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Ernesto Frieri and Why We Should Appreciate Jim Hickey

By Robbie Knopf
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In 2014, in his first time through the arbitration process, Ernesto Frieri made $3.8 million. This coming season, meanwhile, he is guaranteed to make just $800,000. How does a pitcher’s salary decline by nearly 80% in one year? Clearly something catastrophic is required, and Frieri’s 7.34 ERA in 41.2 innings certainly qualifies. However, did he really deserve the smallest guarantee on any big league contract signed this offseason?

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We live in a world where Jesus Guzman and Jack Hannahan will make $1 million each to play in Japan and Korea respectively next season. More relevant to Frieri specifically is that Kyuji Fujikawa received $1.1 million from the Texas Rangers despite Tommy John Surgery and no track record in America. In addition, Craig Breslow got $2 million despite a 5.96 ERA in 2014 while Jim Johnson found $1.6 million plus incentives even after a Frieri-esque 7.14 ERA.

Ernesto Frieri clearly could have gotten more than $800,000 in guaranteed money if he so desired. With that in mind, why did he agree to such a contract, especially as early as November 26th? The answer is that he wanted to work with renowned Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey. As long as he knew that he was working with the best, he was willing to take a chance and receive a lower base salary in pursuit of long-term reward.

Frieri readily admits that Hickey’s ability “to fix pitchers” was a major reason that he signed with the Rays. And Hickey’s influence was evident even during Frieri’s second bullpen session with the team as he made an adjustment to Frieri’s foot placement that seemed to help Frieri’s command. That is exactly what Frieri signed up for, and he is far from the last pitcher for whom that will be the case.

Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon are gone and much of this team’s identity has changed. Matt Silverman has maintained many of Friedman’s practices, but will the Rays ever have another themed road trip? Kevin Cash will certainly bring a different, non-Maddon managerial style to the table, but a few major things have not changed. Most notably, the Rays still have an excellent starting rotation and no one is better at getting struggling relievers on track.

It is not often that we have heard Tampa Bay described as a destination where players want to go. The reasons are obvious–the Rays are a team with a limited payroll that currently plays in a stadium that no one can get to. However, Jim Hickey is a major reason that the Rays have been able to counteract those factors, at least to an extent, through their actions.

Winning does not make every problem go away–the Rays’ last few years have been clear evidence of that. The Rays were certainly hoping that their success would get them a new stadium and stop the criticism from the mainstream sports media, but that has not taken place. Instead, what they have left to hold onto is the reputation that they have created, the reputation that gives him a chance to get back to contending and stay there.

The failure of 2014 does not diminish everything that the Rays did the previous six years. In addition, the collapses of Heath Bell and Juan Carlos Oviedo did not affect anyone’s opinion of how good Jim Hickey is at his job. Ernesto Frieri wanted to join the Rays. Let’s think about that for a second. When a player who has never spent time with your team and isn’t from the area is willing to take less money to sign with you, that speaks volumes.

Of course, we haven’t mentioned the $2.35 million in incentives that Frieri hopes to earn. He hopes to parlay a resurgent season into a huge arbitration raise next offseason. At the same time, however, Frieri is taking the risk that he cannot move past his struggles from 2014 and gets released in May like Bell before him. Getting Jim Johnson’s $1.6 million could look quite nice for Frieri in hindsight if he makes under $1 million this year and is stuck scraping for a minor league contract in 2015.

Ernesto Frieri signed with the Rays nonetheless because the presence of Jim Hickey makes him as confident as he possibly could be given last season. Instead of a team taking the risk on a player, as small-market teams so often need to do, this is a case of a player being willing to take a risk on a team. Given everything that Hickey and the Rays have done in recent years, Frieri clearly believes that his gamble is worthwhile, and someone will decide the same thing next offseason as well.

Next: An Updated Look at the Rays' Bullpen Competition

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