Will the Legend return in 2013?
There are two kinds of Sam Fuld fans: those who believe the Legend is true, and those who are a bit more in touch with reality. Notwithstanding everything I'm about to write, I'm still a believer.
The Legend begins with Sam Fuld sneaking his way onto the 25-man roster. Fuld was the Punto of the Matt Garza trade that brought Chris Archer, Robinson Chirinos, and Hak Ju Lee to the Rays organization, and had a reputation for reckless abandon in the outfield. When I asked a die hard Cubs fan who Sam Fuld was on the day of the trade, he replied, "Oh, you mean the guy who runs into brick walls?"
Fuld got his chance to shine when Longoria hit the disabled list at the beginning of the 2011 season, and a platoon opportunity came available in the outfield as Ben Zobrist shifted back to second base. He did not disappoint:
April 3, 2011: Orioles at Rays - Fuld stumbles across the pitching mound in the bullpen to make a sliding catch, going head first into the wall, and later guns down J. J. Hardy at the plate with a cannon for an arm. The ball would beat the runner by nearly three seconds.
April 8, 2011: Rays at White Sox - Fuld chases down the ball in the corner of left field and makes a spinning throw to catch Paul Konerko at second on the relay. The next day, with bases loaded, Fuld makes what should have been the play of the year - covering over a hundred feet in less than 5 seconds to rob Juan Pierre with a diving catch in right field.
April 11, 2011: Rays at Red Sox - Fuld has his first homer in a Rays uniform, a three run shot. He then made his third astounding diving catch, and adding insult to injury for the sawx, beat out a triple and two doubles, opting to take the extra base over stopping early to earn "the cycle." Joe Maddon would call that "integrity."
Sam Fuld became the first road team lead-off hitter since Tim Raines to total 11 bases at Fenway, and he did it in two games. His antics earned him the leadoff story on ESPN for two days, which broadcasted that after ten games, Fuld had six stolen bases and led the American League. In the mean time, twitter lost its mind.
April 11th will forever be known as April Fuld's Day. #LegendofSamFuld
Sam Adams offered Sam Fuld his brewery just so he would leave Boston. He politely declined. #LegendofSamFuld
Sam Fuld once caught a cold. Then he set it free. #LegendofSamFuld
Mother birds send their babies to Sam Fuld for flying lessons. #LegendofSamFuld
Sam Fuld can steal first base. #LegendofSamFuld
Sam Fuld once threw himself out at home, just to see what it was like. #LegendofSamFuld
Manny Ramirez retired shortly after testing positive for Sam Fuld in his blood stream. #LegendofSamFuld
Sam Fuld stole Evan Longoria's cap. #LegendofSamFuld
Rafael Soriano would never say who's name he would write in the Pitching Mound... #LegendofSamFuld
The warning track is there to let the wall know when Sam Fuld gets close. #LegendofSamFuld
He gets Chick-Fil-A on Sundays #LegendofSamFuld
The meme was a sensation, so much so that sportscasters were reading them live on Sports Center. It was an epidemic. Fuld gained center stage for the week that followed, and used the opportunity to raise awareness for players with diabetes in interviews.
But then, like his body always suffered when he laid out for a diving catch, Fuld came crashing back to earth. In May he was bit by the BABIP dragon and his offense died down, along with the spotlight. He returned to form in June, but the resurgence was shortlived by a wrist injury that took Fuld out of an everyday role. He stayed on the bench, and was still around for the madness of Game 162, an experience he wrote about for the online sports magazine Grantland. He would play 105 games for the 2011 Rays with a .301 wOBA and 20 stolen bases.
Fuld did his best in rehabilitation, but in early April 2012 it was announced he would need surgery. During his recovery, Fuld became a familiar face in the booth for Sun Sports, commenting on sabermetrics - something he learned a great deal about as an intern at STATS during college.
In late July, Fuld returned to his bench role, but struggled with being the same player. In 44 games he accumulated a .289 wOBA with 7 stolen bases, playing in defensive relief and as a platoon partner down the stretch. The wrist injury plagued him physically and emotionally in 2012, but this year he is more optimistic.
A healthy Sam Fuld fits nicely into this Rays roster. Until Wil Myers arrives in the outfield, there will be ample opportunity to find playing time through a platoon. Desmond Jennings and Matt Joyce are slotted into starting roles, with Ben Zobrist and Fuld as the primary backups.
The addition of second baseman Kelly Johnson and the return of utility infielder Ryan Roberts adds flexibility to outfield arrangements. Either can cover multiple positions on the diamond to allow Zobrist to roam, and Johnson is rumored to be trying the outfield again, but Fuld has the strongest defense to boast of. UZR is too flukey to judge such a small sample size with, but it is worth mentioning that in his season's worth of stats between 2011-2012, Fuld accumulated 14 defensive runs saved (with 12 in left field). If you watched any of the linked videos above, you know where his strength lies.
When projecting Fuld's offense, his performance will likely be somewhere between Steamer and Oliver. Steamer incorporates scouting reports and injury history into its calculations, while Oliver is most successful when dealing with players who have small sample sizes in the majors.
All the readers who were in the "believing" category at the beginning of this article are probably a little worried at this point. Given the BABIP associated with Tropicana Field and Fuld's relative lack of line drives, I'm leaning toward Steamer's projections for his batting line. However, Fuld may be more valuable than either projection is suggesting.
Interestingly, both projection systems undercut Fuld's fielding and baserunning harshly. Before the wrist injury, Fuld scored a 9.5 Fld and 2.4 BsR in 2011. Assuming he can return to form, surely Fuld will perform a little higher than his projection, which should elevate his performance value.
Fuld is out of options, so his position is relatively secure. He will have the most opportunity for playing time in the first half of the season (assuming Myers reps in AAA for a few months), so Fuld will have to compete hard against the other platoon players in spring training for playing time. Normally the spring doesn't offer many story lines that are relevant to the regular season (outside of pitching), but Fuld is an interesting case. If his wrist is healthy, Fuld will get his chances.
So will the Legend return? Probably not, but the Rays are in Fenway the second weekend in April. Until proven otherwise, I'm holding out hope that he'll rise again.