Tampa Bay's 'Superman' Sam Fuld headlines surprising early stars
Fuld has flourished since getting an everyday gig after Manny Ramirez's retirement
Forty-four other breakout studs, including Justin Masterson and Jonathan Herrera
The latest on the Dodgers mess, Ryan Braun's new contract and more notes
When the Tampa Bay Rays sent top starting pitcher Matt Garza to the Cubs for a few hot prospects in a seven-player trade this winter, folks barely noticed that a couple of intellectual outfielders were also exchanged in that same deal. Fernando Perez, an Ivy League product of Columbia, went to the Cubs, and Sam Fuld, the Stanford product known mostly for his lack of height and daredevil plays in the outfield, went to the Rays.
The Perez-for-Fuld part of the equation was largely overlooked, which was nothing new to Fuld, a speedy 5-foot-9-ish player who'd been up and down with Lou Piniella's Cubs, where he never had more than 97 at-bats in a season. Fuld, now 29, has had to overcome a lot, from smallish obstacles like growing up in a decidedly non-baseball hotbed such as Durham, N.H. (where his dad is a dean at the University of New Hampshire and his mom a New Hampshire state senator) and being a 24th-round Cubs draft choice, to larger ones like overcoming Type 1 diabetes. So he never was one to complain about something like playing time, not when he understands how everyone at this level is talented and everyone deserves a chance. If anyone gets the odds, he does; he showed a unique aptitude for numbers as the small child of a professor.
No sir, there aren't many undersized, Jewish bookworms (he had a 3.15 GPA at Stanford, according to Wikipedia) in the bigs. But the diminutive Fuld harbored big goals all along.
Of course, he never could have imagined a start that has spawned talk of "the Legendary Sam Fuld" or "Superman Sam", where he is seen as the offensive sparkplug on a team that began the year with all-around superstar Evan Longoria (who's been injured) and a couple of famed ex-Idiots, Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. Coincidentally, Fuld grew up watching and admiring Damon, Ramirez, Mike Greenwell and Mo Vaughn as a member of Red Sox Nation in New England.
Rays manager Joe Maddon, a lover of Fuld's superb, acrobatic defense and historically high on-base marks, was finding time for Fuld even before Ramirez ignominiously departed. But once the Manny era abruptly ended, Fuld's spot as a full-fledged starter became clear. His standout performance has only solidified that. Lo and behold, Fuld was leading the league in hitting at .396 after going 4-for-4 vs. the White Sox this past Monday.
"I never anticipated this kind of start,'' Fuld said in a recent phone interview. "Sure, I have high expectations for myself. But do I think I'm going to win an American League batting title? No. At the same time, I think I can make a significant contribution.''
Fuld is doing more than making a significant contribution. The Rays' leadoff hitter is currently hitting .348 (now fifth-best in the AL) and has seven stolen bases, tying him Oakland's Coco Crisp for the league lead. Fuld is this space's choice for the biggest early surprise of the 2011 season. While former MVPs Alex Rodriguez and Joey Votto lead their respective leagues in hitting, there have also been some great surprises (the top 45 are listed below).
Fuld always has been known as an excellent defender who can play all three outfield positions, and he has been nothing short of brilliant playing left field. (Gold Glove-caliber B.J. Upton is the Rays' center fielder.) But he admitted this spring he still needed to prove he could hit at the major league level, which he is now doing.
Thanks to superior, daring defense (one catch he made crashing into the ivy-covered brick at Wrigley Field is still recalled) and very high on-base percentages (the self-confessed stat freak and early Moneyball reader has more walks than strikeouts in his career), he was given a few small chances with the Cubs. Piniella often spoke glowingly about the all-out style and effort of Fuld, but the iconic manager took weeks to give him an at-bat during his first call-up, so long that one teammate hung a sign at his locker proclaiming him "Moonlight Graham.'' In his best chance as a Cub, in 2009, Fuld posted a stunning .409 on-base percentage; however, some seemed to focus on the fact that he only had two RBIs in those 97 at-bats.
He took the trade as a positive because it meant "someone wanted me,'' he said. The irony is that it took the sudden departure of one of his childhood heroes, Ramirez, who quit after failing a drug test. (A Rays person said of Manny's short stint with the ballclub: "We went into it with our eyes wide open as to the number of minefields that existed.")
Fuld actually wasn't expecting too much when he got to Port Charlotte, although the Rays are known for putting a high premium on defense, a stance that has been key to the team's two AL East championships in the last three seasons. His outfield versatility, style and attitude opened their eyes midway through spring. "A lot of what happened was unexpected. I was pretty thrilled just to make the team,'' Fuld said. "Manny's retirement came as a shock to everyone.''
Fuld's overall performance may shock some, but nothing was more astounding than his first game at Fenway, where he'd hung out as a New Hampshire kid. Before 30 friends and family, Fuld had four extra-base hits: a homer, a triple and two doubles (a record 11 total bases for a Fenway debut). Going into his last at-bat, Fuld only needed a single to become the second Rays player after Upton to hit for a cycle, and he lined a shot into the left-field corner. While some Rays people were shouting for him to stop at first, he wouldn't think of it. Not his style. "It never really crossed me mind,'' he said. "I think that would have been pretty selfish.''
Fuld has never been considered anything but an organization and team man and he wouldn't do anything to change that. He's come this far his way, despite his short stature, intellectual upbringing in a cold locale, health concern and more. The obstacles seem too many, and too big, to overcome. "I think they're all pretty sizable,'' Fuld agreed. "I've always fought the odds against me. A little left-handed outfielder from New Hampshire is probably not going to be in the big leagues. But I thought, why not? I gave it a shot.''
Beating the long odds, Fuld said, "makes it a lot more gratifying.''
A few major leaguers have successfully battled Type 1 diabetes, such as All-Star pitcher Bill Gullickson and Cubs legend Ron Santo, but the disease is no small concern. Daily shots, which help control it, incite teasing about "shooting up'' from teammates. Fuld said, "It's something I have to be aware of. It's a big juggling act. You have to do your best to keep your blood sugar in a good solid range.''
Fuld continues to overcome, without complaint. "I had times where I was frustrated,'' he admitted. "There were moments where I thought I deserved a little better. But baseball's not fair. Realistically, not being a big prospect, I have to overachieve and outplay guys.''
So far, he is outplaying almost everyone.
2. Justin Masterson, Indians SP (4-0, 1.71 ERA). Doubts surfaced about whether he could get left-handed hitters out, but Indians people believed he just needed to become more consistent with his delivery, so he could be a viable starter and not a reliever, as some viewed him. The pitcher who came from Boston in the Victor Martinez trade has done that. "We felt he had the size, stuff and mentality to be a starting pitcher, and we felt the need to see that through,'' Indians GM Chris Antonetti said. Wise idea.
3. Maicer Izturis, Angels SS (.360 avg., 2 HR, 9 RBI). Many (including this man) questioned whether the Angels needed a better leadoff hitter. And some Angels players wondered that, as well. But Izturis is doing it all so far this year and even has a .941 OPS.
4. Pablo Sandoval, Giants 3B (.328, 5 HR, 13 RBI). The Giants challenged him to lose 40 pounds this winter and he did it though a crash course of exercise and dieting. (Under threat of demotion, Sandoval gave up the home cooking and got a nutritionist.) Looks like a new man, and he's hitting like 2009, only with more power. Good for him. Has a 1.003 OPS.
5. Jonathan Herrera, Rockies 2B (.341, 10 runs, 4 steals). The Rockies tried hard for Michael Young this winter, and at one point even had a deal in place for two young outfielders before Texas pulled back. The undersized Herrera has been superb and the Rockies lead the NL West.
6. Aaron Harang, Padres SP (4-0, 1.88). After years of being overpaid, he is now one of the more underpaid guys around. Great job by the Padres front office nabbing him up for a song ($4 million).
7. Russell Martin, Yankees C (.314, 4 HR, 11 RBI). He admitted to lacking focus the past couple years as a Dodger, and his career path appeared to be heading south. The Red Sox and Rockies showed a bit of interest, but few teams saw this sort of turnaround, Considering how Jarrod Saltalamacchia is playing, Boston might have been wiser topping the Yankees' $4 million guaranteed offer. He has caught all but one game for the Yankees thus far and has a .983 OPS
8. Howie Kendrick, Angels 2B (.289, 6 HR, 9 RBI). Folks predicted he'd win a batting title someday. But the reality is, he was looking like a pretty average major leaguer until this year's power surge. A big part of the Angels' early rejuvenation.
9. Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians SS (.269, 4 HR, 14 RBI). A major part of the Indians' shocking start, he's healthy again after never feeling quite right last year. Some say veteran Orlando Cabrera's (no relation) influence has helped, too.
10. Alexi Ogando, Rangers SP (2-0, 2.33). Never before had the converted outfielder pitched more than three innings at a time. Has a dominating fastball, but some scouts questioned whether his secondary stuff was consistent enough. Has a 0.72 WHIP.
11. Travis Hafner, Indians DH (.344, 4 HR, 10 RBI). One of the top sluggers in the game over a three-year period had fallen off the map for a few years. After four straight seasons of 100-plus RBIs, he averaged 41 RBIs the past three years. He was telling his bosses his shoulder was feeling better all winter, and the evidence appears to be in. A huge factor in the Indians' surprising start.
12. Miguel Montero, Diamondbacks C (.358, 2 HR, 7 RBI). He could always hit, but this is his best start ever. Boasts a 1.037 OPS.
13. Zach Britton, Orioles SP (3-1, 3.16). The Orioles sent him down at the end of spring to try to set his free-agent clock back a year, but the injury to Brian Matusz made it clear Britton, the team's best pitcher this spring, had to be up. Now that he's pitching just as well during the regular season, the trick for the Orioles will be to find 20 days to send him down if they can. Britton's idea is to pitch so well they are forced to keep him on the big club. "That's the plan,'' Britton said.
14. Bruce Chen, Royals SP (3-0, 2.42). After years as a journeyman, he might finally have found a home in K.C. Following a nice 2010 season, teams generally stayed away, apparently thinking it was a fluke. The Royals were the ones who knew better.
15. Peter Bourjos, Angels OF (.290, 2 HR, 8 RBI). Bourjos has played a spectacular center field, which is no surprise. What is a surprise is his eight extra-base hits, more than Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells combined.
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