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Five more things to know about Rays’ latest personnel changes

Why quality staff and people matter, an “incredibly innovative” mind, some jokes, and just what a director of ‘‘predictive modeling’’ does.
Rays president of baseball operations Erik Neander recently announced the restructuring of his department.
Rays president of baseball operations Erik Neander recently announced the restructuring of his department. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Published Dec. 17, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — In promoting Peter Bendix to general manager, naming Will Cousins and Chanda Lawdermilk vice presidents and making a series of other moves, the Rays reshaped the top-end structure of their baseball operations department under president Erik Neander.

Here are five more things about the moves announced Thursday:

Staff matters

As often as the Rays have staff hired away for bigger titles with other organizations, they pride themselves on being able to fill those openings — usually from within — and keep winning.

In detailing Lawdermilk’s promotion from director of staff development and recruiting to vice president of baseball operations, Neander said her efforts on all staff-related matters have been a key element to their continued success.

Chanda Lawdermilk was promoted to vice president of baseball operations for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Chanda Lawdermilk was promoted to vice president of baseball operations for the Tampa Bay Rays. [ TYLER SCHANK | Tampa Bay Rays ]

“That’s something that went from a role that just a few years ago we didn’t have, didn’t identify and didn’t really appreciate the benefits of it to now being in a position where we can’t imagine being without it,” Neander said. “There’s certainly a close relationship between the strength of our staff and the success that we have on the field. And regarding the former, there’s no one that’s been more influential and improving those efforts and the importance of them over the last few years then she has been.”

Lawdermilk is the first woman to hold a vice president title on the baseball side of the organization, and Neander said they eventually will “broaden her horizons into more traditional baseball operations roles.”

Good people, too

The promotions were made to reward good work, but Neander mentioned several times the quality of the people involved — specifically of his new management team with Bendix his top lieutenant, and Cousins and Lawdermilk joining Carlos Rodriguez as vice presidents.

“These are high-character people that get along well, that care about our staff, that provide complementary passions, skills, backgrounds, and care about relationships, and care about our people,” Neander said. “Certainly a group that I would consider to be adaptive, and really well positioned to handle wherever the game evolves from here, and however it evolves from here.”

Neander was equally effusive about the five business side vice presidents who got promoted to chief officer titles: Rafaela A. Amador Fink (public affairs and communications), Juan Ramirez (technology), Jenn Tran (people and culture), Bill Walsh (business) and Bill Wiener Jr. (people and community). “We have a lot of excellent people here throughout the Rays organization, and certainly well beyond baseball ops,” he said.

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He sees things

Will Cousins was promoted to vice president of baseball development for the Rays.
Will Cousins was promoted to vice president of baseball development for the Rays. [ WILL VRAGOVIC | Tampa Bay Rays ]

Cousins doesn’t have anything close to a baseball background, holding a degree in mathematics from Pepperdine and a Ph.D in applied math from N.C. State, and having spent three years researching ocean waves at MIT before joining the Rays in June 2015. He started as a research and development analyst, then moved up to senior data scientist, director of baseball research and devleopment, and now vice president of baseball development, with the opportunity to expand his reach.

“Will’s knack to anticipate outcomes, to analyze processes, it’s an incredibly innovative mind,” Neander said. “But one that has immense respect and appreciation for every different perspective that makes up our organization. And that’s such a huge part of the influence that he’s had. So the leadership style, the trust building, certainly set a solid foundation for him here and look forward to seeing his growth and the impact beyond (research and development) itself.”

They had jokes

Neander provided a good peek into the relationship he has with Bendix, opening the 30-minute Zoom session saying “the best part” of making the announcement was further attention for a photo of Bendix from the 2020 World Series in what would have to be considered his “big hair” days.

“There’s limited photos on the internet of Pete, as I know you all are aware,” Neander said, “and so today, in the entirety of why we’re doing this, is just to get that photo of him for the 2020 World Series, where he’s got his hands up on the railing and the hair blown out back in circulation.”

Bendix came ready to joust back, offering his own idea when asked about taking the GM title Neander had until his September promotion to president of baseball operations: “I proposed to Erik that he could be the Galactic Emperor, and we could kind of work from there. And I still have that in the back of my mind. ... I think that’s a really good way to innovate with titles but hasn’t caught on yet. I’m not giving up.”

Since you were wondering ...

The Rays do get creative with some titles, from having two presidents (Brian Auld and Matt Silverman), to making Tran and Wiener chief officers of “people” and culture/community, to having a “process & analytics” coach and on down to the assorted analysts and development-related folks that fill their directory. And now, with Taylor Smith’s promotion from baseball research and development lead analyst, a “director of predictive modeling.”

Which is exactly what?

“Everything that we’re trying to do as a department in baseball operations is we’re trying to take our best guess at how players are going to perform and what is next for them in the future,” Bendix said. “And one important component of that is kind of our research and development angle, and one component of that is predictive modeling. It’s a very important aspect that kind of goes into the whole cake, if you will, about how we end up making decisions.”

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