Assessing 2023 MLB front office performance: Neander-Bendix and the Tampa Bay Rays

Erik Neander and Peter Bendix improved the 2023 Tampa Bay Rays through an uncommon percentage of small successes in their personnel moves. Those successes were small, but they added up.

Tampa Bay Rays president Erik Neander during the ALDS workout day
Tampa Bay Rays president Erik Neander during the ALDS workout day / Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Erik Neander/Peter Bendix front office WAA impact for Tampa Bay Rays: +7.5 games. Rank in MLB: 3. Rank in division: 2.

In a small market such as Tampa Bay, you can only build talent by winning an uncommonly high percentage of your personnel moves. That’s what president Erik Neander and GM Peter Bendix did in 2023.

Overall, the Neander/Bendix front office made 49 personnel moves impacting a major league roster since the conclusion of the 2022 postseason. Their success rate was easily baseball’s best. Thirty of those 49 moves (that’s nearly 60 percent) added value to the Rays based on net Wins Above Average. Just 15 subtracted value. The final four were neutral.

For the record, WAA is used in this series of front office evaluations because it is a zero-based version of WAR, therefore enabling valid approximations of impact against wins and losses.

In their second season as a tandem in Tampa Bay, Neander and Bendix contented themselves with incremental improvements. Of the 30 positive impacts, only one (the extension giving rising star Yandy Diaz) brought a gain of as much as +1.0 WAA.

But it was the constant drip-drip-drip of marginal advances — +0.5 WAA here, +0.3 there, +0.4 over there — that outfitted the Rays for a 99-win season, the second-highest win total in franchise history.

Not that Neander and Bendix were averse to big gains when the opportunity presented itself. The locking up of Diaz was one such opportunity. Diaz signed a four-year, $36 million contract that ensures his presence in Tampa through 2026 and responded with a .330 average that gleaned him a batting title.

He piled a .932 OPS atop that average, good for a +3.3 WAA.

They also scored with the signing of free agent pitcher Zach Eflin, formerly of Philadelphia. In 31 starts, Eflin won a league-high 16 games against just eight defeats. His 3.50 ERA in 178 innings translated to +2.0 WAA.

But the free agent market was where Neander and Bendix played the small game most productively. Beyond extending Diaz and snaring Eflin, they signed, re-signed or extended 15 players, nine of whom produced positive WAA values for their new team. None of those values were especially profound, but the totality amounted to +6.5 WAA.

In all of MLB, only the Atlanta Braves did better at the signing game, and the Braves focused almost entirely on locking up players (Spencer Strider, Austin Riley, Michael Harris) who were already on their roster.

Here’s the full short-term and long-term statistical profile on the 2023 performance of the Neander/Bendix front office. Again, all figures reflect group Wins Above Average.

Acquired by trade, waiver claim or purchase:

  • Since October 2022, 6 players, +1.1 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022, 8 players, +2.6 net impact

Signed as a free agent or extended for multiple seasons:

  • Since October 2022, 17 players, +6.5 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022, 2 players, +1.6 net impact

System products:

  • Since October 2022, 7 players, -1.1 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022, 5 players, +2.2 net impact

Traded away, waived, sold, released or lost to free agency

  • Since October 2022, 19 players, +1.0 net impact
  • Prior to October 2022, 10 players, +1.1 net impact

There was nothing especially noteworthy about the Rays’ rookie class. It consisted of seven names, only one of whom (starter Taj Bradley) saw significant playing time ... and Bradley’s first season had to be at least something of a letdown.

Considered a top pitching prospect, Bradley went 5-8 with a 5.59 ERA in 21 starts after making the Opening Day roster. That amounted to a -1.4 WAA and was basically the entire reason why the Rays’ rookie crop rated negative at -1.1.

With the possible exception of Bradley’s promotion, Neander and Bendix really only made one noticeable personnel mistake, and they could hardly be blamed for that one. Over the winter, they released light-hitting veteran outfielder Kevin Kiermaier, coming off the worst offensive season of his career and hemorrhaging playing time as a result.

Kiermaier signed with Toronto and enjoyed a renaissance that nobody (except possibly Kiermaier’s family) could have foreseen. He hit .265 with a 741 OPS and Gold Glove-level fielding numbers, completing his best season since 2017.