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Rays new brain trust learns some hard lessons

Kevin Cash, left, and baseball Matt Silverman chat during spring training, just before an eventful first season running the Rays.
Kevin Cash, left, and baseball Matt Silverman chat during spring training, just before an eventful first season running the Rays.
Published Oct. 4, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG

Nathan Karns was absolutely dealing in that May 3 Sunday matinee against the Orioles, zipping through five innings while allowing two singles and a walk and needing 66 pitches to get there. The Rays were leading 2-0, and there was no reason for anyone in the building to think the 27-year-old rookie wouldn't head back to the mound for the sixth.

But in the Rays dugout, first-year manager Kevin Cash saw it differently. He had to. His bosses had developed a strategy to maximize the contributions of the replacements in their injury-ravaged rotation. A key element was pulling the starters before they went through the opposing lineup a third time if they had a lead so they could put the game in the hands of their more experienced bullpen.

So whatever conflicted thoughts, pointed questions, raised eyebrows and second-guessing — in and out of their clubhouse — it would generate, Cash made the call.

Unlike two days earlier when he pulled Alex Colome, under the guise of it being his first start off the DL, after five shutout innings and 60 pitches and the bullpen closed it out, a quartet of relievers let this game get away.

The fallout would linger. During the next series in Boston, Cash met with the pitchers as a group to fully explain what they were doing and why.

And he would end up talking about the issue for most of the season.

The usage of the pitchers — good, bad and some games both — became a focal point through the Rays' first season under new management, as Cash was hired to replace Joe Maddon in the dugout by Matt Silverman, who slid over to run baseball operations after Andrew Friedman left.

Internally and externally, the management of the pitching staff — how quickly starters were pulled, which relievers were summoned based "on matchups," how often they worked, who was trusted more — and how Cash balanced the philosophies of his bosses and the realities of the games were all season-long topics of conversation and criticism.

"The starter to bullpen management," Cash said, "has been the most consuming thing."

Speed ball

Cash had played, scouted and bullpen coached two years with the Indians, but he had never managed a game — at any level — until this season.

Naturally, he had a lot to learn.

There were some games that turned on a decision Cash made: not walking Yankees catcher Brian McCann with a base open in New York, leaving Jake Odorizzi in too long against the Twins, pulling Karns against the Orioles, going to Brad Boxberger in Houston after Alex Colome tore through the eighth.

But no manager is right all the time. The bigger challenge, especially for a first-timer, is to keep up with the speed of the game, trying to stay ahead of the action in anticipating what situations may arise and having options ready.

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That, apparently, can take time.

Third baseman Evan Longoria said there weren't any games Cash lost from being behind or in which he ever "lost control," but he felt there were some situations where the chances to try other options may have "passed him by."

"If there's anything I could say he could do a better job at or will do a better job at, just because it's experienced-based, is the fact of just knowing the speed of the game, knowing how quickly the game unfolds and the decisions that have to be made," Longoria said.

"And I think it's just a natural progression of him getting better in those situations. … It's kind of like playing chess for the first time and you're thinking about one move, maybe two, but the best chess players in the world are three, four, five moves ahead."

Cash, the majors' youngest manager at 37, said Longoria has a point, to a point.

"I agree 100 percent, and I plan to get better at it. I think there's been improvement from day one to now," Cash said. "We're going to lose games, and decisions are going to be questioned. But that doesn't mean it sped up on you. Sometimes you make a bad decision."

A good self-evaluator, and a tireless worker (at the stadium by noon every day, not one lunch out all season), Cash said he feels increasingly "more comfortable in the dugout." He already has targeted other areas for improvement, specifically handling the running game and overall late-game maneuvering, given their 2-13 record in extra innings and 13 walk-off losses. He is looking forward to watching the playoffs for some real-time examples.

Cash, who got a five-year deal for around $5 million, gets immense praise from Longoria and others for his communication skills in the clubhouse and dugout, letting players know when and how they will be used. "The communication factor has been great," ace Chris Archer said.

Silverman said he is pleased with Cash's work overall. "He exceeded the lofty expectations we had for him when he came aboard," he said. "There are certain things that you can only learn through experience. With the perspectives that he has gained, I know he will be an even better manager next year."

Playing from behind

Silverman took over in mid October, infamously saying he planned only "tweaking" then dispatching nearly a dozen players who had key roles and remaking the roster, and boosting the farm system, primarily through a series of trades, while operating with one of the smallest payrolls, around $72 million.

"It often felt like we were playing catchup this year as we worked to integrate a newly configured front office, manager and coaching staff, not to mention many new players," Silverman said. "I'm proud of the way we navigated the changes."

They had mixed results. They hit in signing shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera to a one-year deal (though they will be looking for a shortstop again after today) and acquiring pitcher Erasmo Ramirez, missed on catcher Rene Rivera and are in wait-and-see mode on outfielder Steven Souza Jr., plus several of the top prospects, such as shortstop Daniel Robertson.

Their roster was flawed at the start of the season, with two veteran one-inning relievers in Grant Balfour and Ernesto Frieri (both of whom would be dropped) and duplication in having John Jaso and David DeJesus as lefty DH types, though that changed when Jaso was hurt in the opener.

Silverman and Co. also made a serious miscalculation about the negative impact the July 31 trade of veteran reliever Kevin Jepsen had on the clubhouse. They deserve credit, along with Cash and hitting coach Derek Shelton, for being open to the late July change in the offensive philosophy, agreeing to a more aggressive approach that has resulted in significantly increased output.

While Maddon is managing the Cubs and Friedman guiding the Dodgers as president into the playoffs, Silverman is ready to try to get better.

"We are champing at the bit for a 'normal' offseason during which we can focus all our efforts on advancing the organization," Silverman said. "One byproduct from last offseason was the emergence of many new thoughts and ideas, and now is the time to fully explore them."

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.