By Matthew Harrington
When the Oakland Athletics dealt power-hitting prospect Michael Choice to the Texas Rangers for Josh Lindblom and outfielder Craig Gentry, the idea was that Gentry would serve as the team’s fourth outfielder. Gentry brought all the requisite skills; the ability to play all three positions, a proven track record performing in the role and faith in management that the role was his to lose. Now, with Gentry ready to return from the disabled list potentially as soon as Saturday fresh, the A’s have a tough decision on their hands. What do they do with their bench when everyone is healthy?
The platoon in place at catcher means both backstops are safe, not that John Jaso or Derek Norris would have been a victim of a crowded bench in the first place thanks to their offensive profiles. Nick Punto brings the intangibles, representing the type of glue guy franchises need in the club house if they hope to survive the 162-game grind with morale intact. Alberto Callaspo, who made his debut at first base in Tuesday’s afternoon half of the doubleheader, now boasts experience at every position on the diamond except catcher, pitcher and center field. The switch hitter stands firmly entrenched as the right-handed bat in a right-left platoon with Daric Barton at first. That leaves fourth outfielder Sam Fuld as the odd man out.
Fuld came to Spring Training a minor league free-agent competing for a position on the Major League roster that he was far from first in line for. The A’s gave prospect Billy Burns, possessor of plus-speed and the eye at the plate Billy Beane adores, an extensive look with 72 spring at-bats over 26 games. The speedster did not disappoint, pilfering 10 bases to pace the green and gold in Arizona while producing a .370 on-base percentage. Gentry, of course, was acquired to be the man off the bench to patrol the grass at O.Co Coliseum and every sign still points at him filling the role. His spot on the roster were only slightly derailed by a lower back strain. There was also always the option that Beane and co. would stick with no true fourth outfielder, electing to have Callaspo or first baseman/designated hitter Brandon Moss, who broke into the majors as an outfielder with the Boston Red Sox, spelling Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes when one of the triumvirate needs a breather.
Instead, the A’s saw something in Fuld, who hit a respectable .271 (abeit, less impressive than Burns .306 mark) with a .348 OBP in 59 preseason at-bats. The veteran outfielder, a product of Stanford University, led Oakland with four triples in the valley of the Sun. His March performance landed the 32-year -old a roster spot on Opening Day for just the third time in his seven seasons at the Major League level, not counting the 2008 season when he didn’t play above the AAA level. He’s certainly the one slated to head to the Sacramento Rivercats, if not elsewhere in the bigs, but he’s done nothing but excite in his time in Alameda County. If he hasn’t won a permanent spot in Oakland, he’s certainly shown value to the 29 other general managers in the league.
The compact left-hander, in hitting and throwing alike, has sparked the A’s offense in the leadoff spot when the coaching staff grants Coco Crisp a day of rest, something they plan on doing often this season for late-season preservation. Fuld currently sits behind only Callaspo, buoyed by the lone A’s home run of the season, in slugging percentage and OPS. Fuld is tied for second on the team in RBI’s with two, though five other Athletics have a pair as well. Fuld was denied another Thursday night when attempting to stretch an RBI triple into an inside-the-park homer proved ill-advised.
The 5-foot-10 journeyman with a career .235 batting average and only two seasons of 100-plus games-played may not be in the plans full-time for Oakland, but as long as he can produce like he is Fuld deserves a roster spot.
Every time number 29 steps to the plate or has a ball hit his way elicits an excitement that something electric is happening. He’s the one-man rally, the highlight reel grab, the game-changer in every sense of the word. It’s no wonder that he’s gained a cult-level status in his stops in Chicago and Tampa Bay. Rays fans watched the phenomena that was Fuld, dubbing the outfielder’s blossoming the so-called “Legend of Sam Fuld”. He soon saw his status elevated to tall-tale heights, with Chuck Norris jokes being altered to feature Fuld as the larger-than-life protagonist in Norris’ stead.
The Oakland A’s are now 2-0 when Bob Melvin pencils Fuld into the starting line-up. Perhaps it’s coincidence. Perhaps a season of Fuld can lift the Athletics over the playoff hump and bring the East Bay its first World Series title since 1989. Fuld’s future in the clubhouse at 7000 Coliseum way remains uncertain, but one thing is. A’s supporters would gladly watch Fuld’s legacy expand over this season over the likes of Punto or Gentry if it involves bringing the A’s more wins and some hardware in October.