ST. PETERSBURG — The centerfielder needs to be better. A lot better. The catcher needs to improve, too. As for the DH, the best thing he can do for Tampa Bay in 2010 is put on the uniform of another team.
No doubt about it, the list of breakdowns around Tropicana Field was neither short nor lacking in star power. But of all the Rays who need to bounce back from slumps in 2009, there is one who is more important than the rest:
The guy calling the shots.
For the longest time, Andrew Friedman looked like the biggest brain in the room whenever baseball's general managers would get together in the offseason. He pulled Carlos Peña off a scrap heap. He stole J.P. Howell from Kansas City. He landed Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett and, because of that, the Rays became the first team in the free-agent era to win a pennant while having the smallest payroll in the league.
It was as if Friedman had figured out all the answers, and other GMs were straining to peek at his homework. But somewhere between the end of the 2008 World Series and the beginning of the 2009 regular season, Friedman's hot streak came to an end.
It wasn't immediately obvious. In fact, several offseason moves won rave reviews at the time. But, as it turns out, Friedman made a handful of decisions that, in retrospect, can be put down as obvious mistakes.
So is he at fault for the shortcomings of '09?
Partially, sure. He was the one in charge of shaping the roster to make it better, and it turned out to be worse. On the other hand, it wasn't Friedman's fault that B.J. Upton, Dioner Navarro and Andy Sonnanstine were huge disappointments. It wasn't his fault that Grant Balfour was less dominant, or that Garza and James Shields did not take expected steps forward.
In other words, there is plenty of disappointment to go around. The difference with Friedman is that it was more unexpected than the rest. In his case, it was like watching a magic routine go horribly wrong. Friedman had been so right on so many decisions, you could hardly believe that, this time, there was no rabbit coming out of the hat.
The most blatant screwup, naturally, is the signing of DH Pat Burrell. Not that Friedman was the only one fooled in this case. When Burrell signed a two-year, $16 million deal, it immediately went to the top of a lot of critics' lists as one of the best bargains of the offseason.
That the critics were wrong was embarrassing. That Friedman was wrong was devastating.
What was the problem with the deal?
It could be that Burrell was ill-suited to play in the American League, and there was some evidence of that ahead of time. In the three previous seasons, Burrell had hit .173 with a .361 slugging percentage in inter-league games. As if on cue, he hit .225 with a .374 slugging percentage against AL pitchers this season.
Or it could be that Burrell came into the season noticeably heavier, and his lack of proper conditioning cost him dearly. If that's the case, there is the hope he might rededicate himself in the final year of a contract and bounce back in better shape in 2010.
But there is still the little problem of a .226 batting average and .380 slugging percentage in more than 800 career at-bats against AL pitching. The bottom line is this was an expensive mistake for a team that cannot afford to waste money.
The Burrell contract was easily the most recognizable goof, but there were also problems with the bullpen. Whether you agree or disagree with Friedman's philosophy that closers are overvalued and overpaid, there were simply not enough quality arms to get through the later innings. The signing of Joe Nelson was a mistake, and Brian Shouse's deal was not much better.
One of the most popular criticisms of Friedman was the trade of Edwin Jackson for Matt Joyce, but I don't buy that one. At least not yet. The deal made sense at the time, and there was no way to predict both Sonnanstine and Scott Kazmir would blow up.
If Jackson had remained in the Rays rotation, Jeff Niemann would have either been traded or sent to the bullpen. As it turns out, Niemann's numbers (13-6, 3.94 ERA) were similar to what Jackson (13-9, 3.62 ERA) did in Detroit. So, in a sense, the trade is a wash and the Rays still have Joyce penciled in for rightfield next year.
On the other hand, I would agree that the front office did not put enough faith in the idea of clubhouse chemistry. It is one thing to plug numbers in a lineup and expect a certain outcome, but you cannot discount the emotional element of 25 guys working, traveling and living together. Losing Cliff Floyd, Jonny Gomes, Eric Hinske, Rocco Baldelli and Troy Percival had an impact. Can it be proven? No. Can it be quantified? No. But I can tell you there are people in the clubhouse who absolutely believe it was a factor.
So does all of this add up to a stinging indictment of Friedman's job performance?
Not really. Mistakes were made, but Friedman's successes still outweigh his failures in recent years.
The problem is Friedman has to be better. Better than Brian Cashman. Better than Theo Epstein. The GMs in New York and Boston can afford to make more mistakes because their owners can afford to cover them up with cash. It's not fair, but it's reality.
Which brings us here, a few weeks away from the official start of the next offseason.
And the Rays cannot afford another slump in the front office.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org