T.J. Friedl's journey to signing as an undrafted free agent

T.J. Friedl is hitting .550 with two homers and five RBIs in his first five games with the Billings Mustangs. Paul Ruhter/Billings Mustangs

Since its inception in 1965, the Major League Baseball draft has evolved from a quaint midsummer diversion to an exercise in efficiency. Area scouts descend upon every college, high school and cornfield in America in search of superstars and sleepers. Analytics departments track numbers to the decimal point. Prospects land on the radar before they can shave, and they're paraded before scouts in showcases and summer leagues, where tools are graded and each wart and insecurity is exposed. The level of scrutiny makes it next to impossible for players to slip through the cracks.

Yet T.J. Friedl slipped through the cracks. And then he crash-landed on 30 scouting directors' heads after they'd strategized, mapped out their boards and spent most of the money available to them under MLB's meticulous slotting system. By the time his saga was complete, he had etched a strange new chapter in draft history.

While the Cincinnati Reds were hosting St. Louis at Great American Ball Park on Thursday, Friedl, a left-handed-hitting outfielder from the University of Nevada, was in the city undergoing a physical exam. Everything checked out fine, and he reached agreement with the Reds on a $732,500 bonus, the largest ever for a player who was bypassed in the draft.

Scouts, true to form, are trying to project what kind of player he'll be. Friedl, a 5-10, 170-pound center fielder with 70-grade speed on the 20-80 scouts scale, reminds some evaluators of former Seattle Mariners outfielder Jeremy Reed. Others compare him to Brett Gardner, a 2015 All-Star who has 215 stolen bases in nine seasons with the New York Yankees.

Friedl, in contrast, sees a kindred spirit in Lenny Dykstra -- the scrappy, pre-steroidal Dykstra who compensated for his lack of size with his hustle and heart.

"I wanted to model my game after his," Friedl said. "When Lenny Dykstra was on the field, his size didn't matter, because he was tough as nails. And his uniform was always dirty. After watching him play, I told myself, if I came home and my uniform wasn't dirty, I didn't play the game the right way."

If his professional fairy tale continues, Friedl will be tormenting opponents and testing the stain-removing acumen of clubhouse attendants for years to come. Flash back to the late spring, and he was a garden-variety overachiever eagerly awaiting his junior year at Nevada. Through a combination of confusion and fate, Friedl is now a member of the Pioneer League's Billings Mustangs.

Invisible man

In the 50-year history of the draft, a select few players have been passed over in June and gone on to make a mark in the big leagues. In June 1998, University of Mississippi outfielder Bobby Kielty went undrafted because of a back injury, only to appear on the scouts' radar when he hit .384 in the Cape Cod League. The Minnesota Twins signed Kielty to a $500,000 bonus in February 1999, and he went on to play seven seasons in the majors.

In the 1999 draft, Florida State junior Kevin Cash was passed over because scouts were convinced he couldn't play third base professionally. Everything changed when Cash went to the Cape Cod League, both catchers on his team suffered injuries and the coach asked for volunteers. Cash raised his hand, and he instantly looked like a natural behind the plate. Toronto scouts Tim Wilken and Chris Buckley signed him for a $60,000 bonus, and Cash spent eight years in the big leagues as a backup catcher with the Blue Jays, Red Sox and three other clubs.

Friedl is different. This wasn't just a case of baseball misjudging his talent. He was hiding in plain sight, and the executives, scouts, statistical analysts and agents/advisers who operate baseball's draft machine either didn't know who he was or didn't realize how good he was.

"I've been working the draft for 14 years, and this is the craziest thing I've ever seen," said Adam Karon, Friedl's agent. "It's so bizarre. Almost nobody knew this kid was eligible for the draft -- including himself."

In a sense, it was fitting that Friedl would be the one to buck tradition. He has been sneaking up on people for most of his life.

Friedl grew up with three older sisters in Pleasanton, California, the San Francisco suburb that produced Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford. He was a quick, assist-minded point guard on the Foothill High School basketball team, a three-year letterman and a .308 hitter for the baseball team. But his lack of size and strength limited his options, and his choices came down to junior college or trying to make the team at Nevada as a walk-on. He chose Option B.

Friedl hit .216 in 37 at-bats as a freshman at Reno. He was buried on the depth chart and resigned to being a spare part again as a sophomore. When coach Jay Johnson laid out the options, Friedl decided to preserve a year of eligibility and sit out the season as a redshirt.

"I took that pretty hard," Friedl said. "I've always played with a chip on my shoulder, and that was my MO after that. My whole thing was, 'Just prove yourself.' Nothing in my life has been given to me, and I've had to earn everything I've gotten. I stepped back after the redshirt and said, 'Every game, I'm going to grind and play with a chip on my shoulder and work 100 percent.'"

When Friedl returned for his third year in Reno, Johnson had departed for Arizona and been replaced by a new coach, T.J. Bruce. The Nevada staff saw enough potential to give Friedl a scholarship, and he responded with a breakout season. Friedl ranked 11th in the nation with a .401 batting average, while finishing second in triples (nine), 17th in on-base percentage (.494) and 24th in hits (89).

"People say to me, 'What did you guys do to him?'" Bruce said, laughing. "I tell them, 'We stayed out of his way.' That's part of the deal sometime, isn't it?"

Confusion all around

Under MLB rules, college players need to be 21 years old or have exhausted three years of academic eligibility (not three years of actual playing time) to qualify for the draft. It never occurred to Friedl that he met the second requirement until a week before the draft, when he received a call from a scout with an undisclosed team.

"He basically told me, 'What would you say to being drafted?'" Friedl recalled. "I told him, 'Thanks for the offer, but I'm not draft-eligible this year. And he told me, 'Well, you are.'" But since the draft was so close and interest seemed minimal, Friedl politely demurred and said he planned to return to Nevada for the 2017 season.

Friedl monitored the draft on the MLB Network, but only to keep tabs on his teammates. He was overjoyed when Nevada second baseman Miles Mastrobuoni went to Tampa Bay in the 14th round, and doubly thrilled when Cleveland selected Wolf Pack outfielder Trenton Brooks in Round 17.

Unbeknownst to Friedl, his time would come. In late June, he attended the Team USA trials in Los Angeles and played well enough to earn a spot on the squad that would travel to Taiwan, Japan and Cuba. In his month with Team USA, Friedl hit .290 with a .536 slugging percentage and wowed the staff with his effort.

"He has been unbelievable," Team USA manager George Horton told MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo in July. "Not in our wildest dreams when we were putting this team together did we expect to get what we are getting out of him."

After his performance for Team USA, the attention from teams built to the point that Friedl needed an adviser to run interference. He chose the Sosnick, Cobbe & Karon group, which had represented former Nevada stars Kevin Kouzmanoff, Darrell Rasner and Braden Shipley in previous drafts. But this would not be a typical negotiation. Because the draft had passed and most teams had already spent their full allotment, Karon essentially had to squeeze blood out of a turnip.

Under MLB's draft system, each team is allotted a specific pool. Any money spent over the pool limit is subject to a 75 percent tax. And once teams exceed their allotment by more than 5 percent, they lose a first-round draft pick in the following year's draft.

"I had one team tell me, 'We'd give this kid over a million bucks if we had it,'" Karon said. "That's when I said, 'This is a really interesting situation. If everybody is out of money, maybe he goes back to school.' If he waited, maybe he could have gone in the first or second round next year. But I think that would have been a bit of a risk for him. Teams look for a track record in the draft, and T.J. didn't have that."

While Karon declined to give specifics on the talks, several sources said the field of candidates came down to the Reds and Tampa Bay Rays, both of whom had sufficient wiggle room to make a serious run at Friedl.

Although the planets aligned in the Reds' favor, they were in a position to swoop because they had done their legwork. National cross checker Mark McKnight, West Coast supervisor Rex De La Nuez and assistant general manager Sam Grossman had seen Friedl at the trials in Southern California, and they had the scouting reports ready to convince scouting director Chris Buckley to take the plunge. Yes, that's the same Chris Buckley who signed Kevin Cash out of the Cape Cod League 17 years ago.

"We didn't outsmart anybody," Buckley said. "There was some confusion in this case, and we were the benefactors. But we also had three guys who took the assignment seriously and did a professional job of covering Team USA. They didn't just say, 'This will be a good guy for us next year.' They did the work and said, 'No, this year.'"

A baseball mystery

Inevitably, scouting directors and personnel throughout the game reflect upon Friedl's story and ask themselves, "How the heck did this happen?" Amid the second-guessing and finger-pointing, teams are conducting CSI-caliber autopsies to determine how everybody whiffed.

Were the scouts entrusted with covering Northern California negligent in failing to put Friedl on their radar?

"Being an area scout is so very difficult and this situation is their worst nightmare," said an American League personnel man. "I'm sure every scout in that area is trying to retrace their steps seeing Nevada and how they could miss him."

Were the numbers crunchers at fault? How can anyone bat .401 as a redshirt sophomore and go undrafted?

"I think most analytics departments take a broader look at performance history, and his freshman and summer numbers weren't very good before this year," said a National League evaluator. In addition, Nevada plays in an offensive league, so teams had reason to suspect that Friedl's numbers were artificially inflated.

Bruce, Nevada's coach, is understandably sensitive to the perception that he played coy with the biographical information and tried to "hide" Friedl and bring him back to Reno for another season. The Nevada baseball website appears to debunk that notion. It clearly states that Friedl played for the Wolf Pack as a freshman and redshirted as a sophomore before returning for the 2016 season.

"If somebody says I was hiding him, I wouldn't have vouched for him to go to Team USA baseball," Bruce said. "I'm trying to exhaust every avenue on my end, because I don't want anybody to take blame for this. I've texted my friends in the industry and said, 'I apologize if I did anything.' I just think there was a lot of confusion on a lot of people's parts -- especially with that redshirt."

For Friedl, nothing can obscure a head-spinning odyssey that has left him, his family and his friends in a state of disbelief. During his adventure with Team USA, he spoke several times a week with his mother, who constantly asked him, "Is it reality yet? Has it hit you?"

Late last week, Friedl passed through Nevada to pick up his gear, and he received an invitation from a friend to speak to a group of teenagers at a high school camp. During one point in the conversation, he was asked to share the biggest lesson he has learned.

"I told the kids, 'It doesn't matter if you're the highest-recruited kid out of high school or a walk-on, non-recruited kid,'" Friedl said. "'No matter what, never stop working.'

"That's the biggest lesson I've learned from Coach Bruce: The game always knows. The moment you take the game for granted and think you have everything, that's when it'll be taken from you. But as long as you keep your head down and keep working hard, the game will reward you."

Friedl has found that rewards -- and pleasant surprises -- come in bunches. On Friday, he hopped a flight to Montana and arrived in Billings around noon. He went directly to Dehler Park with his luggage and found his name in the starting lineup for the Mustangs' game against the Ogden Raptors.

Several hours later, Friedl launched the second pitch he saw over the fence. And when his debut was complete, he'd gone 3-for-3 with two home runs. After a lifetime of overachieving and striving to validate his worth, T.J. Friedl has to deal with a new reality: He won't have the luxury of sneaking up anymore.