Tampa Bay Rays manager and Lutz native/Gaither High School alum Kevin Cash notched yet another feather in his proverbial ball cap.
Weeks after guiding the Rays to the American League’s best regular season record (40-20) and the franchise’s second World Series berth in history, Cash was crowned 2020 AL Manager of the Year by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA).
The 42-year-old Cash received 22 of 30 first-place votes and 126 total points in the BBWAA’s scoring to win over former Chicago White Sox manager Rick Renteria (61) and current Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo (47).
The Rays skipper also was a finalist the previous two seasons, becoming just the fifth AL manager to record three consecutive top-three finishes.
The regular season-based managerial award was announced on a national television broadcast Nov. 10.
Cash called the accolade “a huge honor,” at a Zoom media briefing later that evening, adding the recognition is meaningful coming from local and national baseball writers.
“When you’re being voted (on) and appreciated by people that don’t always agree with your opinion, and there can be some back and forth, I think it says a lot,” said Cash, who wrapped up his sixth season as Tampa Bay’s top coach.
Within minutes of the award’s official announcement, Cash volunteered that he’d received some 140 congratulatory text messages from peers throughout the sport’s industry: “It felt like a World Series win, or clinching the ALCS (American League Championship Series), that’s what it felt like. …It means a lot when your peers and your friends throughout the game reach out.”
Cash mostly deflected his role in the team’s success to the organization as a whole, crediting the leadership of Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg, team presidents Brian Auld and Matt Silverman, and general manager Erik Neander, among others.
“It’s a really special group,” Cash said. “It’s a special place to work, led by Stu, Matt and Erik, Brian, everybody involved. …It certainly is a tremendous place to work.”
Cash, too, mentioned being “so lucky” to have a roster of ballplayers who are “very much team first” and embrace a “team-oriented approach.”
Cash becomes the fourth Tampa area product to win a Major League Baseball (MLB) Manager of the Year award — joining four-time winner Tony La Russa (St. Louis Cardinals in 2002; Oakland Athletics in 1988, 1992; Chicago White Sox in 1983), three-time winner Lou Piniella (Chicago Cubs in 2008; Seattle Mariners in 1995, 2001) and the one-time winner Al Lopez (Chicago White Sox in 1959, when the award was presented by the Associated Press).
La Russa was raised in West Tampa and graduated from Jefferson High School. Piniella likewise was raised in West Tampa, attending Jesuit High School and the University of Tampa. The late Lopez grew up in Ybor City and attended Jesuit High.
Cash, meanwhile, grew up in the Valley Ranch Drive neighborhood across from Lake Park in Lutz, along North Dale Mabry Highway.
His baseball notoriety started young.
Some three decades ago, he was a 12-year-old second baseman on the 1989 Northside Little League team that reached the 43rd Little League World Series.
He would later star at Gaither High and Florida State University through the mid- and late- 1990s before enjoying an eight-year MLB career as a journeyman catcher. As a pro, he spent time on the then Devil Rays (in 2005), along with the Blue Jays, New York Yankees, Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox, respectively.
Upon the end of his playing career, Cash in became a scout for the Blue Jays (2012) and then bullpen coach for the Cleveland Indians (2013-2014), before landing the Tampa Bay gig in 2015.
Success on a shoestring budget
Amid a logistically emotionally taxing, pandemic-delayed, 60-game shortened season, Cash navigated monumental feats out of a young, diverse team with a low payroll, and dearth of superstars and household names.
Consider: Tampa Bay’s $28.3 million prorated payroll — third lowest in the Majors — paled in comparison to the $108.4 million sum of the National League’s Los Angeles Dodgers, who the Rays ultimately lost to in six games in the Fall Classic.
Also consider: The Rays this season had 15 different players serve a total of 20 injured-list stints. On Sept. 1, they set a team-record-tying (not in a good way) 13 players unavailable for action.
Handling the team’s ballooning attrition rate was arguably the greatest challenge this year, Cash said.
“I think the injuries were up there, especially at the onset,” he said. “We all dealt with (COVID-19) protocols and we can’t talk about those enough, but I know that answer has gotten old. The injuries, for sure.”
On the whole, Cash is widely revered for putting players in position to prosper via ever-changing batting orders, increased bullpen usage, openers, platoons, positional versatility, defensive positioning and shifts, and more.
He’s likewise praised for cultivating a loose, welcoming clubhouse that features so many players from different countries, cultures and backgrounds. The team’s roster, in addition to players from all quadrants of the United States, was also represented by Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Japan and South Korea, respectively.
Some unique footnotes from the Rays 2020 season under Cash:
• 59 different lineups in 60 games (tied for most in MLB)
• Constructed the only all-lefty lineup in Major League history
• AL-best 20 come-from-behind wins
• MLB-best 14-5 mark in one-run games
• 12 different pitchers recorded a save (tied MLB record set by the 1973 Texas Rangers)
• Used 4.7 pitchers per game, more than the MLB average
• Used an AL-most 1.15 pinch-hitters per game
Cash’s essential managerial philosophy centers around openness and honesty with players regarding in-game and in-house decision-making. Keeping a level-headed approach in victory and defeat is crucial, too.
He observed of his role: “You’ve gotta make good decisions, there’s no doubt, but I think more times than not it’s being consistent and genuine, authentic with the people that you work with every day. It would be wrong of myself or any of our staff to change, depending on wins or losses. I don’t think you’re going to get players to really want to be in that environment, and our goal is to get them to want to be in that environment that we’re proud of, and I think you do that by consistency, and our staff is top-notch in that.”
The 2020 campaign represented a pinnacle of Cash’s run in Tampa Bay — as he now claims the franchise’s best all-time managerial winning percentage (.522).
The team had a losing record in Cash’s first three seasons, but has enjoyed three straight winning campaigns since, one better than the next.
The team won 90 regular season games (.556 winning percentage) in 2018, then 96 games (.592) in 2019 — marking the franchise’s first playoff berth in six years.
Extrapolating this year’s 40 wins (.667) to a traditional 162-game season, the Rays would’ve been on pace to collect 108 victories. Its 20 postseason games (including reaching Game 6 of the World Series) was the deepest playoff run in franchise history.
“We had some ups and downs over the last years,” Cash sad. “I mean this year, 40 (wins) and 20 (losses), you can’t have too many downs. A lot of things went well. We got to the World Series, a lot of things went well. But, there were tough moments in there, but we owe it to the players to stay as consistent as possible.”
Looking back, Cash is fortunate the 2020 baseball season was even able to get off the ground, considering countless COVID-19 hurdles and fragmented negotiations between team owners and players on salary structures, gameplay, health and safety protocols, and so on.
“I wasn’t overly confident that we were going to get this thing up and running (this season). I don’t know of anybody that was,” he said. “So, there’s been a lot of head scratching, a lot of moments that it was really, really special, and really, really impressive what our team and organization accomplished this year, and hopefully as time continues, we’ll be able to appreciate it that much more.”
Published November 18, 2020