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Rays' Friedman demonstrates a youthful mastery

Sometimes, a guy just has to trust his instincts.

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Sometimes, he has to weigh the possibilities. Sometimes, he has to rely on past experience. Sometimes, he has to make a trade.

All of which is why Andrew Friedman stood in a soggy clubhouse Monday night in Chicago, looking like somewhat less than a Master of the Universe and more like the kid who had delivered the champagne. The sports jacket was gone, and the shades had been put away.

Friedman, the Rays' Vice President in Charge of Raising the Dead, wore gym shorts, a T-shirt and a pair of slippers. Hey, give the guy credit. A champagne shower or two in the good clothes will teach a man to adapt.

So it was that Friedman stood on the fringes of the madness, watching his team cavort again, and just like that, it was his turn. Suddenly, he was being chased through the room by Matt Garza, part of the return for Friedman's finest trade. Garza caught him and dumped the entire bottle over Friedman's skull because, well, he could.

It was one of those fine little life-as-metaphor moments between men who had validated each other's faith in the success story of the Rays. At the time, however, Friedman didn't seem to appreciate the symbolism as much as he might have.

"I was a little cold to get into the poetic justice of it," Friedman said, laughing out loud.

Such is life for Friedman, 31, the Rays' impossibly young, impressively accomplished director of baseball operations. Every move seems to work. He is Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius. He is Young Sherlock Holmes. He is Monty Hall, and every move seems to be the Big Deal of the Day.

Now that his team has reached the American League Championship Series, you would also suggest that he has a way of stretching a dollar.

How else can you explain how a team with a $43-million payroll is the champion of a division in which opponents spend a hundred dollars for every 20 in Friedman's allowance? The Red Sox and Yankees augment their teams by throwing money at the best of the free-agent market; Friedman has built his by surrounding talented young players with the best players that Play It Again Sports has to offer.

"I'm amazed at Andrew every day," said Gerry Hunsicker, the former Astros general manager who functions as an adviser for Friedman. "He's savvy beyond his years. I've never been around anyone like that, who just came in like he did and competed against the best minds in the game."

None of us could see this coming. Sure, the Rays had some young talent when Stuart Sternberg assumed ownership of the team, but organizationally, the franchise was a mess. There wasn't enough pitching in the system. The bullpen was awful. There was no defense, no chemistry, no hope.

Even then, however, it was easy to see that Friedman had a stubborn confidence in the blueprint of the front office. What you couldn't see was that he also had a knack for plucking a bargain out of the clearance bin.

By now, everyone knows about Friedman's trade of Delmon Young for Garza and Jason Bartlett. At the time, it seemed like a bold move, one that would go a long way toward defining Friedman as a dealmaker. Looking back, it was more. It was the trade that solidified a ballclub.

And that's the thing: In Garza, too many people saw a hot-headed pitcher; Friedman saw the heat in his arm. In Bartlett, too many saw his 26 errors; Friedman saw the plays he made, too.

When Friedman is named baseball's executive of the year, and he will be, that's the trade most people will discuss. However, it was only a part of his contribution.

For instance, there was the spare outfielder in Milwaukee. The Brewers had no use for Gabe Gross, it seemed. With the Rays, he has been a solid contributor.

For instance, there was Willy Aybar, a young player who kept bumping up against trouble while with the Braves. But the Rays did their homework, and they picked up a high-contact hitter to complement a lineup where there are too many strikeouts.

For instance, there was Dioner Navarro. Perhaps you heard of him, because the team he was underachieving for was this one. But part of being a dealmaker is knowing the ones not to make, too. Last offseason, most of us were screaming for the Rays to find a catcher. They did. It was Navarro.

"Sometimes, you have stick your neck out and say, 'I believe in this kid,' " Hunsicker said.

There are others. Eric Hinske and Trever Miller and Chad Bradford. As recently as last year, Carlos Pena was a recycled player. Grant Balfour came for no more of a cost than Seth McClung. Others might have been scared by Cliff Floyd's legs or Troy Percival's arm, but Friedman knew what they could do for his clubhouse. And so on.

By and large, Friedman gets lumped into the Moneyball disciples who have turned statistical analysis into an art form. And yes, there is a lot of that going on. But Friedman is more than that. He's an information gatherer with a good instincts. And when it comes to stretching a dollar, the government should be on the phone asking for tips.

Nothing new about looking for bargains, of course. Most small-market clubs fish in the same pond. The difference is how often Friedman seems to get it right.

These days, the bullpen is better. The defense is superb. And role players seem to take turns being the star.

"It's gratifying," Friedman said. "But it's hard to get perspective when it's still going on. After the season, there will be more time to reflect."

Meanwhile, the champagne keeps flowing. These days, there seems to be a lot of it.

The Rays should put Friedman in charge of buying the stuff. Somehow, you figure he would make a good deal for it.

Rays' Friedman demonstrates a youthful mastery 10/07/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 8, 2008 1:08pm]
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