Lagares, Heyward, Cain headline selections made by general managers, assistant GMs
By Lyle Spencer
Virtually every day of the season we watch a Major League outfielder somewhere on the landscape make a breathtaking belief-defying play by scaling a wall to snatch away a home run, diving headlong across the turf or unleashing an implausible throw.
MLB Network gives us every angle accompanied by animated commentary, and now Statcast is available to shed more light on the brilliance with its marvelous new measurements and insights.
Fans have never had it so good. In years past, before the advanced technology, we were limited to one grainy black-and-white view. Imagine what we would have available today to appreciate and analyze Willie Mays' legendary over-the-shoulder catch to rob Vic Wertz of extra bases in the 1954 World Series.
While the spectacular play gets the attention, it is the consistent excellence of defenders that saves pitchers and games. With that in mind, MLB.com asked Major League general managers and assistant GMs to give their confidential input in determining the game's premier outfielders. This panel of experts turned up an intriguing collection of players they see delivering the goods and earning the respect of teammates -- notably pitchers.
Participating in the survey was a 14-member blue ribbon committee of executives, who were granted anonymity. One American League GM confined his choices to his own league, and the selections, predictably, were heavy on center fielders -- where the elite athletes go to roam and astound.
Juan Lagares, Mets
The king of the hill with 11 votes, Lagares has climbed to the top of the heap with a full breadth of skills on display -- uncommon range, sure routes, arm strength and accuracy, intelligence. One executive said, as a complete package, Lagares called to mind such great center fielders of fairly recent vintage as Eric Davis, Ken Griffey Jr., Torii Hunter, Andruw Jones, Mike Cameron and Jim Edmonds.
Jason Heyward, Cardinals
What Lagares is to center, Heyward, named on 10 ballots, is to right fielders: unsurpassed. The former Braves star grades highly in every category and has the advantage of a frame and wingspan extension reminiscent of Dave Winfield and Dave Parker, superlative right fielders of the past.
Lorenzo Cain, Royals
Cain, chosen by nine executives, captivated the nation with his amazing array of postseason plays for the AL champion Royals and has continued to dazzle this season. He's primarily a center fielder but also can play right when Jarrod Dyson moves into center with his blinding speed.
"Lorenzo Cain and Juan Lagares are the only two that truly separate themselves in my opinion," an AL GM wrote in an email. "Tremendous range, excellent routes, but what separates them is that they have average to above-average arm strength, which in my opinion is underappreciated in center field. Since so few players can legitimately play center field at a high level with arm strength, they're the two that jump out to me."
Alex Gordon, Royals
Gordon, Cain's teammate in a brilliant Kansas City outfield, drew eight votes. Gordon has been the consensus choice as the game's best left fielder for three seasons.
Mike Trout, Angels
The analytics haven't been especially kind, but executives -- four of whom voted for him -- love how the game's premier all-around player handles center field -- along with everything else he does on a baseball field. His athleticism is on a par with any player in the game.
Adam Jones, Orioles; Kevin Kiermaier, Rays
Trout, Jones and Kiermaier are the leaders of the second tier of premier outfielders, according to our panel. Jones and Kiermaier each received three votes. Jones is familiar to fans of the spectacular plays, while Kiermaier has carved out a reputation as a superb right fielder also capable of handling center capably. Jones is a four-time Gold Glove Award winner.
Peter Bourjos, Cardinals; Billy Hamilton, Reds; Andrew McCutchen, Pirates; Starling Marte, Pirates
All of these players, personifying speed and skill, were named on two ballots. Bourjos might be a surprise to some fans given a relative lack of exposure, but not to those who have watched him use his blinding speed to run down balls in gaps and his athleticism to climb walls. Hamilton, perhaps the game's fastest man, has skills similar to those of Bourjos. The great McCutchen and Marte shut down center and left for the Pirates, routinely turning extra-base hits into outs.
MLB executives are in unanimous agreement on one point: Outfield play rarely, if ever, has been as great as it is today with bigger, stronger athletes making plays with larger gloves. The vastly improved media exposure doesn't hurt, either.
Lyle Spencer is a national reporter and columnist for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @LyleMSpencer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.