As the new President of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Matthew Silverman brings a strong business background and analytical approach. After working at Wall Street investment bank Goldman Sachs in the merchant banking and firm-wide strategy divisions, Silverman helped Rays owner Stuart Sternberg orchestrate his purchase of the franchise. His promotion to Team President comes after two years in the role of Vice President of Planning and Development.
Andrew Friedman ascended to the role of Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations for the Rays this off-season. He previously spent two years as Director of Baseball Development, where he oversaw all aspects of baseball operations and led the negotiations for Carl Crawford‘s long-term contract. Friedman spent two years as a financial analyst for Bear, Stearns and three years as an associate for the private equity firm MidMark Capital before joining the Rays. Silverman and Friedman recently chatted with Baseball Prospectus about their handling of the Rays’ top prospects, the challenges of generating fan interest in Tampa, and the advantages of a multi-tiered front office structure.
Baseball Prospectus: Matt, you’ve had experience doing M&A work with Goldman Sachs. You’ve served as CFO of a real estate software firm. How can you best apply those skills to running a major league ballclub?
Matthew Silverman: Goldman Sachs provides a great example of how a well-run company operates. It’s not about the analytics but about the corporate philosophy. It’s a people-centric business. Goldman prided itself on customer service, training and employing the best people. That’s what we want to apply to the Rays organization to help make it better.
BP: Andrew, same question, but regarding your work as an analyst for Bear, Stearns and as an associate for MidMark Capital.
Andrew Friedman: I look at it from the standpoint of problem-solving, and also the analytical side of it. From a management perspective, you can apply some lessons to things like contract negotiations. Both at Bear and at MidMark, the culture was very focused on teams–you’d have five or five people per deal. That kind of problem-solving approach is what we’re trying to create here. We’re more top-heavy than before, but it’s about recognizing certain people’s strengths and weaknesses to build a full array in the front office.
BP: Gerry Hunsicker had a pretty successful stretch as GM of the Astros before coming to Tampa. How has he been able to contribute?
Friedman: One of his greatest skills is that he’s always able to ask the right questions, and that helps a lot in the decision-making process. He’s a big part of what we’ve done this off-season, and in setting up our infrastructure for the years ahead. He’s involved in player development, amateur scouting, as well as international scouting. In this day and age, with so many different things to explore and some of the inefficiencies that still exist in the game, having a Gerry Hunsicker is invaluable. He’s definitely complemented my weaknesses–I’ve learned a lot from him in the last five months.
BP: How would you describe Stuart Sternberg’s philosophy in terms of building a franchise?
Silverman: Stu is an opportunist as a business man. He saw a great opportunity with the Devil Rays and jumped on it. He has great confidence in the growth and health of the industry. He also has great confidence in the Tampa Bay region’s viability as a baseball market, as a place where Major League Baseball can thrive. He sees a great opportunity with the players we have currently. The challenge will be how to build around them to sustain success for many years, despite playing in what many people consider to be the toughest division in baseball.
Friedman: His understanding of people and market dynamics is invaluable. He’s not terribly involved day-to-day. When he is, he asks questions that offer extremely unique, valuable input. He wants to be competitive, and to be able to sustain it. He grew up as a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. Back then you had a continuity of a core group of players, and it’s something we’ve latched on to. We should know our players better than anybody else does. The key is identifying core players, the ones you’ll be building around for years and years. That’s reflected in the contracts we gave Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli.
BP: The Devil Rays have instituted a performance-based system to calculate exactly what to pay players with zero to three years of major league service time. One baseball official said this after reading the memo on your payment system: “Whoever came up with this must be a person who uses nothing but the metric system, measures degrees in Celsius, can tell you exactly how many bricks it took to build Tropicana Field, and knows nothing about baseball.” Why do you see this as a better way to make these kinds of decisions?
Friedman: What we did is we came up with a structure. We came up with a range in our mind. We called every agent to get a feel for the other side. It’s amazing what you see, these painstakingly long conversations, two sides arguing over $500 or $1000. When you get into those kinds of incremental negotiations with them, it’s an enormous time-sink. That’s how we did things in the past.
The system we have now is by no means proprietary, the idea is just that people understand the premise of it. Is it perfect? No, but it’s better than the old system. It takes into account a blend of service time and performance. It takes away instances where players in the clubhouse are saying ‘hey, they like this guy more than me.’ It takes the subjectivity out of it, to where it becomes a matter of who helped us win more games last year. It creates a meritocracy-based system.
BP: These decisions become more important when you’ve got as many top prospects as the Devil Rays do, with players like Delmon Young and B.J. Upton knocking on the door (and not getting called up following the injuries to Julio Lugo and Luis Ordaz). Are you reluctant to bring those guys up to the majors some time soon, for fear that they’ll become free agents when they’re 26, just as they’re entering their prime?
Friedman: That’s a good problem to have. When you have players who become free agents by 26, that highlights the supreme talent we have in our system. On the other hand, when you look back to the past, there were cases where we promoted players too quickly, and developed them at the big league level. Some instances worked, some didn’t and those players then had success in other places. Ultimately, though, you want these players to develop, irrespective of age. You want them to come up to the big league level and contribute as quickly as possible. We want the contribution to be as big as possible, for as many years as they’re under team control. We don’t only look at having some of these players for only six years. With these guys potentially becoming free agents at 26, that makes us much more willing to sign that kind of player long-term and keep him, at an age where he’ll continue to be productive.
BP: Upton in particular has been a source for debate. His defense has been erratic at shortstop. There are people who believe his bat could play anywhere on the diamond, but obviously he’d have more value as a shortstop than say, a corner outfielder. What position do you see Upton playing long-term?
Friedman: We see him as a shortstop. One of the reasons that players get moved off of shortstop in the majors is a lack of range or arm strength. B.J. possesses both of those things, they’re both pluses. People forget he played in Triple-A at 20 years old. We’ve allocated resources and worked with him to become the above-average shortstop we think he can be. One skill we think can get better through repetition is infield defense–that is, consistency as an infielder. If a player possesses range, arm strength and hands, it becomes a matter of getting the repetition. We’ve had people like Ozzie Smith and Tom Foley work with him, developing a plan to get him where we want him to be. B.J.’s an extremely hard worker, he just didn’t know what to work on in the past. We expect him to become an above-average major league shortstop, and he does too. As far as when that will happen, that’s hard to say. We definitely think his bat is ready, but he needs to continue to work on his defense. We wouldn’t bet against B.J. Upton doing anything.
BP: It seems that the new management team, as well as new manager Joe Maddon, are willing to take some creative risks. We saw Wes Bankston playing some third base in spring training. Is he a candidate for the position long-term, given how uncertain it’s been in recent years?
Friedman: Any time you move a right-handed-throwing outfielder into the infield, you want to see if he can take to third base first. Wes has been a first baseman most recently, but he possesses a strong arm from his days in the outfield. At first, his hands worked really well over there. Coupled with the hard worker he is, and the great makeup he has, he can try this. If it doesn’t work, there’s no downside in our minds. This is about maximizing our flexibility in the future, something we’re trying to do in several different ways.
BP: Your first amateur draft is coming up in a couple of months. Do have a specific draft philosophy you plan to adhere to, or are you simply going to look for the best available talent?
Friedman: How we draft is going to be specific to that specific year. We’ll study the trends of a particular draft and look for value. We’re not going to be tied to one overriding philosophy. We’re going to constantly tweak based on what others are doing, on where we can get value at the time.
BP: A team with limited revenue streams like the Devil Rays of course has to watch the bottom line. The Padres drafting Matt Bush over Stephen Drew and Jered Weaver was a cautionary tale of what happens when ownership is more concerned about Scott Boras than getting the best player available. How do you plan to balance signability with the need to draft premium talent?
Freidman: At the end of the day, it boils down to positive value, getting positive return on any one move. We won’t shy away from a player if we think he’ll generate positive value. Scouting and player development for us is really going to be our lifeblood. For us to be successful, we have to develop players coming up through the minor leagues right now. But we’re also going to have to be successful while picking 20th through 30th. We’ve been picking 1-2-3-4 for many years; we have to have that same level of success while picking lower.
BP: The strength of the organization right now obviously lies on the position player side. Will there be an added emphasis on building up the team’s pitching stock?
Friedman: At end of the day we do intend to be value-driven. That being said, if there’s pitcher that comes in slightly below a position player, he may have more value for us. We’re trying to acquire pitchers in as many ways as possible. At the same time, we’re not fixating on pitching prospects. We’re confident we’re going to score a lot of runs in the coming years. We do think we have some good pitching prospects as well. But as you know, with the typical attrition rate, you need to stockpile as many good young arms as possible. In the draft you’re not necessarily looking at the needs of today as much as the needs of tomorrow, because of the lag time in developing prospects. We don’t want to wake up in seven years and find that our pitching’s strong, but that our position players are really weak.
BP: You talked about looking for pitching in multiple ways. Edwin Jackson was an interesting pickup, in that he was considered a top pitching prospect just a couple years ago, but his perceived value fell from there. What made you pursue Jackson, and is he the type of pitcher you’re going to trying to acquire?
Friedman: There were two factors with Jackson. We had to make sure he was healthy, and we found that he was. Then based on our reports, he still had the stuff that made him be considered as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. We hope this is kind of the reverse of guys that got to the major league level and struggled in Tampa, then saw success elsewhere.
It’s very difficult to sign free-agent starting pitching. That’s not a market we necessarily want to participate in much. To potentially fill two spots in the starting rotation for the coming years with Jackson and Chuck Tiffany was extremely attractive to us.
BP: Are there any plans to build a new stadium closer to Tampa? What is the team’s viability in its current facility?
Silverman: The stadium is not a hindrance to creating a successful business. The empty seats are opportunities for us. We’re confident that once the marketplace latches on to our team and the players, that Tropicana Field will be full of energy and excitement. It’s a great place to watch a game. Will we be there 22 years from now, when the lease expires? Probably not. Between years five and 22, we will need to discuss an alternative, but for now we’re proud to have Tropicana Field as our home.
We put a lot of capital into the park–about $10 million–making it cleaner, more comfortable, bringing history in with the addition of the Ted Williams Museum. We built a club level on the first-base line, renovated the bathrooms, did a big clean-up job. We’re putting in a tank filled with live rays in right-center field that will be completed in July. The clubhouse has been renovated, we have new TVs throughout the concourse, and there’s also a new sound system.
We want to turn it into a real home-field advantage. We already have great speed, and the turf creates an advantage there. The white roof is something that our opponents may have trouble getting used to. When we get over 20,000 people here, it’s extremely loud. We’re urging people to come out and be the 10th Man. The more people that come, the more that can have an impact on the outcome of the game.