Andrew McCutchen: Top CFer in majors?

Pirates fans can at least be optimistic about the performance of Andrew McCutchen. Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire

Quick: Who is the best center fielder in baseball right now?

And, no, the answer isn’t Josh Hamilton. He actually played more games in left field last season and is scheduled to play there on a full-time basis in 2011.

So that leaves … well … oh, where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? (Or more recent vintages of Carlos Beltran or Grady Sizemore or Jim Edmonds …)

According to the analysts at Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus, the top three center fielders in 2010 were Andres Torres, Angel Pagan and Drew Stubbs, in some order. Not exactly Willie, Mickey and the Duke. Torres and Pagan, two journeymen who got regular playing time for the first time in their careers, rated particularly well due to being valued as Gold Glove-caliber fielders.

Now, it’s possible (and likely) that Pagan and Torres aren’t really Mike Cameron-in-his-prime defenders. Even those who create the advanced defensive metrics suggest you need a few years of data to make reliable conclusions. This is where Andrew McCutchen comes in. After all, he’s the subject of this post.

If we temporarily look just at hitting ability, McCutchen is as good as anybody. Pick your metric: No. 1 in Prospectus’ VORP (runs produced above replacement), No. 4 in B-R’s OPS+ (but Vernon Wells and Torii Hunter won’t be playing center this season), No. 2 in Fangraphs’ wOBA. In both cases, he’s just behind Colby Rasmus, but Rasmus was platooned some and needs to prove he can consistently hit lefties.

So, yes, Pirates fans, there is some good news: You may have the best center fielder in baseball! (Exclamation point needed to excite Pittsburghers from their baseball slumber.) You can finally take those Andy Van Slyke posters off your wall. McCutchen’s value comes from doing a lot of things well. He has some power, takes his walks (his .365 OBP led center fielders), has speed on the bases, plays hard and is just 24. There is one hitch: those fielding metrics don’t like his defense. Fangraphs rated him as the third-worst center fielder last year, behind only Matt Kemp and Melky Cabrera. B-R didn’t like his fielding. Baseball Prospectus didn’t like his fielding. On the other hand, scouts do like his fielding.

That said, I think McCutchen and Rasmus will be battling for title of “best center fielder.” Pagan and Torres will have to prove they’re for real. Michael Bourn is a Gold Glover with electrifying speed but lacks power. Who knows what numbers B.J. Upton will put up. Chris Young has been inconsistent and Stubbs must cut down on his strikeouts. Austin Jackson hit .293 as a rookie but the 170 strikeouts are a major hazard sign. Kemp must rebound from a disappointing year. Jacoby Ellsbury is kind of like Bourn, but with more publicity.

Overall, the ranks of center fielders probably have less star power than anytime in history. That isn’t to say there aren’t good athletes out there. In fact, the quality of the athletes is outstanding: eight center fielders hit at least 20 home runs in 2010, 16 stole at least 20 bases. Many of these guys are power/speed threats and superb fly ball chasers.

What we lack is a dominant hitter in the mode of Sizemore or Beltran, or Ken Griffey Jr. or Bernie Williams in the late ‘90s. All these guys have some weakness at the plate. No regular center fielder hit .300 last year and 14 of them struck out at least 100 times, with six topping 140 K’s.

That’s what I like about McCutchen. In this day of guys accepting 150 strikeouts as being “part of the game,” McCutchen puts the ball in play and puts his speed to use. He’s trapped on a bad team but if the Pirates ever turn it around, he’ll be the centerpiece.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter at @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog at @espn_sweet_spot.