The State of the Center Field Market Behind Bellinger and Lee

Cody Bellinger and Jung Hoo Lee are the best options in center field, but what are the other choices on the free agent market?

TORONTO, ON - MAY 12: Kevin Kiermaier #39 of the Toronto Blue Jays runs to first base against the Atlanta Braves at Rogers Centre on May 12, 2023 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

The center field/first base hybrid is a rare breed of ballplayer. Over the last 40 years, only three players have made at least 50 appearances at first base and center field in a single season: Nick Swisher in 2008, Cody Bellinger in 2018, and Cody Bellinger in 2023.

First base is at the bottom of the defensive spectrum; center field is near the top. The prototypical center fielder and the prototypical first baseman don’t look anything alike. The two positions demand completely different skill sets.

Still, don’t be misled by the fact that Bellinger has started more games at first base than center field in his professional career. The man has been a capable defensive center fielder in each of the past six seasons (per Baseball Savant), and with plus sprint speed, a strong arm, and youth on his side – he won’t turn 29 until July – the Gold Glove winner still has several years of center field in his future.

All that said, Bellinger isn’t the quick and easy answer for any team with a hole in center field. Widely considered the second-ranked free agent position player (I’ll let you guess number one) in a weak market for offense, the former NL MVP is going to cost his new team an arm and a leg on a long-term deal. That means his suitors will be those looking to add an everyday impact bat, and they’ll need to be willing to spend top dollar to do so.

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It’s a similar story for the next best free agent center fielder, albeit on a smaller scale. The Kiwoom Heroes will post 2022 KBO MVP Jung Hoo Lee at some point this winter, and most sources think he’ll sign for about $50 or $60 million on a four- or five-year deal. His new team would also have to pay a posting fee, which would add at least $10 million to the total cost.

In addition to the money, it’s worth keeping in mind that players coming over from the KBO sometimes need a little extra time to adjust. After all, it can’t be easy transitioning to a completely different style of play in the middle of one’s professional career. That means Lee might not reach his full potential right away, if at all. Like Bellinger, he isn’t going to be a quick fix for anyone’s center field needs.

So, what options remain for teams that aren’t in the market for a nine-figure All-Star or an international prospect? Let’s take a look.

The State of the Center Field Market

  • Tier 1: Cody Bellinger
  • Tier 2: Jung Hoo Lee
  • Tier 3: Kevin Kiermaier, Harrison Bader
  • Tier 4: Michael A. Taylor, Adam Duvall

Tier 3

After Bellinger and Lee, Kevin Kiermaier and Harrison Bader are the only other free agents with a good chance to be above-average regulars in center field. However, each comes with his fair share of risk.

Kiermaier is famously injury-prone, and it’s never a promising sign when that descriptor is paired with “mid-thirties.” Still, he had a healthy and productive 2023 season, playing stellar defense and posting his best offensive numbers since 2017.

Bader has had injury problems of his own, and he’s coming off a season in which he really couldn’t hack it with the bat. However, he had several good seasons with the Cardinals, including his Gold Glove campaign in 2021. Indeed, he has averaged 3.3 fWAR per 162 games throughout his seven-year career. On top of that, he won’t turn 30 years old until June. The risk is higher with Bader than Kiermaier, but so is the potential reward.

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Presumably, Kiermaier will be looking for a multi-year contract (it’s hard to imagine he’ll ever have that chance again), while Bader might be better served looking for a one-year, prove-it deal.

In either case, the teams that sign Bader and Kiermaier need to have plenty of center field reps up for grabs. At the same time, they’ll also need a backup plan if things don’t work out. If that sounds too complicated for any potential suitors, those teams will need to pony up the dough and make a push for Bellinger or Lee instead.

Tier 4

Michael A. Taylor is a solid role player who offers great speed, a plus glove, and hopefully a little offense. He won’t be much more than a 1.5-2.0 WAR player, but he won’t be much less, either.

On the other hand, Adam Duvall offers significantly more upside, but he’s also an injury-prone 35-year-old veteran, and his days in center field might be numbered. He has a plus bat, but it’s anyone’s guess if he can last a full season as an everyday center fielder.

Duvall will be a nice pickup for a team that has other options in center field but could use an extra bat. Meanwhile, Taylor makes the most sense for a team that already has plenty of offense but lacks a clear answer in center.

Additional Options: Enrique Hernández, Jason Heyward, Travis Jankowski, Aaron Hicks, Isiah Kiner-Falefa

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Center Field Suitors

Leading the Charge

The Yankees and Giants are expected to be two of the biggest competitors for Bellinger and Lee. Both teams have money to spend, a hole in center field, and upgrades they need to make if they’re going to get back to the playoffs. However, they aren’t the only suitors for the top outfielders, and if either fails to land the big fish, they’ll still need to find a center fielder.

The Yankees’ outfield currently consists of Aaron Judge and a lot of question marks, while the Giants have plenty of outfielders but none who can play a strong center field. They’ll both be major players in this market.

More Potential Landing Spots

The Blue Jays have Daulton Varsho to take over full-time in center field, and their priority this winter should be improving the offense. Still, Kiermaier played well for the Jays last season, and they could be tempted to bring their phenomenal defensive outfield back together for another run.

The Guardians have Myles Straw under contract through 2026 (with team options for 2027 and ’28), but it might be time to move him into a fourth-outfielder role. For the second straight season, Straw was the only qualified outfielder with an OPS below .600. Perhaps Cleveland could pair him up with the lefty-batting Kiermaier?

The Royals don’t have a true center fielder, and if they’re looking to take a step forward next season without breaking the bank, center field is a good place to upgrade. They already boast an elite defense in the middle infield, and with a new center fielder, they could have the strongest up-the-middle defense in the American League.

Finally, the Twins have to decide if Byron Buxton will return to his natural position in 2024. Buxton is a phenomenal defensive center fielder, but he spent the 2023 season as a designated hitter to prevent injury. If he’s ready to return to the field, the Twins are set in center. Otherwise, they’ll probably need to make an outside addition.

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