Voters are likely going to overlook the Tampa Bay Rays manager from a small-market team. Here is the case for why Kevin Cash should win 2018 AL Manager of the Year and why voters should re-think the criteria for what makes a good manager.
The Tampa Bay Rays manager may get lost in the shuffle this year as The American League Manager of the Year race is loaded this year. Managers from all over the league have been making extremely solid cases and it looked like it was going to be tough to pick a winner up until the season’s end.
First time leaders, Alex Cora and Aaron Boone, led the Red Sox and Yankees to over 100 wins and playoff positions, AJ Hinch took the Astros back to the American League Championship Series and a surprising first half saw the Seattle Mariners in the thick of playoff contention until the last month of the season.
However, two teams no analysts saw coming were the Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays, who both stormed through the second half of the season to finish with more than 90 wins (97 in Oakland’s case) and found themselves giving the big market clubs a run for their money.
Oakland and Tampa started the 2018 campaign with the two lowest payrolls in the major leagues, with the A’s at $62M and the Rays $69M. Many experts predicted the two teams would finish near the bottom of their respective divisions, but, here they are at season’s end, scheduled to have the 22nd and 29th overall picks in next year’s draft.
As a Rays fan, I was pretty familiar with what their roster would look like going into the season but I can’t admit that I was thrilled with it. No Evan Longoria, Alex Cobb or Jake Odorizzi. On top of that, there was no bullpen to speak of, which was a big problem considering Blake Snell and Chris Archer were the only experienced starters that were healthy to begin the season. The only player I expected any sort of production from at the beginning of the year was Wilson Ramos, and one player does not a good team make.
Meanwhile, the A’s roster was more of a mystery to me. I knew Khris Davis, and that he’d probably hit a bunch of home runs, and I knew Jed Lowrie would feature but I never would’ve predicted Matt Chapman was about to become a franchise player for the greens, or that Blake Treinen was secretly preparing to be the best reliever in baseball, and I certainly did not expect Daniel Mengden and his glorious moustache to grace my television screen.
In short, the A’s and Rays greatly outperformed what they were capable of on paper, and were the most compelling and enjoyable narrative of the season for a small market fan like myself. It would be impossible not to attribute at least some of these teams’ successes to the two men leading them, Rays’ manager Kevin Cash and A’s skipper Bob Melvin.
A fan of any team sport would be able to tell you a great manager can bring out a better result than the sum of a team’s parts, and these two did just that. I’m not saying that Cora and Boone weren’t impressive, but a team with Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez and Chris Sale would have a far easier job winning games than most others.
Out of Cash and Melvin, the latter is far and away the odds-on favorite to win Manager of the Year in 2018, and it is easy to see why. The A’s won seven more games than the Rays and claimed the second wild card spot. But I believe Cash deserves the award over Melvin, even if it’s going to be a tough sell.
Firstly, while both teams didn’t look like they were built to contend this season, Cash had a much tougher battle with his front office to produce wins. This began around a month into the season, when the Rays were beginning to recover from their terrible start.
They traded Denard Span, who had almost as many RBIs as hits at the time, and their closer, Alex Colomé, both for salary space. This further stirred an already shaky team morale that wasn’t high initially. Cash, however, kept them on course and they kept playing baseball, managing to hover around the .500 mark.
By the trade deadline, both teams were doing well, but were still looking from afar at the playoff-contending teams like the Astros and Red Sox. Billy Beane saw the opportunity in front of him and decided to buy into the team, making some serious acquisitions which addressed their biggest concern, the bullpen. The A’s added Fernando Rodney, Jeurys Familia, Mike Fiers and Shawn Kelley to an already solid staff, giving experience and depth that they would need in order to catch up over the stretch.
Meanwhile, the Rays matched their middling play with middling moves. They moved their most experienced pitchers, Chris Archer and Nathan Eovaldi, they unloaded bullpen parts Matt Andriese and Johnny Venters and they also freed up some more salary room by trading All-Star catcher Wilson Ramos to the Phillies for cash. All of these moves were designed to help the team succeed next year and beyond. The only deadline move that indicated any sign of faith in this year’s club was gaining Tommy Pham, one of the Rays’ best second-half hitters, for a couple of prospects.
Tampa Bay were in the curious position of buying and selling at the same time, which definitely seemed like the right move, yet it didn’t indicate this year’s team was going to stay in the playoff race. The Rays followed their curious deadline day with their best stretch of the season, going 36-19 and keeping up with the A’s and Mariners until the last week of the season.
Kevin Cash ensured his players ignored ownership’s apparent lack of faith in the 2018 squad to play hungry and inspired baseball, despite some trades and decisions which at first seemed puzzling. If that doesn’t indicate a good manager, I don’t know what does.
My second point is impossible to prove through statistics, but I think it is a key factor when determining the best manager in baseball – Cash’s incredible knack for innovation and experimentation in a sport which often seems deadlocked in tradition. Many Rays fans were used to crazy management from the Joe Maddon era, but Cash proved to be even more forward thinking than his predecessor due to the position the Rays found themselves in this season.
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Not one, not two, but three key rotation injuries struck Tampa Bay during spring training, as highly-touted prospects Brent Honeywell and José de Leon went down with Tommy John surgery, and Nathan Eovaldi’s comeback to a major-league mound was further delayed until mid-season. Cash had no choice but to get weird with his pitchers in order to survive against his divisional opponents.
He started the season with a 3-man rotation and had two bullpen days in lieu of a traditional starter. Bullpen days had been used in the past, but typically once in a blue moon or in a pivotal playoff game where a starter was under-performing. Never before had someone made ‘bullpen-ing’ a regular occurrence, and every expert predicted the bullpen would quickly tire and the experiment would fail. Against all odds, the bullpen delivered – developing into one of the league’s best – and filled with players that you’ve never heard of.
“Who!?” Tweeted everyone else, thinking I was confusing the Rays with my create-a-players on MLB The Show.
The club continued to make headlines in May, when they announced long-time reliever, Sergio Romo, would start a game against the Los Angeles Angels. Kevin Cash had decided to develop an idea from baseball analyst, Brian Kenny, known as ‘The Opener’. The Opener isn’t that complicated a strategy on the surface – use a reliever to dispatch the first three to five hitters in a game before giving way to a more traditional starting pitcher, who would then pitch the next four to six innings.
Cash explained that he ‘opened’ Romo against the Halos because of their dangerous first three hitters – that were all right handed, and would prefer if the rookie lefty starter, Ryan Yarbrough, entered the game with them out of the way. The plan sparked a large discussion on whether it would work, and if the traditional starting pitcher would die out. But all that mattered to Cash and the Rays, was winning.
Romo silenced the naysayers in his first open, striking out Zack Cozart, Mike Trout and Justin Upton in order in an excellent first inning. This opened the door to younger relievers who had struggled coming out of the pen to become more effective as openers. This led to the emergence of Ryne Stanek and Diego Castillo, who both dominated in the opener role.
The strategy took the baseball world by storm, with players, managers, fans and analysts all weighing in on the idea and debating whether their team should use it.
To use your team’s resources in the best possible way is the sign of an excellent manager, and Cash’s bold implementation of the opener proved he is a daring and confident leader who knows what he is doing. Cash should at least be partially credited for introducing a revolution in how baseball will be played for years to come. Many other managers have followed Cash’s example, including the A’s, who used an opener in the AL Wild Card Game this year.
While the final standings indicate Melvin should be the favourite to win 2018 AL Manager of the Year, I think voters should look a little closer this year and consider not just how many wins the team accumulated, but how well each team was managed. Kevin Cash took a team with extremely low morale and brought out the best in each and every one of his players. But also took a bold gamble and changed how the game is being played – all in one season! If that doesn’t scream manager of the year, what does?
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