Cincinnati’s 2018 Minor League Hitter of the Year isn’t a slugger, nor is he among the club’s higher-profile prospects. That’s not to say TJ Friedl won’t be roaming the Reds’ outfield in the not-too-distant future. Blessed with a smooth left-handed stroke and plus-plus wheels, he is — according to our own Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel — “almost a lock to hang around the big leagues for at least a few years in some role.”
His background is unlike that of most players who reach the doorstep, let alone get invited inside. Friedl entered pro ball in 2016 as a non-drafted free agent out of the University of Nevada. More on that in moment.
At 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, the 23-year-old Friedl looks the part of a table-setter, and the numbers match the image. In a 2018 season split evenly between Hi-A Daytona and Double-A Pensacola, the speedster slashed .284/.381/.384 with five home runs and 30 stolen bases.
His top-of-the-order-friendly OBP was fueled by a change that occurred shortly before his 2017 campaign ended prematurely due to injury. Wanting to recognize pitches earlier, he tweaked his timing mechanism.
“Before, I was open and had kind of a leg-kick stride,” Friedl explained earlier this summer. “I’d begun feeling rushed, like I was doing everything at once, so I closed off my stance and went no-stride. I told myself, ‘OK, all you’re going to do is pick your heel up, and put it down.’ At first I didn’t realize how much extra time that was going to give me. I’d been used to striding with the leg kick, and now all of a sudden I was early on 97-mph fastballs.”
His swing remained the same. Friedl didn’t want to change anything with his hands, nor he did he wish to alter a bat path he described as being “level through the zone.” Recognizing that he’s not built for power, Friedl stays gap-to-gap and is careful not to swing too hard. From time to time he’ll take things a step further and go an even-softer route.
“Bunting is kind of a lost art in the big leagues,” said Friedl. “Hardly anyone does it anymore — everybody is trying to hit for power — but it’s one of the biggest parts of my game. Speed is my go-to — I can lay one down and beat it out — plus it gives me something to take out of my back pocket when I’m not seeing the ball well. That’s something I learned in college; if you’re feeling rushed or antsy, you can always bunt. Staying back and seeing the ball hit the bat helps slow things down for you.”
What scouts saw on a University of Nevada roster contributed heavily to his convoluted matriculation from college to pro ball. If it seemed like Friedl came out of nowhere, well, he sort of did. The lusty .401/.494/.563 slash line he put up in 2016 came after two years of anonymity. In 2014, he garnered just 37 at-bats as a freshman. In 2015, he was redshirted.
According to Friedl, a pair of missing letters made him invisible in the eyes of most evaluators.
“Looking back, I’d say the biggest cause [of not getting drafted] was the roster that’s printed out for scouts,” Friedl told me. “All that was listed was ‘sophomore,’ whereas it should have shown ‘RS sophomore’ to let everyone know it was actually my third year. Same with the roster on our website. All it said was ‘sophomore.’”
Ultimately, just one scout — Friedl chose not to divulge which team he was with — called prior to the draft. But while he was aware that the redshirt sophomore was draft eligible, the player himself was not.
“I didn’t know that it being my third year at Nevada counted,” admitted Friedl, who as a business major with a focus on finance maybe should have known (granted, Draft Eligibility 101 presumably wasn’t part of the curriculum). “I thought you needed three years of actual baseball, or you had to be 21. I didn’t have either, so I didn’t think I was eligible. An agent could have told me, but I didn’t even bother getting one until that summer.”
Getting an agent proved to be a godsend. By the time the speedy outfielder was playing for Team USA in July, his status had gone from being a secret to being shouted from the rooftops. As Friedl put it, “Things got pretty hectic. Once I flew overseas to Taiwan — that was our first stop — it all kind of blew up.”
Adam Karon made sure that his client stayed at arm’s length from the tumult that ensued. The esteemed member of the Sosnick Cobbe & Karon triumvirate instructed Friedl to “just play ball” and let him handle any and all negotiations.
“Adam put me on an email chain with my parents,” said Friedl. “Every morning I’d wake up to an email saying, ‘Here is the current situation; here is what we’re looking at; here is what I think we can do.’ Every day there would be a phone call between him and my parents. That took a big weight off my shoulders.”
Friedl was advised — by both Karon and TJ Bruce, the head coach at Nevada — to set a number in his head. If it was reached, he would sign. If it didn’t, he would return to school for another year.
The number was more than met. Despite draft-pool regulations limiting the number of teams that could realistically compete for his services — “it was five once the bidding war started” — Friedl reportedly received a $732,500 signing bonus.
That may or may not have been the highest offer he received. With his client’s best interests in mind, Karon made sure to include more than just money in his discussions with the young player and his family.
“Once we got to the number and the bidding went on, Adam laid out the situation with every team,” explained Friedl. “He was like, ‘This is what they did in this year’s draft, and this is what their farm system looks like.’”
Nowadays, the Cincinnati farm system is looking pretty good, and Friedl — a mystery man to scouting departments a few short years ago — is among the reasons why.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.