As far as MLB managers go, no one has done more with less during the 2015 season than Tampa Bay Rays skipper Kevin Cash. In his first season at the helm, Cash has Tampa Bay just 4.5 games out of a division lead in the ultra-competitive American League East Division.
Following a dramatic turn of events in the offseason in which the Rays lost longtime franchise iconic manager Joe Maddon to the Chicago Cubs, and GM Andrew Friedman to the Los Angeles Dodgers, it looked as if the Rays would return to the cellar of the division after a solid run of four playoff appearances in the last seven seasons.
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Maddon had been the team’s manager since 2006, while Friedman began working for the organization in 2004. Both had helped construct a winning team with one of the smallest payrolls in baseball, and both were huge losses for a franchise that had been in the World Series just six years prior to their departure.
Former team president Matt Silverman took over as the GM when Friedman left, and began a complete roster overhaul that saw some of their core players get shipped off to new destinations. With one year remaining on his contract, the Rays sent 2nd baseman Ben Zobrist — a two-time all-star, to the Oakland Athletics. In the same trade, they got rid of their starting shortstop, Yunel Escobar.
Outfielder Matt Joyce, a 2011 AL All-Star with the Rays, was moved to the LA Angels. In one of the most shocking moves of the offseason, they traded 24-year-old Wil Myers—the 2013 AL Rookie of the Year whom they had acquired for starter ‘Big Game’ James Shields just two years earlier, to the talent-hoarding San Diego Padres.
Starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson, another former Rookie of the Year who the Rays had planned to be in their rotation for years to come, was dealt to Arizona for two low minors prospects. To put the icing on the cake, they shipped former top reliever Joel Peralta off to the LA Dodgers.
With that amount of talent lost, people around baseball believed there was no way the Rays would be a playoff-caliber team, let alone one that could compete to win against the financial behemoths in their own division. But Silverman went to work immediately, and one of his first moves was hiring former big-leaguer Kevin Cash to be the skipper of the club.
“the energy, the poise that he has, the confidence, but the open-mindedness that goes along with it. That’s a rare combination to have in an individual” ~ Rays’ GM Silverman, on hiring Cash as manager
A former major league catcher who played for five teams over an eight year career as a backup, Cash was born in Tampa and played for the Rays during the 2005 season. Nonetheless, Cash’s hiring was met with criticism by many. They pointed to his age (he was 36 at the time of the hiring), and the fact that he had no prior managing experience as red flags.
Cash had served as a bullpen coach for the Indians the past two seasons and was a scout for the Blue Jays in 2012. But as Silverman had proved with the flurry of trades he made, he wasn’t afraid to make a bold move when it came to his team. When the Texas Rangers made Cash a finalist for their managerial job, the Rays swooped in and gave Cash the reigns.
During the press conference to announce Cash’s hiring, Silverman talked about why Cash was the right guy for the job.
“It came down to the energy, the poise that he has, the confidence, but the open-mindedness that goes along with it. That’s a rare combination to have in an individual. You look at Kevin, his baseball age is much older than his 37 years on this planet,” Silverman said. “He’s been a student of the game, and that transition to manager is one we think will be a relatively (smooth) one, one made easier by the environment that we already have here.”
Beginning the 2015 season as the youngest manager in the majors, Cash inherited a team with low expectations. In most preseason picks, the Red Sox were chosen to take the division crown, the Orioles and Blue Jays were projected to be fighting for a wild card, while the Yankees and Rays were seen as competing for last place.
To make matters worse, the Rays’ rotation — thought to be their strongest asset, would begin the season without their best pitchers. Lefty Matt Moore was still recovering from Tommy John surgery, while forearm tendonitis sidelined righthander Alex Cobb. Cobb later decided to take the Tommy John route as well, putting him out for all of 2015 and half of next season.
With the odds stacked against him, Cash has remarkably been able to keep the Rays in the thick of things in their division despite their loss of key players and a rash of injuries. The team went 12-10 in April, which put them in second place and just one game out of the division lead. They followed that up with a mediocre 14-15 May, but were still tied for first in the East with a 26-25 overall record even after the injury bug bit them again.
Starting center fielder Desmond Jennings underwent knee surgery, and has missed much of the season. Pitcher Drew Smyly, who had a 2.70 ERA and 21 strikeouts in three starts for the club, was placed on the disabled list in early May with a torn labrum in his shoulder.
Jake Odorizzi, another starter having a solid season, had to leave a June start with an oblique injury and was out for about a month. Grant Balfour, the team’s $7 million closer, lost his job to Brad Boxberger early on and was released from the club in late May.
The Rays have continued to hang around, however, and used a 16-12 June to put a hold on first place in the division for a few weeks, from June 13th to June 30th. It’s been a complete team effort. Look down the Rays roster, and the only real superstar you will find is third baseman Evan Longoria. Though still putting up decent numbers, Longoria has had a down year.
Instead it’s been a group of castoffs, career-minor leaguers, and guys having breakout years leading this Rays team. Outfielder Steven Souza, acquired in the three-team trade involving the Padres and Nationals for Myers, has smacked 15 homers in 79 games played. He has now joined the injured ranks, hitting the DL with a finger injury.
A 29-year-old career minor-leaguer, Joey Butler, whom Cash was a teammate of in 2011 while playing for the Rangers’ AAA affiliate, ranks sixth among rookies in batting average (.286) and has 6 home runs and 21 RBIs as a DH and part-time 1st baseman.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for Cash and the Rays has been righthander Chris Archer. With a depleted rotation, Archer has stepped up and developed into one of the top pitchers in the game. The 26-year-old leads the team with nine wins, owns a 10.9 K/9, and has struck out 147 in 121.2 innings, which are the fifth most in baseball. It all added up to an American League All-Star nod.
Rookie Nate Karns, picked up in a 2014 trade with the Nationals, has effectively eaten up innings for the rotation, tossing 104 innings and posting a respectable 3.63 ERA. Newbie-closer Boxberger has nailed down 23 saves — fourth best in the AL. Kevin Jepsen, acquired from the Angels for Joyce, has recorded 20 holds, third-best in the bigs. Reliever Xavier Cedeno, designated for assignment by both the Dodgers and Nationals this season, has a 2.91 ERA since coming to the team in mid-April.
A big key to the Rays’ success has been what they have been doing defensively. Relatively speaking, they’re a light-hitting bunch, so they rely on excellent team defense to prevent giving away runs. Tampa is the 8th best defensive team in baseball in both fielding percentage (.986) and errors (47).
While July hasn’t gone the way the Rays have hoped (they’re 5-10), they still sit just 4.5 out of first place. We ranked them 9th in our TBOH Power Ranking just last week. And now, help is on the way. Odorizzi returned just over a week ago, and Smyly could be back sometime in August. Jennings should also return in August, which would give the Rays a big piece of their outfield back. Moore made his 2015 debut earlier this month and is gradually returning to form. He gets the start tonight against the Phillies.
Cash is getting the most out of the players he manages, and it’s been some lesser-known guys that have kept the club in the thick of things. All this has been done with what was a $76 million payroll at the start of the season — which ranked 28th out of 30 MLB teams.
According to ESPN.com, Cash has managed 16 rookies this year, most in the bigs. If Cash leads the Rays to the playoffs, or finishes with a winning record, he deserves serious AL Manager of the Year consideration. Though his hiring by Silverman may have been met with scrutiny, Cash has shown he has what it takes to be a major league manager.
Cash brings his team to Philadelphia for a three game series starting Monday night. Moore will make his fourth start of the season for the Rays in the first game, opposing David Buchanan. Karns pitches Tuesday night against Aaron Nola, who will be making his much-anticipated MLB debut for the Phillies. In the final game of the series, Odorizzi faces Adam Morgan.