Cash's case for AL Manager of the Year Award

August 22nd, 2018

Bob Melvin of the A's will probably win the American League Manager of the Year Award. If Melvin doesn't win it, then the Red Sox's Alex Cora will. They have both done terrific jobs this season, Melvin with the lowest payroll in the league and Cora with the highest. Neither one has been the best manager in the AL over the first five months of this season. That honor goes to Kevin Cash of the Rays.

I was at Tropicana Field on Opening Day to watch Chris Sale pitch against Tampa Bay. Sale one-hit the Rays for six innings, then watched as the Red Sox's bullpen, Joe Kelly in particular, blew up Sale's fine, crackling work. got the big hit, a bases-clearing triple to cap a six-run eighth inning. Even with that, I thought the Rays would be lucky to win 65 games.

Now the Rays have won 65 games and are four games over .500 going into Wednesday night's game. They have been as much of a surprise, in their own way, because of everything that has happened to their roster since that Opening Day, as Melvin's A's. And any conversation about what they've done and are doing starts with the manager.

Erik Neander, the team's young general manager, wanted nothing to do with comparing his guy to anybody else's guy. But once he started talking about his guy, it was hard to stop him.

"Put it this way," Neander said. "We like [Cash] quite a bit."

Then, Neander was talking about the fact that Cash had no managing experience when they hired him to replace Joe Maddon in 2015.

"But the attributes we were looking for were right there with Kevin," Neander said. "He checked so many boxes. Able to relate. Great communication skills. Had played in the big leagues as a backup catcher. And he had managed to gain the respect of established major league stars like David Ortiz as a backup catcher. We thought that if you have the ability to get people like that to relate to you, you can manage a clubhouse, even with a lot more authority than you were ever going to have as a backup catcher.

"I'll tell you something else that played into our thinking: We asked ourselves who was going to be the best guy for us three years down the road. When we looked at it that way, the answer was very clearly him. The best way I can describe him is that he is authentic. ... And he has zero fear about messing up or making the wrong decision."

You want to know why Cash has done the best managing job in the sport going into the last week of August? As the great Los Angeles Dodgers announcer Mr. Vin Scully used to say: Pull up a seat.

• The Rays have used 20 rookies this season. Club record, third most in the big leagues after the Angels and the Marlins. Tampa Bay's rookies have combined for 527 games, more than anybody. The Rays' rookie pitchers have combined for 424 1/3 innings, most in the AL.

• Since the Rays started Spring Training, they have traded away a dozen veteran players: Jake Odorizzi, Corey Dickerson, Steven Souza Jr., Alex Colome, , Brad Miller, , , Jonny Venters, , Chris Archer and .

• The Rays have used 16 starting pitchers, most in the Majors and a new club record. Sixteen starters, if you're keeping score at home, are more than the Tampa Bay's total from the three previous seasons combined. They have used 31 pitchers in all this season.

• And, of course, they have brought the concept of "The Opener" -- starting relievers, including closer -- to Major League Baseball. Since they began doing that in May, the Rays rank second in the league with a 3.39 ERA. Before that, their 4.43 ERA was ranked ninth.

• Overall, they now rank fourth in the AL with a 3.74 ERA. The only teams ahead of them are the Astros, Red Sox and Yankees. The Rays' relievers have now thrown 613 innings this season; the next closest team is the Padres at 490 2/3.

• Because they've been in the forefront of "The Opener" movement, they have seen their starters pitch three innings or fewer 49 times this season, and two innings 40 or fewer times. Nothing comparable to this has ever happened before in baseball. Or even close.

And only four players have been on the club's active roster all season: Romo, C.J. Cron,  and . This isn't a baseball team. It's a science experiment. And Cash continues to make it work.

I asked Neander about the whole concept of "The Opener" and he laughed out loud.

"First of all," he said, "it's complicated as hell."

Neander said: "Actually, we had various conversations with our research staff over the winter. And the basic thought, 'Let's find the best way to organize a whole lot of young pitchers.' Then we had some injuries. So there was a commitment that we ought to try it. We knew we weren't going to be a 90-win team. But no one wanted to just take a year off our calendar. Starting with our manager."

Cash made it work. He has made a lot of things work with a team that might end up winning 85 games or more. In the season that's been played so far, he's deserving of the AL Manager of the Year Award.