It’s been an interesting off-season for the Tampa Bay Rays after their first losing season since 2007.
First came the news that the Los Angeles Dodgers had picked off their general manager, Andrew Friedman, signing him to a $35 million contract for the next five years.
Then came the blockbuster news that Joe Maddon was going to exercise a provision in his contract that allowed to opt-out under certain conditions, such as Friedman leaving the Rays. So Maddon took off as well, stunning Rays management as well as seemingly most of Tampa Bay area residents who embraced his philosophy, his personality, and the fact that his leadership changed the then perennial losers into a model franchise.
Maddon’s now in Chicago managing the Cubs, and Tampa native Kevin Cash has become his unlikely successor.
Unlikely in the respect that the 37-year-old Cash has never managed a game in his life.
“We have to build the trust of the players,” he said at a press conference at Tropicana Field today when asked how he’ll adjust to being a manager. He’s spent the past two seasons as the Cleveland Indians’ bullpen coach, and a year before that as an advance scout for the Toronto Blue Jays after retiring from the game in 2011, where he had enjoyed a rather modest professional career as a catcher. (He bounced around with several teams in his playing career, including the Rays back in 2005.) He says he’d like to emulate the style of his last boss, Indians manager Terry Francona, referring to his energy level that Indian players bought into.
One reporter asked Cash what it was like to manage a contender. But are the Rays going into the 2015 season? The team fell off the map last season after six straight winning seasons, and will be competing against perhaps the best division in baseball. In addition to the defending division champion Baltimore Orioles, the Boston Red Sox have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to get back to their winning ways, and the New York Yankees have a lot to prove after their lackluster 2014 campaign.
“I don’t know if there are expectations. I do like the capabilities,” he told assembled members of the media. “It was a 77 win team last year. It could have easily been an 85-87 win team, and if you get that in this division, you’re a contender. So I’m thrilled about the capabilities of the club. It’s tough not to be thrilled when you get the group of pitchers who are coming back and then obviously a guy like Evan (Longoria) and some of the young players who are on their way up or have just gotten up.”
On Sunday Tampa Bay Times reporter Marc Topkin reported that it remains to be seen whether or not Rays management will do the “standard move” now and hire an experienced bench coach to assist Cash as he begins his career as a big league manager. Cash is the youngest man to acquire such a job since the Arizona Diamondbacks hired 35-year-old A.J. Hinch back in 2009, and that experiment did not go well, though Hinch ended up OK. He was fired in the middle of his second season in 2010, but he remained a respected figure in baseball, and was just recently named the manager of the Houston Astros. Before Cash’s hire, Hinch was once again MLB’s youngest manager. (He’s now 40.)
Topkin also reported that the Rays would like to hire a Spanish-speaking coach as well, but when asked about that today, Cash appeared not to want to box himself in on that answer. “I think it’s important,” he said when asked how relevant it was with the preponderance of Latin American players now in the pros. “But I also think that it’s probably most important to get the best coaches to connect with our players, however that may be.”
Throughout the brief presser, Cash seemed like he still couldn’t believe he had climbed to the top of professional coaching in his sport, calling it “incredibly special, ” and “a joy to be back home.” Later on he said that he was “thrilled to be a part” of the Rays family now, as well as come back to his home region to manage in.
Interestingly, the Rays have never announced what Cash is making this year.
Meanwhile, executives with the Rays will undoubtedly be watching this coming Thursday St. Petersburg City Council meeting with intense interest. The board will vote up or down on the agreement that the team made last week with Mayor Rick Kriseman to allow the Rays to talk with officials in Hillsborough County about a possible new ballpark. Kriseman said last week that the Council cannot make amendments to the proposal, and must simply vote on it, as is. Although most members of the council have praised Kriseman for being able to forge an agreement with the Rays, there has been some skepticism raised by several council members, making Thursday’s vote perhaps too close to call.