- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Andrew Friedman, the Tampa Bay Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations, didn't make a single appearance in the Opryland Hotel lobby during the recent winter meetings in Nashville, other than to register and check out of his room. I happened to catch sight of him in a sixth-floor hallway one night, and he passed me with his cell phone pressed to his ear, immersed in what I believed to be a faux conversation. Along with his numerous other skills, Friedman is the acknowledged master of the hold-a-phone-to-your-ear-so-you-can-avoid-idle-chatter ploy.
That's understandable, given the constant pressure Friedman faces trying to keep his team relevant while competing with the Yankees, Red Sox and other American League East rivals in a lousy ballpark with a miniscule payroll. If the guy isn't thinking 20 steps ahead, he's bound to fall 10 steps behind.
Friedman was sitting on an extremely valuable resource this winter, armed with a surplus of starting pitching amid a free-agent market consisting of Zack Greinke and a bunch of less appealing alternatives. He probed, waited and finally took the plunge late Sunday night, sending pitchers James Shields, Wade Davis and a player to be named to Kansas City for minor leaguers Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery and Patrick Leonard.
ESPN's Keith Law called the deal a "heist" for Tampa Bay, and some chat board posters engaged in the inevitable potshots by force of habit. Friedman is revered among the armchair know-it-all crowd, and Kansas City GM Dayton Moore is a convenient punching bag, and this latest deal helped perpetuate that narrative.
If the five email responses I received from baseball executives late Sunday night are any indication, the reaction within the baseball industry is more nuanced. A National League general manager called the deal "bold on both sides," but liked it more from Kansas City's end. An AL talent evaluator also favored the Royals, in part because he suspects Myers might not be as good as the hype.
Two other personnel people were decidedly pro-Tampa Bay. "The Royals got owned on this one," said an NL executive, who marveled at Friedman's huge haul of young talent. Another National League talent evaluator praised Moore for his chutzpah, but not so much for his baseball judgment.
"My initial view was basic shock that Dayton did this," the evaluator said, "especially with so much pitching on the free-agent market. But they have a hard time getting pitching there. They gave up a lot to go all-in, so I applaud the effort. But I'm still shocked."
Finally, an American League general manager said he likes the deal for both clubs.
"I don't get all the online angst towards Kansas City," said the GM. "I am a Shields fan. I also respect that Tampa does their homework."
Myers, 22, hit 37 homers in the minors last year and is widely regarded as a "can't-miss" prospect. If he plays up to expectations, he will combine with Evan Longoria to give Tampa Bay two big right-handed threats in the middle of the order for years to come.
That said, it's always dicey predicting the outcome for prospects. For some perspective, I took a spin through the 2006 Baseball America Prospect Handbook to reflect on other highly-acclaimed hitters. The names Jeremy Hermida, Brandon Wood, Ian Stewart, Lastings Milledge, Andy LaRoche, Andy Marte, Conor Jackson, Daric Barton, Joel Guzman, Felix Pie and Jeff Clement appeared prominently. Wrap your mind around that assemblage of unfulfilled potential and try to say with any degree of certainty that Wil Myers is a lock to be a superstar.
The truth is, Moore was in a disadvantageous position because of a combination of bad luck and questionable drafting more than the lack of a coherent game plan. If the Royals had enjoyed even a modicum of success with Luke Hochevar, John Lamb, Montgomery and Danny Duffy, they wouldn't have been forced to raid the farm for Shields, a 31-year-old workhorse who is signed for two more years before he becomes eligible for free agency.
After the Royals went a disappointing 72-90 in 2012 for their 17th losing season in 18 years, Moore seems to realize he doesn't have much time for his so-called "process" to produce more tangible results.
"No, it's not easy to give up prospects," Moore told the Kansas City Star. "But it's important that we start winning games."
Moore's sense of urgency made him a natural trade partner for the Rays, who need to retool annually to maximize their available resources and further their short-term competitiveness and long-range plan.
"We're constantly working to balance the present and the future, and trying to thread the needle" Friedman said. "As an organization, we rely more on the contributions of our young players than basically anyone else in baseball. With this trade, we're helping to replenish our system and add a lot of players we feel can help us sustain this run of success we've had the last five years."
During a 20-minute conference call Sunday night, I heard a side of Friedman that's not always available for public consumption. He came to baseball from Wall Street in 2003, which fosters the perception that he's a slave to the numbers and takes an almost clinical approach to roster-building. Yet Friedman is also a big believer in the importance of individual makeup, clubhouse chemistry and the importance of players buying into the program. He watched Shields rub off on Tampa Bay's young staff for several years with his work ethic and professional approach, and saw Davis make a smooth transition to the bullpen last year without complaint. He endured some serious moments of reflection before swallowing hard and signing off on the trade.
"Personally, I think this is the most difficult trade we've made to date," Friedman said. "Both guys were drafted and developed here. They've been key players in this organization's turnaround, and they're both really high-quality people. It's a painful loss for our club, but I'm confident in our resilience."
When the potential trade scenarios are exhausted and it comes time for a decision, Friedman is always going to listen to his head over his heart. He has the conviction and discipline to stick to a plan, and lots of faith in the ability of manager Joe Maddon, pitching coach Jim Hickey and the rest of the Rays' coaching staff to get the most out of the talent he provides.
If Friedman can exploit another general manager's sense of urgency (or desperation) along the way, that's all part of the equation. As Rays president Matt Silverman observed in 2008: "Andrew 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."
Friedman took a giant leap Sunday night, and it was hard to ignore the contrast with Florida's other major league team. Three weeks after the Miami Marlins angered their fan base, alienated their clubhouse and ruined commissioner Bud Selig's week by obliterating their roster in a trade with Toronto, the Rays showed why they're so widely admired and such a model for sustained small-market success.
The Shields trade was Tampa Bay's second big splash of the offseason, coming two weeks after Evan Longoria's $100 million contract extension. Next on the agenda: Trying to win the AL East and determining the future of Cy Young Award winner David Price, who will be eligible for free agency in 2015.
Rest assured that Andrew Friedman, master roster reshaper and needle threader, has already run dozens of Price-related scenarios through his mind. That's just the way he rolls.
People in the game give their take on the multiplayer swap involving James Shields and top prospect Wil Myers, among others.