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AL Manager of the Year? How could it not be Rays’ Kevin Cash

Marc Topkin: The Twins Rocco Baldelli and Yankees Aaron Boone are the other two finalists for the hard-to-define award.

ST. PETERSBURG — If you go by whose team won the most games, which is the ultimate measure of success, then Aaron Boone of the 103-win Yankees is your choice.

If you favor who impressed the most based on expectations, then Rocco Baldelli, who’d never run a game at any level before taking over a Twins team coming off a 78-win season, would be your man.

But if you are going to reward who had to do the most work, and who did the best work, of his 14 colleagues, then the Rays’ Kevin Cash should be your American League Manager of the Year.

The annual award, voted by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, will be announced Tuesday night, with ballots from two writers in each AL city based on regular-season performance. A case, obviously, can be made for each of the three finalists, especially with somewhat unclear criteria. There’s a sense it will be between Boone and Cash, and could be close.

Related: RELATED: John Romano on how Kevin Cash has been money for the Rays

Boone steered the Yankees through an MLB record worst volume of injuries (30 players sidelined 39 times) to a relatively unchallenged AL East title, though he had the built-in advantages of a star-studded core roster and a $200-million-plus payroll to support replacements.

Baldelli, hired from the Rays, stepped up and into his new job smoothly at age 37, impressing with his personable style, vast knowledge and communication skills in pushing the Twins to a 23-win improvement and a first-place finish, although in the somewhat weak AL Central.

And then there was Cash, implementing and operating within the Rays’ unusual strategies, integrating a stream of unproven young players into a roster laden with unknowns and overachievers, dealing with their own staggering string of injuries that decimated their starting staff, and earning raves from friends and foes for the comfortable culture and inspiring leadership he provided as they won 96 games in the AL East and made the playoffs for the first time since 2013.

“You have to have fun in this game and that’s what he does, but at the same time winning is the No. 1 priority," veteran centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “With what we went up against compared to the other managers and teams, I hope Kevin gets the recognition he deserves because what we did this year was nothing short of amazing."

What makes Cash, 41, with five years on the job already, such an effective manager is not a question that gets a simple answer.

“He’s as good as it gets in setting a tone day in and day out of consistency, of energy and of competitiveness that the group follows,’’ GM Erik Neander said. “He’s a wonderful communicator and is able to establish buy-in on what he wants because of the sincerity and authenticity of his approach."

Some of Cash’s ability showed in his in-game moves.

How he was aggressive in using his bench and bullpen, including 603 relief appearances, second-most in the majors. Would go well outside-the-box in being creative, like using lefty reliever Adam Kolarek at first base for a batter so he could return to the mound. Was occasionally bold in his decisions, such as taking out Ryan Yarbrough after 8 2/3 shutout innings, and at times extremely unpredictable, which several opposing managers admitted provides an advantage unto itself. (“Exhausting,’’ was the word Astros manager A.J. Hinch used after the playoff series. "It’s hard to win games where you know the other side is going to do anything possible.’’)

Plus, Cash didn’t really care if anyone thought he was wrong, though he also had the humility to learn from moves that didn’t play out.

“He has developed a confidence in his decision making and is willing to prioritize what he believes is best for the team at any individual moment,’’ Neander said. “And if he thinks it’s the right thing to do is willing to take on all consequences that come with it.’’

But the work Cash did in the clubhouse was also significant.

Current Rays rave about how approachable and communicative he is. The way he connects with everyone regardless of stature. His sense of knowing which players can take a joke (even yelled from the dugout mid at-bat, Kiermaier said) and which need to be encouraged. How open he is to new ideas (and handling the occasional disagreements with his bosses). His ability to make winning the collective No. 1 priority, with all egos, including his own, pushed aside.

Related: RELATED: Rays Cash, Morton, Brandon Lowe finalists for BBWAA awards

“He has a really good pulse of the guys and what they need,’’ said starter Charlie Morton, a veteran of 12 big-league seasons. “The most difficult thing about managing is being able to manage the people and the personalities in the clubhouse. Cashy is as good as I’ve seen.’’

Baldelli’s four years on the Rays coaching staff before getting the Twins’ job allowed him to get a good sense of what Cash does well, including knowing how much he dislikes getting attention for doing so.

“It’s really cool to see him be acknowledged for what he is, and he's extraordinarily talented at this job,’’ Baldelli said. “I love saying these things because I also do love how uncomfortable it makes him to hear these things. That’s one of the better parts of being able to talk to you about him.

“But it’s true. He has no need for accolades. He has no need for attention. He loves showing up to the ballfield every day. He loves the side of the game that makes him think. He wants to be better. He’s a tireless leader. He just wants what’s best for the team, what’s best for each individual guy in the clubhouse. …

“Being a really good game manager is important, but it’s not as important as Kevin the person that he is, and the personality he brings to the field every day. …

"What he does is pretty special. And anyone who gets a chance to work with him is watching one of the best.’’

And this year, maybe the best.

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays