Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you know that Manny Ramirez retired on Friday after testing positive for performance enhancing drugs for a second time. He was facing a 100 game suspension, but opted to retire instead of dealing with that. In the short term, Manny’s new club, the Tampa Bay Rays, is absolutely crushed by this. The Rays brought Manny in this offseason to be the driving force of their offense at DH, a position that has been lacking for the team for years. Last season, the Rays trotted out guys like Dan Johnson, Hank Blalock, and a pre-resurgent Pat Burrell at that position, and they completely tanked. Manny was supposed to be the answer for Tampa Bay, but instead, he became part of the problem and his Rays career lasted only five games. How much will losing Ramirez really sink the Rays’ ship?
When Ramirez retired, the Rays immediately went into panic mode. The logical move seemed to be bringing up top prospect Desmond Jennings, who many predicted would win a spot coming out of camp, and move left fielder Johnny Damon to the DH position. Well, the Rays went in another direction. They instead promoted Casey Kotchman from AAA Durham, and shifted Dan Johnson to the DH role while Kotchman took over at first. My immediate reaction to this news? “Oh my god, what the hell are they doing?!”
I’m a Braves fan, and I suffered through a year of Casey Kotchman. The guy is not a major league hitter. And here we are, with the Rays sitting at 2-8, and Kotchman at a position on the field known for its power more than its defense. Kotchman is known for his defense, and not his bad. That does not seem like a good combination. Thankfully for Rays fans, manager Joe Maddon is a smart man. He probably realizes that Kotchman isn’t the best hitter, and shouldn’t be playing every day. So what Maddon is doing is going with the hot hand. That hot hand right now is leading the team with a 1.030 OPS, and his name is Sam Fuld.
You may remember Fuld from a failed stint with the Cubs over the last three seasons. He never really got a chance with Chicago, and caught on with the Rays this offseason. Fuld is rewarding the Rays patience with a blisting start, to the tune of a 1.030 OPS and five stolen bases already this year. Can he keep it up? Well, I’m going to go out on a limb and tell you that Fuld is not going to have an OPS four digits long for much of the season. But can he be a solid contributor for the Rays in 2011, much like Ben Zobrist was when he broke out of his shell in 2009? Sure, I think he can.
Fuld spent parts of the last four season in AAA Iowa with the Cubs. In each of those years, he walked more than he struck out, showed decent speed and awareness on the basepaths, but middling power. He never really got a chance to show the Cubs what he could do at the plate, because they were so focused on paying eight or nine figures to outfielders who hadn’t really proven they were worth that much (SEE: Soriano, Alfonso. Bradley, Milton. Fukudome, Kosuke). The Cubs loss could be the Rays gain.
It’s not totally out of the realm of possibility for Fuld to be a solid contributor to this Rays team. I personally think he’ll pan out and be worth something to them this season. He’s playing his way into the hearts of fans across the country with his timely hitting and web gem level defense (amazing diving catches over the weekend have opened people’s eyes towards Fuld). But is he going to be Manny Ramirez? Even if Ramirez’s stats fell 10% across the board from 2010 to 2011, that’s still a .780 OPS,and those stats come without the harm he does playing the outfield. If Fuld is able to do that with the bat, and provide plus defense, he could be a huge upgrade over Ramirez. Putting Fuld in the field allows Johnny Damon and his deteriorating glove is a win no matter how you slice it, even if Fuld is only average out there.
Just whatever you do Rays fans, hope and pray that Casey Kotchman doesn’t get more than 200 at bats. He is definitely not the answer you’re looking for.