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Center fielders taking center stage

ADVANCE FOR USE SATURDAY, JULY 28, 2012, AND THEREAFTER - FILE - In this July 8, 2012, file photo, Pittsburgh Pirates' Andrew McCutchen watches his second two-run home run leave the park during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the San Francisco Giants in Pittsburgh. All around the majors, center fielders are taking center stage this season. With a group of players, including McCutchen, either leading their teams to playoff bids or providing exciting glimpses of the future, this toughest of outfield positions suddenly seems loaded with terrific athletes and talented, young hitters. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

ADVANCE FOR USE SATURDAY, JULY 28, 2012, AND THEREAFTER - FILE - In this July 8, 2012, file photo, Pittsburgh Pirates' Andrew McCutchen watches his second two-run home run leave the park during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the San Francisco Giants in Pittsburgh. All around the majors, center fielders are taking center stage this season. With a group of players, including McCutchen, either leading their teams to playoff bids or providing exciting glimpses of the future, this toughest of outfield positions suddenly seems loaded with terrific athletes and talented, young hitters. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

DETROIT -- Austin Jackson glided back across the outfield grass toward the deepest part of Comerica Park, then caught a long flyball a split-second before slamming into the fence.

The next day, his counterpart in center field answered with a highlight of his own. Angels rookie Mike Trout hit a home run that landed in the seats in right-center -- some 430 feet from home plate -- before the ball bounced up onto a concourse.

All around the majors, center fielders are taking center stage this season. Whether it's Andrew McCutchen leading Pittsburgh in a surprising bid for a playoff spot, or Trout and Bryce Harper providing an exciting glimpse of the future, this toughest of outfield positions suddenly seems loaded with terrific athletes and talented, young hitters.

"It's pretty cool -- especially when you get a chance to play against them and you see what they're doing," said Jackson, a 25-year-old defensive stalwart who is having a breakout season with the bat for the Detroit Tigers. "It's a position where you have to be pretty athletic to play out there, obviously, because you've got a bigger area to cover. Putting up good numbers is just a plus."

Ken Griffey Jr. in 1997 was the last player to win an MVP award with center field as his primary position. That drought nearly ended last year when Jacoby Ellsbury of the Red Sox and Matt Kemp of the Dodgers both finished second. This year McCutchen is a candidate in the National League, and Trout could win the award as a rookie in the American League. Josh Hamilton of Texas may also be in the running despite a summer slump. He's split time almost evenly this year between center and left -- after playing more in left when he won the MVP in 2010.

"You're finding guys who aren't necessarily playing that one position but are playing all of them, which is a good thing," Hamilton said. "I think it depends on the lineups. In the American League, we're finding now we can move guys around different nights and get a little deeper on the bench and be able to match guys up to pitching."

The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Hamilton doesn't necessarily fit the prototype of a speedy, smooth-fielding center fielder, but his athletic ability is obvious, and with 28 home runs, he's just one example of a legitimate slugger who can play the defensively demanding position. The 6-foot-3 Kemp hit 39 homers last year.

McCutchen, meanwhile, has been spectacular in 2012, hitting .369 with 22 homers going into Thursday's games.

"I'm looking at Andrew, this might be the best I've ever seen," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "Wow, this is special. It's a very special time and place for him in the game. He's having fun with it. He's enjoyed this ride, however long it's going to be. Am I optimistic about his future? Absolutely."

In 2010, major league center fielders produced an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .731. That number is up to .754 this year, according to STATS, LLC. By contrast, the OPS for third baseman in 2012 is only .742 -- and that's considered a position for power hitters.

And this may be only the beginning. Three of the game's most dynamic newcomers can play center field. Trout has hit .356 with 16 homers and 31 stolen bases, helping turn his team's season around since coming up from the minors in late April. Harper, drafted No. 1 overall in 2010 by Washington, has made a quick adjustment to the majors while playing mostly center and right. He joined Trout in the All-Star game, and he won't turn 20 until October.

In Oakland, Yoenis Cespedes is hitting .302 with 13 homers, and the free-swinging Cuban has helped the Athletics stay in the playoff race.

"They can run, they can throw, they can hit, they can hit for power, and they can play defense. Every so often, you get this type of situation where all these athletes are here at the same time," Texas manager Ron Washington said. "It just so happens we're in a decade where you've got all these good athletes. They're good athletes, every single one of them. Some are young, some are veterans, but they're all good athletes."

Center field has long been one of baseball's glamour positions, with some of the biggest stars in the game taking pride in being the captain of the outfield. For Adam Jones, it's a bit of a consolation prize.

Jones played shortstop for much of his baseball life, including early in the Seattle farm system before the Mariners converted him to a center fielder. He was traded to Baltimore in 2008 and, despite his reluctance, has blossomed into one of the better outfielders in the game.

"I'm a shortstop," Jones insists.

Not in Baltimore, where J.J. Hardy is entrenched at shortstop and Jones is cemented in the patch of grass right behind him.

Jones has 23 homers on the season, and Curtis Granderson of the New York Yankees has 27. In Colorado, Dexter Fowler is enjoying the best year of his career with the bat. The 26-year-old is hitting .302 with 12 homers and 10 triples. Atlanta's Michael Bourn is hitting .299 with 28 steals.

Jackson entered this season as a strikeout-prone speedster but has adjusted his approach at the plate and is hitting .316. He went up against Trout during a Tigers-Angels series earlier this month, and both were impressive.

There are so many talented center fielders, it's hard for Granderson to keep track.

"It's tough to see in the National League, but obviously I know what McCutchen's been doing. Matt Kemp, obviously when he's been healthy. And in the American League, let's see, who we got here? ... Adam Jones obviously has been doing great," Granderson said. "Austin Jackson's been doing an amazing job over in Detroit. Trout if they need him to play center can, but he's also playing left.

"And I think that's what's happening, too. A lot of guys are moving around, so you don't get a chance to see them all the time. But if they are there, the ability to do multiple things I think has definitely been developed ever since I've been out there."

And this has all happened this year despite significant injuries to Ellsbury and Kemp. They're both back now, ready to join in on the fun.

"I still think it's a defensive position. You've just got guys that do both," Ellsbury said. "There's still premium on the defense in the position, but you've got guys that can swing the bats as well."

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AP Sports Writers Mike Fitzpatrick, Jon Krawczynski and Janie McCauley contributed to this report.