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Without a doubt, the biggest win of the year for the Rays

John Romano | Convincing GM Erik Neander to continue working his low-budget magic will pay more dividends than any other move the Rays could have made.
Erik Neander, center, poses with the families of Rays All-Stars Mike Zunino and Joey Wendle, both of whom were acquired by Neander in trades, earlier this summer. Neander agreed on Wednesday to a new contract to remain in Tampa Bay as president of baseball operations.
Erik Neander, center, poses with the families of Rays All-Stars Mike Zunino and Joey Wendle, both of whom were acquired by Neander in trades, earlier this summer. Neander agreed on Wednesday to a new contract to remain in Tampa Bay as president of baseball operations. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Published Sep. 9

ST. PETERSBURG — Let’s begin with this premise:

The Rays are the most unique team in baseball. A team without MVP or Cy Young Award candidates, and yet with the best record in the American League. A team that traded or failed to re-sign its top two pitchers and still is third in the AL in ERA. A team that reached the World Series with a scrawny payroll in 2020 and may get back there in 2021 even after shedding salaries in the offseason.

The Rays employ multiple platoons in the lineup and capitalize on depth in the rotation and bullpen because they can’t afford superstars. Their collective batting average is in the bottom half of the league, and yet the offense has scored more runs than any team in the majors.

So, yes, the Rays are unorthodox and, simultaneously, wildly successful. Which brings us to the point of this missive:

Convincing general manager Erik Neander to stick around is the best move the Rays have made in years.

It’s bigger than acquiring Nelson Cruz or signing Charlie Morton. It’s more impactful than trading for Drew Rasmussen or drafting Brandon Lowe. It’s bigger than any single player because Tampa Bay’s success is borne of its collective philosophy and spirit.

And Neander is the man in charge of that.

For sure, he has not done it alone. Owner Stu Sternberg created this out-of-the-box approach when he began running the franchise in 2006. Andrew Friedman and Matt Silverman laid the groundwork during Tampa Bay’s first cycle of success a little more than a decade ago. And the Rays have employed a continuous cycle of bright and innovative minds in the front office, many of whom have been poached by other teams.

Over the years, the Rays have proven they can absorb the loss of players due to revenue constraints, but do you really want to find out if they can survive the loss of the mad scientist in charge of creating that on-field concoction?

Because I would bet half the owners in the league — and probably more — would have jumped at the chance to hire Neander if they thought he had grown weary of playing baseball on a budget. Just in the past year, his name has been whispered in connection with the Mets, Yankees, Angels and Phillies. So if it takes a fancy new title — president of baseball operations — and presumably a raise, that’s easily the best money the Rays will spend in the coming years.

“It’s great to have the continuity of Erik’s leadership, of Kevin Cash’s leadership,” said Silverman, who was the baseball operations bridge between the Friedman and Neander eras. “It goes deeper into the department, whether that’s Pete (Bendix) whether that’s Carlos (Rodriguez), Kevin Ibach, Bobby Heck. There’s so many more. You look at the senior staff in baseball operations, it’s a group that wants to be together, that loves working together. That’s the special chemistry that Erik helps foster, and it fuels our success.

“As Erik said, there’s some creative freedom, some creative license, and we’ve taken advantage of that and it makes it more fun and even more rewarding.”

Neander has never given any indication that he wanted to leave, but neither did Friedman before he finally took the life-changing offer to run the Dodgers. Neander has not addressed specific rumors attached to his name but made it sound like Wednesday that he has never seriously entertained the idea of chasing fame or dollars or a larger payroll elsewhere.

“We have found a way to win a lot more games than most,” Neander said. “So these temptations about other places and whatever is written, No. 1, it’s flattering because that suggests as a department we’ve done a lot of good work and our players have performed on the field. But we have what we need here to win, and that’s a lot of the people that are here.

“A win here is more satisfying to me personally, to a lot of us, than a win anywhere else. That matters. The satisfaction derived from a win is not the same everywhere. There’s a lot of fulfillment that comes with having success here.”

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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