Sam Fuld's 4-year leap: From MLB player to Phillies GM (2024)

When Burke Badenhop shared a clubhouse with Sam Fuld for one season, in 2012, the two bookish players gravitated to each other. They were fringe players — a middle reliever and an extra outfielder — and they were critical thinkers. They played for the Tampa Bay Rays, a team that leaned on data-based decisions to shape the roster. It started to permeate the clubhouse walls.


The conversations were one-way exchanges — an analyst telling a player what to change. Some listened, others didn’t, and a few wanted to know more. In the years that followed, as Badenhop and Fuld retired but remained in baseball, they kept talking about it. They wondered if there was a better way. They were not alone.

“If there was no analytics when Sam and I were around, we probably wouldn’t have been overly interested in it,” Badenhop said. “And if they would have brought this around in 1996, maybe there would already be those types of GMs. There were guys in the clubhouse that were thinking that way. The stuff just wasn’t as prevalent.”

This is one way to trace how Fuld went from being on a big-league roster in 2016 to Phillies general manager before 2020 ended. His college teammates at Stanford point to the time Fuld rejected a $400,000 signing bonus from the Cubs to return for his senior year and complete his economics degree. His parents would point to a young Sam who was obsessed with baseball statistics and raised to understand probabilities. His friends point to how Fuld always had to do more with less — how he squeezed whatever athletic ability he had from his a 5-foot-9, Type 1 diabetic body.

But he’s one of just three current GMs who played in the big leagues, and 39-year-old former players with limited front-office experience are not hired as GMs in this version of baseball. As more teams resisted professional playing experience as a prerequisite for a high-level front-office job only to correct course, Fuld’s qualities attracted the sport’s Ivy League-bred GMs.

So, he had his choice of jobs once he retired. And, once he joined the Phillies in 2017, he had at least a dozen chances to leave for a promotion elsewhere. Instead, Fuld now ranks second to Dave Dombrowski in the remade Phillies operation, and the franchise hopes for Fuld to one day be in charge of it all. The brisk path that led Fuld from a career-ending injury with the A’s in 2016 to here was both predictable and surprising to those who know him.


“Well, it’s a big leap for anybody,” said Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, who considered hiring Fuld as manager this offseason. “But I think time and experience has shown in this game that there are just some people that you bet on. And when you have a special person like Sam is, more often than not, you’re not going to go wrong betting on those types of people.”

Sam Fuld's 4-year leap: From MLB player to Phillies GM (1)

Sam Fuld played for four teams during his eight-year big-league career.(Ralph Freso / Getty Images)

This is what sticks in Badenhop’s mind. As he and Fuld plotted their post-playing careers, they often spoke about where they could make the biggest difference in a front office. Badenhop, who pitched for eight seasons in the majors, is a special assistant to the general manager for the Diamondbacks. The two men knew they were popular in modern front-office circles because they checked certain boxes as smart former players. But there was more to it than that. The game has created stereotypes while groupthink is more prevalent than ever.

In Fuld, Badenhop saw someone who didn’t fit into a neat little box.

“Despite all our talk about analytics and all this stuff … dude, Sam’s a hard-nosed baseball player,” Badenhop said. “He made his name by grinding his butt. He would be loved by GMs in any day and age, right? It wouldn’t take Andrew Friedman. He probably would have played longer in the ’70s or ’80s, right?”

It started when the Phillies asked Fuld to play for them. He had a big spring for Oakland in 2016 but injured his left shoulder. Fuld needed rotator-cuff surgery, which ended his season before it began. He was a free agent the next winter. Matt Klentak contacted Fuld’s agent. The Phillies offered Fuld a minor-league deal for 2017 with an invitation to spring training.

“I remember it vividly, talking to the agent and being very honest,” said Klentak, the team’s former GM. “Like, ‘Look, we’d love to have him compete for a spot on our club. But I’m really intrigued about getting to know this guy and what it could mean for his post-playing career.”


“I was laser-focused on getting back to being healthy and continue my playing career,” Fuld said. “But along the way, you go through a rehab process and your mind goes in a lot of different directions. One natural direction was, ‘OK, what do I really want to do?’ And I read “Moneyball” 10 years prior and that was in some ways when the light bulb went off, recognizing my interests connected with Major League Baseball’s interests.”

Fuld never signed. He played for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic, and that was that. His agent told teams Fuld wanted to stay in the game somehow — but not before taking the summer to be a dad first.

“So I kind of made it my mission,” Klentak said. “I was going to recruit him all summer. And not in an obnoxious way. I’m not like that abrasive. But just, like, I’m not going to let this guy forget about us.”

They emailed and talked all summer. At one point, Fuld came to visit Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies knew he was talking to other teams about a job — the Rays, Dodgers and Indians among them. But location was important and Philadelphia had the advantage of being closer to home (New Hampshire) for Fuld and his wife, Sarah.

Fuld delayed his decision; he didn’t feel like had to take the first job.

“He lets things naturally play out better than most pro athletes,” said David O’Hagan, Fuld’s former teammate at Stanford. “You know, there’s an anxiety with a lot of pro athletes, which is totally understandable. The stakes are high. But I think that has helped him in this case, as far as progressing so quickly. He’s very focused on the task at hand.”

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Sam Fuld slides back into first base during a World Baseball Classic game. (Shizuo Kambayashi / Associated Press)

Once the Phillies hired Gabe Kapler as manager before the 2018 season, Fuld was sold. He thought he could have some influence on the franchise’s direction.

“I didn’t know what job to give him,” Klentak said. “Like, still to this day, I think he could do just about any job. And, you know, he’s the GM now.”


After his first season as a conduit between the Phillies front office and clubhouse, with a focus on making those data-driven suggestions more of a two-way conversation, teams started calling. They wanted to interview Fuld for bench coach or farm director or even manager.

But Fuld declined most of the requests. His family settled in Philadelphia and they liked it. He knew he could leave if he ever wanted to leave. Twice, he actually considered it. The first time was when the Blue Jays interviewed him for their manager job after the 2018 season. Fuld interviewed, then removed himself from contention. The Blue Jays were confused; someone from their front office called Klentak.

“What is he doing?” Klentak remembered them telling him. “He shouldn’t bail. He’s doing great. He might get this job.”

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Sam Fuld in 2019. (Kim Klement / USA Today)

Then, earlier this offseason, Fuld was a finalist to manage the Red Sox. He knew and trusted Bloom from their days together in Tampa Bay when Bloom was a mid-level executive who befriended the approachable role player. Fuld grew up a Red Sox fan. The uncertain situation in Philadelphia after Klentak’s demotion along with the allure of the Boston job made it an enticing opportunity. But the job went to Alex Cora.

After the Phillies hired Fuld as GM, he cited the blurred lines between the manager and front office. There are points in the game’s history when this dynamic was common. Bobby Cox was a successful GM before he found fame as the Braves manager. Once upon a time, many GMs were managers before ascending to a front-office role.

The ability to imagine Fuld in either role, Bloom said, was a testament to how he’s wired.

“It’s clear early on in a conversation with him how intelligent he is,” Bloom said. “It’s clear how good a conversationalist he is. But he’s also very engaged. He wants to learn from every conversation. He is really invested in every interaction that he has. And he makes you understand when you’re talking to him, that he’s really listening to you, and that he cares about what you’re talking about.”

Fuld will not have the typical powers bestowed to a GM because Dombrowski is in charge as president of baseball operations and will have the final say. But, while Dombrowski’s passion is in constructing the big-league roster, Fuld will have the latitude to focus on the details.

That will require better communication, better leadership and a more inclusive operation than before. Fuld saw the cracks from the ground level, then higher as he became a more influential voice last season while running the Phillies’ new sports science department. But Fuld has never run a department larger than three people and he did that for a year. He has never executed a trade or negotiated a contract with a free agent. He has never had to release someone. The learning curve is steep, although the Phillies have arranged a structure that permits Fuld to grow into it. He didn’t ascend in the organization in a traditional manner, but he also can say he was a 10th-round pick who signed for $25,000 and always had to have backup plans in his mind.

“If I’m being honest,” Fuld said, “it’s something I was probably forced to think about at the beginning of my career because I had no idea how long my career was going to last.”

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Sam Fuld runs the bases in 2015, the final season of his career. (Michael Zagaris / Oakland Athletics / Getty Images)

Dusty Wathan, the Phillies’ third-base coach who shared a coaches’ room with Fuld for two seasons, watched Fuld establish the kind of connections that aren’t formed in an office.

“He can talk to everybody from the top of the chain to the bottom of the chain, and make everybody feel comfortable,” Wathan said. “And I think that’s a very special quality to have in a guy that’s going to be in a huge leadership role.”


O’Hagan, who later became Fuld’s agent, said Stanford teammates looked to Fuld as “sort of like a beacon” even when they were 18 and 19 years old. He is the son of a state senator and a psychology professor, and there was something about Fuld that couldn’t be faked.

“If you combine his level of poise, intelligence and overall compassion, it’s a rare combination, right?” O’Hagan said. “You run into people that are super driven, but then you wonder: What are they willing to do to get the result they want?”

It’s harder to motivate players from the GM chair, but getting them to buy into the Phillies’ way — whatever that is — is important. Fuld’s task is to refine the process that resulted in underperformance up and down the organization. It starts with Dombrowski’s lead; the smaller details are Fuld’s realm.

“Oh, I think he’s got a pretty good perspective,” Badenhop said. “I mean, what, Sam’s 5-foot-8? No different than not being a prospect to carving out a career in the major leagues. Those types of guys just win. He’s really able to communicate. He’s really able to boil things down to the basic parts. I find with a lot of guys that are much smarter than me that they can see things at a much more basic level.

“Sam Fuld was a good baseball player. And analytics just happened to come along and he’s also good at that, too.”

(Top photo: Scott Sewell / Icon Sportswire / Corbis via Getty Images)

Sam Fuld's 4-year leap: From MLB player to Phillies GM (5)Sam Fuld's 4-year leap: From MLB player to Phillies GM (6)

Matt Gelb is a senior writer for The Athletic covering the Philadelphia Phillies. He has covered the team since 2010 while at The Philadelphia Inquirer, including a yearlong pause from baseball as a reporter on the city desk. He is a graduate of Syracuse University and Central Bucks High School West.

Sam Fuld's 4-year leap: From MLB player to Phillies GM (2024)


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