The past two years, Sam Fuld has been a spark-plug on the Rays’ roster, not being a starting player most of the time, but electrifying the team with his outstanding speed and defense and being a player the Rays could always trust for a hard-fought at-bat. In 2013, the Rays expect Fuld to fill exactly the same type of role. However, that might not be something that will happen from Opening Day as Fuld struggles through a hamstring injury. We heard earlier today that Fuld expects to be ready for the start of the 2013 season on April 2nd, mentioning that he doesn’t need as many at-bats as he used to in order to prepare, but at the same time, Fuld hasn’t gotten into a game since March 4th and has made just 11 plate appearances all spring. We want to trust Fuld at his word, but based on the way things have transpired, it would not be surprising if he begins the season with at least a short rehab season to make up for some of the lost time. And if that happens, suddenly the Rays have a predicament on their hands- who replaces Fuld as their 4th outfielder?
On their 40-man roster, the Rays currently have five players listed as outfielders: Fuld, Brandon Guyer, Desmond Jennings, Matt Joyce, and Ben Zobrist. Jennings and Joyce will both be starting for the Rays, with Jennings in centerfield and Joyce in either left field or right. Zobrist is an interesting case as we’ll have to see how the Rays use him between right field and second base, but the indications are that between him and Kelly Johnson, the Rays will have their starting outfield spot covered. But in terms of backups, the Rays are looking quite thin after Fuld. Guyer is a talented player, but he’s also coming off of shoulder surgery and the Rays are going to send him to Triple-A and let him ease his way back into action before evaluating whether he could be a player that could impact their team this season. Guyer could be a very intriguing player for the Rays later in the season, but especially for the start of the season, he’s a non-factor. So if Fuld is out, who is the player that will seize the Rays’ backup outfield job?
The only player the Rays are set to carry that’s a true “utility player” is Sean Rodriguez, but Rodriguez is an infielder by trade, playing 444 of his 474 career games on the infield. The Rays have been using him in left field and centerfield, but are they confident enough to use him in the outfield for anything but an emergency right now? That remains to be seen, but the Rays will certainly have to find other options. One very interesting player could be Chris Gimenez, who’s currently competing for the Rays’ backup catcher job but also has 168 career games in the outfield between the majors and minors. Gimenez can’t play centerfield, but between him and Rodriguez, the Rays would probably be covered enough to survive. If Gimenez were to win the Rays’ backup catcher job, then the Rays would even have a roster spot to play with. Could Fuld’s injury risk actually help Gimenez in his case for the Rays’ backup catcher job? While the Rays have to love Gimenez’s versatility, having the same player as your only backup catcher and the only backup you really trust in the corner outfield spots in a risky proposition. The Rays will have to look at another alternatives among their non-roster players in spring training.
The outfielders the Rays have left in camp that aren’t on their 40-man roster are Jason Bourgeois, Rich Thompson, Shelley Duncan, and Leslie Anderson. (Obviously the big name fans would want to see is Wil Myers, but no chance he’ll be called up to play a backup role in the majors for any period of time.) Among those four, you can really split them into two categories: Bourgeois and Thompson, the speedier players can play all three spots and also do some pinch-running, and Duncan and Anderson, who can only play the corner spots and may not even play very defensively but have the potential to provide more hitting ability. Fuld belongs in the former category, so that might give Bourgeois and Thompson the edge. Thompson seems like an unlikely option- he went just 2 for 22 for the Rays last year, and while he’s certainly better than that, his severe lack of power means that he may never hit at all in the major leagues. Bourgeois is a similar type of player, but he’s hit a solid .261 in 497 plate appearances (albeit with no power as well, leading to just a 74 OPS+) and he even hit .294 with 31 stolen bases in 37 attempts in 2011 for the Astros. For what it’s worth, he’s also hitting .308 with 4 stolen bases for the Rays this spring. Though defensively Bourgeois is closer to average than plus, overall he would give the Rays a player who can handle all three outfield spots and serve as a pinch-runner extraordinaire while holding his own at the plate.
Duncan is a player with a chance to hit his way onto the Rays’ roster as a right-handed platoon partner for James Loney at first base, and combining that with his ability to play the corner outfield spots might make Fuld’s injury give him a better chance to make the Rays’ roster. However, Duncan has also hit just .208 this spring with 4 home runs but also 8 strikeouts against just 2 walks, and he certainly hasn’t wowed the Rays enough for them to add him to their 40-man roster at this point. Anderson, on the other hand, has had himself an unbelievable spring, going 18 for 42 (.429), but he’s in trouble because he’s a lefty hitter that the Rays have plenty of, and he’s more of a first baseman than an outfielder, appearing in just 26 games in right field the last three years. Both of them could hit their way onto the Rays roster at some point, but right now they’re not really options.
Bourgeois stands out among all the Rays’ non-roster candidates, but would the Rays really designate someone for assignment just to get him on their roster for what might be only a few games? That seems unlikely unless Fuld’s injury is quite a bit worse than we’ve heard, so the Rays are probably just going to have to find a solution from their 40-man roster. That solution is going to have to revolve around Rodriguez and Gimenez, and what the Rays could do is carry both Gimenez and Jose Lobaton on their 25-man roster to begin the year regardless of who wins the backup catcher job to give Gimenez the freedom to play the outfield. The Rays hope that Fuld will be ready for the start of the season and that this whole discussion is simply theoretical. But if the need arises, the Rays will utilize the versatility of players like Rodriguez, Gimenez, and Ben Zobrist to compensate, and whether Fuld is out for a few days or a few months, they’ll find a way to keep going strong.