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The odd recent history of the Giants and defense-second center fielders

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Considering the huge outfield of AT&T Park, how do the Giants keep ending up with merely adequate center fielders, at best?

Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Denard Span was alright in 2016. Pretend I’m making a crunched-up Robert DeNiro face while typing that. He was fine, really. A .331 on-base percentage isn’t great or anything, but he wasn’t a total drag at the plate or in the field. I liked the guy, if that helps.

Span was second in home runs for the Giants in the second half, too. Just one behind Angel Pagan.

I wrote that last two paragraph at 6:00 in the morning, then I had to walk around Lake Chabot six times. I’m better now. Anyway, the larger point is that while Span wasn’t as exciting as maybe we could have hoped, he was just fine, considering.

But Span’s presence made me realize something this year: The Giants sure have made do with a lot of mediocre defensive center fielders over the years. It’s an odd truism for a team that plays in a ballpark with one of the biggest center fields in baseball. It’s not that they’ve been negligent. It’s just an odd way the roster has happened to shake out.

In the AT&T Park era, the Giants have had 39 different players appear in a game as the center fielder. Some of them were clearly not center fielders, but they were used their in a pinch (Tyler Colvin, Eric Young, Jeffrey Hammonds, Todd Linden). Some of them were players who never had a shirsey in the Dugout Store (Carlos Valderrama, Alex Sanchez, Julio Ramirez). There were just 12 who spent more than half of their Giants career in center, and they are, in order of games played:

  1. Angel Pagan
  2. Aaron Rowand
  3. Andres Torres
  4. Marvin Benard
  5. Marquis Grissom
  6. Calvin Murray
  7. Dave Roberts
  8. Denard Span
  9. Steve Finley
  10. Tsuyoshi Shinjo
  11. Rajai Davis
  12. Kenny Lofton

I’ll translate that list into scouting reports for you:

  1. Serviceable at first, with a steep decline
  2. Okay, with a slight decline
  3. Great for a season, with a steep decline
  4. Better than you remember, but still pretty bad
  5. Awful
  6. Very good, but limited time
  7. Just the silliest idea
  8. Eh
  9. Still obnoxious, but he was fine for a year
  10. Great, but limited time
  11. Very good, but limited time
  12. Serviceable

You might quibble with some of the scouting reports, but I don’t think they’re controversial. The common thread for all of them, though, is that if they weren’t part-time players or Andres Torres in 2010, they were average at best. The numbers agree with those assessments.

In a perfect world, with a Giants team that didn’t need to spend $100 million to Kenley-nap their big offseason prize, and with a free-agent market that didn’t look like the third day of a yard sale, the solution would be simple. Get a center fielder who could play the dickens out of the position and hit dingers at the same time, and move Span to left. Pretty sure the Red Sox wouldn’t even notice if we just borrowed Jackie Bradley, Jr. for a few years.

In this horribly realistic world, though, the Giants would either settle an offense-first center fielder again (Yoenis Cespedes or Dexter Fowler, when they opt out) or get an underwhelming defense-first center fielder and punt offense from the position. Which is all fancy-talk for welcoming Span back to be the center fielder. And that’s fine! He’s fine. Probably. It seemed like his defense really picked up with better health in the second half.

The Giants aren’t where they were last year, where they absolutely needed to make a change to improve their center field defense. They’re just where they usually are: in a spot where better defense is a dream, but not a necessity. If the Blue Jays were to make Kevin Pillar available in a trade, for example, I would get excited for a few seconds before remembering that this isn’t a team that’s built to make that kind of defense-for-offense swap.

So it’s a minor problem that won’t get fixed this offseason, and it’s a subject of minor fascination. The Giants might benefit more than almost any other team by acquiring a plus-plus defensive center fielder, and I’m sure they know that. Over the history of the AT&T Park era, though, those center fielders haven’t come around. Part of that is because those elite center fielders are rare, by definition. Part of it is just the players the Giants have acquired to play center have contributed in different ways, and there’s been no need to make a drastic move.

Long post short: Looking forward to the next plus defender in center, even if it doesn’t have to be a priority. It might not come for a few years, but I’m looking forward to it.