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Andrew Friedman and windows of opportunity

A lack of analysis.

J. Meric

The Rays did not win the World Series in the Andrew Friedman era, although they came close. With one of the smallest payrolls in baseball, they won the American League pennant in 2008, and then proceeded to make the playoffs in 2010, 2011, and 2013. That's qualifies, along with the run of contention from Billy Beane's Moneyball-A's, as one of the most impressive feats for a general manager in American sports.

The A's are the obvious comparison, and the analytically-inclined Rays front office have been on the cutting edge of the baseball revolution that Oakland's highly publicized success helped begin, so I quote from Michael Lewis's book:

At the end of what was now widely viewed as a failed season, all Paul DePodesta could say was, "I hope they continue to believe that our way doesn't work. It buys us a few more years."

Now, with Andrew Friedman leaving the small-market Rays for the mega-money Los Angelas Dodgers, it's easy to predict that the Rays' run of contention is over, and that the reason Tampa Bay will sink back into baseball obscurity is not the high profile trades of James Shields and David Price, but that we've lost our truest ace: the GM.

That might be what happens, and that might be why, but the plain truth is that no one knows. And if anyone says they know what happens next, they're wrong.

Andrew Friedman as Metaphor

I don't have the foggiest idea what Andrew Friedman actually does, but I'm quite sure that he doesn't sit alone at his computer creating custom FanGraphs leaderboards to identify undervalued talent. He has a team of analysts for that. That's why it's impossible to predict with any certainty what his departure means for the Rays baseball operations. When we say that Andrew Friedman wins trades, we mean that some group of people, probably including but not limited to Andrew Friedman, is good at identifying and executing trades that favor the Rays.

So am I upset that he's gone?

I will be upset if Andrew Friedman poaches manager Joe Maddon, but I don't know what that will mean for the Rays. When we say that Maddon puts players in a position to succeed, we mean that some group of people, probably including but not limited to Joe Maddon, identifies how to best use players, gets them to buy into their role, and then applies those pre-planned roles during the game.

I will be crushed if Friedman poaches pitching coach Jim Hickey, but I don't know what that would mean either. When we say that Jim Hickey fixes pitchers, we mean that some group of people in the Rays organization, probably including but not limited to Jim Hickey, is good at identifying pitchers, deciding how to change their pitching mechanics, repertoire, or approach, getting them to buy into the change, and then teaching them the new way.

This means that Friedman's and any other departures might not hurt the Rays at all, but the other side of this uncertainty is that Friedman could poach the crucial behind-the-scenes cogs in the Rays machine without us even knowing what is being lost.

"Regression to the Mean" and "The Brain Drain"

While we may not know what any changes in the Rays front office really mean, we can say one thing with reasonable confidence: However the Rays front office worked, they worked well.

With limited resources, the front office won lots of baseball games. Part of that is surely luck (for instance: Ben Zobrist, a slap-hitting shortstop, turning into Zorilla, a legitimate MVP candidate), but part of it is skill too. It means that the Rays front office -- as it stood two days ago -- was better than almost every other front office in baseball. Let's make this extreme (and surely inaccurate) so that the thought experiment is simple: imagine that every member of the Rays front office is the best person in the world for his particular job. That would mean that every single change, even if it's a swap for the second best person in the world at that job, makes the Rays worse.

Of course it's not that simple. We know that there are replacements out there for Andrew Friedman and for anyone else he might take with him that could be every bit as good or better, but the point is that on average they will not be. The more changes that are made, the higher the probability that the efficiency of the whole front office suffers. When you're already operating at high efficiency, changes are bad. That's an ugly truth about success and regression to the mean.

An easy example that Tampa Bay fans will be familiar with is the brain drain that killed the Buccaneers. Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin assembled and nurtured an all-star staff. From the ranks of Buccaneers assistants, Lovie Smith, Herm Edwards, Rod Marinelli, and Mike Tomlin all became head coaches of other teams. That says a lot about Dungy and Kiffin, but success-fueled turnover like that is impossible to sustain. When you replace good people enough times, you get worse, particularly when you lose the guys at the top.

Winning at Baseball is Tough

The other side of the gloom-and-doom mountain is that winning at baseball is tough. If the Rays don't make the playoffs again in the next ten years, while the Dodgers win the World Series every other year, people will be quick to point to Friedman as the reason, but that's probably not the whole story. You don't have Theo Epstein's success without Dan Duquette, just as the next Rays GM will not derive his success from his merits alone.

Making the MLB playoffs is tough. A team has to beat ten other teams of professionals, all trying their hardest, and in the Rays case, they have to do it with less money to devote to payroll. Windows of opportunity close of their own accord, and even the best GM can't necessarily keep them open.

Ben Zobrist is about to enter the last year of his contract. Who will replace him? Will Matt Moore ever pitch like an ace again? What happens when no more hitters like Evan Longoria come up through the system? What happens if Evan Longoria doesn't hit? What if Alex Cobb gets "loose bodies" in his elbow like Jeremy Hellickson did? There are plenty of baseball reasons for the Rays not to make the playoffs.

This is not a satisfying line of thought. Then again, I am dissatisfied. But the plain truth is that we don't know yet what the departure of Andrew Friedman means for the Rays, and we probably never will. All we can do is wager that it's going to be bad, and then hope that it's not. Welcome to life as a Rays fan.