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Rays GM Erik Neander likes what he sees, but says there’s ‘some sizing up to do’

In a Q-and-A on the team’s play, Neander praises pitching, has faith in slow-starting players, is open to bullpen upgrade.
Erik Neander likes what he sees from his Rays but there's says there is "some sizing up to do" with the better teams. [Times photo 2019]
Published May 5
Updated May 6

BALTIMORE — One-fifth into the season, there’s plenty of thoughts and impressions on these Rays.

They pitch really well. They hit the ball hard. They’ve got some personable, intriguing players. They do a lot of interesting and creative things on and off the field. They play an aggressive and some times exciting, sometimes head-scratching game.

And, as they headed home after being rained out on Sunday in Baltimore for the third time on the three-city road trip, they’re pretty good, posting a 21-12 record that is among the best in the majors and leads the AL East.

Rays at Orioles rained out, DH on July 13

General manager Erik Neander has some thoughts as well, of course, and his matter more.

In a 20-minute chat with the Tampa Bay Times over the weekend at Camden Yards, what comes through is that he likes a lot of what has taken place but is still very much in a wait-and-see mode about the quality of the team, what they can do better and what changes they might need to make. He notes there is “some sizing up to do” with the better teams.

Here are excerpts, edited slightly for clarity:

It’s about 20 percent into the season, what has been your general impression of the team?

Granted the players aren’t all exactly the same as where they left off, but the validity that came in the last couple months of last year, the momentum that seemed to come with it, has carried over. Guys are having fun, they’re working hard, they’re playing hard and they’re winning games. It’s certainly nice to see it at this point.

The pitching, with a majors-best 2.99 ERA, has obviously been really good; what has stood out?

I don’t think it comes as much of a surprise we felt the strongest component of our team was the pitching and then on the position player side a really strong defensive unit. And the depth and the versatility of the position player group was something we felt was good. We’ve had some unfortunate injuries here in the early going (Matt Duffy, Austin Meadows, Joey Wendle) and that depth, that versatility has really played well. The pitching and defense has kind of been our hallmark and what’s led us to success and certainly was something coming into this year we felt was going to likely carry us. We felt better about our offense as well. We’ve gotten good work out of our starters. Our bullpen, we’ve been able to take care of most of the games we’ve had a chance to finish out. And we’ve played clean baseball. Clean, energetic baseball.

What about Tyler Glasnow’s tremendous start at 6-0, 1.47?

Anytime a pitcher rattles off a stretch like that you can’t ask for much more. He’s someone that physically is tremendously gifted. That’s no surprise, no secret. For him to come out of camp and attack the strike zone the way he has had been a really encouraging development and one we hope continues.

Glasnow's innings have been dazzling but will be limited

There were some questions going in about your offense, specifically power potential; how has it played compared to your projections?

You had a lot of guys who didn’t have a whole lot of major-league track record behind them, so you could look at the total number of home runs this group had hit in the big leagues and that suggests one thing. But taking a closer look at it, some of the things they showed in the minor leagues, some of the things they did in limited opportunities in the big leagues, the potential was there for these guys to impact the baseball and generate a lot more extra base hits and homers than what might have been expected. We’ve got physicality. We’ve got some guys that can impact the baseball. … When it comes to just impacting the baseball, there aren’t many guys that are doing things that are much of a departure from things we’ve seen in the past. Yandy (Diaz, who has seven homers) obviously has gotten a few more balls in the air and they’ve carried the wall, but he’s somebody that impacts the baseball and he’s getting an opportunity to play every day.

Why the draft in the clubhouse is a good thing?

You have a couple guys who are not producing up to expectations, such as Willy Adames (.221 average, .600 OPS) and Daniel Robertson (.172, .549), what is your take on them?

In talking over the winter about the building of the club, the depth and the versatility is helpful for injuries. But more so, we’re a talented team but we’re largely a young and unproven team and with that, that’s where the versatility really helps. It gives you a lot of potential configurations to move the right guys into the lineup. Some of these guys are going to take off. You hope they all do, but reality and history suggest they all won’t. Everybody develops at different paces. Everybody has their peaks and their valleys at different times. I think we’re pretty well covered for allowing our players to experience these things without having to put too much pressure on themselves.

With respect to Willy and Robby, the two guys you’ve noted and the starts they’re off to, I think they both acknowledge their numbers to date are not where they’d want to be to be, but you’re talking about 20 percent of the season. Those types of stretches can happen to young players, to veteran players throughout the course of the season. They’ve had theirs here in the early going and that’s all you can look at so it’s a little more of a story. But they’re young, they’re talented, they’re putting their work in. With the consistency in their preparation I think they’ll find consistency on the field.

As you look at the team, what are your thoughts on areas for potential improvement?

We still have some sizing up to do with some of the stronger teams in the league. Arizona is playing really good baseball right now, a team we’re less familiar with, and then we’ve got the Yankees for six games over the next couple weeks. We’re going to run into some higher caliber clubs that have had more recent success or have higher expectations for this season than some of the teams we’ve crossed path with to date. That will give us some feedback in terms of where we’re at. I think by and large we’ve done a really nice job of taking care of our business to date and we’ve put ourselves in a good position with our record and where we’re at. But when you’re playing a team like New York, and like we saw with Boston, the games are tighter. There’s a little more stress to them. There’s a little more intensity. And the little details really come to matter in those games. Eager to see how that plays out.

Specifically, how do you feel about the bullpen, given the lack of experience at the back end (and with Craig Kimbrel still available)?

We’ve always got to be open to anything and anywhere that we think has a chance to upgrade our team. Like how we were able to acquire Tommy Pham last year when it probably wasn’t the type of move that would have been on our radar independent of being opportunistic. With respect to the bullpen specifically, they’ve done a nice job. There’s not a whole lot of tenure out there, so to speak. It’s a group we like the potential of, we like the power of the group, we like the diversity of the group. We feel good about what we have. If that’s an area where there’s an opportunity to upgrade at some point we’ll gladly take it. But that goes for anywhere.

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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