Rays manager adjusted quickly in situation that presented challenges
By Hal Bodley
ST. PETERSBURG -- When Kevin Cash, who'd never managed a baseball team at any level, was hired as skipper for the Tampa Bay Rays last December, the feeling was he'd have to grow into the job. It would take a season, maybe even more.
Cash has proven everyone who had that thought wrong. MLB's youngest manager grew up in a hurry.
In fact, when the injury-riddled Rays were atop the American League East, 10 games over .500 in June, there were those of us who thought he might end up winning the league's Manager of the Year Award .
Cash, 37, wraps up his first season this weekend against division champ Toronto. There'll be no AL Manager of the Year Award, no postseason. Avoiding last place is the goal Tampa Bay has in the three games at Tropicana Field.
In no way should that distract from the rapid maturity of their rookie manager.
Cash has more than earned his stripes and even the harshest critics must applaud how he's handled this difficult assignment. And not to mention he's following the legendary Joe Maddon, who took the Rays to the postseason four times, including the 2008 World Series.
Yes, Cash says, it's been a learning experience.
"I don't think you can totally appreciate it until you're actually doing it," he said. "There's never a time where you cannot be locked in. Once you get to the ballpark, you have to be ready to answer questions -- from the media, but mostly from the players."
The Rays' surprise choice to succeed Maddon, Cash spent the previous two years as bullpen coach for Indians manager Terry Francona.
"I had this image or thought of what [managing] was going to be like, especially after being so close to what Tito went through," said Cash. "I learned in a hurry how different it is once you're in the job."
Cash admits he's made mistakes. He's heard it from the media "and I've heard it from my players," he said.
Cash has been frequently criticized this season for the way he's handled the pitching staff, including pulling starters too early and sticking with Brad Boxberger as his closer.
"You try so hard to put every one of your players in a position to succeed," Cash said. "It's easy to say, but very difficult to do. There's no doubt our aggressive [pitching] moves and decisions of mine have been second-guessed. In some ways, they've worked out really well; and in some ways, they haven't worked out well."
Cash believes he relied too much on analytics early in the season.
"I'll say this, at the beginning, there were times I probably did," he said. "After the first month, two months, we tried to value all opinions, and analytics is a huge one, but tried to blend it in what's best for our guys."
Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg, who gave Cash a five-year contract at about $5 million, is surprised at how quickly the first-year manager has adjusted.
"The highest expectations and beliefs I had in Kevin have been more than realized," Sternberg told reporters last month when Tampa Bay played at Yankee Stadium. "I'm extraordinarily pleased. The manager he is today, I would have liked him to be next year at this time. He's gone through every obstacle and just learned from it and absorbed it. And it's just made him stronger and better. So I'm really excited about the future with him and what he's going to mean to this organization for years to come."
Cash has excelled at building relationships with players. He listed that as a priority when Spring Training opened.
"We feel we've built a good foundation and that will continue to evolve," Cash said. "Once you have the relationships, you have to stay on top of them. You can't just think you've got them and all of a sudden not communicate with the guy for three weeks."
Biggest mistake? It's back to use of his pitchers.
"As much as I thought we communicated with our pitchers how we were going to approach our starters and get to our bullpen, we could have communicated more," Cash said. "We did some unique things that not all of baseball buys in to. We understand that and understand we were going to take some lumps. Taking lumps in the media is one thing … it's a whole different thing when you're having some difficulties in the clubhouse."
One thing Cash has done well is not air the dirty laundry. Yes, he said, there have been heated conversations, but they have been behind closed doors.
Cash calls them one-on-one direct conversations.
"And that in return was a learning experience for me," Cash said. "The goal is to allow your message to be heard and allow the player to give you his message.
"And then have him walk out of here in a positive [mood]. The last thing you want is have the player stalk out. I think you come in to this job knowing everybody is not always going to be in agreement with the staff's thoughts."
Cash's managerial style is impressive. Yes, he's made a few rookie mistakes, but despite the numerous injuries and adversity, he's kept the Rays believing in themselves.
And in him.
Hal Bodley, dean of American baseball writers, is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. Follow him @halbodley on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.