Tampa Bay Rays Position by Position Breakdown: Centerfield
By Steve Givarz
With B.J. Upton a Brave, Rays fans were not worried as the club had their next start outfielder in the wings with Desmond Jennings. Jennings was supposed to be a player similar to that of Carl Crawford that would step right in and be a cornerstone player between his power and speed. While nobody is calling for Jennings removal from the position, it was fair to say he didn’t capitalize on his chance to silence the doubters.
Desmond Jennings- Originally a 10th round pick out of Itawamba Community College, Jennings was considered a “toolsy outfielder” by Kevin Goldstein when he named Desmond Jennings the top prospect in a deep system in 2010. While some of the tools have surfaced, namely his 70 speed, 14-15 home runs (40 on the scale), and his plus defense, Rays fans have wanted more. Maybe fans were too enamored with the hype around him in replacing a franchise player in Crawford. Jennings is getting on base at a decent rate, putting up a .330 OBP for his career, and he has hit for some power and stolen some bases. But how much better will he get? His .295 BABIP in 2013 shows no sign of flukiness and every time it seemed like he was breaking out, he would fall back to earth. But Jennings is still a fundamentally sound player, who is still cheap, under team control for 5 more seasons, and while he hasn’t lived up to expectations yet, he is improving over time. Compared to 2012 Jennings increased his walk rate (8.2% to 10.6%), struck out less (21.3 to 19.1), increased his OBP (.314 to .334), and slugged more (.388 to .414). Expect him back at leadoff next season, and the Rays hope he can take even bigger steps forward next season.
Sam Fuld– The legend was born on this day, but has been a solid player through his career. Nobody took the short scrappy outfielder for anything more than depth on a team, but in 2011, he showed flashes of a good 4th outfielder that can play anywhere and give you plus defense and energy on the field. It was unfortunate he missed most of 2012 with right wrist surgery as the Rays could’ve used him instead of Rich Thompson, Ben Francisco, Brandon Allen et all. But then 2013 was a disappointing year for Sam Fuld as he struggled to hit above the Mendoza Line and lost playing time to DeJesus and Delmon Young. Sam is collecting money in arbitration–2013 is his second time through the process as a Super Two player and he is projected to make 900K. Sam actually has a reverse split (.244/.322/.346 vs. LHP, compared to .230/.311/.323 vs. RHP), so could see playing time versus light-handed pitchers with Joyce and DeJesus both poor hitters against them. But after a poor season, just how committed are the Rays to keeping Fuld?
Kevin Kiermaier– Kiermaier had the equivalent to “Club Trillion” Mark Titus by appearing in two games this year: the Wild Card tiebreaker game against the Rangers and then the Wild Card Game against the Indians.
Back to the writing, Kiermaier is no slouch as he was named the best defensive OF by Baseball America in 2011 and has only gotten better the past two yeras. Kiermaier wasn’t highly regarded with the bat coming into 2013 as he his highest SLG at any point was .431 in his rookie season at Princeton. He slugged .431 once again between Durham and Montgomery and started to get on base more as he took more walks and struck out at a career-low rate. The question is whether Kiermaier’s bat will continue to develop to the point where he could be a starting centerfielder in the major leagues. Kiermaier will always be regarded for his glove, and at the very least, he will be a fourth or fifth outfielder similar to Sam Fuld. Kiermaier will head back to Triple-A hoping to prove he has the offensive chops for the big leagues, and it will be interesting to see how he does.
Grady Sizemore– From the “He’s still trying to play baseball?” department walks out Grady Sizemore, balky knees and all. Sizemore hasn’t played baseball since 2011, and hasn’t appeared in over 100 games since 2009. From 2005 to 08, Sizemore was a perennial All-Star, a Gold Glove winner, and an all-around stud. But three knee surgeries later his career now is at the what-If portion. A return to the majors would be a nice story, as multiple teams have supposedly stayed in touch on him. But a minor-league deal would be all that the Rays would offer him at this point. The probability is low, but after former Rays star Scott Kazmir revitalized his career with the Indians, it would be funny if the former Indians star Sizemore put himself back on the map with the Rays.
Franklin Gutierrez– Sporter of the best nickname ever on Baseball-Reference, “Death to Flying Things”, Gutierrez is a great player…when healthy. Gutierrez has been on the DL six times since 2011, from hamstring, concussions, and oblique injuries. A high-risk high-reward gamble that could pay off for some teams, he still provides great defense in the OF and is a strong offensive centerfielder for the Rays. The Rays could fit him into their outfield and maybe even give him some starts at DH, but only if the cost is right. Gutierrez made $7 million in 2013 before the Mariners declined his $7.5 million option for 2014. Could his injuries push him into the Rays’ price range?
Chris Young– Not to be confused with the 6’10 pitcher of the same name, this Chris Young is an athletic CF who at his best is a 25-25 player. Never a high-average hitter in his career, Chris Young slugs, and slugs a lot. A plus-power, plus-defense CF don’t grow on trees and certainly aren’t available on the free-agent market every year. Could Young be running around centerfielder for Tampa Bay this off-season? There may be a chance as he flamed out this season in Oakland, hitting a paltry .200/.280/.379 after being acquired in October 2012 from Arizona. In his last year of arbitration Young made $8.5M and while he won’t receive offers like that, his talented enough to generate plenty of interest this offseason. Could the Rays get in the running with an offer along the lines of the $7.25 million they paid Carlos Pena in 2012? Before Tampa Bay offers him a contract, though, they will have to decide whether they can deal with his high-strikeout, low-walk, and low-average tendencies in exchange for his power, defense, and speed.
The free market in centerfield is extremely strong this year with the headliners being Jacoby Ellsbury and Curtis Granderson (Shin-Soo Choo is not a CF, he’s a RF who faked it poorly this year). But after that the rest of the market are high-risk players that struggle to either stay healthy or hit for a high average. The club has backup outfielders ready in Brandon Guyer, Sam Fuld, Kevin Kiermaier, and Matt Joyce. The former three players can all play centerfield and are all team controlled and relatively cheap, so the Rays don’t have a need to make a big gamble. But even if they don’t have to anything in centerfield, it will be interesting to see how interested the Rays are in Gutierrez and Young if the price stays low enough. Even with David DeJesus extended to join Jennings and Wil Myers in the outfield, Jennings’ inconsistency and the open DH slot creates an opening for another outfielder if the right fit comes along. Could Gutierrez or Young be that fit?