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Dreaming of real center fielders

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It’s been a while since Cleveland had a great center fielder

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Los Angeles Angels Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The early results of the Amed Rosario, Center Fielder experiment were famously unsatisfying. With three errors right out of the gate, it’s charitably a “work in progress” for the soon-to-be-former infielder.

It would be nice if it would work out of course, but there’s something about Cleveland and their ability to simply have a decent center fielder. In fact, looking into it, the team hasn’t had a good center fielder since literally Michael Bourn. That by itself makes this whole eternal search for an outfield defensive ace even more bizarre.

The Bourn deal is looked upon as a bit of a boondoggle today, but at the time, along with signing Nick Swisher, these were signs that the team was actually trying to do something. Bourn was at least a known name, even if he was on the back end of a career built around speed. I think the expectation was flawed in the eyes of the fans since when you look at his career numbers the things that pop out are the 174 steals over a three-year span from 2009-2011.

That’s not why Bourn was really signed though, even if we always wanted him to. He was there to solidify the outfield defense and allow everything else to come together around him while the young guys grew up. For a few years there, he did. While he missed some time due to injury, he was worth 1.7 defensive WAR in 331 games. That may not sound like much, but by itself is better than the total WAR output of all but eight other Cleveland outfielders since 2013.

Therein lies the flaw, the frustrating part about this trying to convert Rosario into an outfielder, or any of the other attempts to do the same thing before him. Nolan Jones might be next, and Lonnie Chisenhall was before him, but it seems like every year there’s talk about moving this guy or another to the outfield because it will get their bat into the lineup. There’s seemingly no consideration of the defensive side of things, especially with Rosario. He’s athletic, we know that. He’s fast as hell too, really just a physical marvel. If all it took to be good in the outfield was speed and physical prowess though, then I think Oscar Mercado would have been better out there than he is. Or even Michael Brantley would have stuck there a bit more.

You can’t look at Brantley and tell me he’s not at least pretty fast, or at least had some scoot in him early in his career. There’s more to playing center than that though, and the repeated attempts to shoehorn a neophyte into, at worst, the third most important defensive role — on a team that has to live off pitching and defense no less — is all kinds of egregious.

So there’s the money issue, of course. Rosario was, in a vacuum, one of the key parts of the Francisco Lindor deal. At the very base, you want to just have more talented players, because when you trade young guys before they’re expensive you need to have a pipeline to replace them as well as other assets to bring in impact bats or flesh out the lineup during a playoff push.

That said, Jackie Bradley Jr. did sign for $24 million over two years. That’s not a one-to-one copy of Michael Bourn, but with his slightly below-average career bat and stupendous glove, just now turning 30, it’s about as analogous a signing as I could have thought of. I suppose we didn’t need another reminder that ownership is keeping a tight hand on the moneybags, it’s just sad that they did a thing in the past, and had a chance to do that again to help the team, and just didn’t. The Billy Hamilton signing was a poor man’s version of that move I suppose, but he can’t hit his way out of a wet paper bag.

I guess we’re all just wishing for something we can’t have, an actual stud center fielder. That’s why Oscar Mercado got hyped by this website, fans, on Reddit, and wherever else Cleveland faithful congregate. That’s also why I can’t quit Bradley Zimmer. During last night’s game, Terry Francona echoed the same sentiment when asked if he was disappointed that no one has “taken charge” of the position:

You’d love for someone to knock the door down. We’re dying for somebody to take hold of it and run with it. We’re at this point in the spring and we still don’t know — that creates a little anxiety. I know for them, but for us to. So we gotta figure that out.

I don’t fault the front office for trying to fit Rosario in somewhere, any more than I fault them for drafting middle infielders constantly. He’s a potential impact player if he can play a serviceable center field, and they need those like I don’t need the plague. It doesn’t make sense to essentially punt on offense at two defensively key positions (along with Roberto Pérez at catcher), it’s just that this whole hoping for the best thing gets a little tiresome.

He’s relatively young, he’s talented, maybe Rosario will stick. And if not, at least they can try again, right? Something has to work eventually.