Remember a few years ago when a power-hitting shortstop was all the rage? They were a dime a dozen, and securing a shortstop that could be a serious threat in your lineup was an enormous deal. Nowadays, every team has one of those. The Boston Red Sox had two in Xander Bogaerts and Trevor Story last season. The power surge at the 6 has translated into an absence of power at the 8. In 2022, center fielders across MLB posted a .237 batting average, a .303 on-base percentage, and .688 OPS. Those are all the lowest figures for the center field position since stats by position became available in 1973. In fact, since 1973, the five lowest batting averages in a season for center fielders all happened...in the last five years. The 2022 National League All-Star team did not feature a single center fielder.
Due to a series of injuries — Mike Trout, Byron Buxton, Luis Robert, George Springer — as well as most of this generation’s center field prospects failing to pan out — Victor Robles, Lewis Brinson, Mickey Moniak, Bradley Zimmer, etc. — numerous teams suddenly find themselves in need of a center fielder, but aside from Aaron Judge and Brandon Nimmo, the pickings in the free agent pool are slim, to say the least. Cody Bellinger? Kevin Kiermaier? Yikes! That’s not going to be a long-term solution most likely.
Thankfully, another option has just entered the pool: Pittsburgh Pirate Bryan Reynolds.
Reynolds is a soon-to-be 28-year-old coming off back-to-back seasons with an OPS-plus of 125 or greater. He also ranked fifth among all center fielders with a 125 weighted runs created-plus. He’s got a moderately high walk rate, a pretty low strikeout rate, and despite being below average speed for a center fielder (28.3 feet per second — 30th among center fielders with at least 50 competitive runs in 2022), he’s still much faster than league average (27 feet per second). Basically, he’s a very good player in the middle of his prime, and he plays a premium position.
The only downside is that Reynolds isn’t a very good defender. He’s posted negative Defensive Runs Saved each of the last two seasons (-5 DRS), with a steep dropoff in 2022 (-14 DRS — lowest among all qualified 2022 center fielders by a very wide margin). He can still play the position though, right? He’s got above-average speed so he should theoretically be able to cover a lot of ground, right? Sure, but it also means he probably won’t be at the position for long.
Teams have two options with him — either stick him in center and hope the poor defense doesn’t come back to bite you for the next few years before his speed fades and you have to put him in a corner outfield position for the remainder of his contract, or put him in a corner outfield position right away. Now, some people would argue that moving Reynolds to a corner outfield position so soon would drastically lower his value, but that’s just inaccurate. They’d say “Sure, a 136 OPS-plus over the last two seasons seems awesome for a center fielder (and while it’s still great regardless of the position you play), it’s not nearly as great for a corner outfielder.” However, among all center fielders with at least 600 plate appearances since the start of 2021, Reynolds ranks third in OPS-plus. If he were a corner outfielder, he’d still rank sixth behind only Aaron Judge (keep in mind this is including 2021 positions as well), Bryce Harper, Juan Soto, Kyle Schwarber, and Kyle Tucker.
Even as a corner outfielder, Reynolds’ offensive prowess is elite. Maybe OPS-plus isn’t your thing though. Well, in terms of offensive rWAR, Reynolds still ranks third among all outfielders since the start of 2021. In terms of runs created, Reynolds ranks second behind only Juan Soto. Runs produced? Fifth. Adjusted batting runs? Second. No matter what way you try to slice it, Reynolds is an incredibly gifted offensive player no matter where you stick him in the outfield, and given that his natural position is center, he can still play there if needed, giving time for prospects in his new team’s farm system to develop.
In a world with such disparity between high-class center fielders and middle-class center fielders, Reynolds is a shining beacon of hope for any team looking to compete in 2023 that had a massive hole in their lineup last season where the center fielder was supposed to be. There is so much to like about Reynolds and the opportunity he brings. He’ll cost a pretty penny, but he is worth every cent.