Get used to Lorenzo Cain being flashy this season as his numbers should get a bump. [Brian Kersey/Getty Images]
By Jay Jaffe
Thus far I've covered catchers, infielders and leftfielders in this position-by-position series, offering my personal picks for players I expect to break out (“Booms”) or decline (“Busts”) in 2013. As I've noted each time around, I don’t have hard-and-fast criteria for inclusion on these lists, and I won’t promise that a player's OPS will spike and help you rule your fantasy league — or conversely, that he will wind up below the Mendoza Line or go on to lose his job. In fact, these aren’t particularly fantasy-targeted assessments because I don’t think about RBI totals or batting average very often.
These are established players whom I’ve studied and have reasons for earmarking for better or worse. Particularly favorable or unfavorable projections, changed circumstances such as trades, new roles, recoveries from injury and entry into or exit from the prime age range of 26-29 may all come into play. If you've missed any of the positions thus far, you can catch up here.
As we turn to the middle pasture, it's worth noting that last year saw center fielders hit for a .270 True Average, a measure of his runs produced per plate appearance on a batting average scale after adjusting for park and league scoring environments. It was the position's strongest showing since 1992, and with the arrivals of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, and the maturation of Andrew McCutchen, Adam Jones and Austin Jackson, it appeared we had a positional renaissance on our hands. With Harper and Trout shifting over to left field this year, and Josh Hamilton to right, we're likely to see a collective dropoff in center, at least at the plate. Even so, some key players returning from injury should help fortify the remaining ranks. The players here are listed alphabetically within each category.
Lorenzo Cain, Royals: After an impressive debut for the Brewers in late 2010, Cain became a key piece in the Zack Greinke trade, but Melky Cabrera's presence and surprisingly effective season left him to languish at Triple-A for most of the 2011 season. Alas, even with Cabrera traded away, groin and hamstring woes limited Cain to just 61 games last year, most of them between July and September. Heading into his age 27 season, he's the owner of a .281/.327/.412 big league line in 425 plate appearances, and while that doesn't look like much, it's good enough for a .269 True Average, which when coupled with above-average defense in centerfield, should make him a valuable player. If there's a concern, it's that he'll need to improve his 2012 strikeout and walk rates (23.0 and 6.2 percent, respectively), but his upper minor league stats show that he's capable of better.
Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox: When Ellsbury has been healthy, he has been one of the top centerfielders in the game. In 2011, he showed unprecedented power, smacking 32 home runs to go with 39 steals and hitting .321/.376/.552 en route to a season worth 7.5 Wins Above Replacement Player (Baseball Prospectus' version). Last year, he missed three months due to an injured right shoulder — his second injury-wracked season out of three — and his numbers sank to .271/.313/.370 with four homers and 14 steals in 74 games and 323 plate appearances. He's a much, much better player than that, and he's still on the right side of 30 (he turned 29 last September). While he shouldn't be expected to approach 30 homers again given that it's the only time he's even been in double digits, a performance in the .300/.360/.450 range with 30 or 40 steals wouldn't be a surprise.
Brett Gardner, Yankees: Gardner lost nearly the entire season to a bone spur in his right elbow; he played in just nine games in April before hitting the disabled list, and after undergoing surgery on July 24, made just three regular season plate appearances and eight postseason ones upon returning in late September. With a full offseason to recuperate, he's off to a hot start this spring, and while the stats themselves don't mean anything, the point is that he's healthy, and at 29 years old, should be able to approximate his 2009-2011 line (.268/.360/.375 with an average of 41 steals a year). How much time he'll spend in centerfield is the question. Because of his speed and defensive prowess covering Yankee Stadium's spacious leftfield (65 Defensive Runs Saved across that three-year span), the team has strongly considered moving him back to his natural position, with Curtis Granderson moving to left, but Granderson's injury — a fractured forearm that will keep him out until early May — has thrown a wrench in that plan. Without the benefit of a spring training to work together, the Yankees may wind up scrapping the experiment and keeping the two in place once Granderson returns. While the offensive bar is higher in left, Gardner would be on my list of Booms at either position, and should resume being a useful tablesetter. Whether the Yankees have enough big bats remaining to take advantage of that is the bigger question.
Colby Rasmus, Blue Jays: Once regarded among the very best prospects in the game — twice in the top five on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list — Rasmus has had one good season out of four at the major league level (.276/.361/.498 in 2010). He worked his way into Tony LaRussa's doghouse and then out of St. Louis, and after a controversial mid-2011 trade, has yet to come close to fulfilling his potential in Toronto. The 26-year-old's recent comments about former Jays manager John Farrell add to the litany of questions regarding his makeup, and while that might be overlooked if he were still playing at his 2010 level, his lousy play makes it tougher to do so. Rasmus has hit .224/.293/.396 in 1,151 PA over the past two years, with good power and adequate patience, but a whole lot of swing-and-miss (23.0 percent strikeout rate). He's been particularly unable to match his 2010 success against lefties, batting .197/.283/.319 in 324 PA since then. Coupled with defense that's about average or slightly below, he's been 0.7 wins below replacement level according to WARP, or 1.6 above according to B-Ref WAR; either way, that's a huge disappointment relative to where he stood two eyars ago. Maybe the turnover in Toronto helps him unlock his vast potential, but I'm suddenly quite pessimistic.
Ben Revere, Phillies: