Detroit Tigers v New York Yankees - Game 5

The Yankees finally embraced sanity Monday and extended a qualifying offer to outfielder Curtis Granderson. The move was a no-brainer not just because of Granderson’s outstanding quality as a player — he has hit .245/.335/.495 (120 OPS+) with generally solid outfield defense for the Yankees over the past four seasons — but because center fielders of his quality rarely hit the free agent market, and when they do, they are worth well more than one year at $14 million.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but free agency is typically only the place to upgrade at the “older” positions — corner infielders, corner outfielders, relief pitchers, catchers or back-of-the-rotation starters. Occasionally, a big-time second baseman, shortstop, ace starter will come on the market and break the bank.

But what about the star center fielder? A look back at the past seven years of free agency (i.e. as long as ESPN’s free agent tracker goes back) shows the lack of anything approaching an ideal center fielder on the free agent market. The big money has gone to Gary Matthews Jr. (2006; five years, $50 million), Aaron Rowand (2007; five years, $60 million), B.J. Upton (five years, $75 million), Angel Pagan (four years, $40 million) and Michael Bourn (four years, $48 million).

That’s the exhaustive list of center fielders to receive at least $10 million annually over a multi-year contract since 2006. These five players, before they signed their contracts, combined for four All-Star appearances and seven 5.0 WAR (Baseball-Reference) seasons. Unsurprisingly, three of those seven 5.0 WAR seasons — all All-Star seasons — came in the years immediately preceding the deal.

These deals have, so far, been ugly. Matthews Jr. and Rowand each failed to exceed 1.0 WAR over their contracts. Bourn managed 2.4 WAR in the first year of the deal, but posted his worst offensive season in five years. Pagan dipped back to 0.9 WAR in his deal’s first season and now has failed to exceed 1.0 WAR in two of the past three seasons. Upton was one of the worst players in the major leagues last year as he posted a 53 OPS+ in 446 plate appearances.

As such, it will be fascinating to see what happens with Granderson and the other two center fielders on the market this offseason, Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo. These are by a wide margin the best center fielders the market has seen in recent years, but all are 30-year-olds playing a young man’s position, something that has repeatedly played out poorly in recent history.

Ellsbury especially seems in a position to break the bank. He’s an actual center fielder, first-off — Choo barely qualifies, as the Reds were playing him out of position in 2013, and Granderson was pushed off center field for a younger option by the Yankees. Second, his 2011 season is by far the best season by any of the free agent center fielders mentioned thus far — 8.1 WAR, a .321/.376/.552 (146 OPS+) line with 32 home runs, and a second-place MVP finish. His 2013 season — 5.8 WAR, .298/.355/.426, 114 OPS+ with more quality defense ranks second. He’s the most well-rounded center fielder to hit the market in at least a decade, and it would be something of a shock as a result if he makes less than $100 million.

Granderson and Choo, however, will be the interesting cases, for a couple reasons. Granderson likely still has the ability to play center field — he still played more games in center field than either left or right for New York in 2013. He’s a three-time All-Star and has a pair of 5.0 WAR seasons under his belt. But consider his OPS+ marks over the past five years — 102, 108, 142, 115, 97. Meanwhile, the league has seen much more thump out of center field in recent years. After hovering around the league average from 2006-2010 (98-101 OPS+), MLB center fielders have posted composite OPS+ marks of 104, 107 and 105 respectively over the past three years. To me, this suggests need for a player like Granderson — a consistently good and occasionally great hitter without an elite or possibly even average glove in center fielder — has declined.

For Choo, it simply seems unlikely he will be perceived as a center fielder. At 31, he’s relatively young for the free agent market, but he graded out as “putrid” in center field and had never played there before last year. His hitting ability should gain him a significant contract anyway, but does he qualify for the center field bump we’ve seen for otherwise mediocre players in recent years? It seems like he will be treated as a corner outfielder by the market instead.

Whatever happens, the fallout from the center fielders on the free agent market this season should be a great opportunity to learn. Does the league think this center field renaissance is here to stay, or is a quality bat in center field still so rare that teams will break the bank for players like Granderson (and maybe even Choo)? Or perhaps, is timing just everything? Were Rowand, Matthews Jr., Bourn, Pagan and Upton just lucky enough to hit free agency at a time when there was desperation for center fielders?

This is perhaps the greatest use of our offseason time. Predictions and prognostications aside, free agency lets us take stock of the changes in our league, and get a sense of what teams think will happen next. Even when the league gets it wrong, as it has with free agent center fielders over the past decade or so, it can be an illuminating look into the attitudes of front offices.