How do NL Central outfielders stack up?

January 29th, 2020

On the whole, most of the star power within the National League Central exists in the infield. Beyond the dirt, Christian Yelich stands tall among the outfielders who call the division home.

The outfield has been a source of much movement in the Central this offseason. Marcell Ozuna turned in his St. Louis uniform and headed to the Braves. After wowing crowds in Chicago, Nick Castellanos teamed up with the rival Reds, whose busy winter also included reeling in Japanese star Shogo Akiyama. Starling Marte was traded to Arizona as the Pirates map out their long-term future. is examining outfielders around baseball this week, and as long as Yelich remains with the Brewers as an annual part of the NL MVP Award discussion, Milwaukee will likely have the best outfield in what has turned into an extremely competitive division. Here is a look at how the outfields currently stack up in the NL Central.

The best: Brewers
The Brewers' strong outfield stands in contrast to an infield comprised of interchangeable pieces, with perennial NL MVP Award contender Christian Yelich anchored in one of the outfield corners and 2019 Gold Glove Award winner Lorenzo Cain patrolling center. Both are controllable for three more seasons.

The other outfield corner belongs primarily to newcomer Avisaíl García, 28, who came to the Brewers on a two-year deal, and whose strong arm will prompt a discussion with Yelich during Spring Training about whether García may be the Brewers’ best choice for right field.

That leaves Ryan Braun as one of the best fourth outfielders in the game, and defensively sound Ben Gamel as a solid No. 5. Club officials think they will be able to get Braun the same number of at-bats in 2020, the final guaranteed season of his contract, as he took in '19, when he logged a 117 wRC+ in 144 games. Inking García to a two-year deal with a club option gave the Brewers some stability beyond '20, even if Braun is cut loose. (He said Sunday he may retire if that happens.)

The Brewers cut into their future outfield depth when they packaged promising Trent Grisham with pitcher Zach Davies in a November trade with the Padres for infielder Luis Urías and pitcher Eric Lauer, but Milwaukee still has former first-round Draft pick Corey Ray on the 40-man roster along with Tyrone Taylor, who made his Major League debut last year. Ray is the Brewers’ No. 4 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline -- two spots behind another outfielder, Tristen Lutz. -- Adam McCalvy

The rest (in alphabetical order)

The Cardinals are betting on their young outfielders this year after seeing left fielder Marcell Ozuna sign a one-year deal with the Braves. Right fielder Dexter Fowler and center fielder Harrison Bader are seen as the starters going into Spring Training, while Lane Thomas, Tyler O’Neill, Justin Williams, Rangel Ravelo, Austin Dean and No. 1 prospect Dylan Carlson are expected to compete for left field, bench spots and Minor League depth.

Last season, Fowler hit .238/.346/.409, while Bader hit .205/.314/.366 and was sent to the Minors in late July to work on his swing, so both will look to have more productive years. Meanwhile, Thomas, O’Neill and Ravelo stood out with their limited at-bats last season, and Williams can bring a left-handed option to the roster. Dean was acquired from the Marlins earlier this month and has also seen limited time in the Majors, but the Cardinals wanted another outfielder for depth.

Carlson, the 20-year-old switch-hitter, will likely start his season at Triple-A, but he could make his debut at some point in 2020. As the Cardinals look for ways to improve their offense this year, they’re hoping the quantity of outfielders competing for spots this spring will produce a quality bat in the lineup. -- Anne Rogers

Maybe things could change between now and Opening Day, but the offseason dominoes that have tumbled to date seem to point to the Cubs sticking with status quo for their outfield. That means counting on comebacks, pinning hopes on encouraging second-half samples and trying to mix and match to maximize production.

Cubs fans would've loved nothing more than to see Nick Castellanos re-signed this offseason, but he tried on his new Reds jersey on Tuesday morning after inking a four-year pact. There were obstacles in the way of a reunion -- freeing up budget space via trades top the list -- and as the offseason wore on, it became increasingly clear that Castellanos would not fit into the 2020 plan.

The Cubs also preferred to keep Jason Heyward in right field, where he is a Gold Glove-caliber defender, rather than over-expose him in center, where he filled in to accommodate Castellanos' arrival last summer. Chicago will also try to be smarter about using Heyward, who had a .264/.365/.466 slash line against righties last year.

Chicago has reached an agreement on a one-year deal with Steven Souza Jr., who can help against lefties in the outfield corners. In left, Kyle Schwarber will get the bulk of the innings after a strong 2019 that included a .304/.394/.649 second-half showing. In center, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. -- both bounceback candidates -- are in line to split the workload.

For depth purposes, Happ (a switch-hitter) can move around to all three spots and Kris Bryant (assuming he is not traded) is capable in the corners, too. Robel Garcia is also a candidate to back up in the corners as well. Top prospect Nico Hoerner is a middle infielder by trade, but he is at least an option to help in center, if needed. Down on the farm, Brennen Davis (No. 78 on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 list) is a couple years away, but he has been turning heads while climbing the organizational ladder. -- Jordan Bastian

On Monday, the Pirates significantly changed the shape of their outfield. They may not be done, either.

Pittsburgh traded center fielder Starling Marte, the last remaining connection to the club’s 2013 National League Wild Card Game-winning team, to Arizona for two young, high-upside prospects. That leaves a hole in center field, which general manager Ben Cherington said the Pirates would address externally. Free agents like Kevin Pillar and Juan Lagares would make sense, and it’s still possible the Bucs could swing a trade for a more established center fielder.

The Pirates seem more set in the corners with Bryan Reynolds in left and Gregory Polanco returning to right. Those two come with upside. Reynolds is coming off an excellent debut season, slashing .314/.377/.503 in 134 games. The last time Polanco was healthy, he hit 23 homers and drove in 81 runs with a 123 wRC+ in 130 games in 2018. But they also come with uncertainty. Reynolds is known for being steady and unflappable, but can he avoid a sophomore slump? Will Polanco’s surgically repaired left shoulder hold up after what was essentially a lost season in '19?

The Bucs have some depth in the form of free-agent signee Guillermo Heredia, No. 18 prospect Jason Martin, corner-utility man José Osuna, former first-round pick Will Craig and non-roster invitee Socrates Brito. They also have help on the horizon. No. 13 prospect Jared Oliva will be in big league camp this spring after a strong second half and an even better Arizona Fall League campaign, and he could be ready for the Majors later this year. There’s talent further down the farm system, too, with former first-round pick Travis Swaggerty, Cal Mitchell, Sammy Siani and Lolo Sanchez all among the club’s top 15 prospects, according to MLB Pipeline. -- Adam Berry

The Reds put a premium on upgrading their club during an aggressive offseason, spending $164 million in free-agent contracts. Two of those deals involved outfielders in Shogo Akiyama, who arrived from Japan on a three-year, $21 million contract, and Nick Castellanos. Arguably the top outfielder on the market this offseason, Castellanos signed a four-year, $64 million contract on Monday.

The right-handed Castellanos batted .289 with an .863 OPS over 151 games in 2019, but he really caught fire after his July 31 trade from the Tigers to the Cubs, with whom he hit 16 homers with a 1.002 OPS in 51 games. Castellanos also led the Majors in doubles with 58. The lefty-hitting Akiyama is a .301 career hitter in his nine seasons with the Seibu Lions, and he has averaged 23 homers over his past three years. His low strikeout rate and high on-base percentage (nearly .400 over the past five seasons) make him a solid leadoff hitter candidate if his numbers from Japan can translate as well in MLB.

These acquisitions muddy the water on how playing time will be distributed in 2020, however. Cincinnati already had a promising hitter and center fielder in Nick Senzel, who is entering his second season but is recovering from right shoulder surgery. Lefty-hitting Jesse Winker has shown great numbers and plate discipline against right-handed pitching, but he hasn't connected as well vs. lefties. Then there is the unknown of Aristides Aquino, who burst on to the scene in August with 14 homers and a 1.158 OPS before struggling with five homers and a .619 OPS in September. Another righty hitter, Phillip Ervin, seemed to come into his own last season -- but against mostly lefty pitchers.

Add in the speedy Travis Jankowski, former 30-homer hitter Scott Schebler and Rule 5 player Mark Payton, and the Reds have plenty of outfielder options on their 40-man roster. Clearly, this picture isn't finished being painted. -- Mark Sheldon