After disappointing 2016 season, Rays manager knows 'you have to be prepared to adjust'
By Hal Bodley
Ask Kevin Cash what advice he'd give someone who's about to take over a Major League team and who's never managed at any level, and there's little hesitation.
"Prepare yourself for the unexpected," Cash said, followed by a chuckle.
Cash, of course, is that person. He took over the Rays two years ago and had never even managed a Little League team.
Now, Cash is approaching his third season as Tampa Bay's manager, and he is the first to tell you that preparing for the unexpected is virtually impossible. He's still MLB's youngest skipper.
At times during Cash's rookie year, the Rays played like a contender. Most of the summer, he pushed the right buttons. Tampa Bay ended 80-82, and there was enormous optimism for 2016.
But the unexpected took over.
The Rays' vaunted starting pitching was dreadful in the early going. The bullpen was summoned far too early, became burned out, and you can fill in the blanks.
On May 20, with a victory over Detroit, the Rays were a game over .500 at 20-19 -- the high point of the summer. After that, the season gradually crumbled. Between June 16-July 16, the Rays won just three of 27 games, the worst stretch in the franchise's history.
There were losing streaks of 11 and eight games. Tampa Bay tumbled to the American League East's basement with a 68-94 record, its fewest wins since 2007. The Rays were one of three Major League teams unable to win in games they trailed after eight innings.
Now, as Cash and the brain trust prepare for next week's Winter Meetings, 2016 has been dissected to the smallest degree.
Because Tampa Bay is such a low-revenue franchise, major moves are limited.
I believe the Rays would have to be overwhelmed to part with key pieces such as pitcher Chris Archer or team leader Evan Longoria.
"We were all disappointed the way our season took shape and frankly finished up," said Cash, who turns 39 on Tuesday. "There were obviously some bright spots to our season. Longoria had a tremendous year, Logan Forsythe had a solid year. The bright spots were the way Brad Miller, Corey Dickerson and even Steven Souza Jr., before his hip injury, finished."
Optimism for 2016 was built around the Rays' pitching, which has been their trademark for over a decade.
Archer, a 2015 All-Star, was expected to lead the way. Instead, the 28-year-old right-hander lost 19 times against nine wins. Even with those disappointing numbers, Archer had at least 30 starts for the third consecutive season and allowed 183 hits over 201 1/3 innings.
"The entire starting pitching staff seemed to struggle over a one-month stand," Cash said. "When that happened and center fielder Kevin Kiermaier was lost for 48 games with a broken hand, we were challenged in more ways than one and could never overcome it."
"Say it again," echoed Cash. "That was our backbone last year, and it will be our backbone coming into this year. With the Winter Meetings next week, everyone says it's a luxury to be deep in starting pitching because we can use them in possible trades. Trade one or two of them.
"I have no idea if we're going to do that, but I've learned over many years from extremely intelligent baseball people you can never have enough starting pitching.
"That philosophy has been greatly challenged during my first two years as manager. I'm not too keen in saying we're covered in [starting pitching]. At any given moment, someone can get injured. When an Alex Cobb or a Matt Moore gets injured, there's a lasting effect during that season."
Yes, there will be interest in Longoria, but even if the return is tempting, his loss on and off the field would be enormous.
The 31-year-old third baseman's ninth season was one of his best. He hit .273 with a .521 slugging percentage, along with 36 homers, 98 RBIs, 41 doubles and 81 runs scored.
Regardless of how the Rays recast their team for 2017, Cash will be back and be even more comfortable as manager.
"What would I tell a new manager?" Cash said. "You come into these jobs with genuine excitement. You have a plan and commit yourself to the plan, but what I've learned is you have to be prepared to adjust.
"You're going to work with 25 to 40 players, and you have to add in the coaches and trainers. What I've learned most is the way you communicate with them -- they are all different -- how they respond to different ways. When I look back, the in-game management, you can always question or second-guess and think through decisions after the fact.
"But communicating with the players is always adjusting, and that's what I'd tell a young manager. You're dealing with human beings whose lives are constantly changing. Some are in a great spot because they're having success and their family life is great. Some are not in a great spot because their family life is not good and they're not having success on the field."
Cash says the underlying lesson is that you have to constantly have different ways of connecting with the players.
"This job has more than lived up to its challenge and continues to do that," Cash said. "Out of respect to the job, though, I'll never say it's easier than I thought it would be."
That's where the unexpected comes into play.
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.