It was still early in the morning on the west coast on a December morning in 2010 when the texts and phone calls started flooding into Justin Friend's cell phone.
Friend had gone to bed the night before the property of the Oakland A's, the team that selected him in the 13th round out of Oklahoma State on the 13th round in the 2007 draft.
He awoke on that Thursday morning as a Phillie, selected in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft held annually at baseball's winter meetings.
"[The draft] happened on the east coast, and I hadn't given it any thought. Then I'm getting text messages at 6:30 in the morning from friends telling me I'm with a new club, and I'm still asleep," Friend said with a laugh.
The casual Major League baseball fan probably is familiar with the Rule 5's Major League phase, where an organization can pluck an unprotected player from another for $50,000 — but must also keep that player on the big league roster for the following season or else offer him back to the original organization for half that draft fee. It's how the Phillies got Shane Victorino from the Dodgers eight years ago, David Herndon from the Angels in 2009, and Michael Martinez from Washington before the 2011 season.
But not many are as familiar with the minor league phase, conducted on the three levels (Triple-A, Double-A and Single-A). Any player with more than three years of pro experience, or four, depending on their age, and not unprotected on one of his organization's minor league roster, are eligible to be picked by another organization. Unlike the Major League phase, the players, once selected, are the property of their new team — there are no roster requirements.
"For the most part it's a way to fill out a minor league roster for the following season if you know you you're gong to need a first baseman at Triple-A or maybe an outfielder at Double-A," said Steve Noworyta, the Phillies assistant director for player development, admitting the draft isn't known for producing major league players.
Friend is hoping to beat those odds.
The 26-year-old is overshadowed by higher-profile bullpen prospects, the Justin De Fratus', the Phillippe Aumonts, the Joe Saverys.
Yet over the last two years, the native Californian, who spent the 2010 season at Double-A Midland, has been as productive as any of them.
He was leading the Florida State League with 19 saves last year before being promoted to Reading in mid-June, then racked up nine more with the R-Phils. His combined 2.75 ERA in a career-high 55 games was the lowest of his pro career.
Friend began the 2012 season with Reading and was brilliant, allowing just one earned run in 27 innings and converting a league-high 14 saves when he was promoted to the IronPigs at the end of June.
He was 2-1 with a save and a 4.40 ERA in 12 games with the IronPigs before being pushed back down to Reading last week when Savery and Jake Diekman returned from the Phillies. Friend picked up where he left off with the R-Phils, notching saves with scoreless innings in his first two appearances.
"He's got a good arm and the scouts say there's a chance he could help out some day on the big league level," Noworyta said.
Friend had mixed results during his month-long stint with the IronPigs. After giving up two runs in two innings of his debut at Pawtucket on June 30, he allowed one earned run over his next 7 1/3 innings before giving up three runs in his next two appearances, including two along with three hits in a third of an inning on July 22 against red-hot Columbus.
He bounced back over his last four appearances, allowing a run over 4 1/3 innings before being sent down.
"There's been a lot of highs and lows this month, and I've got the type of mentality where I hold onto things a little too much," Friend said. "I really don't remember putting up those numbers in Reading, and even when I pitch good here I don't remember it as much as I do when I give up runs' I still remember that first outing in Pawtucket. So for me, the biggest thing is learning to let things go."
Although he's averaged more than a strikeout an inning over his pro career, Friend doesn't have the type of arm that will blow hitters away. He excels by keeping the ball on the ground with a biting slider and a sinker.
"He has movement on his fastball, and when he's going good, can get ground balls and double play balls," IronPigs manager Ryne Sandberg said
His command has also shown dramatic improvement since joining the Phillies organization — he's cut his walks basically in half, form 5.6 per nine innings over his 217 innings with the A's to 2.6 per nine in 102 innings with the Phillies. Still, he knows to be effective on the upper levels, that needs to improve even more.
"Obviously, these guys are a little bit older than in Double-A; they're more professional hitters, and they have an approach and know what they want to do," Friend said. "So you can't try to overthink and try to be too fine and make the perfect pitch. If you try too hard, you're going to make mistakes, and these guys are going to hit mistakes more than the guys down there [in Double-A]."
Friend compiled a 3.69 ERA over 217 1/3 innings during his time in the A's system but had just 30 save opportunities in his 148 appearances — only 10 in 89 games over his last two seasons. He's also become tougher to hit — opponents hit .256 off him while in the A's system, but are hitting only .233 against him since joining the Phillies.
More than anything, Friend says the opportunity to be close games has been a major factor in his improvement with the Phillies.
"Not having done that much for Oakland, I think it was just mostly them showing the confidence in to pitch late in games, and they've just kind of let me do my thing," Friend said. "Oakland wanted to tweak things and I kind of got away from who I was. Here, they just let you go out and pitch, and if you're having struggles, then we'll work on some things. If you're having success, we'll leave you alone and just let you pitch."
Friend called coming to the Phillies "a blessing in disguise.
"New sets of eyes to watch you, work with you," he said. "Maybe something Oakland sees they see, and they tweak it and it makes a big difference. And helps you get into the big leagues."