ARLINGTON, Texas – Smart used to be so cool in baseball.
It was a nice run, beginning sometime in the late 2000s, resulting in the toppling of the eye test, the marginalization of the scout, the destruction of the Tommy Bahama Industrial Complex.
Ivy League was in, practical baseball experience was out, your credibility only as robust as how young and overeducated your assistant GM might be.
It ended with the thud of a bat striking a trash can, acts that occurred in 2017 but the sound waves not hitting the game until 2019, when the depth and specifics of the Houston Astros’ illegal sign-stealing campaign were revealed.
Suddenly, the executives and analysts and the media that celebrated them had their What Hath God Wrought moment, a time for introspection, to ponder that perhaps hyper-efficiency wasn’t everything, that arbitrage would eventually come for us all.
So now, the most efficient and cost-contained and most-wins-per-dollar franchise has reached the World Series, a time to analyze #process and peek beneath the hood.
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Yet, all the brain trust wants to do is claim ignorance – or at least cop to being nothing more than state-school material.
“Virginia Tech and Florida State aren’t outsmarting people,” insisted Tampa Bay Rays executive vice president Erik Neander, referring to his alma mater and that of his manager, Kevin Cash.
That was a nice try.
Tuesday night, the Rays return to the World Series for the first time since 2008, on the strength of a player acquisition and development apparatus that has practically lapped the field. They will take on a Los Angeles Dodgers team that boasts a 2020 payroll more than three times its size.
The Dodgers are headed by baseball operations president Andrew Friedman, who built Tampa Bay’s modernized infrastructure before bolting to L.A., where he enjoys both efficiency and a near-bottomless trough of cash to tap into in the event, say, he wants to trade for Mookie Betts and sign him for $365 million.
Friedman left plenty of pixie dust in St. Petersburg, still a launching pad for top baseball jobs. Chaim Bloom now runs the Red Sox; James Click was snagged by the Astros in January to take over as GM after Jeff Luhnow was fired while serving a one-year suspension from Major League Baseball for enabling the Astros’ cheating scheme.
Neander joined up as an intern in 2007 and never left, joining Bloom atop the org chart when Friedman departed after the 2014 season. He grew into the public- and player-facing side of the job, suddenly tasked with explaining to the clubhouse why he was gutting a clubhouse of veterans, or to a fan base why payroll commitments shrank while industry revenues boomed.
Now, there is little to explain: The Rays posted two consecutive 90-win seasons before winning 66% of their games this year, a 108-win pace over a full season. They dispatched the Blue Jays and Yankees and Astros and now take on the Dodgers, who are appearing in their third World Series in four years.
Tampa Bay’s playoff roster has included up to 14 players acquired in trade, a startling tribute to Neander’s flurry of transactions and the people executing the club’s vision. The club is, predictably, loathe to specify the whys of their success, but also avoids smugly spiking the ball on their conquests.
Rather, the Rays tout a workplace low on toxins, a lab of collaboration, an ethos sent down from owner Stuart Sternberg to embrace failure, so long as you “break windows – don’t burn down the house”
You might call it analytics served with a side of humanity.
“I can’t stress how well the organization has treated me – not just me, but everyone here,” says Neander, 37. “I can’t imagine a workplace – not just in sports, but anywhere – that would treat us as well as we have.
“Just a wonderful group of people who enjoy what they do, united around the subject of baseball, about the team as much as one can imagine. And if we fall short, making sure we have a lot of fun along the way.”
Yeah, it’s not exactly the Bronx. And a franchise that manages to stay ahead of even the most analytically inclined and successful clubs can also steadfastly insist on a human element.
The Rays of Friedman and Joe Maddon and Evan Longoria are now the Rays of Neander and Tampa guy Cash and Kevin Kiermaier, the lone holdover from the Friedman-Maddon regime.
It is a vibe Kiermaier is determined to maintain.
“It was the same environment when I showed up,” says Kiermaier, the 30-year-old Gold Glove center fielder. “Be a professional, be yourself, do what you need to do, as long as you handle yourself each and every night out on the field, we don’t care what you do. But don’t cross that line or abuse what we got going on because it’s a really good thing.
“Guys come over here and say everything we do – in the clubhouse and behind closed doors – it’s incredible to be a part of. I have to thank the players who were here before me, because this is all I know. I just wanted to do my part to maintain that.”
Randy Arozarena and Kevin Kiermaier celebrate the Game 7 win against Houston. (Photo: Orlando Ramirez, USA TODAY Sports)
It would seem a challenge, given the consistent roster churn. Seventeen members of the 40-man roster have been acquired over the past two seasons. Then again, it’s a little easier when seemingly everyone who shows up can play.
In each of the past two off-seasons, the Rays traded for partially-known commodities – infielder Yandy Diaz and outfielder Randy Arozarena – based in some part on underlying statistics such as how hard they hit the ball. Diaz was the star of the 2019 postseason, while Arozarena, with a stunning seven home runs this October, has practically slugged Tampa Bay into the World Series.
“They’ve been right time and time again,” says Kiermaier, “and the majority of our roster has come from different organizations over the years. We’re dangerous, we know that, and it’s a beautiful thing to have talent all over the roster.”
Kiermaier speaks vaguely of formulas and data and other mysteries the club deploys. Neander speaks in far simpler terms, particularly when describing the Rays’ “stable” of relievers who push 100 mph on the radar gun. Just two of the nine full-time relievers on their ALCS roster – international free agents Diego Castillo and Jesus Alvarado – were originally signed by the Rays.
Take out veteran free agent Aaron Loup, and the others are young pitchers with less than two years’ service time imported from other organizations for their underlying skills – oh, and that velocity.
“Our guys are who they are because of their ability to throw strikes with two different pitches,” says Neander. “We don’t get too far away from the message of throwing strikes.”
He is quick to point out that this is far from the only way to build a championship roster. Flavors of the month are as popular in the executive suite as they are in the media. It is inherently harder to do it the Rays way and scratching the occasional nine-figure check for an All-Star caliber free agent can make up for a deficit in sweat equity.
There’s also something to be said for not asking your charges to put in more than you, while maintaining an air of acceptance.
“The way that they treat the guys, the way they treat everybody, it makes you feel comfortable, makes you feel at home,” says shortstop Willy Adames, a native of the Dominican Republic who was acquired from Detroit in the 2014 trade for David Price. “The work ethic of the organization makes them different than everybody.
“It makes you work even harder every day to prove to them that you belong here, that you can ball, and you can be a good player.”
A little humility doesn’t hurt, either, even in an industry where having all the answers – or insisting to your prospective boss that you do – remains the hope.
“We screw up a lot,” says Neander. “There’s support to take chances and make mistakes.
“It’s incredibly empowering to have a culture where you can make mistakes.”
And the humility to admit them.
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