Insider: Sam Fuld Remains in Rays' Future
It was once said that as a fourth outfielder Sam Fuld could be Tampa Bay's version of Brett Gardner; albeit in a reduced role. Fuld earned a spot on the Tampa Bay Rays bench to start the season; however, he was thrust in to the starting lineup after the sudden retirement of Manny Ramirez moved Johnny Damon to designated hitter. Fulds first month as a full-time player was "legendary". Along with game-changing catches in the outfield as well as his own giveaway night at Tropicana Field - he hit .289/.358/.433 for the month of April.
Just as Fulds playing time increased, his weaknesses as an everyday player were exposed. With little power to his credit, opposing pitchers challenged him with fastballs. In the month of May, he saw 74% fastballs. The league average is 58%. In addition to pitch selection, he was forced to face left-handed pitching on a regular basis, putting him against the platoon split. The result was a slash line of .157/.176/.258 for the month and more time on the bench.
All things considered, the reduction in playing time was probably best for Fuld and the team. He finished the season as a slightly below average hitter, hitting .240/.313/.360 in 346 plate appearances. Despite the hot-and-cold start, he played at or near expectations once he returned to being a role player.
On May 20, the Rays recalled right-handed outfielder Justin Ruggiano. Fuld had already received 177 plate appearances by this time. Following the call-ups of Ruggiano and later Desmond Jennings - along with a late-season injury - he was limited to 169 plate appearances for the remainder of the season - a number much more suited for his skill-set.
With the flexibility to play Fuld based on matchups rather than using him as an everyday player, Rays manager Joe Maddon got his version of Brett Gardner. In his final 169 plate appearances, Fuld hit .248/.343/.366. In a larger role with the New York Yankees, Gardner hit .259/.345/.369 on the season. The May 20th cut-off may appear as an arbitrary endpoint, however, with other options, Maddon was able to do what he does best which is put his players in position to succeed. In addition to his Gardner-like work at the plate, Fuld proved valuable to the team as a baserunner and on defense. He was among the team leaders in steals and extra-bases taken as well as a dynamic defender in the outfield.
In the postseason, Fulds limitations were once again exposed. But again, this came under imperfect conditions. Because of limited options for the playoff roster, he served as the teams primary left-handed pinch-hitter. In Game 3 of the American League Division Series against the Texas Rangers, he was called off the bench to bat with two runners on and the team trailing 4-2. Rangers reliever Alexi Ogando attacked Fuld with high-90s fastballs before getting him to ground out for the final out of the seventh inning. The result made some question why Fuld was on the playoff roster when the truth was he was one of the only options.
With overall pedestrian numbers - and a fall from social media grace - some might think Sam Fulds time with Tampa Bay is running short. On the other hand, when used properly, Fuld was very much the player he was expected to be. With a 2012 outfield that should include a full-time Desmond Jennings and more Brandon Guyer, the team is once again in a position to use Fuld as a fourth outfielder with speed, the ability to get on-base, and play solid defense. In other words, he could be Tampa Bay's version of Brett Gardner; albeit in a reduced role.