In the past few weeks, the Tampa Bay Rays have changed their team name, unveiled a plan for a new waterfront stadium, and executed a huge six-player deal involving a potential franchise player. But can the Rays overcome 10 straight years of losing, change their identity, and compete with two of the game's giants in the Red Sox and Yankees?
Matthew Silverman and Andrew Friedman hope they have the answers. Two years ago, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg turned to Wall Street, wooing Silverman away from Goldman Sachs to be the team's new president. Sternberg also hired Andrew Friedman as the team's GM (vice president of baseball operations, officially), following Friedman's own stints in the financial world at Bear Stearns and MidMark Capital. The Rays' brain trust has made a number of innovative moves, including a performance-based system to calculate payments for players with up to three years of major league service time.
Here's what Silverman and Friedman had to say in a recent interview, not long after trading Delmon Young, Brendan Harris and Jason Pridie to the Twins for Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett and Eduardo Morlan:
Jonah Keri: How do you think your Wall Street backgrounds prepared you for running a baseball team? Were there any advantages to be had from being outsiders, being so inexperienced in the baseball world when you both took the job?
Silverman: Our backgrounds forced us to be as open-minded and inquisitive as possible. We entered this industry without any preconceived notions. That has been a benefit to us. We were also involved in working for highly successful businesses, with great organizational structures. We hope to emulate many of those qualities here in Tampa Bay.
Keri: Was there a moment that stood out to you early on where you just sort of stopped and said, "How did I end up here?"
Silverman: There have definitely been a number of instances when you recognize how different life has become. A couple of times it's occurred on the team charter, flying late at night across the country. We're sitting with Don Zimmer or Joe Maddon, talking about the game, and you realize this is work, this is our profession. It's certainly a big contrast to what life was like in New York City.
Keri: The last time we spoke, in April of last year, you were optimistic that you could attract fans to Tropicana Field. Here's what you said: "The stadium is not a hindrance to creating a successful business. The empty seats are opportunities for us." That's all well and good, but I'm guessing when you saw a chance to build another AT&T Park, you had to take it, right?
Silverman: We all recognize that a new ballpark has a positive economic effect on a team and also has a great effect upon its fans. We expect the ballpark we've designed will really resonate with our fans and it's an opportunity we're compelled to pursue. It's only possible because Tropicana Field and its parking lots have development value and economic value to the city and county. We see an opportunity for a win-win-win for the city, the county and the Rays.
We connect the ballpark to the owner's long-term vision for the franchise, that baseball will thrive in Tampa Bay. It's a concept we envisioned several years ago, and we've devoted a lot of energy to getting the finances in order and building a ballpark. There's nothing wrong with Tropicana Field, this just happens to be an opportunity for everyone. But if the answer from the city ends up being no, we've put a lot of money into Tropicana Field to make it a good place to watch a game, and we have 20 years left on our lease.
Keri: The footprint's much smaller than it is for other major league parks -- can the team fit a park into a parcel as small as you're proposing? It seems like you could actually create some of that intimate feel other teams keep talking about but aren't able to achieve given how big their stadiums end up being.
Silverman: It's a waterfront site, where our spring training park, Al Lang Field, sits right now. It's roughly 11 acres, so just a bit smaller than AT&T Park in San Francisco. But yes, we've designed a ballpark that fits snugly into that space. It has a contemporary design, all the modern amenities, and an environmentally friendly feel to it. It also has the feature of a deep home run to right field potentially landing in the bay. We had Carlos Pena come out when we introduced the plan, and he hit one into the water from a spot right around where home plate will be.
Keri: So the big news, of course, is the Delmon Young trade. We're talking about a player who finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, who was considered the top prospect in baseball a year or two ago. Obviously you got quality in the trade -- but what kind of shortcomings did you see in Young before you made the deal?
Friedman: This was certainly not a bet against Delmon Young. We feel like this was an exchange of good, young players. It met multiple needs for us, and I think the Twins feel the exact same way.
Keri: OK, let's discuss this from another angle. The team had a surplus of outfielders a year ago too. In fact, a year ago, Elijah Dukes hadn't had those additional problems yet, there was at least a little more optimism over Rocco Baldelli's health -- if anything you may have had more of a surplus then. You could argue that Young's perceived value may have even been a bit higher a year ago. If you were going to trade Young for young pitching, why not do it a year earlier?
Friedman: Last year we certainly had a lot of conversations. Obviously we didn't find a situation that was compelling. 2007 was very valuable for us in terms of answering questions, identifying areas we needed to target. Our roster is a lot more mature, and some of our better prospects are now in upper minor leagues. The trade we made was for the present, not the future. Obviously it was not without factoring in future ramifications. But we were able to acquire players who could help us right away, and also be part of our nucleus for seasons to come.
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Keri: Matt Garza is the lynchpin to the trade, of course. Where do you see his upside -- No. 3 pitcher? No. 2? Ace? Also, people have talked about Delmon Young and character issues -- but doesn't Garza come with a few character questions of his own?
Friedman: We definitely see Matt's upside is as a top-of-the-rotation starter. We also feel his downside is not him being a Triple-A pitcher. He's definitely going to be at the least one of five on a championship-caliber team. Off the field, we did a lot of work and research looking into Matt Garza and who he is. We are extremely comfortable with the type of competitor and pitcher that we acquired.
Keri: A rotation headed by Scott Kazmir-James Shields-Matt Garza looks promising. But with David Price, Andrew Sonnanstine, Wade Davis, Jacob McGee, Jeff Niemann and others, it actually seems like young pitching could now be the organization's strength. Is the idea partly that pitching prospects are more likely than not to fail, so better to get more of them?
Friedman: Attrition rate is certainly higher with pitchers, but we feel like the attrition becomes less the higher the level a pitcher gets. We think this trade helps us for 2008. A lot of those names you mentioned won't be ready Opening Day and best-case is middle to late in the year. This also adds to the potential pitching depth we have thereafter. In the last couple years, we weren't able to have a bullpen comprised of good, young arms. We were looking for four to six relievers every year, and that was not a position we wanted to be in. We feel like if we can be extremely strong one through five in the rotation, there will be a trickle-down effect to the bullpen. And if we have a better attrition rate than we fear, that would put us in position to have depth on the trade market, which is an enviable position to be in.
Silverman: One of the positive byproducts of depth with pitching is that it also reduces the temptation to move guys ahead in the organization just because a slot may be available. It allows us to fully develop our pitchers, so that it benefits both them and us. You need patience with prospects, they don't all develop at the same pace.
Friedman: Development is king. We try very hard to insulate our player development philosophy from our needs at the major league level.
Keri: Is it true you'd floated the idea of a Kazmir trade, too? With that rumor and the news that Oakland is fielding offers for Dan Haren, it seems like we're seeing a shift from free agents going on the market, to players becoming potential trade chips right after they hit arbitration. Do you see this trend continuing? How much of a risk is it for a team, even a lower-revenue team, to trade away cornerstone players that early, and hitch its wagon to 0-3 guys?
Friedman: In our situation, we have to be open to anything. We have to develop a 25-man roster for October. But we also have to be able to sustain that winning for subsequent years. In this case, the rumor got a little carried away in the New York papers. We're not good enough to say anyone's untouchable. That said, there are certain guys who are less touchable than others. We expect Scott Kazmir to be our Opening Day starter for years to come.
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Keri: What's up with the sudden love for Troy Percival? The guy was out of baseball, threw some good innings last year, and all of a sudden he's getting a two-year, $8 million deal? Did the success the team had with Al Reyes, another formerly solid pitcher who nearly left the game due to injury, influence the Percival decision?
Friedman: Troy deciding to come here, versus the other five to seven teams courting him, speaks volumes about the progress we've made in the last year. A year ago we might not have been able to sign a player like Troy Percival. Joe Maddon and I went out to meet with him -- Joe already has a relationship with Troy [when both Maddon and Percival were with the Angels]. We knew he was going to sign somewhere where he had a chance to win. We wanted to talk to him about areas where we'd be aggressive to shore up, our areas of strength, and to try to sell him on what we're trying to do. We're very excited that we were able to sign him, it speaks volumes to what we've accomplished.
Troy is the consummate professional. He battled some injury problems in the past. But what we saw in the 40 innings he pitched last year for the Cardinals, his experience and his knowledge of getting hitters out, all of that helped put him in position to get a multiyear contract and pitch in the ninth inning.
Keri: There've been rumors of a big, long-term deal for Carlos Pena. With that said, you acquired Pena in the first place by essentially mining the scrap heap and coming up with gold. Isn't there an argument to be made for trying the same route in the future, especially at a position like first base, where it might be easier to find a decent contributor than it is at say, shortstop or center field?
Friedman: We try to insulate ourselves from what we perceive to be popular -- the most popular thing is being competitive. We go about constructing our roster with that in mind. On a micro level, Carlos had a tremendous year, plus the impact he had off the field, in the clubhouse, the professionalism he brought, all of that was very valuable. The relationship worked out extremely well for both sides. At the very least, Carlos will be here for the next two years. It's premature to say anything beyond that.
Keri: You talked earlier about having multiple holes last year, plus it was a losing season, so obviously you can take some chance in that situation. But at what point do you stop rolling the dice on those types of moves, and go for the lower-risk veteran, even if it also means lower potential reward? Seventy-five wins? 85? 95?
Friedman: I don't think those two approaches are mutually exclusive. We'll always look for good risk/reward propositions for undervalued players. But we'll also look in the trade and free-agent markets to build on the nucleus we have in place. Whether we're a 65-win team or a 95-win team, we always have to look at both avenues. Maybe the emphasis shifts one way or another, though, because you only have a finite number of roster spots the further along your team goes.
Keri: Baldelli's still a big injury risk, Dukes comes with his own issues, and I know the team has been lukewarm on Jonny Gomes at times. With Delmon Young gone, is there another deal to be made for a right fielder or maybe a DH, whether through free agency or the trade market? Could the team make a deal for, say, a reasonably priced Tony Clark the way it did with Carlos Pena?
Friedman: It's November 30, so we have a long way to go. We have some internal candidates to fill out the roster. But we can also go out and look for ways to augment the roster. The area we'd like to address is to get a left-handed bat. That said, we might not be able to find the great left-handed bat we're looking for and get the positional flexibility we want. But all things being equal, we'd like it to be a left-handed bat who can DH some, play some field, and be a bat off the bench.
Silverman: It's a nice contrast to last offseason. A year ago, we had many more unknowns, more holes to fill. This season as we enter the winter meetings, we have fewer question marks, a lot fewer decisions to make.