Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash earned an early — yet well-deserved — birthday present this year.
He became the first American League (AL) manager to win Manager of the Year twice in a row, which was announced by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) on Nov. 16, mere weeks before his 44th birthday on Dec. 6.
The Lutz native/Gaither High School alum was honored for steering the Rays to a franchise-best 100-62 regular season mark in 2021.
Cash received 19 first-place votes, three second-place votes and five third-place votes for a total of 109 points in the 5-3-1 scoring system. He won the award over Seattle Mariners’ Scott Servais (71 points) and Houston Astros’ Dusty Baker (33 points), respectively.
Cash also is only the second manager to win such a BBWAA Manager of the Year Award in back-to-back seasons. He joins Bobby Cox, who did so with the National League’s Atlanta Braves in 2004 and 2005.
The seventh-year manager humbly said he shouldn’t be listed in the “same sentence” or “same conversation” as the retired Cox, who ranks fourth all-time in managerial wins with 2,504 and is enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
“When you think of major league managers, but really, the greats in this game, Bobby Cox is going to find himself at the top of many lists,” Cash said, during a Zoom media briefing after the award announcement. “I’ve crossed paths with Bobby one time, years ago, but to hear the stories about him…you can appreciate and understand the quality of person and impact that he had on our game.”
Overcoming expectations, adversity
Despite coming of a World Series appearance during a pandemic-shortened 2020, expectations were relatively tame in the latest campaign.
Not only did the Rays again roll out one of the game’s cheapest payrolls, but they traded former Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell and let sage veteran pitcher Charlie Morton walk, declining the player’s $15 million option.
Before the season, Baseball Prospectus’ widely cited PECOTA (Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm) sabermetric system forecasted the Rays to finish 86-76 with an 11% odds to win the division. (PECOTA forecasts the MLB standings and individual player performance. PECOTA takes teams’ depth charts and projects the playing time and stats for all their players, then simulates the season to come up with estimated win totals and playoff chances for every team.)
The projections didn’t appear far off at the onset, as Tampa Bay had a so-so start to the first month of the season, going 13-14 in April.
The Rays launched into another gear in May, going 22-6, then reached the All-Star break with a 53-37 mark.
The club would go on to secure the AL’s best record, while also leading its division for 98 straight days.
The team’s postseason run ended sooner than expected, however, losing to the Boston Red Sox in four games of a best-of-five AL division series in October.
Adversity hit along the way, over the course of the six-month season.
The Rays weathered 33 different players being placed on the injured list (totaling 43 stints).
That list included ace flamethrower Tyler Glasnow, who went down in mid-June with a season-ending partial UCL tear and flexor strain.
The injured list reached a club-record 17 players at various points throughout August.
Adding to the level of difficulty was a highly competitive AL East division, whereby three other star-powered teams posted at least 90 wins — Red Sox (92-70), New York Yankees (92-70), Toronto Blue Jays (91-71).
Mixing smarts with personality
The reputable manager put his own twist on game strategy.
He used a club-most 61 players and 38 pitchers.
He used 14 different pitchers to record a save — setting a major league record.
He used 158 different batting orders in 162 games — the most in the majors and a club record.
Aside from all his tinkering, Cash deflected credit for the team’s feats this past season: “Well, I’m most proud of the players and the team, and the accomplishment of the regular season. One hundred wins in the American League East, with the talent level that was top to bottom in our division — pretty remarkable.”
Along with shrewd, if not sometimes head-scratching maneuvers that buck traditional baseball trends, Cash is regarded for bringing an even-keeled approach to his players and staff over the course of a trying season.
“I think you feed off your players, you feed off your staff, and we all work really hard to be as consistent as possible,” he said. “We want to do everything we can to put them in the best position.”
He’s also famous for his self-deprecating humor within the clubhouse, often joking with players about his own substandard .183 career batting average across eight big league seasons from 2002 to 2010.
“You try not to take yourself too seriously,” Cash said, “and you appreciate how challenging this game is, whether it’s hitting, pitching, playing defense, running the bases — it’s really tough.”
He continued, “There’s enough outside pressures right now that are going on…we’ve got to do a good job of trying to keep it loose to where they have their clubhouse, their dugout, to where they can go and just be themselves.”
While advancing through the coaching ranks, Cash followed a protocol “to be all ears, and listen a lot more than speak, and learn as much as possible.”
It was especially true in collaborating with the Rays top baseball minds in the front office. “They’re a lot smarter than I am, and (I) value the perspective of the front office, and certainly value the perspective of the player development group,” he said.
Over the years, Cash said he’s strived to “find that balance” between befriending players, while still mentoring them along through a coaching methodology that focuses on consistency, communication and authenticity.
Looking forward, Cash is quite bullish on the team’s trajectory, given the vast number of young stars who contributed to recent successes, including AL Rookie of the Year Randy Arozarena, 20-year-old wunderkind Wander Franco, and a youthful pitching staff paced by 24-year-old lefty Shane McClanahan, among others.
The manager believes the franchise’s proverbial arrow is pointing “up, maybe straight up.”
He put it this way: “It’s a pretty exciting time to be a Tampa Bay Ray. We’ve got some really good players that were here…and there certainly is more to come, but a lot to be excited about.”
Long before becoming one of the sport’s more recognizable figures, Cash grew up in the Valley Ranch Drive neighborhood across from Lake Park in Lutz, along North Dale Mabry Highway.
His baseball notoriety began when he was young.
Some three-plus 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 later would 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 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 December 2014.
Published December 15, 2021