Rays' astute moves take them from cellar to summit
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- In June 1999, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays selected outfielder Carl Crawford in the second round of the Major League Baseball draft. That same summer, a young Tulane University graduate named Andrew Friedman went to work as an analyst for the investment banking firm Bear Stearns in New York.The Rays' home park, Tropicana Field, is generally regarded as substandard. They have the second smallest season-ticket base in the game, and nobody knows if they'll eventually land in the new ballpark they so greatly desire. As principal owner Stuart Sternberg likes to say, "We're in the baseball business, not the stadium-building business." But say this for the Rays: They've made the most of a decade worth of suffering. Like their World Series counterparts, the Phillies, the Rays have mined a mother lode of talent through the draft. Of the 25 players on Tampa Bay's American League Championship Series roster, only eight were signed and developed from within. But they were all significant contributors. The list includes former first-round picks B.J. Upton, Rocco Baldelli, Evan Longoria and David Price, all of whom were chosen among the first six picks because the Rays had finished so low in the standings. But Tampa's draft hauls also included such hidden gems as pitchers James Shields (16th round) and Andy Sonnanstine (13th round). Crawford, Baldelli, Upton and Shields were all selected by Dan Jennings, Tampa Bay's former scouting director, who has since moved on to a position as assistant general manager in Florida. And they all fit Jennings' core philosophy, which was to disdain "safe" picks for players with higher ceilings. "The organization gave us a clean canvas and a chance to paint, and we poured everything we had into it," Jennings said in a phone interview. "We always looked for athletic players who were more high-risk, high-reward. We always tried to stay away from what they call 'cute little players' and go for impact guys."[+] EnlargeRich Pilling/Getty ImagesMost of Andrew Friedman's moves have paid off for the Rays since he took over as GM in 2005.
LaMar scouting former team
The Phillies recently dispatched a team of scouts to follow the Red Sox and Rays and file reports in preparation for the World Series. In a novel twist, the man overseeing the group had more than a passing acquaintance with the baseball scene in Tampa Bay.
-- Jerry Crasnick
Andrew [Friedman] is an opportunist. He's always looking to make improvements within the club. Some are major leaps and require risk, and others are things on the margin. Oftentimes, it's those decisions that make the difference in the end.
--Rays president Matt Silverman
"I was disappointed for about three to five minutes until I got on the phone with Andrew Friedman," Garza said. "He was so energetic and excited to get me and bring me in, and that made me feel right at home."
Friedman's biggest strengths, according to those who've worked closely with him, are his ability to listen and incorporate the opinions of others. Former Houston general manager Gerry Hunsicker, for example, has played an important role as an adviser and experienced sounding board in Tampa. Friedman is also progressive enough to have a healthy respect for statistical analysis and the opinions of the scouts.
"Andrew is an opportunist," said Rays president Matt Silverman. "He's always looking to make improvements within the club. Some are major leaps and require risk, and others are things on the margin. Oftentimes, it's those decisions that make the difference in the end."
The Rays haven't quite reached the end, but the run up to it sure has been fun. They've outlasted the American League East, the White Sox and the Red Sox, and now they've officially emerged as ready-for-prime-time players. It's the beginning of a bull market for baseball in Tampa Bay.Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.
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