Mariners' Top 5 center fielders: Johns' take

May 4th, 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 Greg Johns’ ranking of the top five center fielders in Mariners history. Next week: right field.

Mariners’ All-Time Team: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF

1. Ken Griffey Jr., 1989-99, 2009-10
Key fact: First Mariner elected to National Baseball Hall of Fame

There really is no debate on this one. Griffey’s 70.6 bWAR in 13 seasons with Seattle is No. 1 in franchise history for any position player, ahead even of the 68.4 accumulated in 18 years by fellow Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez and 56.2 in 14 years by Ichiro Suzuki.

Griffey was the Mariners’ first superstar, a 10-time All-Star and 10-time Gold Glove Award winner in his first 11-year stint with Seattle, earning those honors every season except his rookie campaign as a 19-year-old in 1989.

Griffey was the American League MVP in 1997, when he hit .304 with 56 home runs and 147 RBIs, and he led the AL in home runs in ’94, ’97, ’98 and ’99.

After asking to be traded to the Reds in 2000 to be closer to his family, Griffey returned to Seattle in '09 and hit 19 homers in 117 games before retiring midway through the 2010 season at age 40, finishing his Mariners career with a .292/.374/.553 line, 1,216 RBIs and a club-record 417 home runs in 1,685 games.

Griffey was named on a then-record 99.3 percent of ballots when elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2016. His No. 24 became the first number retired by the Mariners later that summer, and his bronze statue now greets fans at the main gate outside T-Mobile Park.

“Not only was he a great player, but he’s a great human being,” said Lou Piniella, who managed Griffey for most of his Mariners tenure. “There wasn’t anything this young man couldn’t do on the field. He could run, he could hit, he could hit for power, he made great plays in the outfield. I thought he was the best player in baseball for quite a few years. He was a joy to manage. I wish I’d had seven or eight more like him, but that’s impossible, because he was one of the greatest to play the game.”

2. Mike Cameron, 2000-03
Key fact: Second to Griffey among Mariners CFs with a .798 OPS

Cameron was one of four players acquired from the Reds in the trade for Griffey in 2000, and he did a remarkably good job replacing the Mariners legend in center field for the next four seasons, winning two Gold Glove Awards (in 2001 and ’03) and being named to the AL All-Star team in ’01.

Cameron hit .267 with 25 homers and 110 RBIs on the 116-win team in 2001, his best offensive season, and his speed and range made him a defensive force at spacious T-Mobile Park. Cameron became the 11th MLB player since 1900 to hit four home runs in a game on May 2, 2002, against the White Sox in Chicago, just missing a record-setting fifth when he flied out to the warning track in right field in his final at-bat.

Cameron signed with the Mets as a free agent in 2004, but in his time with Seattle, he posted a .256/.350/.448 line with 87 homers, 344 RBIs and an 18.4 bWAR. Though his numbers are dwarfed by Griffey’s, Cameron ranks second among Mariners center fielders in home runs, doubles, RBIs, runs and on-base and slugging percentages.

3. Franklin Gutiérrez, 2009-13, 2015-16
Key fact: His 6.6 bWAR season in ’09 is best by a Mariners CF not named Griffey

There will always be questions of just how good Gutiérrez might have been if he’d been able to stay healthy through a career marred by injuries and illness, but he still ranks third behind Griffey and Cameron in bWAR at 12.8 while posting a line of .257/.312/.409 with 74 homers and 268 RBIs in 635 games.

After being acquired by trade from the Indians, Gutiérrez hit .283 with 18 homers and 70 RBIs in 2009, and followed that up with a Gold Glove campaign in '10. But those wound up being the only years he played full seasons, as Gutiérrez dealt with a series of hamstring and other injuries that limited him to 40 and 41 games in 2012 and ’13.

After completely sitting out the 2014 season, Gutiérrez was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, an inflammatory arthritic condition that affects the joints and spine. He played 59 games and hit .292 with 15 homers and 35 RBIs in 2015, and managed to play 98 games while batting .246 with 14 homers and 39 RBIs in ’16, though by then he’d lost much of his speed and range and was limited to playing right field.

4. Dave Henderson, 1981-86
Key fact: First player drafted by Mariners as first-round pick in ‘77

The man known as “Hendu” played the first six seasons of a 14-year Major League career for the Mariners, breaking in as a 22-year-old and posting a .257/.317/.433 line with 79 homers and 271 RBIs in 654 games before being dealt to the Red Sox in August 1986.

Though his greatest success came later in his career when he played in four World Series with the Red Sox and A’s, Henderson returned to Seattle after retiring in 1994 and worked on the Mariners’ broadcast team as well as co-founding the popular Toys For Tots charity with fellow broadcaster Rick Rizzs before dying of a heart attack in 2015.

5. Ruppert Jones, 1977-79
Key fact: Seattle’s first All-Star in 1977

Jones was the original Mariner to patrol center field in the Kingdome after being selected from the Royals as the first pick in the 1976 expansion draft, and he was the team’s AL All-Star selection as a 22-year-old in '77 while hitting .263/.324/.454 with 24 homers and 76 RBIs in 160 games.

Jones’ second season was less productive, as he missed time midseason with an appendectomy and struggled at the plate upon his return. However, he had a strong 1979 campaign (.267/.356/.444 with 21 homers and 78 RBIs in 162 games) before being traded to the Yankees that winter.