Orioles

Orioles

With fans stuck inside and no live sports for entertainment, it's time to look to the past. Over the next few weeks, NBC Sports Washington is putting together a Best of the Century team for the Baltimore Orioles. Through the past two decades, there has been a surprising amount of star power to come through Charm City, and now we can determine who has truly been the cream of the crop.

Previous positions:
Catcher
First Base
Second Base
Third Base
Shortstop
Right Field

For the second straight day, we have a position with no real debate. Centerfield is the home of the best, most popular player to wear orange and black this century.

But while Adam Jones is going to win this in a runaway, that doesn't mean the Orioles haven't enjoyed other decent years at the position. Luis Matos and Corey Patterson manned the position before the 2008 trade that brought Jones over from Seattle. Neither name is going to give Jones a run for his money here, but each had seasons with a WAR of at least 4.0, strong years for each.

 

The position remains a question mark looking ahead to the 2020s, but the past decade-plus was defined by Jones. He was the deserving face of the franchise for so long, and his impact is still being felt around the organization.

Here are the top contenders at center field, in chronological order.

The Contenders

Luis Matos (2000-06)

Matos never developed into anything close to a star, and his legacy is as one of the more obscure Orioles of the mid-2000s. But he did enjoy at least one strong season.

In 2003, as a 24-year old, Matos hit .303 with 13 home runs and 15 steals in just 109 games, accumulating 4.0 WAR. He finished his career with just 4.7 WAR, so 2003 was a clear outlier. But at the time, it looked like the O's may have found their centerfielder of the future.

Injuries and inconsistency kept him from ever taking the next step. In fact, it was his only season as even an average hitter according to OPS+.

Corey Patterson (2006-07, 2010)

Patterson spent six seasons in Chicago establishing himself as a power-speed threat before coming to Baltimore in 2006. He hit just 32 home runs in his three seasons with the birds, but he did steal 82 bases from 2006-07.

That stretch was enough to cement him as one of the most prolific base-stealers this century in Baltimore. He finished finished third and fourth in the American League in his two years with the O's.

His best year in Baltimore was his first, when he finished with 4.2 WAR in just 135 games. He provided strong defense at a premium position, and though his prime never panned out in Baltimore, he served the team well as a multi-year stopgap before the addition of the next man on this list. 

Adam Jones (2008-18)

Jones not only leads the position in WAR this century, but he leads all Orioles players since 2000. According to FanGraphs, he comes in with 29.5, just 0.1 ahead of Brian Roberts.

It helps that Jones, a remarkably durable player, leads the O's in games played this century. He also finds himself first in hits, home runs, runs and RBI, and he's third in stolen bases.

He also won four Gold Gloves, highlighting his all-around game. Jones was a five-tool player during his decade in Baltimore, helping him make five All-Star Games. Jones never had that singular MVP season, instead relying on terrific consistency. He hit between 25 and 33 home runs every season from 2011 to 2017, and his WAR totals for those first five years ranged from 3.3 to 4.8.

His best season came during the most fun year in recent Orioles memory: 2012. That season, he hit 32 home runs and had a career-high OPS+ of 125, playing all 162 games and finishing sixth in the MVP race.

The Winner

It will surprise no one to see Adam Jones win this. In fact, he has a strong case as the Best Oriole of the Century, regardless of position. That's how significant an impact he made in Baltimore.

 

Jones was, in every possible respect, the greatest centerfielder for the Orioles in the century's first two decades. He dwarfs Matos and Patterson in longevity, having played more than twice as many games as the other two combined. He hit more than 200 more home runs than the other two combined. He had nearly three times as much Baseball-Reference WAR (32.2) as the other two combined (11.6).

The statistical case is definitive, but so is the narrative argument. 

Jones wasn't just a key cog for the 2012-16 teams that brought winning baseball back to Baltimore - he was the face of the franchise. He was the team's best player most years, their most well-known player most years, and their most outspoken leader every year. He also made an unbelievable impact in the community, through his charitable efforts and in speaking out during the city's riots.

The image of Jones blowing a bubble while tracking down a fly ball is inextricably linked with the franchise in the 2010s. He played the game with the right attitude, and also happened to be better than everybody else. In every sense, he played baseball The Oriole Way.

Even last season, with Jones no longer in town, his no. 10 jersey could be seen all over every game at Camden Yards. It would be surprising if he doesn't one day find himself in the Orioles Hall of Fame.

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