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Victorino the best center fielder in NL East

3/1/2011

Now that New York Mets outfielder Carlos Beltran has so graciously volunteered to move from center field to right field -- silly me, I thought it was up to the manager to tell players where to play! -- we have a bit more clarity about the center-field situations in the National League East.

Frankly, all five gentlemen assuming this critical outfield spot have something to prove this season (not that Beltran, ahem, didn't). On Monday I attempted to make a case that the fellow manning the spot for the Mets might be the division's best for fantasy purposes, but it was a stretch. Regardless, let's rank the five NL East center fielders and discuss why it's a critical season for each, for real life as well as fantasy purposes.

1 . Shane Victorino, Philadelphia Phillies: On the surface, all seems well. Victorino comes off a season with a career-best 18 home runs, and his 34 stolen bases remain healthy, but a .259 batting average is a problem. Really, Jimmy Rollins is a bigger problem for the Phillies, and that's where Victorino's value can change. Is he leading off, where he will surely score more runs than if he hits sixth or seventh? Victorino batted .208 in the No. 7 spot last season. Can the switch-hitter pose a threat to right-handed pitchers, against whom he hit .233 with a .305 on-base percentage? And let's face it, at 30 years old and 5-foot-9, maybe 190 pounds, how much longer can Victorino remain as spry on the bases? Fantasy owners would prefer fewer home runs if we get the 30-plus points of batting average back, so hopefully Victorino's 2010 statistics don't continue to trend the wrong way.

Where I'd draft him: Victorino is going in the eighth round, 20th among outfielders, which seems legitimate since he finished 2010 ranked 23rd among outfielders on the Player Rater. Then again, Victorino can't be a top-20 outfielder hitting .259 again. I have concerns. Draft him where he's going, but I think we've seen Victorino's best.

2. Angel Pagan, New York Mets: I don't see how a gimpy-kneed Beltran could play center field better than the speedy, in-his-prime Pagan, so this obvious switch is good news for the Mets. Then again, raise your hand if you think Beltran will play in 100 games this season. My hand isn't raised, and not merely because I'm typing. I like Pagan and think his 2010 statistics are reachable again. I don't see much power potential, not in spacious Citi Field, but he could top Victorino in stolen bases again, and the power difference might end up closer than you think. Also, did anyone notice that Pagan batted 31 points higher than Victorino? Perhaps Pagan is just as risky and needs to prove himself yet again, but I would invest.

Where I'd draft him: Pagan is going in Round 14, the 38th outfielder. Wow. I realize there's more speed available late than power, but I'd move him up some. He's the Mets' top outfielder for fantasy, and otherwise.

3. Chris Coghlan, Florida Marlins: He was a revelation as the league's top rookie in 2009, and I really liked Coghlan a lot heading into 2010. He told me on a preseason Baseball Today podcast that he was intent on stealing more bases, and he might have threatened to steal 20 bases had he not torn his ACL in a fluky shaving-cream pie incident in July (don't ask). Coghlan was due to regress some in batting average -- nobody delivered more base hits the second half of 2009 -- but he's capable of double-digit home runs and 20 stolen bases. I don't like the fact that this former infielder is being thrust into playing center field for the first time, which seems odd for someone coming off a major knee injury, but I have little question he will hit and score runs.

Where I'd draft him: Coghlan is barely being drafted in ESPN standard leagues, settling into the 22nd round so far, and outside of the top 50 outfielders. I think he's worthy of better. Is he any less safe than Andres Torres, Rajai Davis and Denard Span, all of whom should steal enough bases to matter? Will any of them hit .300? I've got Coghlan at No. 45 in the outfield.

4. Nyjer Morgan, Washington Nationals: The problem is that Morgan isn't a very good baseball player, so he needs to run a lot to be worth it in a 10-team fantasy league. Morgan stole 34 bases last season, but the big goose egg in home runs and a .253 batting average negates the fun. I think the fiery Morgan -- and not always in a good way -- is in danger of losing playing time in D.C., since Jayson Werth could man center field, and players like Michael Morse and Roger Bernadina and perhaps even Rick Ankiel could outperform him. I think Morse would hit 20 home runs with regular playing time. It's not like Morgan's .307 OBP helped much.

Where I'd draft him: I wouldn't. Obviously, any 30-steal threat is interesting, but I'd call him free-agent fodder in April, if you find your team lacks stolen bases.

5. Nate McLouth, Atlanta Braves: Oh, how the misjudged mighty have fallen. Once the best Pittsburgh Pirate, McLouth's career is at a serious crossroads after he hit .190 for the Braves, and only .234 for Triple-A Gwinnett. Durability and any ability to touch left-handed pitching will continue to be problems. What McLouth does have going for him is the ability to take walks, but his 20/20 days appear over. The Braves don't really have other options for now, but fantasy owners do.

Where I'd draft him: I wouldn't. Whatever he adds in power and speed won't be worth the batting average. I'm keeping an eye on Jordan Schafer for really deep leagues.