Andrew Friedman has been at the helm of baseball's biggest turnaround over the past decade, and has been unimaginably impactful on a Tampa Bay franchise that had been mired in atrocity prior to the organizational takeover by Friedman, Matthew Silverman, and Stuart Sternberg in 2005. He has been the epitome of their success, and there is no denying how much he has given the franchise over the years.
After a run that has included four postseason appearances and an American League pennant despite consistently playing with one of baseball's lowest budgets, Friedman has moved on to the Los Angeles Dodgers, where the lauded executive will seek to replicate his success in Tampa Bay with an exorbitantly higher payroll. While losing Friedman certainly hurts, the Rays will still retain the remainder of their staff that has led them to such excellent performances in recent years, and may very well be fine without him.
Per Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, team president Matt Silverman, a close companion of Friedman's, will take on the role of president of baseball operations, while senior vice president of business operations Brian Auld will assume Silverman's post. Silverman is a more than capable replacement for Friedman, and figures to carry on much of the club's methods that have led to them thriving in recent years.
The Rays will also be keeping manager Joe Maddon, who is arguably the best skipper in the game. Despite rumors that Maddon would be joining Friedman in Los Angeles, the Rays' manager since 2006 has stated that he wants "to continue to be a Ray."
2014 has proven to be a tough year for the Rays, who have now lost both Friedman and longtime ace David Price, who was dealt to Detroit mid-season. The club also reeled off its first losing season since 2007, as injuries and poor performances from star players proved to be too much to overcome.
Fortunately, it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect the club to bounce back to contender status in 2015. Wil Myers and Evan Longoria should be expected to rebound from sub-par seasons, reigniting the offense. It's also unlikely that Ben Zobrist slugs below .400 again next season. The club's relief crew was roughly middle of the pack last season, but the team has been rather uniform in putting together solid, cheap bullpens over the years, so some positive regression may be in store.
Injuries were especially devastating for the Rays in the rotation, as Alex Cobb and Jeremy Hellickson both missed time, and Matt Moore underwent Tommy John surgery which should keep him out until at least mid-2015. Still, the Rays have an exciting foundation of young pitching, with a 2015 rotation likely made up of Cobb, Hellickson, Jake Odorizzi, Chris Archer, and Price-trade acquisition Drew Smyly, along with the return of Moore at some point. All six of them are in their early or mid-twenties and have shown the ability to be at least mid-rotation starters at some point in the recent past.
With Friedman now gone, Silverman and the Rays are confronted with some tough decisions in the near future.
For one, the Rays should probably find a better long-term solution at the catcher position. While Jose Molina and Ryan Hanigan are both excellent pitch-framers, the two are absolutely terrible at the plate, as they combined to post a 55 wRC+ last season, which was the worst mark in baseball (the Dodgers were 29th). They also finished last in wOBA and second to last in WAR. The club also doesn't have any immediate in-house solutions with 2013 first rounder Nick Ciuffo having yet to make it out of rookie ball and 2014-breakout performer Justin O'Connor only recently reaching Double-A (he played 21 games at the level in 2014).
Perhaps the biggest question looming over the franchise is what to do with Ben Zobrist, who is eligible for free agency after next season. Zobrist has played a key role in the Rays' recent run of success, putting up 37.4 WAR over the past six seasons. While his power dipped a tad in 2014, he was still a 5-WAR player, and at $7.5 million, he is being drastically underpaid. The one caveat with Zobrist is that he will turn 34 early next season, so a long-term deal is likely out of the question, and it's possible that the Rays cut bait with him entirely. Still, Zobrist is easily one of the best players on the team, and losing him would be less than ideal.
The Rays also need to work on their drafting and development. While the club has notably churned out impact big leaguers such as Longoria, Price, Cobb, Desmond Jennings, and most recently, Kevin Kiermaier (though it is still questionable that he repeats his 2014 performance), they have failed to hit on most of their picks dating back to the 2008 draft, when they took shortstop Tim Beckham (he of a 0.1 career WAR) with the first overall pick. Since then, the club has received just 4.0 WAR from its draftees, with nearly all of that total coming from Kiermaier's surprise 2014. In order for the small-market Rays to continue to field competitive rosters in the AL East, they are going to need to start hitting on some of their draft picks.
Essentially, the Rays are losing the second most valuable commodity the franchise has ever had (Longoria on that absurd deal early in his career may be one of the single greatest bargains of all time), however, there is still plenty of optimism surrounding the organization, as the club's overhead is much the same as it was yesterday, and the organization is in a strong, manageable situation overall. In essence, things are going to have to get quite a bit worse to count the Rays out.