Since being acquired by the Rays before the 2011 season as part of the Matt Garza deal with the Cubs, Sam Fuld has provided the Rays with a solid defense-minded backup outfield. Fuld was pretty much an afterthought as the throw-in as part of the Garza deal, but the Rays saw promise with Fuld, especially with his defense. Fuld has remained on the Rays roster from 2011-2013, although he did miss significant time in 2012 due to a wrist injury. Going into 2014, Fuld once again looks to be part of the Rays’ roster. Staying on their roster, though, could be a different manner.
Fuld’s bat has always been what has held back his game. From April 6th to April 27th of 2011, when the Legend of Sam Fuld was in full swing, Fuld hit to a .364/.419/.545 line in 86 plate appearances. Take out that one stretch, and Fuld’s line between 2011 and 2012 was just .215/.288/.277 in 367 plate appearances. Fuld’s 2013 numbers were even a touch below that as he hit to just a .199/.270/.267 line in 200 plate appearances, good for just a 54 OPS+. In 2011 and 2012, Fuld’s bat did not hurt his value too much. Count that one hot streak, and his OPS jumps from .565 to .666, which is fine for a player who plays such good defense. In 2013 however, Fuld’s struggled in the batter’s box reached a tipping point. He simply looked lost at the plate, forcing Joe Maddon to start him very rarely, instead using him as a late-inning defensive replacement. While Fuld’s bat was very bad in 2013, his .223 BABIP does suggest he was unlucky. In 2014, Fuld’s BABIP will likely be closer to his .268 career mark, and thus his number should be better than his horrid 2013. Even so, Fuld’s bat will never add value to his game, and thus he must provide value in other ways.
The reason that Fuld has been able to stick in the big leagues with the Rays the past 3 years is due to the value that he brings defensively. In 2011 and 2012, Fuld’s defense was very good, as he posted UZR/150′s of 19.5 and 5.3 respectively. Fuld has proven that he can be an excellent defender, and the eye test certainly matches the stats as we recall all of Fuld’s spectacular plays. However just like his bat in 2013, his defense slipped. Fuld’s UZR/150 of .9 means that he did add value due to his defense, but not nearly as much previous two years. Joe Maddon continued to show faith in Fuld as a defensive replacement, but his defense was nothing special in 2013. The thing about defensive statistics is that they can fluctuate considerably from year to year, especially in small sample sizes. There is a real chance that Fuld’s 2013 struggles defensively had a fluky component. But when you are a player who hits as little as Fuld does, you really have to stand out in the field. Fuld’s defense, the strength of his game, is suddenly iffy as well. That is not a good sign.
Given his poor hitting, Sam Fuld must provide value with his defense in order to be a usable major leaguer. However in 2013, Fuld failed to do this. His offense was very bad, and his defense did not do too much to make up for this value. Both baseball-reference (-0.6 WAR) and fangraphs (-0.3 WAR) rated Fuld as being below replacement level. Fuld is up for arbitration again in 2014, and while he won’t be expensive (MLB Trade Rumors projects a 900k salary), his negative value in 2013 makes him a non-tender candidate.
Ultimately, we have to believe the Rays will tender Fuld a contract in 2014. Fuld provides value to the Rays beyond just the numbers, especially given his cheap salary. Fuld will compete with the likes of Brandon Guyer and Kevin Kiermaier out of spring training, and it is hard to imagine him losing out. But even if Fuld begins another season on the Rays’ roster, he may not last there long.
For years, Kiermaier has reminded the Rays of a younger Fuld with his strong defense and lefty bat. As time has passed, though,a Kiermaier has shown that becoming a Fuld-type player may be his worst case scenario. Similar to Fuld, Kiermaier has a reputation as a stout defender, but the Rays themselves acknowledged that his defense is likely better than Fuld’s when they put Kiermaier in centerfield in Game 163, pushing Fuld to a corner spot. But after a strong 2013 season in Double-A and Triple-A, Kiermaier has shown that he has offensive promise as well. Kiermaier’s potential at the plate ironically is what will cause him to start 2014 in Triple-A. The Rays will keep developing him, seeing if he can hit enough to be a starting centerfielder in the big leagues and give Desmond Jennings some competition. But if the Rays desire something more from their fourth outfielder spot, Kiermaier is a clear option to replace Fuld. As either a backup outfielder or a potential starting option, Kiermaier is coming. Either way, Fuld loses his roster spot.
While Kiermaier is likely heading back to the minors for at least part of 2014, Guyer will be Fuld’s main competition out of spring training. Guyer is better with the bat than Fuld, and his defense is also not significantly worse. Guyer has a reputation as having very good range, and although his arm isn’t as good as it was because of a shoulder injury in 2012, he still can provide above-average defense. Helping him more is that he is a right-handed batter, giving him a chance to earn a platoon role with David DeJesus. There is a chance that Guyer and Fuld could coexist on the Rays’ roster, with Fuld providing a defensive-first fourth outfielder and Guyer being more of a platoon player, but even that would only be a temporary situation with Kiermaier not far off from the big leagues. Fuld has been a fine piece for the Rays, but with cheaper, younger, and more talented options arriving in Tampa Bay, his “magic” will only last him so long.