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Kevin Cash’s 5-Year Deal and the Rays’ Faith in the Process

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2015 will mark Kevin Cash‘s first year as a major league manager and the first time that anyone other than Joe Maddon has managed the Tampa Bay Rays since 2005. Cash’s beginning came amid the end of an era for the Rays, but he also helped usher in something new and something that everyone hopes will last. As Jon Heyman reported a few days ago, Cash’s first managerial contract is for five years, an unprecedented total for a rookie skipper.

Maybe the amount of years isn’t nearly as telling as Cash’s low annual salary, as Cork Gaines of Rays Index writes. The Rays will have Cash for five years at a cheap rate if his managerial stint goes well, and they can cut ties with him without costing themselves a crazy sum of money if he fails.

Gaines makes a very good point, but it was something else that came to mind for me when I first heard about this contract: the marketing perspective. This is something we brought up this past offseason when we were explaining why the second Wil Myers trade was a three-team deal. In this case, giving Cash five years is a statement by the Rays to their fans saying that even if the next year or two will be tough, they believe their franchise will get on track before long.

“Tough” is a relative term for the Tampa Bay Rays. When you have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball and an offense led by Evan Longoria, you should never lose 100 games. The Rays’ 77-win season last year was about their team’s worst-case scenario, and even after so many players were traded away, it should not be too difficult for them to surpass that total.

Of course, it will be meaningless if the Rays win 82 or 83 games next year. Unless the AL East is completely in shambles, such a total would leave the Rays out of the postseason by a decent margin while also giving them a worse draft pick. We could praise Kevin Cash for helping the team improve, but unless he can pilot the Rays to 87 or 88 wins, the team may actually be worse off.

Even if the Rays find themselves in no man’s land with a win total between 78 and 85 games, though, that will not mean that all hope is lost. A couple of mediocre seasons will not lead the Rays to tear apart their roster. The Rays won’t be rebuilding because rebuilding teams don’t enter seasons with a high probability of being above .500 and a chance of making the postseason that is realistic if not likely.

Instead, the goals for the Rays the next two years will be to win games while forging a roster that can continue succeeding even as the names change. The Rays were so successful from 2008 to 2011 because their minor league system was churning out such impressive talent that the Rays could trade big leaguers without skipping a beat. The best example of that was the Matt Garza trade. Garza was traded for prospects, but his replacement, Jeremy Hellickson, outperformed him the next year.

However, after Hellickson, Desmond Jennings, and Matt Moore cracked the Rays’ roster, it became apparent that the Rays’ success required more luck. They needed their low-cost relievers and first basemen to work out or they would miss the postseason. They did such a good job in 2012 and 2013 that they still won 90 games each year and made it to the playoffs in the latter season, but 2014 showed us what would happen if those moves went wrong.

The acquisition of Myers following 2012 gave them one of the top farm systems in baseball once again, but everyone knew that they would fall back down as soon as he made the major leagues. Then, after he faltered in 2014 along with Yunel Escobar and others, the Rays simply didn’t have the Triple-A depth to survive. Now it looks like that depth may be coming back.

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Beyond Kevin Kiermaier, Steven Souza, and Nick Franklin are Ryan Brett, Mikie Mahtook, and Tim Beckham. The Rays are hoping that Hak-Ju Lee and Richie Shaffer can also work their ways into that mix, and Daniel Robertson isn’t so far away either. Each player we just mentioned comes with his questions, and too many of them will end up as fringe-starters and bench players. Even so, the Rays just need a couple of them to break out and bide time until the next generation of prospects is ready.

If Kevin Cash loses 96 or more games the next two years like Joe Maddon did in 2006 and 2007, he may not return for 2017. He joins the Rays in a time of transition, but if they lose that many games, either something has gone horribly wrong or the Rays’ management has given up on their plan. Since the front office that has been juggling the present and future ever since the franchise first found success in 2008, don’t count on the latter.

On the opposite edge of the spectrum, these current Rays can still make the postseason. It will take more things going their way, but it is far from impossible. This season, they need good health, a revitalized Evan Longoria, Kiermaier and Souza proving to be above-average starters, and Nick Franklin and the catching situation showing themselves to be average. Does that sound so crazy? Even if it does, we can say that it is within the realm of possibility.

Bringing this all together, the Rays’ perspective on the present and future has certainly shifted this offseason. They have their eyes on 2016 and 2017 more than 2015 and they will adjust their expectations for Kevin Cash accordingly.

The Rays believe that their franchise has a chance to win right now, but their principal focus–as always–is to build a sustained contender, and the pieces to get there are not ready quite yet. While they hope that this transition period is short, they are also prepared for a year or two that falls short of the high bar they have set for themselves. Kevin Cash deserved a five-year contract because a rough time in his first two years may in fact be setting up his team for future success.

Next: Spring Game 10: Howard's Homer Down Archer, Rays

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