Between 2017 and 2018, Aaron Hicks was quietly one of the more productive center fielders in baseball for the New York Yankees.
Over the course of that two-season stretch, Hicks slashed .255/.368/.470 with 42 home runs, 131 RBIs and an .838 OPS, helping the Yankees to reach the postseason in consecutive seasons.
However, since then, Hicks has turned in uneven results.
In 2019, Hicks was limited to just 59 games because of a flexor strain that ultimately required Tommy John Surgery. In 2020, Hicks played in 54 of the Yankees 60 regular season games. While Hicks did post a .793 OPS and still walk 41 times, he hit just .225 and had -8 defensive runs saved in center field.
Three seasons ago, Hicks looked like an All-Star caliber player, homering 27 times and posting a 5.0 fWAR for the 2018 Yankees. Since then, probably in large part due to injuries, we haven't seen that player. It feels like the Yankees are due for a healthy year, and perhaps that means that Hicks, now 31, will return to the player that he was between the 2017 and 2018 campaigns.
In any event, Hicks currently finds himself on the outside looking in as we rank our 10 best center fielders in baseball ahead of the 2021 season:
10. Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins
Since bottoming out in 2018, Buxton has re-emerged as a star center fielder for the Twins. As part of perhaps the deepest lineup in the sport, Buxton homered 13 times in just 39 games in 2019. The former Platinum Glove Award winner continues to be one of the sport's elite fielders as well, having posted a staggering 53 defensive runs saved in parts of six MLB seasons.
9. Trent Grisham, San Diego Padres
After being acquired in a November 2019 trade with the Milwaukee Brewers, Grisham looked like a future All-Star in his first season with the Padres. In the pandemic-shortened season, Grisham homered 10 times and drove in 26 runs, helping the Padres to snap a long postseason drought. Additionally, he won the National League Gold Glove Award in center field, posting seven defensive runs saved. At 24, it would hardly be surprising if Grisham is knocking on the door of the top five ahead of next season.
8. Kyle Lewis, Seattle Mariners
The Mariners have the longest playoff drought in baseball, having last reached the postseason in 2001, Ichiro's rookie season. However, Lewis perhaps offered a sight of light at the end of the tunnel in 2020, winning the American League Rookie of the Year. With two of the five best prospects in the sport looming, Lewis is the first step in building perhaps the best outfield in the sport.
7. Starling Marte, Miami Marlins
At this stage of his career, Marte is probably best suited to play a corner outfield position, but his bat remains very productive. He only homered six times in 2020, a season he split between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Miami Marlins, though the guess here is he'll see a bounce back in that regard over the course of the 162-game campaign. Either way, he still hit .281, had a .340 on-base percentage and drove in 27 runs in 2020. You'll have to sacrifice some defensive prowess with Marte, but he's one of the better run producers at the position.
6. Brandon Nimmo, New York Mets
In the 60-game 2020 campaign, Nimmo put together the best offensive season of his career, slashing .280/.404/.484 with eight home runs, 33 walks and an .888 OPS. Whether you love or hate him sprinting down to first base after every walk, he did it quite a bit last season, and figures to be an All-Star candidate now that he's hitting in a lineup that's added Francisco Lindor and James McCann.
5. Luis Robert, Chicago White Sox
Without really scratching the surface of what he can do offensively, Robert was an immediate difference maker for the White Sox in his rookie season, helping the team to reach the playoffs for the first time 2008. Robert won a Gold Glove Award in 2020, posting eight defensive runs saved. In his age-23 season, you'd like to see Robert improve on the .233/.302/.436 slash line he posted a year ago, but he did that while homering 11 times and driving in 31 runs. If you are an elite fielder that can hit for power, you're going to find success in today's game.
4. George Springer, Toronto Blue Jays
One of the great postseason players in MLB history, Springer signed a six-year/$150 million deal with a Blue Jays team that is hoping to build off a postseason appearance from a year ago. The sign-stealing scandal is a stain on the resume of Springer and every player involved, but he came back in 2020 and slashed .265/.359/.540 with 14 home runs and 32 RBIs, while continuing to play an above-average center field. At 31, Springer is probably in the back-half of his prime, but he remains an elite player at his position.
3. Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers
It's hard to be too down on Bellinger, but after posting one of the great seasons in modern history in 2019, he struggled during the pandemic-shortened season, at least from a relative sense. Bellinger was still worth 1.2 fWAR, but saw his batting average dip to .239 and his on-base percentage dip 73 points year over year. Bellinger continues to thrive wherever the Dodgers put him defensively, though 2021 will go a long way in determining whether his NL MVP season was an outlier.
2. Ronald Acuña Jr., Atlanta Braves
Acuña Jr. has been a superstar since the moment he touched a major league field. Over the course of the first three seasons of his major league career, Acuña Jr. has slashed .281/.371/.538 with 81 home runs, 194 RBIs and an 11.7 fWAR. Additionally, while he'll likely end up in a corner outfield spot in the long run, the 23-year-old has nine defensive runs saved in center field throughout the course of his young career, only adding to his value. When you add in that he's signed to an especially team-friendly deal that could allow the Braves to control him through 2028, Acuña Jr. is one of the most valuable assets in the sport.
1. Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
Trout won a Silver Slugger Award and finished fifth in American League MVP voting in 2020, and that almost felt like a disappointment for the eight-time All-Star. Trout is still only 29, he's won three American League MVPs and would be a slam-dunk Hall of Famer if he walked away from the sport today. Certainly, he'd like to couple his individual success with postseason accolades, but regardless of whether that happens of not, his personal legacy will be among the best to ever play in the sport.