Neander offers peek behind Rays' curtain

November 12th, 2021

CARLSBAD, Calif. -- Standing on the promenade at the Omni La Costa Resort during the final full day of the General Managers Meetings, Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos attempted to explain what winning the World Series taught him about building a championship-level roster. He emphasized that it takes a deep roster just to play in October, and making a run through the postseason requires a combination of good players, timely hot streaks and fortunate breaks.

“I think what will get you to the postseason won’t necessarily win in the postseason,” Anthopoulos said, “but I think you can’t lose sight of the fact that you need to get there first.”

It’s a philosophy shared by Rays president of baseball operations Erik Neander, one that has guided Tampa Bay’s front office the past few years. As their offseason work begins in earnest following Thursday’s conclusion of the GM Meetings, the Rays still believe their best chance to win the franchise’s first World Series is by getting to the postseason as often as possible.

“I think you want to still capitalize on windows when they’re there. There’s more urgency to build on the wins that are in front of us,” Neander said at the GM Meetings. “You want to be careful because you don’t want to experience the ’14, ’15, ’16, ’17, ’18 -- that period. Walking that line, it’s very fine. It might not even be practical to achieve it, but sustained success and having a chance to reach the postseason -- and therefore have a chance to win a World Series -- in as many years as possible is our goal.”

In other words, the Rays aren’t interested in the teardown/rebuild/all-in competitive cycle that’s become more popular within the industry since the Cubs and Astros followed it to win World Series titles. The Rays' path forward is what Neander described as a “steady, sustained climb.”

It’s an ascent that’s taken them from four consecutive losing seasons from 2014-17 to a 90-win campaign in ’18, the American League Division Series in ’19, the World Series in '20 and a franchise-record 100-win season this year. And it’s required the Rays to operate, at all times, with one eye on the present and one on the future.

They’ve made moves that prioritize the present, like trading two top pitching prospects for Nelson Cruz. They’ve made moves that prioritize the future, like dealing Blake Snell for a haul of young talent. And they’ve made moves that reorganize their roster, like trading young shortstop Willy Adames for young pitchers J.P. Feyereisen and Drew Rasmussen.

After their deep MLB club won 100 games and their talent-laden Minor League system produced championships at four levels this year, the Rays are proving it’s possible to succeed on both fronts.

“We would’ve loved to have had a deeper postseason run; we did not. But the Major League team and the cumulative success of our Minor League teams has us collectively really excited about what’s ahead,” Neander said. “While the finish to this year was disappointing, there is that feeling that this is the end of the beginning and this is a group that very much has a trajectory arrow that’s pointing up.”

Still, the Rays have yet to achieve their ultimate goal. They came within two wins in the World Series in 2020 and seemed even better positioned after a dominant regular season this year, only to surprisingly lose a four-game ALDS against a Red Sox team that finished eight games behind them in the AL East. Then they watched from home as an Atlanta team that won 88 games in the regular season, fewer than four of five AL East teams, celebrated a championship.

So, what’s it going to take for the Rays to be the last team standing in October?

“I still would like to think that the best way to win in the postseason is to have a team that’s built to win a lot of games in the regular season, but I think there is probably a little nuance to that as far as how things are structured,” Neander said. “There are differences to how a postseason is structured, and that can place a different premium on the importance of the top of your roster versus the depth of your roster, but I do think there’s a lot of overlap. And the experience matters.

“While the end of last season was very disappointing, the benefits of the experience afforded to these players … will be incredibly beneficial to their readiness for next year and, ideally, for the postseason.”

Staff departures
The Rays lost two important members of the organization on Thursday. Former first-base coach/assistant hitting coach Ozzie Timmons officially joined the Brewers as a hitting coach, and former assistant director of baseball research and development Anirudh Kilambi took a job as the Phillies’ assistant general manager in charge of research and development.

Phillies GM Sam Fuld, a former Ray himself, said in a statement that the 27-year-old Kilambi’s “skillset and personality provide us exactly what we were looking for when we started this search.” Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns similarly said Milwaukee is “thrilled” to hire Timmons alongside co-head hitting coach Connor Dawson.

Timmons, a 51-year-old Tampa native, held his most recent position with the Rays from 2017-21 after serving as a Minor League hitting coach in the organization from 2007-17. Had he remained with the Rays, Timmons was set to move out of his role as first-base coach to focus more on his work with hitting coach Chad Mottola. The Rays are expected to promote Chris Prieto from the Minors to replace Timmons at first base, although they now must promote or hire a new assistant hitting coach.

“Coming up with the organization since I started coaching, it’s always tough to leave a place like this,” Timmons said on a Zoom call. “Tampa’s home. Now, I’ve got a new home to go to in Milwaukee.”