ST. PETERSBURG — They parted ways with the best manager in baseball and replaced him with a guy who never managed a day in his life.
They traded the best player in franchise history. Then a bunch of his veteran teammates. In their place, they threw out a bunch of kids barely old enough to shave.
They had this kooky idea of using relievers to start games. And so they ended up trading their opening day starter.
Everything they do seems out of left field.
And everything they do seems to work.
Maybe these Tampa Bay Rays know what they're doing after all.
"Frankly, we couldn't be happier with where we are at,'' Rays general manager Erik Neander said.
And much of the credit for where the Rays are goes to Kevin Cash.
That's what we asked four years ago when Cash replaced Joe Maddon as Rays skipper.
The perception then? The Rays were a bunch of cheapskates. They only wanted a puppet who would do everything the nerds with the fancy calculators in the front office wanted him to do. And, hey, if you're going to hire someone who never managed before, why not hire Maddon's right-hand man Davey Martinez?
Turns out, Cash is pretty good at this manager gig and he has way more job security these days than Maddon does with the Cubs and Martinez has with the Nationals. On Tuesday, Cash was signed to a contract extension that, should the Rays want, lasts through 2025.
"The decision at the time (to hire Cash) was something we envisioned being a long-term partnership,'' Neander said. "When you hire a manager that didn't have any prior experience, you're not betting on him being the best tactician or the candidate most likely to hit the ground running on day one. You're doing it for years three, four, five, six, seven, eight, out to 2024 now.''
Four years in, the move looks like a smart one.
Maybe Cash leans heavily on the analytics provided by the front office. But when it comes to dealing with the personalities in the clubhouse and selling these out-of-the-box philosophies, it's the manager that has to do the heavy lifting.
"Everybody wants to be respected and liked,'' Cash said, "and it took a period of time where I had to be able to make some difficult decisions and knowing they weren't going to be the best decision maybe at that time, but it was for the greater good.''
Sounds good now, but think back to last spring when Cash had to explain to veterans such as Chris Archer and Kevin Kiermaier that the Rays were not tanking as they were dealing Evan Longoria, Corey Dickerson and Jake Odorizzi.
"You got to give our players a lot of credit for being able to withstand that,'' Cash said. "There was a lot of head-scratching going on and justifiably so.''
Just a few months later, the Rays are the talk of baseball. They have changed the way the game is played and were so good doing it that Cash is expected to be in the mix for American League Manager of the Year.
"We were fortunate we had some early success with it,'' Cash said. "The pitchers really, really bought in and embraced it and I think by the end of the year, looking back, they really enjoyed it. And it was innovative and that's okay because it brought some success for us.''
If they wanted, Neander and the front office has every right to puff out its chest, point to the hiring of Cash and all the trades and all the innovations and say, "Told you so.''
"In terms of the perception that people have of us, of Kevin, that's not something we get too wrapped up with,'' Neander said. "We just try to do what we think is best for us, our organization and what gives us the best chance to continue to get better and learn as we go. That's something that hasn't wavered over this time period.''
But now the job gets tougher. The Rays won 90 last season and that was terrific.
Now for the next step.
Playoffs. World Series. A championship.
That changes everything, right?
"It really doesn't and the reason why is the expectations have been fairly consistent in the four years I've been here,'' Cash said. "Maybe we haven't met them, but last year, in the offseason, in spring training, a lot of the decisions that we made we knew there was going to be some negative feedback. But not at one point did anybody get derailed with the thought they we weren't going to go out there and compete at a high level and continue to get better.''
There's no reason to think that last season was a fluke. It feels like the beginning of something special.
"As long as our team is coming to the park playing hard, competing, going about their business the right way,'' Neander said, "and as long as Kevin is continuing to learn and grow and there's not that plateau in respect with his approach to his day to day, this is something that we expect to take hold and to be the strength of our organization for a long time.''
Cash as the strength of the organization. Who would have thought that four years ago?
The Rays, apparently. And they were right.
Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones