Desmond Jennings is out. We didn’t see the injury coming and it’s especially tough given the Rays’ recent run of injuries, but it is the reality and the Rays have to find a way to deal with it. How will the Rays react with their centerfielder and leadoff man gone for at least the next couple of weeks?
On the Rays’ bench, they have one player capable of playing centerfield who showed in the past that he’s capable of being a quality player there. That player is Sam Fuld. Fuld is not having a great season at the plate this year, managing just a .198/.270/.278 line (55 OPS+) with 2 triples, 2 homers, 13 RBI, and 4 stolen bases in 144 plate appearances, but we can’t forget Fuld’s 2011 season, when he rode a great April to a .240/.313/.360 line (91 OPS+) with 18 doubles, 5 triples, 3 homers, 27 RBI, and 20 stolen bases in 346 plate appearances. Fuld profiles better defensively in an outfield corner, but he has logged 58 career games in centerfield, including 11 this year, and should be a solid if not spectacular defender there. The bigger question is going to be his bat. Fuld is a lefty hitter, but he has gone better against left-handed pitching for his career, managing a .700 OPS compared to .636 against righties, and this year the disparity has been especially extreme as he has managed a .920 OPS agianst lefties and just a .374 mark against right-handers. The sample size is pretty small (48 PA’s against lefties, 96 versus righties) so we could be looking at statistical noise, but even just looking at his career numbers, Fuld should not be starting on a regular basis even against right-handed pitching and would be a better fit playing against lefties. Fuld had his moments in that 2011 season, but between his defense in centerfield that isn’t up to par with his performance in the corner spots and questionable offense, Fuld should really be a part-time player at best. On the other hand, even if he doesn’t hit a ton, he could improve with more time in centerfield and his great baserunning ability could help him be a postiive player as well.
Another option could be Sean Rodriguez. Rodriguez has wound up playing primarily left field and first base this season, but that is quite misleading because we know he can play shortstop and he has even played 11 games in centerfield, although none since 2010. However, that could be more because of the precense of Jennings and B.J. Upton than any fault of his own, and he may be able to do a solid job there. He has seen time in centerfield in spring training. Once again, though, you have to wonder how much he will hit. Rodriguez has done pretty well at the plate this year, managing a .265/.338/.386 line (104 OPS+) with 8 doubles, 2 homers, and 17 RBI, but he has done that while facing lefties in 120 of his 151 plate appearances. Rodriguez has just a .608 OPS against right-handed pitching for his career compared to a nice .748 against lefties. Especially if he was forced to adapt to a position he hasn’t played in three years, you have to wonder how he could hit, especially against righties. Rodriguez has found himself forced off of starting jobs at second base and shortstop the past few years, and it doesn’t seem like a new starting gig in center is in the wings.
Fuld and Rodriguez are the current bench players who could be in line to see more time with Jennings out. But could the Rays instead choose to shift current right field starter Wil Myers? As we know, Myers has done a tremendous job since getting called up, managing a .329/.379/.533 line (154 OPS+) with 7 doubles, 8 homers, 30 RBI, and 5 stolen bases in 169 plate appearances, even showing decent plate discipline to the tune of a 36-14 strikeout to walk ratio and a 3-7 mark in his last 8 games. Myers is quickly becoming a rising star, and if he keeps this up he will be neck-and-neck with fellow Ray Chris Archer for the AL Rookie of the Year award. But can Myers play centerfield? The Rays didn’t think so, not playing him there a single time this season between Triple-A and the big leagues. However, the Royals did think that he could, playing him in center 87 times in 2012 and believing he could eventually be an average defender. This is obviously not an ideal situation, but could the Rays put Myers back in center to help maximize their offense? If Myers could do a serviceable job in center, the Rays could have an outfield of Myers, Ben Zobrist, and Matt Joyce against righties and Myers, Zobrist, and Sean Rodriguez against lefties. Kelly Johnson could see more time at second base, which does happen to be his natural position although he hasn’t played there much this season, and Ryan Roberts could see time there against lefties as well. If Myers can play centerfield, the Rays could come as close as possible to keeping their current offense up with Jennings gone. But Myers’ ability to play center is no sure thing, especially at such short notice, and even if he was, you have to wonder whetehr the Rays would move him there and risk losing something from his bat that has been performing so well.
Beyond the players Rays fans are familiar with, there is one other player who could be in line for playing time: the recently called-up Jason Bourgeois. Bourgeois, 31, put up solid numbers at Triple-A Durham for the Rays this season, managing a .291/.337/.371 line with 14 doubles, 3 triples, 2 homers, 57 RBI, and 21 stolen bases in 363 plate appearances. Bourgeois was stuck in the minor leagues until now, but he actually saw time in the majors with four different franchises the last five seasons, managing a .261/.306/.324 line (74 OPS+) with 15 doubles, 4 triples, 2 homers, 27 RBI, and 51 stolen bases in 65 attempts in 497 plate appearances. Bourgeois is what he is, a speed-oriented player who steals bases and racks up infield hits but doesn’t do much else at the plate and doesn’t play great defense in centerfielder. He’s also yet another right-handed outfielder who only hits lefties. Bourgeois is an interesting player because of his speed, but that’s basically all he is. He might get some starts, but his best role for the Rays will likely be pinch-runner.
What will the Rays end up doing as they hope to replace Jennings? Likely we’re going to see all four players see time. Against left-handed pitching, we’ll see Fuld and Rodriguez, and it’s going to especially interesting whether the Rays elect to use Myers in center against righties and if so, how often. Where Bourgeois will fit into the mix remains to be seen. At the end of the day, though, the Rays have options available and will find a way to get production from their centerfield position. Especially if it’s only a two-week injury, the Rays will figure out how to keep going without Jennings, and the impact of his loss may not be as significant as you would think.