TJ Friedl was not selected anywhere in the 2016 MLB Draft despite a standout second season at the University of Nevada, one that even led to him eventually playing for Team USA. Of course, it’s the timeline of those events in the wake of an overlooked redshirt year that caused Friedl to remain off teams’ radars until it was too late for most, as the draft took place in between him hitting .401 for the Wolf Pack and turning heads for Team USA.
Everyone knew he’d been a redshirt sophomore during his breakout, and that he was not yet 21 years of age - the age he’d need to be for draft eligibility without three years of college. As Jerry Crasnick noted for ESPN back in 2016, however, most folks - Friedl included - thought that meant a trio of years of playing baseball, not just three years of academics in college, something he’d completed already.
After the draft came and went and Friedl motored on the path he himself thought best, an opportunity to play for Team USA opened up, and he excelled during the experience. It was at that juncture that clubs became aware that he was indeed eligible to be a pro, but with their draft hauls already chosen and any signing of Friedl needing to come out of the draft bonus pools they’d already allocated, very, very few clubs had the requisite wiggle room to offer Friedl a bonus big enough to warrant him turning pro - a bonus for a player who’d risen as high as a 2nd round grade on many boards.
The Cincinnati Reds scrambled around and came up with over $700K, and it was enough to get Friedl into their fold.
The elite speed, rock solid outfield defense, and ability to put bat to ball has mostly been there for Friedl, 27, who has posted a .787 OPS in over 2100 PA in the minors. That combo was good enough for him to earn his big league call-up in 2021 and again last season, where he hit .240/.314/.436 in 258 PA for a Reds club who was shedding players left and right during their rebuild. For what its worth, those numbers don’t seem too terribly out of line from FanGraphs’ ZiPS projections, either, who see Friedl posting relatively similar numbers again in 2023.
As another rebuilding season looms in 2023, it seems Friedl has once again fallen a bit through the cracks in projections despite there being precious few viable alternatives on the Reds roster. I’ve been guilty of it myself, honestly, and it took a brief and criminally underresearched post about Jake Fraley last week to begin to open my eyes a bit more.
Fraley’s surge during the second half of the 2022 season is what drew me to the stats for the back-end of last season, his .387 wOBA in that time the 19th best among the 264 players who logged at least 150 second-half PA. But if you scroll just slightly further down that list, you’ll find Friedl (.378) in a jumble with the likes of Fraley, Manny Machado, Mookie Betts, Adley Rutschman, and Carlos Correa, a veritable who’s who of really good MLB hitters these days.
That rumbled around the back of my head for a week as the Wil Myers signing threw a positive wrench into the Reds outfield mix, and then this tidbit from MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon this morning further catalyzed the situation:
Center fielder Nick Senzel was still using a scooter to get around at Redsfest. His foot remained in a boot because of complications from a broken left big toe, and he hadn’t walked in months.
With Fraley (against RHP, at least) and Myers around, Nick Senzel still as banged-up as ever, and only Stuart Fairchild truly in the mix with them for PA in the outfield, there’s absolutely zero reason why we should have anyone other than Friedl atop the CF depth chart for the time being.
He hit when given the chance, even though the sample size is tiny. He hit better in that stretch than the incumbent at the position has hit in years. The incumbent, even when healthy, hasn’t hit RHP the way Friedl has, either. The defense is and has always been fine, while the baserunning could add a dimension to the team that we’ve not been able to see, and the newly enlarged bases (paired with diminished shifting) could give the lefty-swinging Friedl even more of an advantage than he’d previously enjoyed.
I’m not anointing him the next Grady Sizemore, but it’s probably time we began to acknowledge TJ as a player deserving of much more expectation than we’ve given him to this point.
(Or, we shouldn’t, since that may be what’s helped fuel him getting to this position in the first place.)