Advertisement
  1. Sports
  2. /
  3. Rays

Of course MLB’s most innovative team has the game’s best manager

John Romano: His profile is as low as Tampa Bay’s payroll, but AL Manager of the Year candidate Kevin Cash consistently gets the most out of the Rays.
Manager Kevin Cash has led the Rays to back-to-back seasons of 90 or more victories. He finished third in the American League Manager of the Year voting in 2018 and is one of three finalists again this year with the winner being announced on Tuesday. [DIRK SHADD  |  Times]
Manager Kevin Cash has led the Rays to back-to-back seasons of 90 or more victories. He finished third in the American League Manager of the Year voting in 2018 and is one of three finalists again this year with the winner being announced on Tuesday. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Nov. 8, 2019
Updated Nov. 8, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — The job is not thankless. It’s just largely misunderstood.

You see, we tend to think of baseball managers only in times of crisis. When there’s a lead to protect and the guy on the mound looks shaky. Or when there are runners on base, and the guy due to hit hasn’t made solid contact in a week. Maybe even when an umpire deserves a shot across the bow.

That’s where the geniuses and the tough guys make their reputations. Those are the managers who are prominent in your memory, like an Earl Weaver or a Tony La Russa or a Billy Martin. The skippers who unapologetically ruled the dugout from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. every night.

But the game has evolved, and the job has too. Gut instincts matter, but not as much as data. Game-time decisions are still a manager’s prerogative, but the general strategy is often plotted far in advance with the help of analysis from the front office.

Related: RELATED: Rays’ Kevin Cash a finalist for American League Manager of the Year

These days, a manager’s best work is almost always unseen. It’s in clubhouse, in the batting cage, on the charter flight. It’s knowing which player needs a word of encouragement, and which player needs the hard truth. It’s getting dozens of players to understand that the scoreboard is more important than their statistics, even when there are contracts and endorsements and tens of millions of dollars potentially at stake.

This is where Kevin Cash is, if you’ll excuse the pun, money.

The Rays manager is one of three finalists for the American League Manager of the Year award scheduled to be announced Tuesday, and it would be seriously disheartening if he fails to win.

It isn’t just that the Rays won 96 games while sporting the lowest payroll in the majors, although that is incredible. And it isn’t just that they reached the postseason despite three-fifths of their starting rotation missing huge chunks of the season, although that is impressive.

It’s the way Cash handled a roster that had players coming and going from Triple-A Durham on a near-daily basis while veteran major-leaguers were asked to accept platoon roles and even unfamiliar positions for the greater good of the team.

Rays shortstop Willy Adames was one of the few constants in manager Kevin Cash's daily lineup card. Adames was one of only three Tampa Bay players to start at least 100 games at the same position in 2019. [ERIC CHRISTIAN SMITH | AP]

“The in-game strategy is the part that is most scrutinized but I think, by far, the most challenging job that a manager has is keeping a group motivated and focused day in and day out over the course of a season,” said Rays general manager Erik Neander.

“I think because he’s authentic, his intentions are to win games and he’s consistent in his approach of doing that. And the more the players see that that is the ultimate goal — and they believe that — the more they are understanding of why they are being asked to do whatever it is that they may be doing."

And in Tampa Bay, they are asked to sacrifice plenty. Avisail Garcia was in the walk year of his contract and never barked about sharing time. Mike Zunino was brought in to be the No. 1 catcher and never complained when Travis d’Arnaud took his at-bats. An entire bullpen was ripped apart and reconfigured without egos being bruised.

Related: MORE RAYS: Kevin Kiermaier wins third AL Gold Glove

Every day meant another conversation or another text message to explain why a player was being told to sit down or tackle another position or hop a flight to Durham. Of the nine positions in the lineup, including designated hitter, only three saw the same player start at least 100 games. (Willy Adames 145 at shortstop, Tommy Pham 123 in leftfield and Kevin Kiermaier 117 in center.)

“We’re fortunate, we’ve got a bunch of really bright guys in our front office and I’ve learned so much from them over the years," Cash said. “There’s all those quirky things and head scratching things that maybe go on (with people) outside saying “This is never going to work.’ We’ve got enough information that is telling us if we stick to these things that we’re going to benefit from it."

Cash, meanwhile, is the one who takes the daily jabs and questions and he does it all drama-free.

There is none of the talk show host glib of Joe Maddon, or the pedal-to-the-metal intensity of Lou Piniella. And that’s not a dig at those guys. Both have won a World Series elsewhere and have credentials worthy of Hall of Fame consideration.

It’s just that Cash has a different approach. More understated. Less showy. As he explains to the players, everyone has their own role.

In Tampa Bay, his role is to manage a roster. And I don’t think anyone in the American League did a better job in 2019.

“To me, he has a rare blend of confidence and humility," said Neander. “Typically, you see a heavy dose of one or the other, but it’s difficult to find both in authentic form."

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. He is a Yankee icon. One of baseball's greatest ambassadors. And soon, he will be a Hall of Famer. But did Jeter's reputation exceed his actual value on the field? [GENE J. PUSKAR  |  Associated Press]
    John Romano | The Yankees shortstop might join former teammate Mariano Rivera as the only unanimous Hall of Fame selections, but his defensive abilities left a lot to be desired.
  2. Former White Sox manager Tony La Russa stands with his Baseball Hall of Fame plaque while being honored before a game in Chicago on Aug.  30, 2014. [MATT MARTON  |  AP]
    "There was a toggle switch in the manager’s office and a camera zoomed in on the catcher,” Jack McDowell says of the setup he claims was installed by the Hall of Fame manager.
  3. In this 2007 file photo, Alyssa Nakken making the all-metro softball team at Woodland High School in Sacramento, Calif. [RENEE T. BONNAFON  |  ZUMAPRESS.com]
    Alyssa Nakken, 29, a former standout softball player at Sacramento State, will be in uniform for the big-league team, though not in the dugout during games.
  4. After five winning seasons, and four playoff appearances, in Chicago, Joe Maddon will return to the Angels where he spent 12 seasons as a big league coach before coming to Tampa Bay. [JEFF GRITCHEN  |  ZUMAPRESS.com]
    As he gets nearer to Hall of Fame standards, the former Rays manager is contemplating a return to some old-style baseball ideas in his new gig as the Angels manager.
  5. New York Mets manager Carlos Beltran listens to a question during the Major League Baseball winter meetings on Dec. 10, 2019. [GREGORY BULL  |  AP]
    The move comes after the Astros and Red Sox also lose their managers.
  6. In this Oct. 31, 2018, file photo, Red Sox manager Alex Cora rides with the trophy during a parade in Boston to celebrate the team's World Series championship over the Dodgers. Cora was fired by the Red Sox on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, a day after baseball commissioner Rob Manfred implicated him in the sport's sign-stealing scandal. [CHARLES KRUPA  |  AP]
    All Major League Baseball might have to do to solve its sign-stealing problem is look no further than what’s going on in the college game.
  7. Alex Cora was an Astros assistant coach before the Red Sox hired him as manager in 2018, when he led Boston to a World Series title. [DAVID J. PHILLIP  |  AP]
    Major League Baseball continues to investigate a scandal that could include Boston.
  8. The Rays have no worries about Yoshitomo Tsutsugo's bat, but they're going to watch him closely in the spring to figure out whether he fits better at third base or a corner outfield position. [SHIZUO KAMBAYASHI  |  AP]
    Defense remains strong up the middle, but could get a little wobbly elsewhere as the Rays try to figure out the best place to slot everyone in.
  9. Only 29 days until Rays pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Port Charlotte. Single-game tickets for games at Charlotte Sports Park go on sale Friday at 10 a.m. on RaysBaseball.com.
    Tampa Bay plays a 16-game home schedule at Charlotte Sports Park, then comes home for a one-game exhibition against prospects at Tropicana Field on March 24.
  10. At 6-foot-10, Aaron Slegers became the tallest pitcher in Rays history when he made his first and only appearance for Tampa Bay on Aug. 23, 2019 at Baltimore. Slegers threw three innings of one-run ball to get his first big league save. [JULIO CORTEZ  |  AP]
    Tampa Bay boosts its depth at Triple-A Durham by signing a handful of players with big-league experience who could come in handy in case of injuries.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement