The goal of any free agent is to find the best opportunity for playing time that they possibly can. The Rays wished they could accommodate Sam Fuld and Fuld hoped there was some way that he could return, but off he heads to the Oakland Athletics, where his chances for a big league roster spot are greater. It is sad to see Fuld go, but Rays fans can be happy that Fuld chose the team that gives him the best chance of returning to Tropicana Field in another uniform next season.
The composition of the Rays’ roster made it no longer possible for them to carry a left-handed defensive replacement and pinch-runner. David DeJesus and Matt Joyce are both weak against left-handed batters, and the Rays needed righty hitters to platoon with them. Fuld has hit lefties better than righties for his career, but he can’t hold a candle to Sean Rodriguez, Brandon Guyer, Logan Forsythe, or Jayson Nix in that department. The Rays non-tendered Fuld, and the time was right for him to move on. In Oakland, suddenly he enters a competition that he has a chance to win.
Assuming the A’s carry 12 pitchers, they have 13 spots to play with in terms of position players. Nine of those will be their starters at each position. Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp, and Josh Reddick go left to right in the outfield, Josh Donaldson, Jed Lowrie, Eric Sogard, and Brandon Moss go third to first on the infield, Derek Norris will start at catcher, and John Jaso will be the DH. In terms of backups, Craig Gentry will be the backup outfielder, and Alberto Callaspo and Nick Punto will both make guaranteed money on the infield, so that leaves one spot for the A’s to play with. Oakland will chose from first basemen Daric Barton and Nate Freiman, ex-Rays catchers Stephen Vogt and Chris Gimenez, and also Fuld for the 25th spot on their roster. Let’s see what the Athletics’ decision-making process will look like.
Barton appears to have the advantage because he is set to make $1.25 million in 2014. However, his contract is non-guaranteed, and we have to think the A’s will choose the best candidate to be their 25th man regardless of the money. Barton is coming off a solid season in limited playing time in 2013, but he is limited to first base, where the A’s have fellow lefty hitter Brandon Moss set to start. Moss is not entirely unplayable against lefties, but having a right-handed backup behind him would make sense, and Barton would not be that. However, the A’s do have Callaspo, a switch-hitter who is stronger against lefties, who could emerge as a possibility to spell Moss. With that in mind, Barton could earn an opportunity for playing time as a designated hitter against left-handed pitching with John Jaso sliding to catcher.
Freiman, meanwhile, hit well against lefties as the A’s held onto him on the big league roster the entire year as a Rule 5 draftee, and he could be Moss’ platoon partner. But Freiman is another player who can only play first base, and he looked feeble against right-handed pitching last year. Now that Freiman’s Rule 5 year is over, Oakland can send him to the minor leagues and see whether he could improve enough against righties to the point where he is more than just a defensively limited platoon player. On the other hand, Oakland has to rotate both Moss and Jaso out against lefties, and Freiman could combine with Callaspo to fill those two spots.
One area of concern for the Athletics is that Jaso was knocked out from July 26th to the end of the year after a foul tip caused a concussion. In attempt to keep him healthy, it could make sense for them to carry a third catcher and make Jaso their starting DH against lefty pitching. Vogt makes sense because he is a lefty hitter who could platoon with Norris, who hasn’t hit right-handed pitching at all in the major leagues. However, Vogt is not a good candidate to receive the bulk of the playing time himself. Vogt has never been a strong defensive catcher, and while he has hit at Triple-A, he is more of a “Quad-A slugger” than a consistent offensive threat because of poor pitch recognition. That doesn’t mean Vogt can’t be a strong backup catcher, but he is not a real starting option. With Vogt having options remaining, expect him to start 2014 back at Triple-A.
Gimenez, though, is out of options and he could be an interesting fit for this A’s team. Gimenez is, like Norris, a right-handed hitter who is stronger against lefties, but the A’s could not find a better option for a third catcher because of his versatility. Gimenez is capable of playing third base, first base, left field, and right field in addition to catcher, and he could potentially see time at each of those positions. Moss, Josh Reddick, and Jaso are all left-handed hitters, and Gimenez could be an option to spell one of them every time the Oakland plays a lefty. Gimenez could line up the A’s to have Norris start say 82 games at catcher with him and Jaso each catching 40, and then he could see time everywhere else on the field. The Athletics claimed Gimenez from the Rays believing that he was a player who could be a part of their 2014 effort, and we have no reason to doubt them.
That leaves Sam Fuld. We have heard the cases for Oakland having one more first baseman or one more catcher. Why would they want another outfielder? The Athletics’ outfield will consist of Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp, and Josh Reddick as the starter with Craig Gentry as a backup. Cespedes and Gentry are stronger against lefties while Crisp and Reddick could use some spotting against a tough left-hander. Gentry could wind up in a platoon with Reddick with the latter coming off a poor season, and Fuld, a lefty who hits same-side pitchers better, could occasionally sub in for Gentry or take out Crisp. Most interesting, though, is that having Fuld in addition to Reddick could allow the A’s to move Cespedes to DH against lefty pitching. Playing Cespedes more at DH would help him stay healthy, and he also would take away the need for a platoon partner for Jaso at DH. The only real issue with having Fuld is that Jaso would end up playing a lot at catcher. But after the A’s played Jaso more than double as much at catcher than DH last season, that could be a reality they are willing to accept.
We can’t label Sam Fuld the favorite in the competition for the Oakland Athletics’ 25th man, but he has a real chance to make the team and that is not something we could have said if he remained with the Rays. At the end of the day, Fuld did well for himself, and best of luck to him seizing his opportunity in spring training.