Tampa Bay Rays: Erik Neander has turned this team into a 26-man wrecking machine

Tampa Bay Rays senior vice president, baseball operations/general manager Erik Neander holds a press conference on the first day of full squad workouts during spring training at Charlotte Sports Park Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Tampa Bay Rays senior vice president, baseball operations/general manager Erik Neander holds a press conference on the first day of full squad workouts during spring training at Charlotte Sports Park Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports /

The New York Yankees’ current 2021 payroll is $203.35 million, while the Tampa Bay Rays sit with a $70.85 million payroll. The baseball standard is usually the more money spent, the better the team will be.

Why is it that the Rays continue to outperform the Yankees over the last couple of years? The Rays have taken 20 out of 31 over the past two years, and 27 out of 49 over the past three years.

Tampa Bay also beat New York in the 2020 ALDS at Petco Park, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Tampa Bay Rays keep outperforming the Yankees without needing to outspend them

Although it doesn’t seem like complete domination, it has been. Since 2018, the Rays rank in the top 12 in nearly every pitching category against the Yankees.

Their pitchers K/BB ratio is 3.37, good for second in the MLB during that span, while also accumulating a 1.186 WHIP, good for fourth in the MLB. The Rays 3.81 ERA ranks seventh in the majors while giving up 2.74 BB/9, good for third.

After trading Blake Snell and losing Charlie Morton to free agency, most fans thought the championship window was closing. However, that was not the case.

In return for Blake Snell, the Rays received highly regarded SP prospect Luis Patiño. Patiño has pitched to a 4-3 record and 4.73 ERA in 70.1 IP this season. His xBA, xERA, and xSLG are all well below average. His K% and BB% are also slightly below league average.

However, coming into the 2021 season, Patiño ranked as the No. 12 prospect in all of baseball, according to FanGraphs. The sky is the limit for Patiño, whose repertoire includes a fastball, slider, curveball, changeup, and sinker.

He throws his fastball 59.7%, his slider 26.5%, his curveball 5.3%, his changeup 5%, and his sinker 3.5%. His fastball has consistently sat at 95.6 mph, his slider at 86 mph, his curveball at 77.8 mph, his changeup at 87.6 mph, and his sinker at 94.6 mph.

Patiño’s go-to out pitch is his slider, which features 30.1 inches of drop and a 33.3% whiff rate. Patiño seems to be a key factor to the 2022 rotation and is primed to take a huge stride.

Rays’ Erik Neander has quickly risen to become one of the more successful GMs in baseball

Erik Neander graduated from Virginia Tech in 2007 and started working for Baseball Info Solutions with the Rays as an intern.

It took Neander seven years before being promoted to VP of Baseball Operations. In 2016, he succeeded former Rays GM, Matthew Silverman, as Senior VP and GM for the team.

Neander has been known to be on the right end of the stick when it comes to making trades, as well as developing a stellar farm system over the years.

At the beginning of 2021, 34 players of the 40-man roster and 60-day IL were acquired by Neander since being appointed GM. Some of those names include Randy Arozarena, Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows, Nick Anderson, Ji-Man Choi, Yandy Diaz, Manuel Margot, and Luis Patiño.

The Rays came into 2021 with the No. 1 rated farm system — one that “continues to stand out” — according to Baseball America. One of the many talented prospects in their system is Wander Franco.

Franco began the year as the top prospect in the game and lived up to the hype this season. Franco debuted on June 22nd against the Red Sox. Franco went 2 for 4 with three RBIs and a walk. He also delivered a key three-run HR in the fifth.

While Franco hasn’t been the stellar defender the team envisioned, he’s contributed in almost every way you can think of.

On September 10th, Franco passed Mickey Mantle’s streak for most straight games on base by a player 20 years old or younger, reaching 37 games.

“And when you’re in the same sentence with him [Mickey Mantle], you’re doing some really special things,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash.

After trading away Willy Adames in May, many anticipated knew Franco’s arrival was just around the corner. However, Florida State product Taylor Walls was called up in the meantime.

Walls has hit .209 with 13 RBI’s and a .613 OPS in 172 PA. Walls filled the gap until Franco was called up.

While some fans were puzzled by the move, it certainly paid off. In return for Adames, the Rays acquired relievers J.P Feyereisen and Drew Rasmussen.

Feyereisen has pitched to a 2.59 ERA over 31.1 IP with the Rays. His whiff rate, xBA, chase rate, and fastball spin all rank among the 80th percentile or better in baseball.

Rasmussen has pitched to a 2.67 ERA over 54 IP with the Rays. His fastball spin, barrel %, and curve spin all rank among the 75th percentile or better in baseball.

For such a puzzling move at the time by Neander, this trade sure seemed to pay off for both sides, as Adames has a slash line of .289/.370/.520/890.

The best trade Neander has made, however, as the GM of the Rays came in July 2018. The Pirates sent Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows to the Rays, who were both young and talented players at the time.

The Pirates also sent a PTBNL, which ended up being 2017 first-round pick Shane Baz, ranked as the 107th best prospect in baseball to begin 2021 by Fangraphs. Baz has, however, flying up the rankings with his play at AAA Montgomery.

All the Rays had to give up was SP Chris Archer, who was later reacquired by the team.

The Pirates were beginning a rebuilding phase, and trading these young and talented players was puzzling, and still is to this day.

Austin Meadows has become a major piece to the Rays over the past couple of years as the team’s LF. Meadows hit .232 with 25 HR’s and 100 RBI’s this season for the team while sporting a .764 OPS.

The batting average sure doesn’t pop off the page, and nor does the OPS, but his BB% is 16% above league average. This shows he has a great idea of the strike zone and doesn’t chase.

Speaking of chasing, Meadow’s chase rate is 19% better than the league average, which shows he does not chase pitches outside of the strike zone.

Another key piece to that franchise-altering trade was Tyler Glasnow. Glasnow pitched to a 5-2 record and 2.66 ERA in 88 IP this season before undergoing season-ending Tommy John Surgery.

Glasnow is sure to be the ace of the staff when he returns, but undergoing Tommy John sure was a major hit for the team.

Glasnow is an analytical person’s best friend, with his numbers eye-popping. His xwOBA, xERA, whiff%, xBA, K%, and curve spin all ranking above the 94th percentile.

His fastball sits at 97 mph, while his slider and curveball sit at 87.5 mph and 83.5 mph respectively. Glasnow also mixes in a changeup 2.5% of the time at 91.5 mph.

Shane Baz just the latest smart move to make MLB debut

The final piece of the Chris Archer trade was Shane Baz, a rising star in the system. Baz pitched to a 5-4 record and 2.06 ERA across AA Durham and AAA Montgomery this season, striking out 113 in 78.2 IP.

Baz had a .181 BA against as well as a 0.80 WHIP in the minors this year. These stats, as well as the eye test, proved to the Rays he was ready to make his major league debut.

On September 20, Baz made his MLB debut against the scorching hot Blue Jays. He threw 5 IP while allowing 2 hits and 2 ER. Baz also struck out 5 putting himself in line for his first win.

Baz has surely proved himself enough to get another start for the team. Baz’s next start is scheduled to be against the Marlins on September 25th.

The Rays have shown over the past couple of years that they’re the real deal in terms of developing talent, and are primed to show that talent at the big league level sooner rather than later.