If there's one tenet to the Church of Rays Baseball, it's that Andrew Friedman is the one, true Almighty. He has led our franchise to the Promised Land, and he can do no wrong. The only thing more powerful than his golden calculator is his brain. Question his logic and decision-making at your own peril.
I'm exaggerating, but we all know it's true; it's difficult to find fault with Friedman. He draws praise from all over the baseball landscape for his prowess at building a roster on a budget, and he's turned the Rays into a juggernaut of talent. Sure, he's had a couple moves that were stinkers, but they get drowned out by the overwhelming majority of his deals that turn out favorable for the Rays.
But everybody has their vices. I'm constantly fighting my inner procrastinator, and I have an unhealthy addiction with superlatives in my writing and speech. Surely even Friedman can't be perfect, right? Even he has to make mistakes every now and then...I think?
In the wake of the Anthony Rizzo trade, this question keeps popping up in my head. And not solely because of the trade; this topic was bandied about on Twitter last week after Jonah Keri published a piece on Grantland about small-market teams. His article made a number of different points, but the overriding theme was that small-market teams don't need to operate like they only have a "window" of success before rebuilding again; if teams were as smart as the Rays, they could continuously build and sustain their success nigh indefinitely.
In other words, Billy Beane can't shake a stick at Andrew Friedman. He may have led the A's on an eight-year run of success, but the A's are now poised for their sixth-straight season finishing at or below .500. Is Beane a classic example of "Even smart guys can make mistakes (and get unlucky)", or has Friedman taken Beane's Moneyball idea and crafted it into its purest, most perfect form?
Obviously, the only way to get a true answer to these questions is to have a time machine. As much as it's fun to compare Beane and Friedman, the Rays have only been a successful team for four seasons; Beane's A's didn't win fewer than 87 games for eight seasons in a row (albeit in a weaker division and in a less enlightened era). As of now, the Rays may look poised to continue with their success for year and year to come, but who knows what may happen? Some bad injury luck here, a couple of fizzled prospects there -- and just like that, we could be singing a different song.
The Rays are still walking a narrow tightrope, and to ignore that fact downplays how impressive their current success is. They may have one of the smartest front offices in baseball, and maybe Josh Kalk has helped them discovered some tricks to keep their pitchers healthier than most. But when your margin for success is so slim, eventually bad luck is going to catch up with you. Even the most cerebral poker players lose sometimes.
This brings me back to my first question: does Friedman have a weakness? I think if you were to poll the community here, we'd come up with one common answer: if he does, it's that he's too patient. Too stingy with his prospects. He clings onto minor league players like a hoarder does to old magazines, to the point where he won't roll the dice on acquiring a player like Anthony Rizzo or Brendon Allen. Both these players were acquired relatively cheaply; the Rays could have afforded any of them without scratching the surface of their minor league depth. And yet, despite that they play a position of need for the Rays, Friedman passed on them both.
I don't think this is a simply a case of fans being unreasonable and impatient. Kevin Goldstein has opined on a number of occasions this same complaint about Friedman, and it's not like we were out on a limb on choosing trade targets (just ask Goldstein, Baseball America, Keith Law, etc.). We can appeal to authority all we want -- Oh, the Rays must have known something about these players -- but after awhile, I get tired of simply assuming that the Rays are faultless.
So does Friedman have a patience problem? I think that you could make the case that he's sometimes too patient -- Jason Hammel trade, anyone? Or Andy Sonnanstine's tenure in the rotation last year? -- and that it's likely his only real "fault", as minor as it may be. But at the same time, his patience pays huge dividends for the Rays more often than it doesn't, and there are logical explanations every time he frustrates us with a non-move. Both Rizzo and Allen had large question marks surrounding them; the Rays can fill first base with Matt Joyce next season; and Brandon Guyer could be an underrated offensive force in the outfield.
Also, Friedman's patience is a sign of something important: that he's learned from Billy Beane's example.
One of the common critiques of Moneyball is that it ignores the largest reason why the Athletics were so successful back in the early 2000s: their starting rotation. Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, and Tim Hudson were a dominating trio, and the A's started to fall apart once their rotation got traded away. It's difficult to find a whole new batch of talented young starting pitchers every 3-4 years, and Friedman has taken that lesson to heart. Once the Rays find a talented, young player -- regardless of if they're a pitcher or not, actually -- he holds onto them as long as humanly possible.
Through necessity -- remember the talk about margins up above? -- the Rays abhor risk. And at the end of the day, I think that's why Friedman passed on Rizzo and Allen; the potential payoff was great, but the risk was simply too much to take on. As a small-market team, once you start banking on luck, you'd better start getting used to the idea of rebuilding.
Will the Rays end up acquiring a young first baseman this offseason? Will they still trade Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann? I'm not so sure anymore. I think they'll definitely buy a couple low-risk hitters off the free agent market, but due to the lack of near-major-league-ready options at first or in the outfield on the trade market, I could see the Rays keeping both Niems and Davis...or trading one of them for a player with better upside that's further away from the majors.
Nobody is perfect, not even Friedman. I'd probably better get used to being periodically frustrated with his patience, though, because I don't see it changing anytime soon. Risk management isn't exactly a sexy way to build a team, but hey, whatever it takes to keep the Rays' window open as long as possible.