People practically sobbed at the inevitable. Carl Crawford was leaving the Rays for a huge pay-day, and with the Boston Red Sox to make matters worse. Then Rafael Soriano went to the Yankees, the other grand enemy.
The media and fans alike began digging the grave for the 2011 Rays' season, saying it would be a rebuilding year. Tampa Bay might fall in the standings, if not to the bottom of the AL East. No Crawford or Soriano. No Carlos Pena or Jason Bartlett. Joaquin Benoit also hit the road for greener pastures.
But even with all the departures, nothing seems to have changed much about this team. Their record stands at 25-19, a game up on the Yankees and in... first place.
Even with an awful 1-8 start, the Rays are now playing well above expectations. And the man that can take probably just as much credit as the players themselves, is Andrew Friedman, the Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations.
The "GM" is a better way of saying it, in his case, seeing as he runs all the roster swapping. And if there's one thing I've noticed about the work of Friedman, it's this: players that had good years with the Rays don't seem to have the same production after they leave.
Is this Friedman's doing? Does he know when to pounce on a certain free agent or let go of a player at just the right time?
Well, if you were to size-up the additions and subtractions from this team in the winter, you would notice the players that are now on the Rays are having much more success than the guys that skipped town or were traded.
Who knew Sam Fuld would turn out to be this much of a find. He was just another guy thrown in the mix of a trade that sent Matt Garza to the Cubs. Garza is a less-than-impressive 2-4, with a 3.72 ERA. Jeremy Hellickson, who replaced Garza in the rotation, is 5-2, and has a 3.18 ERA.
The comparisons don't seem to stop looking lopsided. Fuld's defense in left field is as close to a Carl Crawford as the Rays can get.
While Crawford (coming into yesterday's game) is fighting off an early season slump, with a .205 average, 10 RBI, and only six steals, Fuld has twice as many steals as Crawford, a higher average, and six more runs batted in.
One could go on and on how Friedman has kept this team afloat in what was thought to be an after-thought season. Joel Peralta has stepped in nicely in Benoit's spot, with a 2.82 ERA and seven holds, while Benoit struggles mightily with a sky-high 7.98 ERA, and just five holds.
Peralta has helped create the bridge from starting pitcher to closer, and that closer is Kyle Farnsworth, the proud owner of nine saves and a 1.76 ERA. He has nine strikeouts to only one walk.
Soriano would kill for those stats. His season has been a mess, already being summed-up by his trip to the disabled list. New York is already eating him alive, and it's only a matter of time before they swallow him whole.
His 5.40 ERA and 11 walks are terrible numbers compared to the digits that he put up last year as the closer in Tampa Bay. Those 11 walks are just three less than what he had last season. The whole season.
As Friedman has done ever since he got to St. Pete, he continues to wheel and deal, seeming to send guys out at just the right moment, and pull guys in at just the right time.
The Rays could have re-signed Carlos Pena. He wasn't way out of their price range, but his average was poor. His .232 this year is better, but Casey Kotchman, though not having the same power as Pena, is hitting .330 coming into last night.
As far as the shortstop Jason Bartlett goes, his defense has not been as spectacular as it was in Tampa. Even though the Rays have yet to find one great replacement for him (Reid Brignac on defense, Elliot Johnson on offense), they have recovered some of his lost offensive production with veteran Johnny Damon.
This all continues the merry-go-round of players that Friedman imports and exports. The guys we cheer today, could be traded or hit the market before you know it. But don't second-guess Friedman.
We've seen too many times when the moves he's made have panned out. Just look at when they brought Garza and Bartlett over, or when they got rid of Scott Kazmir. How about the trade for the now .354 hitting Matt Joyce, who dropped his seventh bomb Wednesday night.
How's Edwin Jackson looking on the other side of that trade? Well, he was 10-12 last year, and he's 3-5 with a 4.53 ERA so far this season. The year before he left? 14-11 and a lower ERA.
Friedman continues to show he's a bit of a mastermind. Maybe with the "Fuld Legend", they can add the "Fried Legend". It's only fair, especially for a guy that's done this much for this organization.
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