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Wall Street philosophy transforms Rays

Stuart Sternberg applies Wall Street principles to baseball.

Edmund D. Fountain | Times (2006)

Stuart Sternberg applies Wall Street principles to baseball.

ST. PETERSBURG

You have come in search of a secret and instead find men willing to talk.

It sounds like an invitation, but really it's a challenge. The pursuit of a story still waiting to be fully told.

Just how did the Tampa Bay Rays go from one of the least successful franchises in history to sitting atop baseball's richest division a day before the All-Star break?

You know the roster. You know the payroll figures, and you know the competition. You know who, what, where, when and why. You know most everything there is to know, except for this one inexplicable thing.

In heaven's name, how? How did they do it?

Proprietary information, executive vice president Andrew Friedman smiles. But eventually he talks a little about it. And as you listen, you realize this is not groundbreaking stuff. It is not revolutionary, and it is not difficult to follow.

The Rays management team approached this thing like the Wall Street investors they once were. They asked a lot of questions, gathered a lot of information and found value where others failed to look.

It's not what they did to get here but rather the way they did it.

And it's not much of a secret, after all.

• • •

When you ask owner Stuart Sternberg to explain the team's philosophy, he politely suggests you're a moron.

"We all want to take something complicated and boil it down to a single concept or phrase or word," he says.

Well, okay, no pithy catchphrase. And there goes your shot at coining a new word like Moneyball.

So you tell Friedman: This philosophy of yours is almost an anti-philosophy.

"That would be fair," he says, to your utter chagrin.

It is based not so much on a single theory that must be followed at all costs but rather a handful of precepts the Rays have decided are useful. Lessons learned on Wall Street that have been refined and adapted to baseball.

• Information is king. Not just numbers — although the Rays hired a programmer to create their own database for high-end statistics — but scouts and others not afraid to offer input or ask questions and higher-ups willing to listen.

• Value vs. cost. The Rays cannot keep up with Boston or New York economically, so they have to separate themselves in other ways. This means getting value in assets that may not be as highly regarded. For instance, instead of making one big splash in free agency, finding several undervalued players (Eric Hinske, Cliff Floyd, Troy Percival) who fit precise roles that need to be filled. Or a shortstop with more range than Derek Jeter but $19.5-million a year cheaper.

• Emotional detachment. This means not falling in love with a player. Not worrying what critics might say. It may even mean refusing to give up prospects at the trading deadline even when your offense has gone in the pooper and Boston is breathing down your neck.

• Intelligent risks. This is a Sternberg speciality. "When you're on Wall Street or working on big transactions, you learn tolerance for risk," team president Matt Silverman said. "Sometimes people think of risk as a bad word. As long as you weigh it carefully, risk is necessary in order for your decisions to work out. You just want to set it up to where the potential benefits outweigh the potential risks."

Maybe there really is an identifiable philosophy here. A merging of Dow Jones and Branch Rickey.

Could this be the beginning of Ball Street?

• • •

So how does this philosophy translate to reality? It has a lot to do with trading Delmon Young, but first we have to back up a bit.

The makeover began two years earlier when Sternberg took over. The Rays had a lot of young talent but no sense of direction. So Friedman began reshaping the organization.

He traded Danys Baez for prospects. He traded Aubrey Huff for prospects. He traded Toby Hall, Mark Hendrickson and Julio Lugo for prospects. A lot of those prospects will never make it, but some have contributed in small ways (Ben Zobrist), large ways (Edwin Jackson) and even All-Star ways (Dioner Navarro).

Between the talent inherited and acquired, Friedman realized last winter the Rays were ready to take a step forward. That meant filling in particular pieces of the puzzle.

Which is where Delmon Young comes in. Or rather, where Delmon Young goes away.

You don't find too many 21-year-olds driving in 90 runs, so Young had an obvious appeal. But the Rays value hitters with a high on-base percentage and hitters who take opposing pitchers deep in the count — that was not Young. They also value happy campers here for the long haul — that was certainly not Young.

So — and here's that intelligent risk thing — they traded Young for shortstop Jason Bartlett and pitcher Matt Garza. Between acquiring Bartlett and moving Akinori Iwamura to second base, the Rays figured their middle infield defense would improve dramatically. And it has. They also figured — and here's that value vs. cost thing — they could approximate Young's offensive production with a rightfield platoon. And they have.

And they figured after the initial skepticism — here's that emotional detachment thing — the critics would eventually buy into their line of thinking. And I have.

"The Delmon trade really started our transformation because of the areas we were able to address," Friedman said. "The first two years, knowing we couldn't compete, was just collecting as many players as we could irrespective of fit. The pendulum shifted this offseason, and the emphasis became much more about constructing a 25-man roster. We felt we finally had enough talent in the organization that it was time to move past making moves in a vacuum and to start viewing all subsequent moves in the context of what it would mean in terms of run scoring and run prevention."

• • •

In the end, the trick is efficiency. Which is a rarity in this game.

With their $44-million payroll, the Rays should not be able to compete with New York's $209-million payroll. So they look for efficiency in defense and platoons and players overlooked or undervalued. And they focus more on a player's future than his past.

They also have a checks and balances system you do not often see. An owner who pushes, prods and encourages risk but does not micromanage from over his employees' shoulders. They have faith in their process, even if the results do not always bear them out.

"For us to have a chance to succeed in a sustainable way, we have to look at things differently and not be afraid to deviate from the norm," Friedman said. "We can't sit back and respond to the wisdom of the crowds."

So I guess it's not really a secret.

Just a bit of a marvel.

Wall Street philosophy transforms Rays 07/12/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 15, 2008 8:36pm]

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