Breaking out of Spring Training this year, the Minnesota Twins did not have a backup centerfielder, or no true fourth outfielder. Management believed they did with the “athletic” Jason Bartlett, but it took less than a week to be proven wrong. Injuries opened up a path from Triple A for Darin Mastroianni to lock down the job, but after playing poorly in only seven games, the Twins found someone they liked better. So who’s the new guy and should Twins fans start to get nervous?
The Twins claimed Sam Fuld off waivers after he was squeezed from the Oakland A’s 40 man roster last Sunday. In addition to his versatility in the outfield, assistant GM Rob Antony didn’t hesitate to say that they wanted Fuld because he could “add a little life to the offense.” Fuld has hit .238/.316/.342 (.Avg/OBP/SLG) in 377 games over his 7 year career, with 52 extra base hits and 61 RBI. That’s good for a 1.1 career oWAR, which coupled with his 0.9 dWAR, makes him a very capable fourth outfielder.
The career numbers of the 32 year old aren’t spectacular though, and to say that he could give the offense life is really just an indictment of one specific player on the team. The Twins have been using Jason Kubel and Chris Colabello in the corner outfield spots and they have been terrific, mostly balancing out minus defense with plus skills at the plate. But Aaron Hicks in centerfield has not been good at the plate by any measure and Fuld’s career line would be a huge improvement over what Hicks has produced so far in his career. The acquisition of Fuld gives the Twins much needed depth in the outfield, but it also gives them a replacement centerfielder.
In his first week with Minnesota, Fuld has started four games and is hitting .471/.500/.706 through his first 17 AB and has generally been instrumental in winning three of those four games. He’s started in CF twice and once each in RF and LF, quickly showing off his usefulness in the outfield too. It’s only been four games but Sam Fuld is off to a hot start with his new team and that could be a problem because hot stretches demand playing time. And playing time has to come from somebody else, with that someone else most likely being Aaron Hicks.
Whether it is solely Gardenhire or the entire Twins organization, they tend to stick with a guy for much longer than they should because of a hot start. Last year, Clete Thomas came up to the team and had a good first month in June and it earned him 92 total games even though he was batting .228/.303/.348 on August 1st (numbers that would drop even further for the rest of the season). Sam Fuld’s first week could make him Thomas 2.0, a player who continues to get more playing time than a fourth outfielder deserves because of the first impression that he made.
The issue is that Sam Fuld is 32 years old and he has accumulated enough career at bats to see what type of offensive player he is, and what kind of ceiling we can expect from him. Fuld looks like and currently is a better offensive player than Aaron Hicks is, but Hicks is just 24 years old and has the tools to successfully play for the Twins for the next decade. Fuld might give some rest days to Kubel and Colabello, but the majority of his potential playing time will likely be in centerfield.
For better or for worse, Hicks needs to be playing a ton in 2014 because the Twins organization needs to know whether he is a dependable player for their next championship run. Sam Fuld might get the Twins a few more wins in 2014, but he isn’t the type of difference maker that could propel the team to the playoffs. 2014 is still a rebuilding year and the Twins can’t shelve Hicks now and wait to see if he can figure it out when the team might actually be contending next year. He needs to continue to get major league at bats to prove he can extend good weeks, Hicks posted an OPS almost 350 points higher this last week than his season total (.950 vs. .597), into good months. Sam Fuld can give him some rest days but Aaron Hicks needs to stay the starting centerfielder.