Cubs' Top 5 center fielders: Bastian's take

May 5th, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only … if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Here is Jordan Bastian's ranking of the top five center fielders in Cubs history. Next week: Right fielders.

Cubs' All-Time Around the Horn Team: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF

1. Hack Wilson, 1927-31
Key fact: His 191 RBIs in 1930 are a single-season MLB record.

On July 28, 1930, the Cubs hosted the Reds for a doubleheader at Wrigley Field. In the second tilt, Lewis Robert "Hack" Wilson used a single to drive in Kiki Cuyler, but for nearly seven decades that one RBI was credited to Charlie Grimm, who had another run-scoring hit two at-bats later.

Finally in 1999, following research by a pair of historians that was confirmed by Major League Baseball, Wilson was rightfully credited with the additional run batted in. And that made his already seemingly impossible record of 190 RBIs in one season that much more difficult to surpass. It now stood at 191.

Dating back to 1938, the closest any batter has come to Wilson's incredible feat was 165 RBIs, which Manny Ramirez amassed in 1999. Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa is next on that list with 160 in his 2001 campaign. That still leave's more than a month's worth of RBIs on the table to catch Wilson's mark.

Wilson only played in six seasons with the Cubs and 12 years overall, but his star burned extraordinarily bright in a career and life that was shortened by a fight with alcoholism. Wilson died at the age of 48 in 1948 and was eventually voted into the Hall of Fame in 1979.

Shortly before his death, Wilson appeared on "We, the People," a CBS radio talk show. According to a biography of Wilson by the Society for American Baseball Research, the former slugger had this message:

"There are kids, in and out of baseball, who think because they have talent, they have the world by the tail. It isn't so. In life you need things like good advice and common sense. Kids, don't be too big to take advice. Be considerate of others. That's the only way to live."

Grimm, who managed the Cubs in 1949, posted a framed excerpt from Wilson's interview in the Cubs' clubhouse that season.

There was no official MVP in the 1930 season, but the Baseball Writers' Association of America named Wilson the National League MVP for his historic performance. Besides the 191 RBIs, Wilson had 56 homers, 146 runs and 208 hits, while batting .356 (1.177 OPS) that year. Wilson averaged 39 homers and 150 RBIs with a 1.051 OPS from '27-30 at his peak, and ended his Cubs career batting .322/.412/.590 in 850 games.

2. Andy Pafko, 1943-51
Key fact: Compiled 27.1 WAR during his Cubs career.

Pafko has seven Opening Day starts in center field in Cubs history -- the most in the Modern Era for the franchise. His 723 games in center for the Cubs are the second most for the club in data that traces back to 1913.

Nicknamed "Handy Andy," Pafko was tough to strike out and had a skill-set that enabled him to play third base some when he wasn't in the outfield. He made four All-Star teams during his years with the Cubs and was a part of the 1945 club that reached the World Series.

"I played during a great era of baseball," Pafko told the Chicago Tribune in a 2004 interview. "I was fortunate to play in the World Series for three different teams in my career -- the Chicago Cubs, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Milwaukee Braves. There have been so many great Cubs ballplayers like Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ron Santo who never got the chance to play in a World Series."

During the '45 campaign, Pafko hit .298 with 12 homers, 24 doubles, 12 triples and 110 RBIs, finishing fourth in voting for the National League MVP.

In parts of nine seasons with Chicago, Pafko hit .294/.363/.468 with a 126 OPS+, compiling 126 homers, 162 doubles, 486 runs, 584 RBIs and 1,048 hits. He also finished with more walks (332) than strikeouts (243) in his 960 games with the North Siders.

3. Jimmy Ryan, 1885-89, 1891-1900
Key fact: 375 outfield assists are third-highest in MLB history.

There are a few center fielders from the early years of the franchise that could have made this list, but Ryan gets the nod as the representative player from pre-1900. Per Baseball Reference, Ryan compiled 35.7 of his 43.3 career WAR with Chicago.

Ryan spent 15 of his 18 seasons with the franchise during its days known as the White Stockings, Colts and Orphans. He also spent the 1890 season suiting up for the Chicago Pirates in the Players' League. During his years with the franchise, Ryan hit .308 (.824 OPS) with 2,084 hits. He ranks first in club history with 142 triples and second with 1,410 runs scored.

4. Rick Monday, 1972-76
Key fact: 11.2 of 33.1 career WAR came with the Cubs.

Monday is perhaps most famously remembered for a play he made in the Dodger Statdium outfield on April 25, 1976. No, it was not on a fly ball, but a running grab of an American flag that a pair of protestors were preparing to burn in left-center field.

"I'm asked sometimes," Monday said in Carrie Muskat's book "Banks to Sandberg to Grace: Five Decades of Love and Frustration with the Chicago Cubs", 'Does it bother you to be known for one incident that happened to take place when you were in uniform but not swinging a bat, or catching a ball, or something like that -- stopping two idiots from burning a flag?'

"My response then and still is, 'So what's wrong with that?'"

Per STATS LLC, Monday's 649 games in center field are the third-most by a Cubs player since 1913. He received MVP votes in '76, when he compiled 32 homers, 77 RBIs, 107 runs and an .853 OPS as Chicago's leadoff man. In five years with the Cubs, Monday hit .270/.366/.460 while averaging 21 homers, 23 doubles, 77 walks and 88 runs per season.

5. , 2015-16
Key fact: The Cubs have tried 17 leadoff hitters since Fowler's departure.

There are players with more years with the Cubs that have an argument for being fifth on this list, but there are few who had the same impact as Fowler.

Former Cubs manager Joe Maddon dubbed it a "You go, we go" dynamic with Fowler, who gave Chicago the leadoff man it needed to rise as a contender in '15 and World Series champion in '16. He scored 102 runs in '15, made the All-Star team in '16 (when he posted a .393 on-base percentage) and led off Game 7 of the '16 World Series with a homer against Corey Kluber.

Honorable mention

The year-by-year records of Opening Day lineups on Baseball Reference dates back to 1904. In the 116 seasons listed, the Cubs have cycled through 68 Opening Day center fielders -- the highest number of any position. So, there are a few names to note as the runner-ups for this list...

Maybe Corey Patterson (2000-05) did not ultimately live up to the initial hype, but he did play 564 games in center (fourth-most since 1913 for the Cubs). His best season came in '04, when Patterson had 24 homers, 33 doubles, 32 steals and 91 runs.

Bob Dernier (1984-87) was a member of the '84 team that reached the National League Championship Series and took home a Gold Glove that year. ... Jerome Walton (1989-92) won the NL Rookie of the Year in '89, but never repeated that breakout showing. ... Adolfo Phillips (1966-69) came to the Cubs from the Phillies in the deal that also brought Fergie Jenkins to Chicago, and enjoyed a couple of solid seasons in center for the North Siders. ... George Gore (1879-86), Bill Lange (1893-1899) and Jimmy Slagle (1902-08) also bear mention as standouts from the early eras of the franchise.