Charting baseball games for $7 an hour with Baseball Info Solutions. That’s where Erik Neander found himself upon graduating from Virginia Tech in 2005.
College might not have been everything Neander hoped it would be. A major shoulder injury in his junior year of high school shut out the possibility of playing baseball collegiately somewhere on scholarship. As a result, the Oneonta, New York native headed to Blacksburg where he could have been a walk-on if he was medically cleared.
That possibility was dashed as Neander’s shoulder never got to a place where it completely healed, so he embarked on a journey as an engineering student. After three semesters, Neander backed away and went in the direction of food, nutrition, and exercise with the thought afterwards of med school, PA school, or physical therapy.
Instead, Neander found himself engaged in low-paying work surrounding the game he loved. 15 years later, the Virginia Tech alumni finds himself as the General Manager and Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations for the Tampa Bay Rays, a post he’s held since November of 2016.
“The reason that I went in this direction to begin with wasn’t for a title or it wasn’t for an opportunity,” Neander said. “It was to find work that I really enjoyed and I’m really passionate about. From the moment I got there, the responsibilities have increased, but that’s been a constant.”
The 2019 MLB Executive of the Year caught his first big break when he was hired by the Rays (then called the Devil Rays) in 2007 as a baseball operations intern tasked with helping build a database. In such a competitive market, Neander admitted that he probably wasn’t the most qualified candidate, but he joined the Rays organization and proved his worth.
At the time, the Rays general manager was Andrew Friedman, the current GM of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Neander was brought on full-time and quickly started working his way into Friedman’s inner circle. Over the years, Neander began creating a research and development team, the first of its kind in baseball at that point. This was used to leverage and connect data from different perspectives, leading to the implementation of shifts and platoons within the Rays organization to play matchups.
Once Friedman left the Rays to become the President of Baseball Operations for the Dodgers in 2014, Matthew Silverman stepped up as his replacement. Within a few short years, though, Silverman returned to his more natural role as team president, and Neander was promoted to the role that he still holds today.
Working as the GM for a low revenue and low payroll team like Tampa Bay comes with a number of inherent challenges. It’s something that Neander acknowledges, but it doesn’t come with any excuses from him.
“For us to compete when you only have a $60 million payroll and you’re going up against teams that are north of $200 [million], the way the economic system is set up for baseball and the way player salaries are done, you have to have impact from players very early in their major league career,” Neander said. “There’s no way around it. Young talent in their first few years of the big leagues is everything to us when it comes to having success. So much of our team right now is built with guys who are early in their career, and a lot of them have hit the ground running.”
The Rays have those young pieces in place right now. Atop the rotation, Blake Snell (27-years-old) has won a Cy Young and Tyler Glasnow (26) had a resurgent 2019 campaign after he was acquired from the Pirates. Meanwhile, Austin Meadows (24) powers the middle of the lineup.
So how exactly do Neander and the Rays make up for these deficiencies in revenue? It comes in the form of a staff under baseball operations that is 260 strong.
“We’re rapidly approaching a one-to-one staff-to-player ratio in our organization,” Neander said. “It’s in all forms – scouting, coaches, coaching staff, nutritionists, performance science, mental performance, it’s the full gamut. We do a lot with technology, we invest in data.
“If we can position ourselves with more knowledge in a certain area, it gives us a chance to make a better decision. Better decisions can really help your budget with respect to the Major League payroll. Every dollar of Major League payroll has to pay like four for us to be competitive.”
Some of those most important decisions come during the busiest time of the year for an MLB general manager: the trade deadline. Neander is the lodestar for the organization during this time period when the direction of the team is decided.
Tampa Bay hasn’t been shy making adjustments to its team through trades. In fact, in his few short years years as GM, Neander led the charge on 40 Major League trades that involved 101 players. What allows him to have the confidence to make these deals?
“Not being afraid to make a bad trade,” Neander explained. “There’s going to be some duds. We make a lot of trades, and you don’t make a lot of trades if you’re worried about messing one up. We’re willing to make decisions and put them out there. The deadline, so much of it is dependent on where we are in the standings for that given year and what our competitive horizon looks like over the next few years.”
The chaos that ensues in the days leading up to the trade deadline is actually prepared for well in advance. Neander and Co. have already pored over evaluations of every player in the organization in the months leading up to it. From that point forward, it’s finding differences in opinions on players and differences in direction of ball clubs and taking advantage of that market.
That still doesn’t make it any easier emotionally when trading a player, especially one who’s come to be appreciated by the fans. In years past, Neander has dealt some fan favorites like Chris Archer in 2018, but in exchange Tampa Bay received Glasnow and Meadows who have become cornerstones of the team. This past December, Neander made a deal with the Padres, sending leadoff hitter Tommy Pham, who led the Rays in hits, doubles and stolen bases in 2019, for the power-hitting Hunter Renfroe and Xavier Edwards, a top 100 prospect.
“If we want to compete, it does come with making some really hard decisions emotionally speaking,” Neander said. “On paper it looks like an obvious decision, but when you factor in the human, when you factor in the fanbase, it becomes more challenging.
“Those deals are hard when you’re trying to balance being competitive in the present with also making sure that the cupboard doesn’t run dry down the line… We tend to have to trade players when they’re at the height of their popularity. The buy-low, sell-high is the very basic mantra of a lot of the moves we make, but it’s not that fun in a lot of those moments to do. You just have to trust the work, the processes you have in place, and at the end of the day if you believe what you’re doing is right, it’s easier to stand behind it even if the people disagree.”
Being in the business where one phone call can change a player’s destination in the matter of minutes comes with its criticism. Especially as an organization that values the analytical part of the game, some outsiders hold the misconception that it means Tampa Bay’s top-level executives don’t properly develop relationships with everyone else. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth in Neander and the Rays’ case.
“We’re a very analytical organization. We’re a data driven organization. Our methods in many respects are evidence-based in terms of how we operate,” Neander explained. “I think it can be misconstrued that by being those things you don’t care about people and that you can be very cold and calculated. The culture of caring for people, empowering people, challenging people, those things can coexist, and they do coexist. That’s our priority.
“We have 260 people that work for us. The most impactful thing that I can do on a day-to-day basis and that our vice presidents and our directors can do on a day-to-day basis is make sure that all the people who work for us are motivated and that they care and they feel like they’re being looked after and we’re invested in them and they come to work with a purpose that extends just beyond their job description. That’s so much more of the job than however many emails I respond to in a day.”
One of the most important relationships that must be developed is between general manager and team manager. When there isn’t trust between a GM and the manager, there’s instability that begins to grow and affect the organization in so many other ways. On the other hand, Neander and Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash enjoy a strong working relationship that is a boon for everything the organization is attempting to accomplish.
“For our organization to be at our best, we have to be at our best in everything that we do,” Neander said. “International, player development, scouting, research, staff development, recruitment, hires, everything. If you don’t have a really good relationship with a Major League manager, you end up having to invest so much of your time just on the Major League club that you have no chance to touch any of these other areas.”
The 2020 season is now just under a month away from beginning with Opening Day set for March 26. Last year, the Rays finished 96-66, beating the Oakland A’s in the Wild Card game before losing in five games to the Houston Astros in the divisional round.
The New York Yankees enter as the prohibitive favorite in the American League, but could Tampa Bay be a darkhorse to contend for the pennant? Typical powerhouses like the Red Sox and Astros are depleted for reasons of their own, so the Rays could make a surprise run with the young and talented pieces that are in place.
Maybe now more than ever, the pressure could very well be on Neander to go all-in in the hopes of returning to the World Series for the first time since 2008.
“There’s a really strong temptation to hit the gas and double down and say ‘Let’s go. Let’s scratch the itch and see what we can do to run this out. If it doesn’t happen at least we put the chips in.’ That temptation is there,” Neander said. “It’s a fine line between being disciplined in how you balance the season at hand and future seasons.
“I hope and I think that we’re all rooting that if we get out to a start over the first few months of the season where we’re relatively healthy that we could be in a place in July where we’re really tempted to hit the gas and explore that and see it out.”
Whether the Rays take the next step and win 100 games or everything that can go wrong does go wrong in 2020, Neander still sits back in deep appreciation of the organization that took a chance on him, the kid not from an Ivy League school, but from Virginia Tech.
“I left college looking for something that I was passionate about, and I was lucky enough to find an opportunity to do it,” Neander said. “I really don’t think I could have been more fortunate to land in the organization that I did at the time I did.”