Orioles' Top 5 center fielders: Trezza's 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 Joe Trezza’s ranking of the top 5 center fielders in Orioles history. Next week: Right fielders.

Orioles' Top 5: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF

1) , 2008-18
Key fact: Franchise's all-time leader in games, hits, homers and RBIs among center fielders

When selecting the Orioles’ all-time team, there was no tougher choice than in center field, even with Brady Anderson being considered a left fielder for this exercise. That still left two iconic Orioles battling out in center, where Jones and Paul Blair excelled despite different skillsets and résumé points. It’s as close to a coin toss as you can get in an exercise like this.

Anyway you slice it, Blair was the more accomplished fielder for the Orioles, winning (two) more titles and besting Jones in Wins Above Replacement (39.7 to 32.2, per Baseball Reference). But Jones gets the nod here because of how superior he was as an offensive player, and for the outsized leadership role he played across his 11 years in Baltimore.

The heartbeat of the competitive Orioles teams of the mid-2010s, Jones is on the short list of the most impactful Baltimore athletes -- in any sport -- this millennium. Arriving via the lopsided Erik Bedard deal with the Mariners before the '08 season, Jones blossomed into an All-Star and Gold Glove Award winner the following year. He’d make five Midsummer Classic appearances and won four Gold Gloves and a Silver Slugger Award with the club from '08-18, steering Baltimore to three playoff appearances in the process.

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Jones was not just the face of the O’s long-awaited return to prominence, but became a leading voice on issues of education, race and youth both in Baltimore and across MLB. On the field, his accomplishments are largely unmatched by center fielders in Orioles history. Jones doesn’t just own the franchise center fielder records for hits, runs, homers and RBIs -- he holds them by wide margins.

2) , 1964-76
Key fact: Franchise leader in WAR among center fielders

Ranked by WAR, Blair’s 1969 season was the best ever by an Orioles center fielder at 7.1; he owns five of the top 10 individual seasons by the metric and more cumulative WAR (39.7) than any center fielder in the franchise’s history. Despite placing a close second in these rankings, Blair nonetheless remains an inner-circle Orioles legend, one of the club's most accomplished and celebrated players.

One of the elite defenders of his era, much of Blair’s value was wrapped up in his ability to go get it in center, though he did couple that with excellent offensive production in 1967, '69 and '70. Many believe that had it not been for an errant Ken Tatum fastball Blair took to the face in May 1970, he’d be remembered today as more than a glove-first player.

“He was to the outfield what Brooks [Robinson] was to the infield,” Hall of Famer and teammate Frank Robinson once said.

As it was, Blair never replicated the offensive prowess he showed in 1969, when he paired 26 homers and 20 steals with his trademark brand of air-tight defense. But he did win eight Gold Gloves, including seven consecutive from '69-75, helping Baltimore reach three World Series during that stretch. He won rings in '66 and '70, compiling nine hits in the latter series against the Reds. He went on to win two more rings with the Yankees later in his career before retiring as a rare four-time champion.

3) Al Bumbry, 1972-84
Key fact: Franchise leader with 164 stolen bases as a center fielder

Fresh off a stint in Vietnam as a U.S. Army tank platoon leader, Bumbry's rookie season came with a flourish in 1973, hitting .337 with 23 steals and 11 triples en route to running away with American League Rookie of the Year honors. He was primarily a left fielder then, ultimately replacing Blair as the everyday option in center in '77 and proving a capable successor.

Bumbry couldn’t match Blair’s defensive ability, but he was a more dynamic baserunner and consistent offensive threat. He stole at least 30 bases three different times, won a league triples title in 1973 and a World Series ring in '83. Bumbry’s lone All-Star recognition came during his all-around excellent '80 season, when he hit .318 with 44 steals and an .825 OPS. That was also the year he became the first Oriole to collect 200 hits in a single season.

4) Mike Devereaux, 1989-94, '96
Key fact: First Orioles center fielder to accumulate 100 RBIs in a single season

A breakout star of the 1989 “Why Not?” Orioles, Devereaux was responsible for some of the clutchest hits and best defensive plays that season. He is remembered best for the home runs he took away and two he hit himself, the biggest being Devereaux’s controversial walk-off homer on July 15, 1989, which wrapped around the left-field foul pole at Memorial Stadium to provide the O’s a pivotal win over the Angels.

Devereaux also connected for a seminal homer in 1992, the first hit by an Oriole in the history of Camden Yards. He hit 24 homers, drove in 107 runs and had a 117 OPS+ that season -- all career highs. He also added 10 steals and was a defensive asset in center field, finishing seventh in AL MVP Award voting. It was a career year, one Devearux wouldn’t replicate before moving on to the White Sox in '95 or during a brief return to Baltimore in '96. But it was so good, he would probably make this list on the strength of that year alone.

5) Jackie Brandt, 1960-65
Key fact: Was nicknamed “Moonman” for his offbeat personality and on-field hijinks

One of the Orioles’ first slugging outfielders, Brandt accumulated double-digit homers in each of his five full seasons in Baltimore, totaling more over that stretch than any AL center fielder not named Mickey Mantle. He became the club’s first center fielder to receive All-Star recognition when he did so in 1961, and was a Gold Glove Award winner earlier in his career with the Giants.

Known as much for his eccentric personality as for his play, Brandt’s career was fittingly replete with several notable oddities. On Sept. 12, 1964, at Memorial Stadium, Brandt drove in the only run in a rare dual complete-game one-hitter between O’s lefty Frank Bertaina and Bob Meyer of the A’s. Later in his career as a Phillie, Brandt was the last player to log a regular-season at-bat against Sandy Koufax.

Honorable mentions
We are only considering Orioles players for this exercise, but Baby Doll Jacobson hit .317 as the St. Louis Browns' primary center fielder in 10 playing seasons between 1915-26. … Burt Shotton was a Browns fixture in the 1910s, twice leading the AL in walks. … Sam West made four All-Star appearances for the Browns from 1933-37. … Slugging Wally Judnich produced an .829 OPS from 1940-47, the franchise’s highest mark for a center fielder. ... compiled three productive seasons from 1985-88, but he enjoyed more success elsewhere as a younger player.