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Kevin Cash and the Tampa Bay Rays’ Struggle for Youth

By Robbie Knopf
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This offseason, the Tampa Bay Rays have released Jose Molina, traded Joel Peralta, and made Kevin Cash their manager. Those moves seem entirely unrelated until we consider the ages of the people we are talking about. Molina turns 40 next June, Peralta will be 39 in March, and Cash celebrates his 37th birthday today. In the span of a few weeks, the Rays rid themselves of half of their players born in the 1970’s while hiring the youngest head coach in the four major sports.

Were the Tampa Bay Rays a young team last season? It is difficult to say that they were. The Rays’ batters (adjusting for playing time) averaged 29.3 years of age, the seventh-oldest in baseball while their pitchers averaged 28.4 years of age, 16th-oldest in baseball.

Essentially, the Rays had a young starting rotation (at least when everyone was healthy) and a few youthful outfielders, but were not young anywhere else on their team. Younger is not necessarily better, but after a season that saw the Rays come apart, it would have been nice to be able to say “this is a young team that will only keep improving.” Unfortunately, that statement is untrue.

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The Rays have started dealing some veterans, and Matt Joyce or David DeJesus could soon be gone as well. If the Rays move Brandon Gomes, Grant Balfour would be their only reliever who is at least 30 years of age. Yet even with Molina gone, the Rays are set to have 34 year old Ryan Hanigan as their starting catcher. They still feature an infield whose youngest starter is Evan Longoria at age 29. The Rays are talented enough to contend to 2015 even if they have some older players, but whether they can continue that success through 2016 and beyond will be determined by the development of their young major leaguers and prospects.

If there was one highlight for the Rays in 2014, it was the young players who received opportunities and came into their own. Jake Odorizzi overcame early season struggles to take the Rays’ fifth starter spot and run with it. Jake McGee established himself as an excellent big league closer while Brad Boxberger became an unhittable setup man. Kevin Kiermaier showed flashes at the plate to go along with his great defense and Brandon Guyer proved that he could be a valuable reserve. Finally, Jeff Beliveau became a better lefty than we possibly could have thought while Alex Colome inspired optimism that the Rays’ future rotation would be just fine.

Unfortunately, the efforts of those six players was counterbalanced by the struggles of one player, Wil Myers. Fresh off winning the 2013 AL Rookie of the Year, Myers struggled with injuries and never found his power stroke when he was on the field. Breaking balls down and away continue to stifle him, and he showed few signs of being able to adjust. As James Shields and Wade Davis helped lead the Kansas City Royals to the World Series, Rays fans had to wonder whether that “can’t miss” prospect they received in return for them would pan out. At least Odorizzi’s strong season and Patrick Leonard‘s development at High-A made up some of the difference.

The good news is that the Rays have more help on the way. Nick Franklin will receive his second chance to became an impact big leaguer this season, and his power potential as a middle infielder is tantalizing. Ryan Brett looks primed to compete with Franklin for the Rays’ second base job in 2016 and may be an even better player. Mikie Mahtook is coming off a breakout season at Triple-A and could give the Rays yet another young outfielder. Then there is Justin O’Conner, the 22 year old who may the best chance of anyone at solving the Rays’ catcher problem for the long-term.

We also must acknowledge how big of a luxury it is for the Rays to have their Triple-A pitching depth. Alex Colome is out-of-options and will find himself in either the Rays’ rotation or bullpen next season. Beyond him, though, the Rays have Nate Karns, Matt Andriese, Enny Romero, and Mike Montgomery, all of whom are talented and have another year of development under their belts.

The members of the 2013 Durham Bulls rotation will not all turn to be viable big league starters, but the Rays don’t need them to be–they would more than happy if they get one starter and a pair of a dynamic relievers. The presence of those arms means that if the Rays face more injuries to pitchers in 2015, we will see exciting young pitchers–decidedly different from Erik Bedard and Cesar Ramos–filling the open spots.

The Tampa Bay Rays did not hire Kevin Cash as their manager because he is young–they hired him because they believed he was the best candidate–but his relative youth is quite appropriate given the most critical task ahead of the Rays as he becomes their manager. The fate of Cash’s tenure in Tampa Bay will be determined be the continued progress of the Rays’ young players. The Rays know how to sign undervalued veterans, but 2014 demonstrated that they can only use that approach to hang off the ledge for so long before they fall off. Can the Rays can get to being that young, exciting team that took the baseball world by storm in 2008?

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