Andrew Friedman, we learned Wednesday, is changing coasts. He’s giving up the general managership of the penurious Tampa Bay Rays, who buy their rosin bags at Play It Again Sam, to take the same job with the preposterously flush Los Angeles Dodgers. Talk about a change of cultures.
Baseball wunderkind Friedman, who at 37 is as preposterously young as his new employer is rich, is leaving the peaceful backwaters of Tampa/St. Petersburg to swim with the sharks in La-La Land. It’s quite an opportunity. But his mother has every right to be worried. There will be much more money in L.A. And much more pressure.
Going from the Rays, who have to swap money around various accounts at the first of each month to keep the lights on, to the Dodgers, where the GM’s office is supplied with a legal tender printing press, Friedman is in danger of getting the bends. And just how Friedman, whose baseball talent has been getting something for next to nothing — or at least next to nothing as these things are measured in major league sports — is to fit in at a checkbook franchise, is not yet clear.
But it’s clear enough why Nick Colletti, Dodger GM for the last nine years, has been kicked sideways (to put it charitably) to the position of senior advisor. (Translation: set up shop in the small office next to the broom closet and speak when spoken to.) In any major league sport, when one is given all the money in the world to produce a champion, the only possible job security is to produce a champion. There hasn’t been one of those in L.A. since 1988.
Rays president Matt Silverman will take over Friedman’s GM duties. Silverman, along with Friedman and owner Stuart Sternberg, is one of the three “peppy Preppies,” three Wall Street guys with Ivy League degrees who assumed leadership of the Rays in 2007. They saved it from Vince Namoli, one of the worst owners in baseball history. And that’s a league with some strong players.
At $280 million, the 2014 Dodgers player payroll exceeded the GDP of a dozen or so countries in the UN. It was more than Bill Gates keeps in his sport coat pockets, a small multiple of Obama’s greens fees, and about as much as the federal government wastes per minute. It was also a Major League record. This extravagant outlay only bought the Dodgers a visit to the National League Division Series, where the St. Louis Cardinals easily dealt with them, three games to one. At $280 million per post season win, even the richest sports franchise on the planet can’t stay in business long.
At $76 million, the largest player payroll in franchise history, the 2014 Rays got by on little more than a quarter of the Dodgers’ player outlay. This brought the Rays a 77-86 finish, only the second losing season in Friedman’s nine years as the Rays’ baseball boss. During the Friedman administration, the Rays enjoyed one World Series appearance, losing to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008, and four playoff appearances, all on shoestring budgets. The Rays won the 2008 American league pennant with the lowest payroll in the AL. Were there a baseball stat called bang-for-the-salary-buck, the Rays would have led the universe in it during most of Friedman’s years.
Thanks to Tampa’s small market TV contract and anemic attendance, Friedman never had the money to sign pricey free agents, which may have been just as well. While some wine gets better with age, most baseball players just get more expensive (see Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, et al.). Worse yet, Friedman couldn’t keep stars the Rays had developed when they reached their free agency year. So Rays fans had to say goodbye to such productive favorites as Carl Crawford, James Shields, and David Price. The Rays pieced together winners with young players they developed, “prospects” they picked up from other teams when unloading their too-expensive-to-keep vets, and smart trades for role players who contributed and then moved on. Rays fans fondly remember guys like Eric Aybar, Sam Fuld, Raphael Soriano, Johnny Damon, and Fernando Rodney.
Friedman managed to attract some fine players to the Rays, including but not limited to Ben Zobrist, Carlos Pena, Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, and Wil Myers. The team also grew its own, including Evan Longoria, whom Friedman was able to sign to an affordable long-term contract. But there were a few mistakes along the way as well. The Rays top pick in the 2008 draft was Tim Beckham, who so far has played five games in the bigs. To sign Beckham, the Rays passed on Buster Posey, the Giants all-star catcher who has won a batting championship, an MVP award, and can choose which of two World Series rings he wishes to wear.
We know Friedman has worked wonders for a small market team that has impressed the baseball world because it wasn’t supposed to win as much as it did between 2008 and 2013. We’ll have to wait to see what he can do with a rich, mega-market team that ownership and lots of Angelinos expect to win. Baseball in Los Angeles is not the laid back business one might conclude from listening to the soothing tones of Vin Scully, turning a baseball game into poetry on a soft summer night.
Good luck, Andrew. Don’t forget to call your mother.
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