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John Romano: Baseball's top free agent is Tampa Bay Rays VP Andrew Friedman

A persistent rumor has Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman a possible target of his hometown Astros.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2008)

A persistent rumor has Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman a possible target of his hometown Astros.

ST. PETERSBURG — In his contract year, Prince Fielder is on pace to hit around .300 with 40 home runs. And he is not the free agent I would chase this offseason.

In the final year of his deal, Jose Reyes is leading the National League in hitting and has 30 stolen bases by the All-Star break. And he would not be the object of my winter affection.

C.J. Wilson, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell are scheduled to be free agents in a few months, and none of them would be at the top of my list.

In some ways, the most intriguing free agent in baseball is a guy who neither pitches, hits nor runs the bases. He has been operating without a contract for the past six years and keeps his profile undercover as much as possible.

Yet he has taken a franchise that had one of the lowest payrolls in the majors in 2010, lopped off another 40 percent worth of salaries for 2011, and has that team playing a series in Yankee Stadium this weekend with playoff possibilities in the air.

Is there any wonder Andrew Friedman has dream-date status in his hometown of Houston?

The Rays' executive vice president remains at the center of a rumor that simply won't die. From newspaper columns to blogs to TV commentators to Twitter there seems to be hopeful, and giddy, speculation that incoming Astros owner Jim Crane is infatuated with the idea of bringing Friedman back home.

So would Friedman be willing to take Crane's phone call when the businessman's purchase is approved by Major League Baseball in the coming weeks?

Has Rays president Matt Silverman, who was responsible for introducing Friedman to owner Stuart Sternberg years ago, had earnest conversations about it with his longtime friend?

Is Sternberg even remotely worried about the rumors?

As far as the public is concerned, there are no answers, because Friedman, Silverman and Sternberg declined to talk about it Thursday.

Now you might consider that a bit suspicious when the rumors could be put to rest with the right statement or two.

Or you could look at it as another example of the unique relationship shared among the three men and interpret it as a sign that they forever remain on the same page.

And that, more than anything, will keep Friedman in Tampa Bay.

I don't think he will stay because the farm system is ripe. I don't think he will stay because the American League East is baseball's greatest challenge. I don't even think it will take the offer of a contract that he has never had with the Rays.

Friedman will stay because he will never find another working relationship quite like the one he has with Silverman and Sternberg. It is not just that he has autonomy, which he does. And it is not just that the three arrived with similar work backgrounds, which they did.

The key is that they think alike. They share philosophical views. They are comfortable with one another, and that exists on a level well beyond the boxscore.

Think about the moves this organization has made. Think about Friedman trading Scott Kazmir in the middle of a pennant race and Sternberg not worrying about a public backlash. Think about the Pat Burrell signing that helped torpedo the 2009 season but was never second-guessed by Sternberg.

Think about Sternberg approving the payroll-busting trade for Rafael Soriano in 2010, and think about Friedman never complaining about the cuts that resulted in 2011.

The three have never jockeyed for credit or ducked responsibility, and those are traits more rare than you could ever imagine in this game.

So, no, I don't think Friedman is looking for a greener lawn.

The only wild card is how determined Crane might be. And perhaps whether he might be willing to offer Friedman the type of ownership stake VP-GM Billy Beane has in Oakland.

Because trust me, Friedman is worth it. If you don't grasp how remarkable it is that the Rays won an AL pennant with a $43 million payroll in 2008, or came back to beat the Red Sox and Yankees again in the AL East in 2010, or jettisoned the seven highest-paid players on their roster and still remain in contention in 2011, then you're following the wrong sport.

Players come and go, and even the very best have an impact of no more than 10 or so victories a season. Friedman's impact in Tampa Bay has been larger than that.

And if the Rays are lucky, it will continue for a long time to come.

John Romano: Baseball's top free agent is Tampa Bay Rays VP Andrew Friedman 07/07/11 [Last modified: Thursday, July 7, 2011 11:55pm]

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