Intriguing Rays deserve credit for manager search
Next skipper will inherit team with ability to contend in AL East
The next manager of the Tampa Bay Rays will step into an enviable position.
Wait, those aren't my words. Those are the words of Rays president Matt Silverman, in a press release announcing a preliminary list of managerial candidates. But can I claim them as my own? Because I believe it, too.
This will be a weird winter for the Rays. Already is. There's no denying that. Losing Andrew Friedman to the Dodgers and Joe Maddon to the Cubs was a big punch to the gut for a club that has done so well to overcome its obvious market and divisional challenges in recent years. The departure of two brilliant baseball minds doubles down on those challenges.
But even without Friedman working the roster and Maddon in the dugout in 2015, the Rays do, indeed, have the seeds of a contender in the American League East. Don't let this stunning shakeup betray you into believing we can reasonably write off the Rays.
Friedman, after all, left behind a terrific stash of starters that includes Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, Jeremy Hellickson, Alex Colome, Nate Karns and the recovering Matt Moore, who should return from Tommy John surgery by early June.
And then there are the areas of offensive upside. Namely, do you think a .724 OPS is suddenly the new norm for a 29-year-old Evan Longoria? Because I sure don't. Do you think Wil Myers has the talent to overcome his injury-addled sophomore slump? Because I sure do.
Beyond those two obvious areas of upside, the Rays are going to have to get creative (what else is new?) to improve an offense that simply didn't slug the ball last season. But the aforementioned rotation depth and a potentially valuable trading chip in Ben Zobrist might allow them to do just that. The Rays already exercised Zobrist's $7.5 million option. The next step is to dangle him a year ahead of his free-agent eligibility and live with a Nick Franklin-Logan Forsythe platoon at second base that should be plenty productive for that position, while saving some cash.
We know which way the Rays' payroll is likely to trend after reaching a franchise-record level (with upsetting results) in 2014, and it ain't up. But it's not as if Friedman had the only functioning brain in that front office. Silverman, Chaim Bloom and Erik Neander have been with this club long enough to know how to work the meat and the margins of the roster, and I, for one, think they'll fare well.
But the first order of business is settling on a skipper, and this search, which the Rays expect to complete in advance of the Winter Meetings, is already a really interesting one. When Maddon left, most of us assumed his bench coach, Dave Martinez, would get the gig, and that would be that. Martinez has long been touted as a manager-in-waiting. In fact, he interviewed for the Cubs job just a year ago, before Rick Renteria got it (which leads you to wonder if there's a parallel universe in which Martinez was the one unceremoniously replaced by Maddon ... spooky).
Well, Martinez is on the preliminary list, as he should be. But you've got to give credit to the Rays for not shortcutting this process. Maybe it will turn out just as the Twins' procedure did -- an exhaustive search that led them to Paul Molitor, the guy expected to get the gig all along. Or maybe the Rays will be more like the Rangers, who surprised everybody in the industry by passing over interim manager Tim Bogar to hire Pirates bench coach Jeff Banister.
This is a time of enormous creativity in the game. The line between contender and also-ran has been blurred considerably, and it's necessary to have a forward-thinking manager who works well with the higher-ups and can interpret and implement big data in the bid for victories. So the Rays are wise to tap into a wide variety of minds and see what works for them.
They've certainly arranged an intriguing list, right from the get-go.
Really, it's got a little bit of everything:
The long-standing bench coach who knows this roster as well as anybody (Martinez).
The time-tested Minor League lifer who has guided all that terrific young talent that passed through this system at Triple-A Durham (Charlie Montoyo).
A guy who has been entrusted with two previous Major League opportunities with similar payroll challenges (Manny Acta).
The bench coach for a future Hall of Fame skipper, an instrumental piece of the Giants' three World Series wins in five years (Ron Wotus).
The other smart and respected bench coach from this year's World Series (Don Wakamatsu).
An incredibly bright (former?) player who might have the option of resuming his career or stepping directly into a coaching or managerial role (Raul Ibanez).
Another analytical former player with recent experience as a special assistant to a front office (Craig Counsell).
A former catcher with scouting experience whose work on Terry Francona's coaching staff has drawn raves (Kevin Cash).
That's a pretty impressive list, but it's just a preliminary list. I'll be surprised if the Rays don't bring in Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo, who is long overdue for an opportunity, for an interview. It's also surprising that Bogar is not on this list, but that, too, could change.
We'll see which direction this search takes, but the Rays are doing the right thing in leaving no stone unturned. Because the fact of that matter is that while this club has had a lot of turbulence already in this offseason, the guy who inherits Maddon's former post is also inheriting a club that can win right away.