Sunday, May 3, 2015

When You Have One Center Fielder, Try Playing Him

When the season was set to begin with Eric Young Jr. in center field and Melvin Upton Jr. on the mend, I was hopeful that Todd Cunningham would make the team. Why? It's simple. The Braves needed a center fielder. While EYJ has certain attractive qualities (flexibility, speed), he's not a center fielder. While he made some plays this spring, people like me pondered if the plays he made were more a product of getting late starts after flyballs rather than his speed allowing him to get to balls many other players weren't capable of.

We have gotten our answer so far this season. While early season defensive metrics should naturally be taken with a healthy level of skeptism, EYJ has been pretty awful as a center fielder to this point. He has amassed -0.7 UZR, which is largely a product of a below-average range. As a 25th guy, EYJ makes your team better because he could play center field in a pinch along with left field and even second. That is valuable and historically, EYJ has been a stout left fielder where his speed plays up even more and, at the same time, his arm can be hid.

When the Braves traded for Cameron Maybin right before the season, there was no need for Cunningham. Instead, Maybin could play center field regularly. Sure, there are issues with Maybin...he strikes out too much, hasn't on-based .330 in any significant action in the majors, and is injury-prone. But he is something EYJ wasn't. A center fielder. And he was a better option than playing Melvin in center when the latter eventually was capable of returning to the Braves. Clearly, Maybin should be the starting center fielder.

Yet, 23 games into the season, EYJ has received three more starts than Maybin in center field. Fredi Gonzalez hasn't employed a platoon in the typical sense. Instead, he seems to ask a magic 8-ball for the answers. And it's not like EYJ is hitting, either. His numbers have fell to a miserable .169/.239/.292 and even if you accept that EYJ is being hit by an unlucky streak (.216 BABIP, line drive rate within his normal range), those numbers have kept Christian Bethancourt from getting starts. Why not EYJ?

Of course, it's not like Maybin's hit .377/.400/.604 though his first 60 PA, but Maybin has shown some power so far and his .354 wOBA is better than Nick Markakis. Will that continue? Probably not, but if you look at Maybin and EYJ's career marks, there's not a significant enough difference to justify one over the other offensively (EYJ carries a better OBP, Maybin a better SLG). EYJ's a better baserunner, though the only serious difference between the two is one is a capable center fielder and the other is a guy who can play around the field.

That alone should make Maybin the starter. The fact EYJ's not hitting should make the choice even easier. An underlying potential benefit to playing Maybin might be that he could increase his trade value. Maybin's owed $8M next year with a $9M team option for 2017 (or $1M buyout). This offseason, several center fielders will be hitting the open market. That could open a spot on a team searching for a stopgap option and Maybin could be had for a couple of decent prospects.

So, this is my plea. Play Maybin. Every day. Twice on Sunday provided there is a double header. Let EYJ be what he's best suited for and bring him off the bench. Make it happen, Fredi.

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