By Jon Heyman
September 21, 2011

Rays general manager Andrew Friedman is as unlikely a success story as his team. He came directly to his GM job from the finance world, where he started out as an analyst at Bear Stearns, a big equities company that has since folded. That's the opposite route of the small-but-successful Rays, who are contending once again despite existing on a payroll that ranks only ahead of the Kansas City Royals. And despite having far less professional baseball experience than any other GM, a decent case can be made that no one has done a better job than Friedman since he came to Tampa in 2006.

It's no wonder Friedman is a hot name connected to the Cubs, a candidate for one of the most coveted baseball front-office jobs open in years. It's easy to imagine the Cubs are hoping he'll be their GM. But most folks still see Friedman, 34, staying to work for Rays owner Stu Sternberg, with whom he is said to have a very close relationship since being introduced to in 2003 by fellow investment worker Matt Silverman, now the Rays president.

In an interview Tuesday, Friedman declined to confirm the rumor that he owns points in the team. But by all appearances, he and Sternberg are partners in many ways. Friedman works without a contract, which means he is free to go but may actually be the biggest sign to how close he and Sternberg are. About the possible Cubs scenario, Friedman said he'd be "embarrassed'' to talk about himself considering what "the guys are trying to do on the field.'' Spoken like a true a baseball lifer.

What the Rays are doing so far is amazing everyone but the Rays themselves. Cash-strapped Tampa Bay entered the year with a payroll of just $41 million, having traded Matt Garza to the Cubs and let Carl Crawford, Carlos Peña, Rafael Soriano and Joaquin Benoit leave as free agents due to financial reasons. Yet here they are, once again about to enter the final week of the season challenging the sport's two biggest-spending teams in the top-heavy American League East, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

It's a testament to their smart, quirky manager Joe Maddon, their scrappy, fundamentally sound, defensively oriented roster and of course their unlikely general manager, who might deserve a movie about him by now. Operating with consistently puny payrolls (the $41 million is about one-fifth that of the division-leading Yankees), the Rays already have made the playoffs twice under Friedman, and they have a fair chance to make it for the third time in four years thanks to a September rally that has Red Sox Nation worried. No team nine games out starting September has ever made the postseason, but Tampa Bay could become the first. So far, the narrowing wild-card race is being mostly attributed to Boston's sorry slide. But the Rays' strong play has been equally the story in trimming the deficit to two games entering play on Wednesday.

Before becoming Sternberg's unlikely GM, Friedman's previous baseball experience appears to have been limited to his outfield play at Tulane -- an injury curtailed his career -- and the occasional aid he gave his older brother in his fantasy league. Yet Friedman has assimilated quickly into the role of baseball GM. Heading into the game at Yankee Stadium last night, Friedman noted how the Rays were in the unusual spot of having control of their destiny while still being two games behind Boston and having no games left against them. (That's because with seven games remaining against the Yankees and a seven-game deficit, they could have caught the Yankees atop the AL East, though their 5-0 defeat Tuesday means they'll now need help, as they realistically expected. Their real battle is with Boston for the wild card, anyway.) When I remarked to Friedman that I understand now how he was good at the stock game, he responded, "When did I say I was good? Maybe that's why I'm here.''

In any case, there's no disputing that Friedman is one of the game's best general managers. Even if the Rays don't make it to October, a strong case could be made for him being General Manger of the Year. Nobody thought they'd get this far, except for the Rays people themselves. They are surprised only that they have gotten this close from nine games out to start September.

"Going into the year, we felt we had a really talented team capable of exceeding expectations laid out for us,'' Friedman said.

The Rays enter every game with a lineup that doesn't come close to the other contenders in the American League. It isn't what could be called star-laden by any stretch. The middle of it has far less pop than the other AL contenders, and the bottom has more outs. But the Rays make do offensively by making the most out of what they have. Rays people told themselves they'd be just slightly better than average offensively, and lo and behold, their 658 runs are good for 14th best out of 30 teams. They get timely hits. And they are great base runners. Opposing scouts marvel at how they take the extra base in cases where other teams do not.

The bullpen is decent but not as great as it was last year, with its 3.81 ERA good for eighth in the AL. It was once again remade on the fly, but it was formed with fewer dollars. But the starting pitching is nothing short of excellent. It is much deeper than most of its competitors, especially the $200 million Yankees and $170 million Red Sox. Despite limited resources, Tampa throws a professional starting pitcher every game, giving itself a chance daily. Their 3.49 rotation ERA is easily the best in the American League and third in baseball.

"The pitching was going to be a focal point for us,'' Friedman said. "For us to be successful in this division we were going to need (strong) pitching. And if we ever have to go to the free-agent market for starting pitching, we are doomed.''

Fortunately, they have better ideas. Friedman is surrounded by an All-Star cast in the front office, and everyone says one of his greatest strengths is his willingness to listen. A doormat for years, the Rays were indeed blessed with some high picks, but the truth is they have drafted brilliantly, with R.J. Harrison a star scouting director. Sure, ace David Price was a No. 1 pick overall. But Jeremy Hellickson was a fifth-round pick, Matt Moore an eighth-rounder, James Shields a 16th-rounder. Their development people, coaches and Maddon do a terrific job with the pitchers.

They also play great defense. Friedman and Co. seemed to have determined early that one good way to build a competitive team on a shoestring was to find great defenders, who have a chance to be underpaid. In a way, this is their own form of Moneyball.

"We obviously made a conscious decision to focus on the run prevention side,'' Friedman said. "We felt with our pitching we had to double down on that.''

To run a team on this budget in this division, you have to play your cards right, and Friedman means they enhanced their excellent pitching with the defense. Centerfielder B.J. Upton, third baseman Evan Longoria and first baseman Casey Kotchman are three of the best defenders at their positions, and shortstop Reid Brignac, leftfielder Desmond Jennings, second baseman Ben Zobrist (who has also played plenty of rightfield) and catcher Kelly Shoppach aren't bad, either. Before he got hurt, Superman Sam Fuld was tantamount to a defensive specialist in leftfield, the only such player in the game.

It's about time a movie was about the Rays. Though Friedman wouldn't bite when I try to suggest as much. As he said, the focus is on the guys.

• The Royals intend to try to fill their need for starting pitching this winter via trade. They like top free-agent starter C.J. Wilson. But it would be hard to imagine them beating out the incumbent Rangers or the California teams for the native Southern Californian Wilson, barring a dramatic overpay. The Royals' true weapon is their deep farm system, and they are said perhaps willing to dangle Wil Myers, Chris Dwyer or Cristian Colon. They will not trade Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy or several of the other top prospects who have had some big-league success this year and will probably also not part with Jake Odorizzi or Mike Montgomery, either. But they have such a big prospect stash that it's possible they might be able to trade for a starter.

• Bob Melvin will be back managing the A's. The Associated Press said he was close to a three-year deal, and that makes sense, though there was some thought they'd have a search, as MLB prefers, before making it official with Melvin.

• Davey Johnson can return to manage next year for the Nationals if he wants to, though Washington is seen as complying with the search suggestion before officially naming Johnson for 2012.

• The Mets appear likely to wait before doing any extension with Terry Collins, who has one year to go, plus a team option for 2013. He's done a decent job considering, though the Mets are fading a bit now.

• Ozzie Guillen says he wants to know his status before he departs on a vacation to Spain with his wife. He already has a contract for next year with the White Sox, but apparently that isn't enough for the man whose team badly underachieved this year. It is getting to be obvious he is angling to go to the Marlins who for some reason want him.

• The Blue Jays, who set themselves up beautifully by unloading Vernon Wells, are expected to have money for free agents this winter.

• Some say they also expect the bankrupt Dodgers to spend a fair amount as well. This would seem to be a tall order for the financially challenged team. But one insider suggests that this is where deferred contracts come in.

• Ivan Nova wrapped up the No. 2 spot in the Yankees' postseason rotation. Meanwhile, A.J. Burnett whined that he wasn't "allowed'' to pitch the fifth inning to get a win after lasting four and allowing all four runs in the Yankees' 6-4 victory on Monday, but lucky for him his absurd comment was overshadowed by Mariano Rivera setting the alltime saves record. Burnett has been allowed to make 31 starts despite a 5.26 ERA, pointed out Danny Knobler of

• The Red Sox are desperately hoping Clay Buchholz can make it back for the very end of the season after he threw a simulated game. He's been out three months with a back injury. David Ortiz opined that Alfredo Aceves should get a shot at starting, and it's hard to argue.

• Clayton Kershaw deserves the NL Ny Young. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Ian Kennedy aren't bad choices, but Kershaw is the best choice.

• Best wishes to Derrick Hall, the president and CEO of the Diamondbacks who announced that he has prostate cancer. Hall's prognosis is said to be excellent as he is in the early stages. Hall, who made the diagnosis public to aid in the cause against the disease, is one of the true good guys in the game

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