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Moneyball or Sleazeball: Andrew Friedman and the Future of the Dodgers

Andrew Friedman will certainly make the Dodgers more efficient. But at what cost?
Photo by Kim Klement - USA TODAY Sports

Despite winning 94 games, the 2014 Los Angeles Dodgers were the least efficient team in baseball by at least one measure. With $235,295,200 spent on player salaries, the Dodgers ended up spending $2,503,141 per win, more than even the hapless Phillies, whose $180,052,700 expenditure on 73 wins comes out to $2,466,476 per victory.

This, presumably, is why the Dodgers have poached General Manager Andrew Friedman away from the Tampa Bay Rays. Friedman joined the then-Devil Rays in 2004 and helmed the front office from 2005 until his departure this week. His tenure saw the Rays make four postseason appearances and win a pennant in 2008 after the club lost at least 91 games per year from 1998 through 2007. Not only did Friedman's Rays win—even with just 77 victories in 2014, Friedman's club has averaged 89.5 wins per year since its first playoff appearance in 2008—they were, to paraphrase former Ray B.J. Upton, "ballin' on a budget." At no point did they spend more than $1,000,000 per win, and they ranked in the top seven clubs in fewest dollars spent per win each season from 2008 on.


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Although the Oakland Athletics and Billy Beane will forever be the flag-bearers for baseball's analytics revolution, no front office defined the new Ivy League-educated, Wall Street-seasoned baseball philosophy like Friedman's Rays. Before coming to the Rays in 2004, Friedman worked at the private equity firm MidMark Capital, and before that, he was an analyst at the late investment bank Bear Stearns. His Wall Street influences are apparent in his baseball philosophy. "I am purely market-driven," Friedman is quoted in Jonah Keri's bestseller on the rise of the Rays, The Extra 2%. "I love players I think that I can get for less than they are worth. It's positive arbitrage, the valuation asymmetry in the game."

Friedman's purported skill, and the skill of Billy Beane and Theo Epstein and the others who have taken up the analytics banner, is the ability to identify these players, the ones who are available for "less than they are worth." The Rays were on the constant prowl for them. They made trades designed to game baseball's free agent compensation rules, a strategy that came to a head in 2011 when the Rays owned 12 of the first 90 picks in the MLB draft. They strived to sign players with minimal service time. The most notable example is third baseman Evan Longoria, whose nine-year, $48 million contract signed in 2008, six games into his career, has been described by FanGraphs' Dave Cameron as "the template of what not to do with your best client going forward" for agents.


The Rays specialized in finding these market inefficiencies, these assets with unrealized value. Sometimes, unrealized value is a function of poor institutional understanding of the game of baseball, as was the case with the Moneyball on-base wizards of the early 2000s and the slick fielders who defined the best Rays teams under Friedman. But often, Friedman's "players I think that I can get for less than they are worth" were available for reasons that rightfully pushed other teams away.

The Rays acquired third baseman Willy Aybar from the Atlanta Braves in January 2008. Aybar spent much of the 2007 season in rehabilitation for substance abuse. "We did a lot of due diligence into his problems from last year," Friedman told, "While we recognized it's a risk, we feel it's a risk worth taking." He added Aybar's problem "needs to be monitored." Two weeks after the Rays acquired him, Aybar was arrested in the Dominican Republic for assaulting his wife and violating a restraining order. Aybar was named the club's starting third baseman less than three months later and he remained on the team for the next three years. After his release from the Rays in 2010, Aybar was jailed again for domestic violence; he has not appeared in the majors since.

In November 2011, the Rays acquired reliever Josh Lueke from the Seattle Mariners for catcher John Jaso. In 2009, while he was in the Rangers minor league system, Lueke was charged with rape and sodomy of a young woman in Bakersfield, California. He eventually pleaded no contest to "false imprisonment with violence," a lesser charge that resulted in 40 days in prison. The Rays were perfectly aware of Lueke's criminal history. "We're satisfied that he is going to be the kind of person and teammate that we look for," Friedman told USA Today, "and we expect him to contribute positively to our group."


Josh Lueke, a cheap criminal. Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In January 2012, the Rays signed designated hitter Luke Scott to a one-year deal worth $5 million. The previous April, a story by Amy K. Nelson in ESPN The Magazine detailed Scott as a birther and open racist. Nelson tells of Scott calling teammates from the Dominican Republic "animals" and "savages" and of his "throwing plantain chips at" a Dominican teammate "to keep him in line."

"Luke was a guy we've had interest in for a number of years," Friedman told following the transaction. "We saw an opportunity to add him to our group, and we're excited to add his profile to our existing personnel."

By December 2012, when the Rays acquired Yunel Escobar, the pattern was well in place. Escobar had already been jettisoned from both the Braves and Blue Jays organizations, the latter following an incident in which Escobar wrote a Spanish homosexual slur on his eye black. "We feel comfortable it's a calculated risk on a good player that we feel like can help us and fit in really well in our environment," Friedman told the Tampa Bay Times. "We did a lot of homework on Yunel and we believe that he's going to fit in well in our clubhouse."

All of these moves became justifiable by means of the Rays' poor financial situation. FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan characterized the acquisition of Escobar as "inevitable," and added: "The Rays are in a position where they have to take more risks, and so they have to be the most willing to overlook or accept character traits as Escobar's."

But the transgressions during Friedman's tenure with the club are not limited to free agent and trade acquisitions. The Rays organization has also had by far the most drug-related suspensions over the past three seasons—14, with the Mets second at 10, as of April 2. Josh Sale, the club's first round pick in 2010, received a second suspension for a drug of abuse this August and was also suspended by the team in 2013 for "conduct detrimental to organization" after bragging on the internet about throwing change at a stripper and calling her a "hoe."

The Dodgers have far more money to play with than the Rays, but Friedman's task is clearly to make them into a more efficient squad. The Los Angeles Times has reported the Dodgers will look to slash the payroll by about $40 million next season as issues with the club's regional sports network (namely, their inability to workout deals with local TV providers that would actually allow their fans to watch the games) have put a damper on future revenue projections.

After watching high-priced relief pitchers like Chris Perez, Brandon League, and Brian Wilson blow games throughout 2014, the idea of a streamlined Dodgers club is understandably exciting to fans in Los Angeles. The Dodgers executive who hired Friedman, Stan Kasten, has built his reputation on the development of strong farm systems, and continues to preach that model today. It's obvious that the Dodgers ownership group, Guggenheim Partners, sees Friedman's market-driven solutions as a step toward that more efficient payroll.

But Andrew Friedman's arbitrage is not crafted out of thin air. His Rays did their homework on Aybar, Scott, Lueke, Sale, and others and acquired them with full knowledge of their histories and personalities. This is what the Rays paid Friedman to do for a decade in Tampa, and there is little reason to believe the Dodgers expect different. Saving a buck still comes with a price.