Friedman showing flashes of ingenuity

Published June 24, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - He is not yet a genius. No author has immortalized his baseball acumen in a book Ball Street: The Story of How a Financial Whiz Went From the Stock Market to the Pennant, and his team still hovers near last place.

His bullpen should come with a warning label, and he has not discovered the cure for the common hamstring pull.

Yet, 20 months into Andrew Friedman's tenure at the head of the Devil Rays front office, you find yourself nodding in agreement.

Yup, the kid has done all right.

Under the 30-year-old Friedman's direction, the Rays are showing signs of the kind of low-revenue, high-yield production that has made Oakland and Minnesota unlikely contenders and made stars of GMs Billy Beane and Terry Ryan.

It is an easy formula to explain but nearly impossible to pull off. All you have to do is find players few others want, pay them low salaries and get them to perform as if they belong on an All-Star ballot. And, oh yeah, make sure you do not get stuck in the kind of undesirable contracts that give owners the shivers.

To Friedman's credit, this is exactly what he has done the past year and a half. Brendan Harris, Aki Iwamura, Greg Norton, Carlos Pena, Al Reyes and Ty Wigginton came aboard with relatively little fanfare but have added considerable production.

If Pena was not the best value for a free agent acquisition in Major League Baseball last winter, it's only because Reyes was. While the Red Sox laid out about $100-million for Japan's premier free agent Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Rays got better value for the $13-million or so spent on Iwamura.

Of equal importance are the contracts Friedman has avoided. You may not have liked the idea of waving goodbye to Julio Lugo or Aubrey Huff, but owner Stu Sternberg is fortunate the Rays did not throw blank checks at those guys.

Compare it yourself:

Going into Saturday night, Huff was hitting .273 with four homers and 32 RBIs in Baltimore. Pena was hitting .302 with 17 homers and 44 RBIs. Better yet, Huff has a three-year, $20-million contract. Pena is making $800, 000 with $400, 000 in incentives and is not eligible for free agency until 2010.

How about this one:

Lugo was hitting .198 with four homers and 34 RBIs in Boston. Harris was hitting .310 with eight homers and 32 RBIs. Lugo is in the first year of a four-year, $36-million contract. Harris is making $390, 000 and is not eligible for free agency until 2013.

Okay, one more:

Danys Baez was 0-4 with a 6.52 ERA and no saves in Baltimore. Reyes was 1-1 with a 3.26 ERA and 16 saves. Baez has a three-year, $19-million contract. With incentives, Reyes should make $1.5-million this year and $2-million next year.

There is a good chance these numbers will not hold up all season. The Rays may have a hiccup or two, and Lugo will certainly play better.

But the point is the Rays are better off because they have younger, low-salaried players who will remain in the team's control for years to come.

"You can look around the game at lower-revenue teams and see some of the difficulties they've had when getting into long-term deals, " Friedman said. "It's just very difficult to forecast what's going to happen next year much less four or five years down the road.

"So maintaining that roster flexibility is imperative for us. We can't get caught up in name cachet as much as in the potential production of a player."

In plain terms, this means the Rays cannot afford another Wilson Alvarez or Greg Vaughn. For a team with limited resources, those types of contracts can affect the bottom line for years.

"We will make mistakes, but we do not have the luxury of surviving big mistakes, " team president Matt Silverman said. "One of Stu's adages is we can't bet the ranch. We can bet the garage, because it's all right if you lose the garage, but if you lose the ranch, you're not left with much."

So the Rays have to be creative. They have to look in the free agent market and see a former prized prospect such as Pena and wonder if teams didn't give up too soon on him. They have to see an older reliever coming off surgery such as Reyes and wonder if he won't return to his preinjury performance.

"We have to do things differently. We have to take chances, " Friedman said. "Or else, we'll finish behind every year."

Of course, there is still another step to be taken. You can only come up with so many bargain-basement steals. At some point, your top draft picks (Jeff Niemann, Evan Longoria, David Price) have to come through, and you have to pick the right high-priced free agents to put your roster over the top.

And Friedman acknowledges his team of scouts and stat-heads have not done as well uncovering hidden gems on the mound as they have with the rest of the lineup.

Still, you can see the franchise inching closer. You can envision a scenario, with the right offseason moves, where the Rays are a summer away from .500.

The Rays will never compete with the $190-million or so the Yankees are spending, but that may not be necessary. The Yankees, just by their nature, will always have dead weight on the payroll. They will always underachieve.

The trick for the Rays is to meet the Yankees and Red Sox in the middle. And the only way is to have a payroll that overachieves.

Are they there yet? Nope.

But Friedman has you thinking it could be a possibility.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8811.