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'D'-Listers: MiLB's best defenders in center

Buxton still on top, but Taylor, Dahl, Margot and others narrowing gap
March 9, 2015

In this corner of the internet, it's routine for a heavy-hitting Minor Leaguer to work his way into the headlines. Home runs and four-hit games tend to jump off the box score, giving fans a tangible piece of information on their favorite prospects.

We don't want to ignore those who specialize with the leather, though. Having spent most of the year making A-list celebrities of the Minors' best hitters, it's time to heap a little praise on the glove men. Here, we present the "D"-Listers -- baseball's run-preventing stars of the future.

Having already profiled the catchers and shortstops, it's time to take a look at the Minors' best defensive center fielders.

The Reigning Stud: Byron Buxton, Twins

It should be no surprise to Minor League followers that Buxton held the top spot here last year. Even after missing nearly all of 2014 to various injuries, the Twins prospect is still too good defensively to displace. Washington's Michael Taylor has closed the gap -- one front-office person even put Taylor a hair ahead of Buxton defensively -- but the majority still believes that Buxton is the Minors' best on the grass.

Physically, Buxton is in his own class. With Billy Hamilton graduated to the Majors last season, Buxton might be the fastest player in the Minors. It's the right kind of speed for the outfield, too, as his 6-foot-2 frame allows him to defend more turf in center than just about anyone. His arm is an easy plus, too, and probably tops of anyone on this list.

This time last year, Doug Mientkiewicz, now the manager of Double-A Chattanooga, deemed Buxton Major League-ready defensively and compared him favorably to former teammate and nine-time Gold Glover Torii Hunter. The lost year was obviously disappointing, but there's nothing to suggest Buxton's done anything but maintain his defensive abilities.

The Next Best Thing: Michael Taylor, Nationals

As mentioned above, some consider the line between Taylor and Buxton to be pretty thin, even though Buxton is the superior athlete. That Taylor is so advanced with his technique is impressive, considering he's only been an outfielder for a few years.

Drafted as a shortstop, Taylor moved off the dirt in 2010. At 6-foot-3, he faced an uphill battle to become an everyday defender at short, where quickness is more important than top-end speed. Washington wagered his long legs would be more of an asset in the outfield, and that proved a good bet. The young grasshopper immediately impressed the Nationals with how his athleticism translated in center, where he can track balls gap to gap with a knack for seeing the ball off the bat and highlight catches.

In the years since the position change, Taylor's emerged not only as one of the Minors' most athletically gifted center fielders but also as one of the most polished. His reads and jumps are excellent for a Minor League defender. He also has an above-average arm he utilizes well, making good decisions and throwing with accuracy.

The Florida native has remarkable coordination, something that helps him make difficult catches like the one in the video below:

Taylor spent time at Double-A, Triple-A and in the Majors in 2014. He has a chance to earn some early playing time in Washington this season while Jayson Werth works his way back from a shoulder injury. Taylor's defense was no surprise last year, but his bat took major strides forward. Strikeouts may continue to be a problem, but Taylor could be a perennial Gold Glove contender who can hit for power. That's a rare combination, one that could have a major impact on the way Washington shapes its roster in future years.

Mr. MLB-Ready: Dalton Pompey, Blue Jays

Pompey was the MiLBY Awards Fan's Choice winner for Breakout Prospect after climbing from the Class A Advanced Florida State League to the Majors in just about five months last year. The 2010 16th-round pick's season was more notable for his offensive eruption, but the fleet-footed center fielder made some important strides with the leather, too.

The 22-year-old's standout tool is speed, which gives him easy plus range in center.

"He's a strong defender because he has speed," Double-A New Hampshire hitting coach Stubby Clapp said. "He has speed and he's aggressive. He did a good job of getting to balls and he has the speed to make up for the lack of a jump or something like that. You can't teach speed, and he has that."

In years past, Pompey needed that speed to bail himslef out after subpar reads and routes to fly balls -- one Midwest League manager who saw him in 2013 thought he was just "average" overall because his routes were so poor. In 2014, the Ontario native took a big step forward. His paths to fly balls shortened, allowing his wheels to cover an exceptional amount of terrain.

Though he's ready to take on regular duties in center at the Major League level, Pompey could refine the edges of his defensive game.

"He does a decent job positioning himself and knowing the hitters," Clapp said. "With that being said, he's going to get better, especially at the higher levels.

"Things are going to get more detailed for him and people are going to help him understand hitters, and obviously the pitching gets better, so he'll have better jumps knowing the pitching that's in front of him. He'll know how to play the pitcher, stuff like that. The little details will make him better. He has the ability to do that."

As his game refines, the ultimate ceiling for his defense is sky-high. Clapp thinks Pompey will end up a "switch-hitting Torii Hunter," showing up regularly on highlight reels as a playmaking defender.

"He's done a great job getting to the big leagues," Clapp said. "Now he has to figure out how to stay there. He has the ability to do that."

The Toolshed: David Dahl, Rockies

It'll be a year or two before you see Dahl manning center in Coors Field, but that necessary development time has nothing to do with his defense. The consensus is that, with the glove, Dahl is ready for the Majors.

"I really don't think he has a weakness in the outfield," said Modesto skipper Fred Ocasio, who managed Dahl last season at Class A Asheville. "Really, David Dahl is the complete package."

Dahl passes the eye test with an impressive 6-foot-2 physique -- as one opposing manager noted, he "just looks like a big leaguer." Evaluators consider his arm above average and he's an accurate thrower who consistently hits the right base or cutoff man. His speed borders on plus, but he covers more ground than the stopwatch suggests because of his ability to judge the ball off the bat.

His game has some flash, too. Ocasio said he's fearless around the warning track, noting that Dahl made a number of game-changing plays last season.

"He gets up there and he's not afraid,"Ocasio said. "I don't know how many times last year he went up against the wall and came out with the ball, and you just say, 'Wow, what a play.'"

Dahl also has stepped into a leadership position in the lower levels of Colorado's system, communicating well with the corner outfielders and generally setting a strong example for other prospects. That's an important point of growth for Dahl. The 2012 first-rounder (10th overall) had a rocky first full season in 2013, getting demoted from Asheville for disciplinary reasons then tearing a hamstring that cost him the rest of the year.

In 2014, he played 119 games and impressed the Rockies with his improved makeup. Ocasio -- who also was the Asheville manager when Dahl was disciplined in 2013 -- now believes Dahl's head is in the right place.

"He matured a lot last year from the year before," Ocasio said. "He was a different kid. He's very mature, very much a leader to the team. He was taking charge. He did all that last year. This is a kid -- he's starting to know what it takes to be a ballplayer."

Under the Radar: Adam Engel, White Sox

Engel, a 2013 19th-round pick out of Louisville, is one of the Minors' best pure athletes. Built more like a middle linebacker than a traditional center fielder, he can tantalize with his speed and strength.

The 23-year-old lacks offensive polish, and that's holding down his prospect stock -- he's ranked 15th in the White Sox' system. But defensively, he's married his supreme athletic gifts with tremendous reactions and routes, a combination that makes him the best defensive center fielder in Chicago's organization and one of the best in the Minors.

Winston-Salem's Tommy Thompson, who also managed Engel this winter in the Australian Baseball League, raves about his work ethic. If anything, the skipper wants to see Engel tone down his hustle, saying, "He almost plays and works at 120 percent, and he needs to find a way to back down a little bit."

All that work has transformed him into an elite Minor League defender. Engel has the physical gifts to shine in center. puts a 70 grade on his speed, and he accelerates very quickly for a player who checks in at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds. Engel has made the most of those wheels by refining his first-step quickness and routes to where he efficiently covers a ton of territory. His arm is merely average, but he's an accurate thrower and makes good decisions.

"His work ethic, his angles, his routes to the ball, his speed -- he's a worker and he takes a lot of pride in everything he does. It shows," Thompson said. "When other people watch him, the scouts in Australia, they all have him penciled in as a big league outfielder."

Five more of note:

Lewis Brinson, Rangers -- Brinson was our choice for The Toolshed category last year and easily could slot there again this spring. He, Dahl, Manuel Margot and Tyrone Taylor belong in the same class in the tier below Buxton and Michael Taylor and probably will duke it out for the top spot on this list next year.

Brinson is a physical freak with an ideal center fielder's frame. Checking in at a lanky 6-foot-3, his plus speed translates well in center. He has a nose for the highlight reel, too -- perhaps nobody on this list is better at making the leaping play at the wall.

Before the 2014 season, Hickory manager Corey Ragsdale said he wanted to see Brinson improve his routes chasing fly balls. Those who saw Brinson last year said he did just that, with one South Atlantic League skipper opining that Brinson was clearly more advanced than Dahl and Margot with similar tools. Assesments vary there, but you wouldn't be crazy to prefer Brinson over the other two defensively.

Manuel Margot, Red Sox -- Evaluators in the South Atlantic League were quick to group Margot and Dahl last year as players who stood out both for their speed and knack for picking up the ball after contact. Margot's arm isn't as strong as Dahl's and his routes aren't as consistent, but he's just as good, if not better, at reading the ball off the bat and has a tick more speed.

If you want to know how the 20-year-old developed those reactions, Class A Greenville manager Darren Fenster suggests you show up early and watch him during batting practice. While his teammates take their hacks, Margot stations himself in center, chasing flies gap to gap like a dog let loose on a tennis court.

"This kid loves the game as much as anybody I've ever been around, and I think the way he kind of goes out and track things down during [batting practice] indicates how much he loves to play," Fenster said. "He'll get one ball in right-center, then there will be one in left-center and you'll just see him bolting all the way across the outfield. You do that for 140 days over the regular season, plus Spring Training and instructs, and this guy is just getting a ton of reps on balls off the bat, as good a rep as you can get."

Margot isn't quite a finished product, but he's close to Major League-ready defensively. The native of the Dominican Republic may add a little arm strength, and Fenster still thinks his routes could improve. If the latter develops -- and Fenster believes strongly it will -- Margot could be a perennial Gold Glove candidate in center by 2017 or so.

Tyrone Taylor, Brewers -- Of the Taylor-Dahl-Margot-Brinson quartet, Taylor is probably the least hyped, but he may be the rangiest defender. The 2012 second-rounder is a plus runner who covers a ton of territory in center. His arm is closer to average than plus, but Brevard County manager Joe Ayrault thinks it plays up because of his plus accuracy.

"Defensively, I think he's on par with [Albert] Almora and Pompey," Ayrault said, comparing him to other notable Florida State League center fielders last year. "He's an accurate thrower with enough arm strength. I would say with his accuracy, for center field, it's a plus arm. His range is an easy plus. He has speed and good instincts. It was fun to watch him last season."

Carlos Tocci, Phillies -- We're a couple years into the "Carlos Tocci Breakout Watch" and, frankly, there might be a few more left. The 19-year-old has struggled offensively in consecutive seasons as one of the South Atlantic League's youngest players, but his defense is one of the reasons he keeps popping up on Top Prospect lists -- he ranks 16th in the Phillies system right now.

In a certain sense, the Venezuelan is almost developing in reverse, showcasing impressive polish and intuition while being slow to fully develop his physical tools. Listed at 6-foot-2 and 160 pounds, Tocci is rail-thin and needs to add weight and strength. He runs well, but isn't quite a burner. Some think he might add speed as he matures physically, but that's yet to be seen.

Although his body is behind the curve, his instincts are among the best on this list. He sees the ball off the bat well and reacts quickly enough to register plus range. His arm is solid average, but it plays up, thanks to exceptional decision-making and accuracy. He's a leader in the outfield and adept at anticipating based on scouting reports and in-game reads.

"I thought his jumps were the thing that made him separate himself from the average center fielder," Class A Lakeland manager Greg Legg said. "He got great jumps on balls, played the hitters right, took charge of the outfield."

Bubba Starling, Royals -- Starling's stock has dropped precipitously since Kansas City took him fifth overall in the 2011 Draft. He's struggled offensively, but his defense has remained a huge bright spot. The 6-foot-4 center fielder is a plus runner who covers a ton of ground. His arm is one of the best on this list, too; it features plus strength with tremendous accuracy and helped him record 14 outfield assists in 2014.

"He covered not only center but parts of left and right," Wilmington manager Darryl Kennedy said. "He's an outstanding center fielder -- not only the range, going to get balls in the gaps and his awareness out there, but his arm strength. He was able to throw runners out when they tried to take the extra base. He was unbelievable to watch on a daily basis."

Honorable mentions: The Cubs' Albert Almora isn't as quick as others listed above, but his jumps and routes are among the best in the Minors. … Andrew Aplin is going to have a tough time working into Houston's crowded outfield short- and long-term, but he is the best defender among the Astros' upper-level Minor Leaguers with plus range. … Todd Cunningham (Braves), Rico Noel (Padres), Paulo Orlando (Royals) and Gary Brown (Giants) all probably fit best in fourth outfielder roles, but all four are advanced defensively in center. … Derek Hill (Tigers) may have been the best pure athlete in the 2014 Draft class and could develop into an outstanding center fielder with plus range. … Mariners 2014 third-rounder Austin Cousino is another player to watch from that class, mostly because of his range. … Toronto's D.J. Davis has struggled to refine his offensive game, but his elite speed allows him to cover a ton of grass in center. … Arizona's Breland Almadova was 24 in the Class A Midwest League last year, but he posted remarkable defensive numbers. Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs Against Average estimated his defensive contributions at 21.4 runs, tops for any center fielder at any level, Minors or Majors. … The Cubs' Rashad Crawford was another lower-level standout with notable range. "[He] almost broke our internal defensive metrics," said a rival front-office person. ... Mason Williams has nearly tumbled all the way to the back of the Yankees' Top 20 prospects list because of his bat. Catch him on a good day, though, and his glove looks about as good as any listed here.

Jake Seiner is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Seiner.