One of the hidden benefits of the World Baseball Classic is that it provides a showcase for players not currently on the MLB radar. The first WBC essentially started the Cuban revolution that has swept baseball over the last half-decade, while a number of Asian talents have also taken advantage of the tournament’s platform.
Rarely does an American player have the same opportunity. Even more distant are the odds that said American doesn’t play for Team USA. However, center fielder Sam Fuld is one of the reasons Team Israel advanced to the second round over the heavily favored South Koreans. Having missed all of the 2016 season due to rotator cuff surgery, Fuld is still looking for an MLB job.
With the Detroit Tigers still in the market for a center fielder, Fuld could be an option. FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman put two-and-two together in his latest column, linking Fuld and the Tigers. The two sides haven’t actually connected yet (that we know of), but one imagines the Tigers might kick the tires on Fuld soon enough.
Who is he?
Fuld is a 35-year-old outfielder who was originally drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 2004. He made his way through their farm system before making his major league debut in 2007. He went hitless in nine plate appearances, and would not return to the majors until 2009, when he compiled 0.7 fWAR in 65 games with Chicago. He was sent to the Tampa Bay Rays as part of the Matt Garza trade in 2011, where he spent three largely mediocre years.
Fuld just missed being part of the Oakland Athletics teams the Tigers conquered in the 2012 and 2013 playoffs, signing with Oakland prior to the 2014 season. He lasted just seven games before moving to the Minnesota Twins, then back to the A’s at the trade deadline. He played 53 more games for the A’s in 2014 and another 120 the following season before succumbing to the aforementioned shoulder surgery last year. All the while, he has been a largely mediocre player, accumulating just 5.1 fWAR in 599 career games.
Why should we care?
For the visual learner...
Scouts have eternally praised Fuld’s defensive capabilities in center field. He was rated as one of the best defenders in the Cubs’ farm system when he came through their ranks a decade ago, and has done little to dissuade those opinions since then. The eye test confirms this hypothesis, as Fuld appears to be a very rangy outfielder who takes good routes and closes well on balls hit into the gaps. His highlight reel is quite extensive as well.
Fuld’s defensive metrics are kind as well. He has been worth +32 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and owns a +32.5 Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) in 3,320 career outfield innings. Most of those positive ratings have come while playing corner outfield positions, but Fuld hasn’t had the time to build up much positive value; his 1,291 career innings in center field trail the 1,299 innings Justin Upton spent patrolling the Tigers outfield last season. Whether Fuld is merely average as the stats suggest or as spectacular as those videos above show, he would be a significant upgrade over the in-house options.
Fuld has also shown a knack for getting on base, and providing good value once he gets there. He owns a career walk rate of 10 percent, resulting in a .307 on-base percentage. This becomes all the more impressive when you consider how poor of a hitter he has been throughout his career. A career .227 hitter, Fuld owns a 79 wRC+ in 1,535 plate appearances. Pitchers should have no reason to walk him, yet he still finds a way to reach base. Once there, Fuld is a threat to steal, with 67 stolen bases in 599 career games. He has been worth 12.0 baserunning runs (BsR) in his career.
Why should we stay away?
We’ll get to the obvious flaws in a minute, but let’s focus on a red flag first. Fuld missed the entire 2016 season after having rotator cuff surgery on his throwing shoulder last April. It’s rare for a player to come back from a surgery this invasive, and most — hey there, Matt Kemp — are a shadow of their former selves when they do get back to the majors. Fuld isn’t a power hitter like Kemp, but is still affected by the surgery. His throwing arm has not looked strong in WBC group play thus far, and baserunners will not hesitate to test that arm during the regular season.
Injury aside, Fuld has never been that great of a hitter. He is a career .227/.307/.325 hitter in 599 career games, and has just 12 home runs on his ledger. He has drawn walks at a capable rate, but his awful batting average limits him to a below average on-base profile. The power (or lack thereof) kills his offensive profile even further, making him into little more than a defensive specialist. He has shown flashes of a bit more bat control in the past — he hit .240 in 2011 and .255 in 2012 — but it’s hard to see a 35-year-old coming off shoulder surgery to suddenly post career-best offensive numbers.
Will he end up in Detroit?
It’s possible, but the Tigers would really have to sour on Tyler Collins to do so. With the impending roster crunch and Anthony Gose already in the system as depth, Collins is likely the odd man out if the Tigers acquire another outfielder. They have shown faith in him and Mikie Mahtook so far, but could look to acquire the surer glove if they don’t like what they see from Collins offensively. Fuld doesn’t represent much of an upgrade — Collins will likely be more valuable on his own, to be honest — but a few good games in a well-timed moment might persuade the right people in the Tigers’ front office.