I find this fascinating: Center fielders outhit left fielders in 2016. While left fielders hit a few more home runs -- 595 to 546 -- center fielders hit .263 compared to .254, drew more walks and hit more triples. They also grounded into far fewer double plays, stole 290 more bases and, of course, played the more premium defensive position.
In other words, center fielders were much more valuable than left fielders in 2016. Center fielders also had a slight edge at the plate in 2015 and 2011, but historically left fielders have always hit better than center fielders. I don't know if this a permanent change in the defensive spectrum or a blip in time, but for now the empirical evidence suggests the bar in center field is rising. Good defense remains a vital part of the job, but producing at the plate is important as well.
It's one reason Dexter Fowler would have been a nice fit for so many teams, and why the Colorado Rockies' signing of Ian Desmond means teams are calling the Rockies about the availability of Charlie Blackmon. It's why the Cincinnati Reds are listening to offers for Billy Hamilton and why the Kansas City Royals may trade Jarrod Dyson.
Let's take a look at those three players and who might be interested in acquiring them:
Charlie Blackmon: Coming off his best season, Blackmon hit .324/.381/.551 and had a higher slugging percentage on the road than at Coors Field and a higher OPS than Nolan Arenado. He didn't run as much in 2016 after injuring his toe in April, but he swiped 43 bases in 2015. He has two seasons remaining until free agency, and his value is unlikely to ever be higher if the Rockies want to swap for some pitching help.
Billy Hamilton: The speedy switch hitter was 58-for-66 as a base stealer in just 119 games and showed improvement with the bat in the second half when he posted a .293/.369/.333 line over 197 plate appearances. With his defense in center field (plus-15 defensive runs saved), he's a potential 4-WAR player if he can get his OBP near .350. He's under team control through 2019.
Jarrod Dyson: The Royals' longtime fourth outfielder actually led the club's position players in WAR in 2016. He's averaged 31 steals the past five seasons in a part-time role with a .327 OBP, and he had a .340 OBP in 2016. Like Hamilton, he has no power, but his speed and defense make him a nice player. He has one season left until free agency.
Who needs a center fielder? The Cardinals signed Fowler, the Astros likely will give George Springer more time in center this season and the Nationals traded for Adam Eaton (with Trea Turner moving back to shortstop), but here are some other teams potentially seeking an upgrade:
Baltimore Orioles: The Orioles had the worst outfield defense in the majors in 2016 at minus-51 DRS, and it wasn't all Mark Trumbo's fault. They would be wise to move Adam Jones to right field and acquire a better defensive center fielder. Their thin system likely prices out Blackmon or Hamilton, but Dyson would be a nice fit as a one-year stopgap. Trumbo then can be a designated hitter if he's re-signed.
Cleveland Indians: Tyler Naquin was a surprise with the bat, hitting .296/.372/.514, but the defensive metrics suggest he was terrible in the field, something we saw in the postseason. The batting numbers are somewhat fluky as well, as he rode an unsustainable .411 average on balls in play. Even after trading Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield in the Andrew Miller deal, the Indians have an above-average farm system. They could try and turn Bradley Zimmer -- their top prospect, but strikeout-prone in the minors -- into Hamilton to shore up the defense or acquire Blackmon to give them a top leadoff hitter (allowing Carlos Santana to move down into an RBI slot).
Texas Rangers: Before they re-signed Carlos Gomez, there were reports the Rangers were interested in Hamilton. Maybe that could still happen. Gomez's metrics in center have declined, and he rated minus-4 DRS in 2016 in 85 games in center. If the Rangers acquired Hamilton, they could slide Gomez over to right and make Shin-Soo Choo their DH. They improve defensively at two positions and solve their DH problem without having to spend big money to sign an Edwin Encarnacion.
Detroit Tigers: The Tigers list JaCoby Jones as their No. 1 center fielder on their team website, which means they need a center fielder. Jones hit a lackluster .243/.309/.356 at Toledo with 25 walks and 97 strikeouts, so there are no signs his bat is ready for the majors. And he's not even a pure center fielder, having split time between third base and center. Tyler Collins and Anthony Gose are on the 40-man roster, but they're not playoff-caliber center fielders. Trouble is, the Tigers' payroll is already at an estimated $197 million, and all indications are they won't add any more salary.
New York Mets: For now, Curtis Granderson is the starter, but it's unlikely he's going to be out there for 150 games. He'll be entering his age-36 season and no center fielder age 35 or older has played 100 games in center since Mike Cameron in 2009. It's a young man's position. Juan Lagares, who is apparently OK after injuring his shoulder making a catch in the Dominican Winter League over the weekend, is a good defensive backup, and a Granderson/Lagares platoon probably wouldn't be awful. The Mets would love to dump Jay Bruce and move Granderson to right, but nobody wants Bruce, so they're kind of stuck for now.
Chicago Cubs: They signed Jon Jay and aren't likely to do more before the season, but Jay isn't anything special, and if Albert Almora Jr. doesn't hit, I could see the Cubs making an in-season upgrade. A dark-horse trade possibility: the Braves' Ender Inciarte, the 2016 National League Gold Glove winner. The Braves have Mallex Smith, a similar player, ready to take over, making Inciarte valuable trade bait for somebody like Ian Happ or Jeimer Candelario.