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This is how you win 100 MLB games with a complete lack of star power

John Romano | The Rays were virtually shut out of the MVP and Cy Young awards, but that’s kind of the way they planned it.
That looks just about right for the Rays. A mass of nearly indistinguishable players, coaches and support staff celebrating the clinching of the AL East title.
That looks just about right for the Rays. A mass of nearly indistinguishable players, coaches and support staff celebrating the clinching of the AL East title. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Nov. 20

ST. PETERSBURG — So the Rays won two of the four major awards handed out in the American League, which is obviously an impressive and celebratory haul.

But it’s the two awards they failed to win that really tell the story of the 2021 Rays.

For the second year in a row, the Rays had the best record in the AL and failed to get a single vote for the Cy Young Award. Not a third-place vote, not a fourth and not a fifth. Eighteen pitchers have been on Cy Young ballots in the past two years, and nary a one from Tampa Bay.

And for the second year in a row, Brandon Lowe was their highest finisher in the MVP race. He was eighth in 2020 and 10th last week. Three different Rays got 10th-place mentions, almost as if voters got to the end of the ballot and felt obligated to include somebody from the AL’s only 100-win team.

The craziest part of all this? The voters were not wrong. There should be no howls of slights or injustices.

This was a team that defied the narcissism of the social media age. They were talented, yes. They were deep, for sure. But they also were willing to share playing time and glory like few others, it seems.

Some of that is the circumstances of the players on the team. The Rays often find players who were overlooked for one reason or another with a different organization and are just happy to be put in a position to succeed in Tampa Bay.

But a lot of it is also the culture created by manager Kevin Cash, which goes a long way toward explaining why he is the first in history to win back-to-back AL Manager of the Year awards.

“There’s a lot of pride in that clubhouse. And there should be because they’re very, very talented,” Cash said. “But as soon as you can develop enough trust in a relationship, I think they’re going to understand — or the hope is they’re going to understand — that you have their best interests (in mind).

“Certainly, we have the best interest of the organization, of the team and winning games. But also, taking it a step past that, we have the best interest of our players. We want to see them set themselves up for success this year, and many years to come.”

Rays manager Kevin Cash (16), right, congratulates Wander Franco (5) and Yandy Diaz (2) after they scored on a grand slam home run hit by Jordan Luplow during the first inning against the Red Sox in Game 2 of the ALDS.
Rays manager Kevin Cash (16), right, congratulates Wander Franco (5) and Yandy Diaz (2) after they scored on a grand slam home run hit by Jordan Luplow during the first inning against the Red Sox in Game 2 of the ALDS. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

This is why the Rays have been able to pick up veterans coming off struggles or injuries — such as Wilson Ramos, Travis d’Arnaud, Sergio Romo, Aaron Loup, Nathan Eovaldi — and help re-establish themselves on the way to getting bigger contracts elsewhere.

It’s also how they have been able to intersperse castoffs and lifelong minor leaguers into crucial roles because the tenor of the clubhouse is that everyone is valued equally. Or, as equally as it gets in the testosterone-fueled atmosphere of Major League sports.

Again, that’s a credit to Cash who managed to hang around the majors for parts of eight seasons as a backup catcher, while getting a grand total of 117 big-league hits. Cash routinely makes fun of his own career, which encourages everyone to take shots at anyone else.

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“As much as I give it to them, they give it back to me, I can assure you,” Cash said. “When there’s a tough-looking at-bat, they’ll walk back and they’ll look at me and say, ‘Swing it, Cashy.’ It’s just something that we’ve created as a group that you try not to take yourself too seriously.

“You appreciate how challenging this game is, whether it’s hitting, pitching, playing defense, running the bases, it’s really tough. There’s enough outside pressures right now that are going on. And certainly with today’s players, and social media, we’ve got to do a good job of trying to keep it loose to where they have their clubhouse, their dugout, where they can go and just be themselves.”

None of this means the Rays are devoid of special players. Randy Arozarena won the AL Rookie of the Year award, and Wander Franco is one of the most exciting young players in the game.

Nelson Cruz, who is now a free agent, is a potential Hall of Famer, and Lowe, Austin Meadows, Mike Zunino, Joey Wendle and Andrew Kittredge have been All-Stars. Kevin Kiermaier is one of baseball’s premier defensive players.

But the point is that no one has ever been irreplaceable in Tampa Bay. Not Carl Crawford, not David Price, not Ben Zobrist, not even Evan Longoria.

That’s just the way a low-revenue team is forced to succeed. It’s never been easy to say goodbye, but a glance at the Rays in the standings has always been the best way to salve those wounds.

And the 2021 Rays may be the best example yet of a team that cares more about the collective goal than the individual rewards.

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

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