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Phillies Beat with Destiny Lugardo

The Phillies should hire Rays’ GM Erik Neander before someone else does


In 2008, a young baseball executive from Wall Street named Andrew Friedman led the Tampa Bay Rays — a team with the second-smallest payroll in Major League Baseball — to their first-ever World Series appearance. The team loaded in young talent eventually fell to the Philadelphia Phillies in five games.

Erik Neander’s Tampa Bay Rays are heading to the World Series for the first time since 2008. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)

Twelve years later, a lot has changed but so much has stayed the same. Friedman is now at the helm in Los Angeles but his former team’s success can be traced back to him. His Dodgers will face off against a Rays team constructed by Friedman’s former protégé: Erik Neander.

Like the 2008 Rays, the 2020 team managed to get as far as they did in the postseason because their front office is so good at constructing a winning team with limited resources. They got a lot out of top draft picks such as Evan Longoria and Melvin Upton Jr. and were able to build around those pieces via shrewd trades and late-round selections.

Much of the same can be said for Neander’s Rays. Randy Arozarena, the breakout star of the postseason, was acquired via trade with the Cardinals in January. Two arms who floundered in the Phillies organization – Aaron Loup and John Curtiss – are thriving in a fantastic Rays bullpen after Neander acquired them for pennies on the dollar. You all know the deal about Charlie Morton.

Not only are the Rays good at finding talent, but they also excel at getting the best out of what they already have. The Rays’ Game 1 starter Tyler Glasnow may be the most glaring example. He struggled as a top prospect in Pittsburgh for years but once the Rays taught him how to attack the zone, he became one of the best starters in baseball.

The Phillies are nothing like the Rays and it’s a big problem. Since the Phillies last made the playoffs in 2011, the Rays have gone three times and won five rounds while spending almost 200 million fewer dollars on player salaries than the Phillies since 2016.

“Our brand of baseball is not the same as the Astros or Yankees, to use two examples of teams we’ve played, ” Neander told the media, including John Romano of the Tampa Bay Times. “But that’s OK. To show there are different ways to do this? Sure, I think that’s great for baseball. But by no means is this the only way. Whatever way this is.”

Philadelphia doesn’t have to be exactly like Tampa. They bring in enough revenue per year to carry a top-five payroll in baseball without sweating it too much. The Rays probably don’t have to be as thrifty as they are but that’s a conversation to be had at another time. Certainly, they don’t possess the same financial might that the Phillies do.

The Phillies are where they are – scrambling to rebuild their front office in the middle of their long-awaited competitive window – because they’ve struggled to find what former manager Gabe Kapler preached so often: value at the margins.

They’ve emerged from a rebuild with only four key homegrown pieces in Aaron Nola, Alec Bohm, Rhys Hoskins and Zach Eflin. You can argue that Bryce Harper, Zack Wheeler and Didi Gregorius were all great signings but they invested a ton in veteran players like Jake Arrieta and Andrew McCutchen without much production on the field in return.

They’re still feeling the effects of the short-sighted Carlos Santana signing in the form of Jean Segura’s bloated contract. Paying Odubel Herrera and Scott Kingery well before they hit free agency, a move that usually carries more reward than risk, has also proven unsuccessful to this point.

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The team’s fatal flaw, however, is their inability to consistently churn out talent from their minor-league system. Now that Bohm and Spencer Howard have graduated to the majors, their most exciting young prospect — 2020 first-round pick Mick Abel — is three to four years away from making his MLB debut if all goes right.

All of this can change if the Phillies hire Erik Neadner as president of baseball operations.

There are a few things at play that complicate the situation. The Phillies are looking for a new general manager after Matt Klentak stepped down and interim GM Ned Rice took over. It’ll be nearly impossible to hire Neander as general manager. Most MLB teams would decline permission for other teams to interview their general managers for another GM position. Permission is usually granted when a promotion is offered.

Neander, who holds the title of executive vice president of baseball operations and general manager with the Rays, is the highest-ranking baseball official within the organization. He reports to Team President Matthew Silverman. The Phillies could lure Neander to Philadelphia with a promotion to team president.

Andy MacPhail currently holds that title for the Phillies but it’s unclear if he’ll have it for much longer. Scott Lauber of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that sources within the organization believe managing partner John Middleton would like MacPhail to step aside from his position a year before his contract expires so the team can restructure the entire front office at once, starting with a president of baseball operations.

So far, the Phillies’ GM search is relatively quiet. Royals assistant GM J.J. Picollo has been the only name on the rumor mill that the Phillies have reportedly shown interest in. That is because Middleton is probably still mulling over the structure of the Phillies’ next front office.

While many are right to be skeptical of where Middleton’s head is in all of this, the idea of giving the Rays a call about Neander is a no-brainer. The World Series, no matter who wins, will send shockwaves around the baseball world.

Many teams will be looking to copy the Rays’ cost-effective model of doing business with revenues down due to the pandemic. Heck, many teams already are. Astros’ general manager James Click, Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos and Neander have all worked under Friedman. Click and Friedman are alums of the Rays’ front office. If you look around, most of the decision-makers around baseball have ties to either a smart organization such as the Rays or other successful executives such as Theo Epstein or Friedman.

Middleton will be unable to overlook the Rays’ success no matter how hard he tries. He’s desperate to win another title but is also weary about finances. Why not make an investment in Neander now and reap the benefits later?

The Dodgers made the right decision and hired Friedman as their president of baseball operations in 2014. Since then, they’ve won five division titles, reached the World Series three times, traded for the second-best player in baseball and signed him to a mega-extension. Los Angeles is also set up to be competitive for the entirety of Mookie Betts’ 12-year tenure. Can the Phillies promise the same for Harper’s remaining 11 years?

If the end goal is sustained success, the Phillies should be all-in on Neander. If not, another team will.

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Ken Bland

    October 21, 2020 at 3:45 pm

    I suspect Neander is an excellent nomination, and applaud the recommendation. It’s a congested choice of talented people, added by one with the Marlins dismissal of Michael Hill.

    If I have one question, which it is, as opposed to an objection, it is this. Characterize Philly and the Phillies however one wishes, but there’s no denying it’s a culture of high pressure, and a terribly long history of less than stellar talent judgement with only a smattering of breaks from that in the club’s long history. Neander has had an exemplary run in the far less pressure of Tampa Bay. He’s a poised gentleman, and comes from excellent stock, and seems like he’d communicate very well with Joe Girardi, but would the Phillies environment allow him to flourish. I suspect so, but there is no way he needs to jump at the first opening, which it seems you’re suggesting would be proper in order to avoid losing him elsewhere. Ain’t a way in the world he doesn’t get his chance and likely soon, but I don’t know that this option is quite as exciting for him as he probably would be for the Phils.

    Thanks for an excellent read.

    • Destiny Lugardo

      October 21, 2020 at 6:31 pm

      Thank Ken. You pose an interesting question and I think it’s something to consider. If Middleton does hire Neander, would he let Neander do his job without interference? Would Middleton intervene if some data-driven decisions don’t go the Phillies way? I think Middleton wants to be as hands-off as he can but he has to find the right guy to run his organization and Neander can be that guy.

      As far as jumping at the first available opening, not many teams can compete with the Phillies as far as payroll goes. I assume guys who are in Neander’s position would move for a pay raise and the chance to work for a big-market with a high payroll. He wouldn’t have as nearly as much cash to work with if he went to Miami as opposed to Philadelphia. The only position that rivals the Phillies that can open up in the near future is the Cubs job with Theo Epstein most likely leaving next year.

  2. William Coffey

    October 21, 2020 at 3:56 pm

    Well written article. I’ve read quite a few articles suggesting that the Phillies should inquire about interviewing Neander for the President of Baseball Operations and GM spots. It looks like he would be a great fit for Phillies. Unfortunately, I believe that Middleton and company are completely gloss over the Rays, and miss out.

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