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Q&A: Team effort for Neander, Rays leadership

Rays GM discusses Longoria's place, missing Forsythe, taking on tough AL East
March 13, 2017

The Tampa Bay Rays have a unique front-office situation, with president of baseball operations Matt Silverman, senior VP of baseball operations Chaim Bloom and senior VP of baseball operations/general manager Erik Neander combining to create a three-headed executive committee.The trio works in unison to run Tampa Bay, which averaged more

The Tampa Bay Rays have a unique front-office situation, with president of baseball operations Matt Silverman, senior VP of baseball operations Chaim Bloom and senior VP of baseball operations/general manager Erik Neander combining to create a three-headed executive committee.
The trio works in unison to run Tampa Bay, which averaged more than 91 wins per season between 2008-13 under the watch of GM Andrew Friedman before he left to take control of the Dodgers' baseball operations.
:: General manager Q&As ::
Silverman, Bloom and Neander each have their own strengths, forming a cohesive unit that is looking to get the Rays back to the postseason following three straight sub-.500 seasons.
Neander, who has worked for the Rays for more than a decade, sat down recently with on a back field at Charlotte Sports Park for an extensive interview. Among the topics he discussed were the Rays' front office hierarchy, the challenges of running a small-market franchise, what Evan Longoria means to the organization and the state of the American League East. How did you land your first job in baseball?
Neander: My first job in baseball was with the Rays. I was a year out of school, I had spent a summer working with BIS (Baseball Info Solutions), kind of a data-collection company, and I was fortunate enough to get an internship with the Rays, with [VP of baseball operations] James Click, helping to build a database in some of the basic foundation of the operation from a data and research standpoint.
• Spring TrainingInfo | Tickets | Schedule | Gear Being in baseball about a decade now, how in any ways have your views or philosophies on the game changed over that decade?
Neander: Humbled many times over. My first full-time year, we were fortunate enough to play in the World Series. To have that experience that fast was remarkable, cherished. It's nothing that certainly was taken for granted, but to have a year last year like the year that we had, you, in hindsight, (you) appreciate those moments so much more. It's something where the years move fast. I'm learning more and more to enjoy those special moments when you have them. All the reminders along the way not to take them for granted is certainly a big thing.
The amount of data, the amount of information now; Statcast™ is kind of the latest thing. The amount of information that is in this game now is rapidly increasing at an exponential rate. Just trying to keep up and separate noise from substance is something that has become more and more of a challenge, I think, for all teams.
PODCAST: Listen to the full interview Statcast™ has made some metrics more public to the baseball world and the fans over the past few years. How do you view the fact that those numbers are out there now? A lot of teams were already using those numbers; do you think it's changed the way fans look at the game?
Neander: I think so. Fans like to consume the game in different ways, and I think there's certainly a population, a segment of the fans that Statcast™ being provided and the content that's provided off Statcast™, makes for a greater experience to consume the game. At the root of all of this, it's an entertainment industry. It's about the fans and if there are people that are really getting involved and engaging with the Statcast™ content and that's something that appeals to them, I think it's great. When analytics first hit the scene -- Oakland gets a lot of credit for bringing them into the game -- they were viewed as a tool for small-market teams to try to counter the large-market teams and get an advantage. Now every team uses them. Do small-market teams need to be more aggressive in finding the next big thing?
Neander: Tough question to answer. I think there's probably more attention on it with small-market teams because of the financial disparity, but it's something that I think just about any team has the mindset of trying to improve, trying to find the next best way or the ways to make your current processes better. There are certainly pressures on us to do that in order to remain competitive, but I don't think it's necessarily that much different for any team across the league. Matt Silverman was recently quoted as saying, "There are three of us that can make decisions for the department." Is that risky? What happens when there are disagreements with the three of you?
Neander: Logic prevails most of the time. Most of the time.
Neander: Exactly. Not all of the time. Some of the benefits for having worked together for as long as we have and, in many ways, growing up within the organization is that I think we all have a pretty good sense for each of our individual passions and areas of strength and how they mesh together. There's things that I fully recognize that Matt or Chaim are probably better equipped to handle and that their voice should carry more weight and vice versa; there's probably things that I invest more of my time [in] and they know that and they're going to lean a little bit more on me.
This really is truly a very healthy, natural give and take when it comes to any specific decision in terms of who's got the final [say] or who we want to lean on the most to make that happen. Frankly, it's been something that has been nothing but positive for the way we've operated. You began as an intern in the baseball operations department with the Rays in 2007. How has the franchise's culture most changed during your time in Tampa Bay? When you got here, they were not a winning team. By 2008, they were in the World Series.
Neander: When I first started, the operation was much more lean than it is today. The amount of staff has grown considerably. With respect to the culture itself, it's largely been stable. What Andrew was able to impart from a baseball standpoint, Matt from a business standpoint and [principal owner] Stu [Sternberg] from the very top, it's a culture where there's accountability, there are expectations, but there's stability.
There's care for the person, first and foremost. That's something that, over time, has always been there. The care for the staff members, the care for the person and the people, having a work environment that is collaborative, that's engaging and that welcomes any and all perspectives is something that I hope is continuing to get better but is something that I think was established early and has remained in place. Managers often say the toughest part of their job is having to call a player into their office to tell them they've been sent down. You had to call John Forsythe this winter to tell him he was traded. What is that conversation like? How difficult is that to call a guy who has done such good things for your organization to tell him he's been traded?
Neander: Incredibly difficult. Replacing Logan's on-field production is something over time that we're hopeful we have the guys here to be able to do that. Replacing Logan the person, you don't do that. The respect that we have for Logan and everything he's done for the organization, to make that decision and then to follow through to call him to break that news for him, it's incredibly difficult and excruciating, but you handle it, you try to be direct, try to make it known to them that you're very appreciative of everything that they've done.
At the end of the day, we have our job descriptions and things that we have to do that we believe are in the best interests of the organization in the big picture. This was one of them, and that's kind of what pushes you through to make those difficult decisions and to make those difficult calls. Evan Longoria is entering his 10th season in the Majors, which is almost hard to believe. After making the All-Star team in each of his first three years, he hasn't been back there in the past six, even after setting a personal mark with 36 homers last year. Do you still consider him an All-Star-caliber player? Where do you see his career at this point going forward?
Neander: An All-Star-caliber player, absolutely. More than that, I think the way Evan goes about his business, what he represents, the respect he has from his peers is something that goes beyond his on-field production in a way that isn't necessarily measurable. He's a cornerstone player; he's everything in a star player that you could ever ask for. The way he treats his teammates, the way that he leads, the way he shows up every day, the way he perfects his craft, that's something where the season he had last year wasn't a surprise to any of us. The ability to maintain that level of production or possibly in some years even exceed it still is something that very much is his expectation and very much ours, as well. You signed Nathan Eovaldi this winter even though he's slated to miss most if not all of the season following Tommy John surgery. The deal has a club option for 2018; do you like those risk-reward type of deals? Is that something that smaller-market teams maybe have to roll the dice on sometimes?
Neander: First and foremost, we love the talent. The age, the arm strength, the depth of the repertoire, the physicality -- and a great guy to boot. That's the obvious appeal of it. Going through a second major elbow surgery rehab is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but we felt that for the cost and what we needed to commit in order to see his rehab thorough from this point forward, having gone through a large chunk of his rehab already, we felt with our medical staff as good as they are, this is someone we felt like we could get back on the field with limited risk for setback and be in a position to really help us in 2018. At the cost that was required for us to do that, we felt it was an easy decision to bring Nate in. The Rays have been a favorite trading partner of Jerry Dipoto during his stints with both the Angels and Mariners. Is it a case as simple as some executives have better chemistry with each other, so it makes sense to take advantage of that in communicating to make deals? Or is it just a coincidence that you guys have made so many trades with Jerry?
Neander: A little of both. There's a trust and there's a comfort that you don't have to do the whole song and dance to get to the end of a conversation on a potential transaction. Both sides go into it with a mindset of, "This is what we're looking to do, this is what we're willing to give up. Does it work? Yes or no?" Not necessarily trying to anchor into some far-off place and have this painstaking negotiation, but to really cut through it. The mutual trust, both sides are expressing their needs, what they're looking to get back. If it's a fit, great. If not, move on. The efficiency of the conversations and the trust that's there has enabled a lot of transactions over time to be executed. There's probably some part of it that's just a coincidence; that our players and our needs of each organization have overlapped the way that they have. Competing in a division with the Yankees and Red Sox, two teams that have never been shy about spending money, in your situation in Tampa Bay, do you look at that as it's just part of the job? Is it overwhelming when you see (Boston) make a $217 million signing in David Price? Or is that just what you signed on for, so you go and deal with those conditions?
Neander: I think that every situation presents its own strengths and limitations; different pressures, different stresses. Our specific situation, that's not something we get wrapped up in. We feel like if we do what we need to do, if we execute the way we need to execute, that there's no reason we can't compete. We genuinely believe that and that's where our focus is. There's no excuse-making, there's no "well, if we had that" or "if we did this." As we go through things, I think our expectation is to compete and to be right alongside the teams in our division. No excuses if we don't get that done. How do you assess the state of the AL East heading into the season right now?
Neander: Very competitive. It's very competitive and I think it's a very deep division, a very talented division, but that's nothing new. It's something that I think we look forward to and thrive off the energy and the intensity that comes with all that

Mark Feinsand is an executive reporter for