Rays' Top 5 center fielders: Toribio'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 Juan Toribio’s ranking of the top five center fielders in Rays history. Next week: Right fielders

Tampa Bay’s All-Time Team: Catcher | First Base | Second Base | Third Base | Shortstop | Left Field

1) Kevin Kiermaier, 2013-present
Key fact: Three-time Gold Glove winner

There’s an actual debate to be had between Kiermaier and B.J Upton for the first spot, but the nod goes to Kiermaier. Though Kiermaier hasn’t swung the bat as well as the Rays had hoped when they signed him to a six-year extension, he’s still putting up similar numbers to what Upton did as a member of the Rays.

Through six seasons in the big leagues, Kiermaier has hit 68 homers and has a .723 OPS. Upton, on the other hand, finished with a .758 OPS in eight seasons with Tampa Bay. If Kiermaier had stayed healthy between 2016-18, the center fielder would have surely gotten a bit closer to Upton’s 118 homers with the Rays.

While Upton has a slight edge on the basepaths, Kiermaier has a significant edge in defense, which is why we rank him as the best center fielder in franchise history. Having a Platinum Award-caliber center fielder goes a long way for a team. Kiermaier stabilizes the middle of the outfield, while also covering some of the shortcomings the players on the corners might have. One Platinum Glove and three Gold Glove seasons have established Kiermaier as one of the best fielders in the game and earned him a 25.7 bWAR, which ranks fourth in franchise history.

2) B.J. Upton, 2004, '06-12
Key fact: 232 stolen bases rank second in franchise history

Upton has a legitimate case as the franchise’s best center fielder, playing a key role in some of the most successful teams in club history. Upton recorded a .784 OPS during the team’s World Series run in 2008, finishing with a career-high 44 stolen bases that season.

Like Kiermaier, Upton didn’t hit quite as well as the Rays hoped for, but he made up for it with his defense and ability on the bases. Upton never made it to an All-Star Game, but he is one of the best players to ever wear a Rays uniform.

3) Randy Winn, 1998-2002
Key fact: Made the American League All-Star team in 2002

Winn played all over the outfield, but spent most of his time in center. It took Winn some time to find success at the Major League level, but he certainly found it during the 2002 season. He became an All-Star for the first time in his career, slashing .298/.360/.461 during that season. In five years with the Rays, Winn hit .279, which ranks ninth in franchise history. He also stole 80 bases, ranking seventh.

4) Quinton McCracken, 1998-2000
Key fact: Opening Day starter in the Rays' inaugural game

With Kiermaier, Upton and Winn handling most of the center field duties in franchise history, there aren’t many other options to pick from, but McCracken will always have the honor of being the first player to ever play the position in Rays history.

McCracken had a solid campaign in 1998, hitting a career-high seven home runs and finishing with a .292 batting average. But he was never able to build off that season with the Rays and was ultimately cut in 2000.

5) Mallex Smith, 2017-18
Key fact: Stole 40 bases in ‘18

Again, not many options to pick from, but Smith’s 2018 season was one of the better ones by a Rays center fielder, helping him make this list. Smith filled in for an injured Kiermaier and ran -- literally and figuratively -- with the opportunity. The outfielder stole 40 bags in ‘18 and hit a career-high .296, including an absurd .347 clip at Tropicana Field.

Honorable mentions
Gerald Williams received a lot of consideration, but Smith’s best season was better than his. Guillermo Heredia didn’t put up big numbers on the field, but he endeared himself to the fan base during the 2019 season. Joey Gathright played parts of three seasons with the Rays, but he didn’t play more than 76 games in each.