Nationals' Top 5 center fielders: Camerato'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 careers 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 Jessica Camerato’s ranking of the top five center fielders in Nationals/Expos history. Next week: right fielders.

1. , Expos (1976-86)
Key fact: Dawson was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2010.

Dawson’s star-studded, 21-year career began with his first 11 seasons on the Expos. He quickly made a strong impression as a Major League player by winning the 1977 National League Rookie of the Year Award. From there, the accolades poured in.

Dawson earned six consecutive Gold Glove Awards from 1980-85, and he was named to the All-Star team three straight seasons (1981-83). During that time, Dawson also won a Silver Slugger Award in '80, ‘81 and ‘83, as well as finishing second in NL Most Valuable Player of the Year Award voting in '81 and '83. (He would go on to win the NL MVP Award in ‘87 as a member of the Cubs.)

“He was a quiet guy with tremendous talent,” said F.P. Santangelo, a former Expo (1995-98) and current Nationals television analyst. “He had everything. He could beat you on the bases, with his arm, with a home run or with a double off the wall.”

Dawson was a reliable producer at the plate. As a snapshot, he topped the NL in hits and total bases in 1983, and he was first in all of baseball in extra-base hits that year. Defensively, Dawson led NL center fielders in putouts in '81 and '83 and assists in '78 and '81, while ranking in the top five in fielding percentage in '77, '78, '80 and '83.

As a member of the Expos, Dawson’s 48.4 bWAR is third highest among all players in franchise history. He is second in club history in doubles; third in runs, homers, RBIs and stolen bases; fourth in hits and doubles; and fifth in games played. Among Expos and Nationals center fielders, Dawson appeared in the most games at the position (1,024), and he ranks first in hits (1,166), runs (623), doubles (211), triples (56), home runs (167) and RBIs (584). In total, he slashed .280/.326/.476 with an .802 OPS and a 122 OPS+ with Montreal.

“Very soft spoken but just kind of led by example on a daily basis,” Santangelo said. “He played hard. He’ll tell you if you talk to him -- he left both his knees in Montreal on the AstroTurf.”

The Expos retired Dawson's No. 10 in 1997.

2. , Expos (1989-94)
Key fact: Grissom was named Expos Player of the Year by the BBWAA in 1993.

The speedy Grissom was a threat on the basepaths for the Expos. He led the Major Leagues in stolen bases from 1991-92, stealing a total of 266 while playing in Montreal -- the second most in franchise history.

“He was one heck of a player,” Santangelo said. “He was a winning ballplayer. He did whatever it took to beat you, whether it was with his glove, with his bat or on the bases. He was an all-around baseball player.”

Grissom earned his two All-Star selections in 1993 and '94. He also won Gold Glove Awards those seasons, finishing first in putouts among National League center fielders in ‘94.

Over his six seasons with the Expos, Grissom hit .279/.331./.405. He leads all franchise center fielders in stolen bases, is second in games played, doubles and triples and third in RBIs and home runs.

“He was loved in the clubhouse,” Santangelo said. “He was just the nicest guy, kept everybody loose, had a great demeanor with everybody. Everybody loved Marquis Grissom the person. He was a great teammate. … When he left Montreal, coaches used him as an example all the time -- 'When Marquis was here, he did this and he would do that.’ I played center field [for the Expos] when Rondell [White] got hurt in 1996, and he was kind of the benchmark. If there was such a thing for ‘The Expos Way,’ I feel like Marquis Grissom is the perfect player to represent what Expos baseball was about in the ‘90s.”

In 1995, the Expos traded Grissom to Atlanta, where he won a World Series that year. He would go on to be named the ‘97 American League Championship Series Most Valuable Player as a member of the Indians.

3. , Expos (1993-2000)
Key fact: White ranks fifth among all Expos/Nationals players with a .293 batting average.

The Expos selected White in the first round of the 1990 Draft, and he played the first half of his 15-year career with the team. During that time, White slashed .293/.348/.480 with an .827 OPS over 742 games.

“He was my roommate. He was one of my best friends,” Santangelo said. “As a player, just tremendous ability, a very silent assassin. He was very quiet -- he went about his business even-keeled, but inside there was a competitor that wanted to beat you every single day.”

As a center fielder, White ranks second in franchise history in home runs and RBIs, and he is third in runs, hits and doubles. In 1995, he became only the fourth Expos player to hit for the cycle. His defensive skills shined bright in '97, when he led all NL outfielders with a .992 fielding percentage and 376 putouts.

“He had tremendous pop, tremendous range in center field,” Santangelo said. “He was fearless. He ran the bases hard. He played the game hard. He was a wonderful teammate. I would challenge you to find anybody in the history of baseball that played with Rondell White to say a bad thing about him.”

4. , Nationals (2013-15)
Key fact: Span put together a 29-game hitting streak in '13, the longest streak of that season.

Span played only 361 games for the Nats and made an impression during that time. In his first season in '13, he led the team with 170 hits. The following year, he topped the NL in hits (184), while also pacing Washington in batting average (.302) and stolen bases (31).

“He was one of my favorite players I’ve watched here in my nine years as a Nats broadcaster as far as watching him play on a daily basis,” Santangelo said.

Span was aggressive defensively. In '13, he was one of five outfielders in all of baseball to record a 1.000 fielding percentage. He followed that up by leading NL outfielders with 377 putouts in '14.

“He was beloved here,” Santangelo said. “He played the game the right way. Some of the cleanest routes I’ve ever seen in center field. … He always knew where every ball was going to land the second he took off. He would practice his jumps every day in center field in batting practice. He worked real hard at it. He had an above-average accurate arm in center.”

In a short window of time, Span ranks third in triples, fourth in hits and doubles and fifth in RBIs among franchise center fielders. Span, who played 11 Major League seasons, hit .292/.345/.404 with the Nationals.

5. , Nationals (2014-present)
Key fact: Taylor hit an inside-the-park grand slam in a five-RBI performance in 2017.

Taylor has been in the Nationals' organization since the team selected him in the sixth round of the 2009 Draft. In his six years in the Majors, he has appeared in the fourth-most games in center field in franchise history. At the position, Taylor is fourth in home runs and RBIs; fifth in runs, hits and doubles; and sixth in stolen bases.

Taylor has come up with clutch moments on the largest stage: the postseason. In '17, he hit a grand slam and a three-run homer en route to eight RBIs against the Cubs in the NL Division Series. In '19, he homered in both the NL Championship Series and World Series during the Nats’ title run.

“He’s a big-game performer,” Santangelo said. “He’s an October performer. He’s gotten a lot of sneaky big hits for the Nats in playoff baseball.”

Honorable mention
, Nationals (2017-present)
Key fact: Robles was a Gold Glove Award finalist in 2019.

Robles will be much higher up on this list in the future. The 22-year-old is just starting to scratch the surface of his potential following his first full Major League season. In '19, Robles finished sixth in NL Rookie of the Year Award voting. He hit .255/.326/.419 and was in the top three on the Nationals in RBIs, doubles and stolen bases. Robles posted a .984 fielding percentage, while leading all of baseball in putouts (317) and assists (12) as a center fielder. He belted his first postseason home run during the NLCS against the Cardinals.