After losing center fielder B.J. Upton to the Atlanta Braves, it remains to be seen how the Rays are going to piece together their outfield for 2013. The good news for the Rays is that filling their hole in centerfield will not a problem. Current left fielder Desmond Jennings can move over to center field where he played almost exclusively in the minor leagues before breaking into the majors in left. But with Jennings in center field, the Rays need to find someone to play left field. Matt Joyce, who usually plays in right field, can easily move to left field, and Ben Zobrist could become the everyday right fielder. However, the Rays love using Zobrist at a variety of positions, and even if he plays right field the most, he will see time all over the field, opening up quite a few opportunities for another outfielder. The most experienced option for the Rays is Sam Fuld. Could Fuld be the player who receives the lion’s share of time in the outfield when Zobrist is playing elsewhere?
In April of 2011, with Evan Longoria on the disabled list, the Rays were on the ropes, starting the season just 1-8. In the 7th game of the season, even as the Rays slipped t0 0-7 on the year, Sam Fuld gave Rays hope with this catch. Then with not just his glove but also his bat, Fuld absolutely took over. Over the next 12 games, Fuld was absolutely unstoppable, hitting .424 (22 for 53) with 4 doubles, 2 triple, 1 homer, 8 RBI, 5 stolen bases, and 11 runs scored. In those 12 games, the Rays went 9-3, and by the end of April, they had gone from last to first in the American League East. However, other than those 12 games, Fuld has never really hit. On the year, Fuld managed just a .240/.313/.360 line (91 OPS+) with 18 doubles, 5 triples, 3 homers, 27 RBI, and 20 of 28 stolen bases. From April 24th until the end of the year, Fuld had just a .201/.284/.303 line in 265 plate appearances. For his career, Fuld has a .246/.328/.350 line (88 OPS+) with 28 doubles, 8 triples, 4 homers, 37 RBI, 29 of 40 stolen bases, and a 81-63 strikeout to walk ratio in 608 plate appearances over the last six years, which essentially adds up to a full season. No one doubts Fuld’s defense- despite part-time play for half of 2011, he nearly won a Gold Glove, and UZR and FRAA agree that he’s a well above-average defender, giving him marks 11.1 and 10.7 runs above average respectively. But offensively, Fuld raises clear concerns that he can hit consistently enough to be a regular, He’s fast, has good plate discipline, and does a good job at making contact, but has very little power and struggle to hit the ball with much authority at all.
Complicating matters further is Fuld’s health. Fuld injured his wrist in September of 2011 and seemed like it had healed until Fuld re-aggravated it in Spring Training of 2012, necessitating wrist surgery in late March that would sideline him until late July. Fuld also strained his right hamstring in mid-September, causing him to miss almost two weeks. Between his hitting ability and injury issues, it seems very unlikely that the Rays will be able to depend on Fuld for even semi-regular playing time.
What are the Rays’ other options? Thanks to Zobrist, they actually have quite a few. Fuld is a left-handed hitter and the Rays have two righty hitters who could potentially enter a platoon role with him: second baseman Ryan Roberts and outfielder Brandon Guyer. Fuld has been better versus right-handed pitching in his career, managing a .251/.336/.357 line for his career and a .255/.323/.387 line when he was at his best in 2011, and seeing most of his playing time against righties would help him maximize his offensive ability. He could be the Rays’ right fielder (or left fielder with Matt Joyce in right) versus right-handed pitching with Zobrist replacing Roberts at second base (although Roberts was actually better against righties in 2012), and against lefties, Roberts could play second base, Zobrist could slide over to first base, and Brandon Guyer could occupy one of the Rays’ corner outfield spots. Not factored into this discussion, though, is the Rays’ designated hitter spot. As it stands right now, the Rays would likely have to put Roberts at second base and James Loney at first base on a regular basis, and four of Desmond Jennings, Zobrist, Joyce, Fuld, and Guyer playing every day, with one of them at DH. Between his defense, speed, and halfway-decent hitting, Fuld could be a solid regular at the bottom of the Rays lineup, and Guyer is a player who could break out in his first full season in the major leagues in 2012, but in all probability, such a lineup would not cut it if the Rays have playoff aspirations for next season.
The Rays have become known for winning consistently with pitching, defense, and speed, and Sam Fuld plays perfectly into the latter two parts of that. He’s the fourth outfielder of the Rays’ dreams thanks to his incredible Superman-esque defense, ability to swipe bases, and solid ability at the plate, and he’s going to play a considerable role in the Rays’ chances in 2012. However, while Fuld will be an important player for the Rays next season, the role he’s lined up to play for the Rays at this point is not one that sets him up to succeed. The Rays have to find a designated hitter to complete their lineup and set Fuld up to play the backup role that he’s most comfortable with. Until then, Rays fans can hope that Fuld stays healthy and can become legendary at the plate again like he was for a while in 2011, but the chances of that happening for any significant period of time are not very high and in all probability, we’ll be seeing another move from the Rays to acquire a bat before the offseason ends.