager Bobby Cox. Schafer leads the NL in whiffs -- even more than Mark Reynolds! -- and is on pace to break the major league record. Schafer's bat isn't ready for the majors. Cox recently said, "As long as keeps catching everything, fine with me. He'll get better." He is absolutely correct. Schafer will improve, and defense is critical with a non-strikeout staff. I think fantasy owners need to view him now as we do Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus, without the steals. He's not going to produce runs or hit for average, but defensively he helps the pitching staff, which is enough for the real team. It's not enough for a fantasy team.

Chris Young, Diamondbacks: He doesn't seem to belong in this group, but the numbers do say so, right? He's 25 years old and has a 32-homer, 27-steal season on his big league résumé, but he's a mess right now. I got snickers in a draft a year ago when I said with confidence Young could hit .270 soon. He's never come close, and I wonder if he'll ever hit 30 homers again. Scouts figure out young hitters, relay the info to pitchers, and then it's up the hitter to adjust. Young doesn't appear in any danger of being demoted, because Eric Byrnes isn't doing any better and I doubt the team wants to try Justin Upton in center field, but I'm close to parting ways with him in a 10-team league. Defensively he's terrific, but his plate approach is awful.

It's not only the strikeouts. I think those get overrated, really. Trust me, Arizona management is not concerned with Reynolds whiffing 200 times a year if he smacks 30 home runs. They don't care. They shouldn't care. It's an out, mostly similar to a weak David Ortiz grounder to second base. Young just swings at everything, and he's not hitting the ball hard. He's drawn only one 3-0 count all season, and when you get two strikes on him he's nearly an automatic K. He hasn't drawn any walks with runners on base, and only one of his three successful stolen-base attempts came the "normal" way. Think about that. In an April game against southpaw Ted Lilly, he stole third base twice. He's been successful stealing second base only once all year. He's not slower, he's just not running. At this point I expect his slump will end eventually and he'll hit in the .240 range, so in a way you should buy low. You might get about 12 steals and 15 homers, but that's not what we drafted.

And we'll keep the theme of center field through the rest of the column.

Whatever happened to …

… the promise of Carlos Gomez? Folks, it's time to move on from this fella. Gomez belongs in the lead of this article, really, but I wanted to limit it to National Leaguers. The Mets did well to move this overhyped prospect in the Johan Santana steal, because he's starting to look like a fourth outfielder. Gomez is on his way to Triple-A at some point soon, because there's no sense in him starting twice a week in the bigs. Sure, he is very fast and can steal bases, and defensively he might be the best in the biz, but like Maybin, he wasn't walking, and like Young, he doesn't swing at the right pitches. I watched Gomez in his one start over the weekend and he appears overanxious, but didn't he always look that way in 2008, too? He's got more stolen-base upside than Maybin or Fowler, but you can't steal first base. For now, the Twins are better off with Denard Span and his .371 on-base percentage, and he could steal 20 bases for fantasy owners (though with no power). The fact that Gomez is owned in more than 60 percent of leagues, and Span is owned in 40 percent, means people just aren't paying attention.

It sure would be nice if …

Leading Off
… people ceased overrating lineup position and stolen-base attempts. Curtis Granderson might or might not be hitting fifth in the Detroit lineup, but I submit it doesn't matter at all. He's got power, and has been showing it at a nice rate this season with nine home runs already, including a pair against lefties. When it comes to stealing bases, however, I don't think Granderson has the mindset to approach his 26 steals in 27 attempts from 2007, whether he hits leadoff or not. Fantasy owners shouldn't expect 20 steals, but focus on the positive, which also isn't affected by lineup spot: his power. Last season Granderson missed most of April with a broken hand, yet still finished the season with 22 home runs. His walk rate rose a ton, his whiff rate fell. What really fell was his stolen-base attempts and rate, because I think 2007 was the aberration for that.

Granderson reminds me more and more of Grady Sizemore statistically, except he doesn't choose to run as much, and it appears leading off won't always be in his future. I see his first 30-homer season coming, with maybe 15 steals. As a sixth-round pick in most leagues, that's certainly worth it. By the way, colleague Tristan Cockcroft wrote a draft kit article about stolen bases and lineups, relating mostly to Hanley Ramirez, and concluded people make too big a deal about it. Ramirez is still running, by the way. One more thing on Granderson: He hit fifth for a game and everyone assumed that would stick. He's hit in that spot only once since. Managers experiment as well, so assuming a new lineup really is a new lineup is a bad move.

Quote of the week

"From now on, I'm going to do what I feel like I have to do to be the best for the team, regardless of what other people say. When it's all said and done, I know myself better than anyone else."

That's all well and good, Lastings Milledge, but not listening to your coaches is a bad idea. A bad attitude already got Milledge demoted to Triple-A Syracuse, and it seems obvious the outfielder isn't learning. Milledge didn't hit in early April, and couldn't hold his own in center field, either. Now at Syracuse, he still isn't hitting, isn't leading off and isn't playing center field at all, either. This is not a guy with great power -- he hit 14 home runs in 138 games for Washington in 2008 -- but he still hasn't hit a home run all season, for Syracuse, the Nationals or in spring training. He's ditched the patient approach the franchise wanted for him, which is exactly the wrong move because he's not Vladimir Guerrero or Alfonso Soriano. I'd say he ends up on another franchise really soon, the most recent Delmon Young type who needs a new start. For fantasy purposes, you put up with attitude when the player performs, like Barry Bonds did. I'd say Milledge isn't close to returning to the majors with the Nationals.

Bold is beautiful

I'm ready to proclaim that Michael Bourn has figured things out. Don't even look at the stolen bases; they are nearly irrelevant to the conversation. He's so fast, he could steal 40 bases even with a sub-.300 on-base percentage. Wait, he already did that! Now I think he's about to run up some really nice steals figures, because he's not just taking walks, but having better at-bats. Bourn is in the middle of the pack among outfielders for pitches per plate appearance, at around 4 per, which is a similar rate to last season, but now he isn't as likely to strike out to end the at-bat. His batting average on balls in play is more than 50 points higher than it was last season, which is a bit unsustainable, but he is making contact better and seems willing to lay down more bunts at the right times. I just think it took Bourn a year to be more than a stolen-base guy. Expect a .275 average this season and around 50 steals, especially if he gets to hit leadoff. I don't know why he and Kazuo Matsui don't get switched, because Bourn could really do damage leading off, and Matsui isn't.

Stat of the week

100: That's how many home runs Ken Griffey Jr. has against rookie pitchers in his career. Think about how many that is! Griffey's two-run shot Sunday against Jose Mijares was telling for a few reasons, though. It was only his third home run of the season, and as the Mariners struggle to score runs and -- in time -- fall out of the pennant race, which looks likely, I wonder how many at-bats the greatest center fielder in franchise history will warrant down the stretch. Put simply, it's not time to buy Griffey, nor will it be time.

While he hit this home run off a lefty -- the first home run Mijares has permitted to a lefty in his career -- he's hurting the team more than he's helping it. Griffey actually has two of his three home runs off lefties this season, submitting a .234/.338/.344 line against right-handed pitchers, and the power off lefties isn't really a trend. That kind of slugging percentage for someone hitting in the three-spot by reputation just doesn't cut it. Look, I've never seen a better center fielder than Griffey, but the fact that he's owned in 21.5 percent of ESPN standard mixed leagues is similar to Seattle's interest in him: It's based on reputation and overlooking the cold, hard stats. At this point I think Andruw Jones, hitting .314 with the same number of home runs, will have a better fantasy season.

The final word

Speaking of young center fielders, the one I'm watching the closest who hasn't been mentioned yet is Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates. On the surface he doesn't appear to be doing much at Triple-A Indianapolis, with one home run and a .257 batting average. Look closer: He has more walks than strikeouts, which wouldn't continue at the same rate in the bigs, but it's a great sign he's not striking in the minors. As a Triple-A repeater, he shouldn't be, but he's also leading the International League in triples, with seven. There's little correlation in triples translating to home runs -- it's doubles that eventually do -- but the plate discipline and the obvious speed are very good signs that McCutchen is a future leadoff hitter in the majors.

Again, we've spent much of this column proclaiming the young NL center fielders who don't appear ready for the majors, and McCutchen likely would struggle with every-day play for Pittsburgh right now. That's why I like the fact he's not in Pittsburgh. By next spring, many fantasy owners will look at the below-average stats of Maybin, Rasmus, Fowler and Schafer and conclude they can't play. That's hardly the truth. They just got rushed, or didn't make the proper adjustments. Then again, those same owners might overrate McCutchen if his small September sample size is positive. We all saw in 2008 how Jay Bruce was a two-week monster, then struggled for months.

I think McCutchen makes his major league debut in August and pushes Nate McLouth to left field, where he belongs. People, winning a Gold Glove is hardly representative of special fielding prowess. Check out Michael Young; he was moved. McCutchen is a superior center fielder to McLouth, and he's the future in that spot. He might struggle in the majors later this season, but remember the name in 2010. He's already got the plate discipline so many young center fielders are looking for.

Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. Check out his daily Baseball Today podcast at ESPN Podcenter. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.

Eric Karabell | email

ESPN.com Senior Writer

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