For the first decade of their existence – the Rays (or Devil Rays) were the laughing stock of the sport. From their inaugural season in 1998 through the 2005 season, they had a revolving door in the dugout with three different managers, including one of the winningest in MLB history in Lou Piniella (2003-2005).
Enter Joe Maddon in 2006.
“JoMa” would struggle in his first two years at the helm, losing 101 and 96 games in ’06 and ’07 respectively. Then came the historical and infamous 2008 magical season where the Rays quite literally went from “worst to first” and took it all the way to the World Series after winning a franchise-best 97 games that year. The following years between 2009 until his final season in Tampa in 2014, Maddon would go on to have another four 90+ win seasons with the Rays and return to the playoffs three more times before falling back to earth in his final season with the team in 2014 where they missed the playoffs winning just 77 games.
I bring up the “Maddon-era” to make a point about the Rays current skipper, Kevin Cash.
In 2015, the Rays signed Cash, the youngest manager in baseball at just 36 years old, to fill the legendary shoes of Joe Maddon. No easy task, right? Well, shockingly, in his first season the Rays won 80 games dealing with injury after injury to plenty of their key players in a year that no one had any expectations at all. The Rays were playing meaningful games in September under Cash in just his first season managing at any level of baseball. In fact, they missed the playoffs that year by just six games.
In his sophomore season of 2016, things were a bit different. Not only did the Rays have a historically bad stretch of games between June-July in which they went 3-24 ultimately putting them in a far too deep hole to crawl out of – they would win just 68 games despite shattering the franchise home run record. More injuries played a factor, as well, but unlike the previous season – the Rays just couldn’t overcome their mid-season collapse.
It’s been said that a manager is the most insignificant of any “coach” in any sport. That he has less to do directly with his team’s success than in other professional sport. I’m inclined to believe that logic. However, I also believe if that’s true – you have to give the manager of an MLB team a longer leash. So no, Kevin Cash is not and should not be on the “hot seat.” For all intents and purposes, his first year was a success. Given the circumstances, his inexperience in the position, and the shoes he was filling – it’d be hard to argue that. His second year was absolutely a step back. He has made some very questionable calls in both his first two years but again, that’s to be expected from someone as inexperienced as he was coming into the position.
Now it’s year three. You’ve dealt with just about everything that a big league ball club can deal with – both good and bad – during the course of a 162 game season. You’re into your third off-season and heading into your third spring training. While it is time for the “inexperience” excuse to start fading away – let’s not be naïve enough to think it’s the skipper’s fault they finished how they did in 2016. Sure, even Cash, himself, will tell you he and the coaching staff have to be better. For one more season – let’s sit back and see what transpires. The front office has been shifted a bit and there is a new hitting coach in the clubhouse. Fresh faces in those positions could be a positive heading into the new season.
My own, personal rule is that every new coach/manager should be allowed a 3-5 year window to turn a team around. Cash is entering his third year – the same year it took for Maddon to have his first taste of success as manager of the Rays.
Of course I’m not saying Cash’s Rays will find the same magic that they did under Joe in 2008. That year…that turnaround was not only unprecedented it was historic. That was a different team with arguably more talent top to bottom.
Just don’t be too shocked if the 2017 Tampa Bay Rays look and feel like a different and better team than the 2016 ball club. With the Winter Meetings in full swing, arbitration still upon us, and a whole spring slate yet to play out – there’s still plenty of time for more fresh faces to join the fray. How will Kevin Cash put all the pieces together as he takes the field for his third Opening Day as manager against the Yankees at the Trop on Sunday, April 2nd?
Time will tell.
Frankly – I’m excited. Excited and optimistic. Why?
Because baseball is a funny sport.
A funny sport that year after year throws us more than a few curveballs (pun intended).
Why can’t the Rays be one of those curveballs in 2017?
I believe they can…and Kevin Cash will be a big reason why.