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Rays manager Cash a year older, wiser

MLB's youngest skipper helped Tampa Bay overachieve in his first season @HalBodley

ST. PETERSBURG -- Kevin Cash is no longer the virtually unknown 37-year-old who'd never managed a baseball game at any level, yet was thrown into the deep end of the pool to skipper the 2015 Rays.

That was a lot to ask of the former journeyman catcher -- to sink or swim, not to mention replace the legendary Joe Maddon.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Kevin Cash is no longer the virtually unknown 37-year-old who'd never managed a baseball game at any level, yet was thrown into the deep end of the pool to skipper the 2015 Rays.

That was a lot to ask of the former journeyman catcher -- to sink or swim, not to mention replace the legendary Joe Maddon.

Cash is 38 now. There are hints of gray in his hair after a summer of on-the-job training, and, as he says, "what a difference a year makes."

Cash did a lot more swimming than sinking that year, a better-than-expected beginning for the youngest manager in the Major Leagues.

Sitting in his office off the Rays' empty clubhouse at Tropicana Field the other day, Cash agreed -- with a slight frown -- that he had some doubts as he began what for any manager is a treacherous journey. For him, it was an unknown journey.

"The doubts were more from the unknown, but you have to be confident in this role," Cash said. "That's where you really lean on your coaching staff when you have those doubts. You ask questions. To be a good manager, you have to lean on those people. Whatever doubts I had, they helped correct those, and we're all better for it."

Cash was a leading candidate for the American League Manager of the Year Award through the last two weeks of June. Other teams in the AL East were struggling, but he had Tampa Bay tied for first place as late as June 30. No one expected this recast low-budget team to play so well.

Video: Kevin Cash joins the guys on MLB Tonight

Ultimately, the Rays tumbled -- at one stretch in August losing 15 of 24 games -- and finished fourth, but still ahead of last-place Boston with an 80-82 record.

Toronto, propelled by midseason additions of David Price and Ben Revere, went on a tear in the second half, winning the division and playing in the postseason for the first time since 1993.

Cash, wondering what might have been, returned to his Tampa home where his wife, Emily, presented him a long "honey-do" list. It wasn't about what he should do in 2016.

"It's comical," Cash said. "You buy a house and your wife tells you, 'This is the greatest house in the world. I love it, blah, blah, blah.' And as soon as you move in, [she] wants to change everything. We did a lot of that."

Cash has this nagging thought that had Tampa Bay won a few more close games, it might have made the postseason.

"We would have been right there," Cash insisted, enthusiasm in his voice. "We truly believe that, and now it's up to us, and ultimately for myself, to find a way to manage better in those types of ballgames.

"We didn't do a good enough job with runners in scoring position, but there were some really some strong improvements made at the end of the year in our overall approach. The players bought into this, and that's not easy -- to have Major League hitters buy into a different approach."

At times, it was excruciating watching the Rays fail to score.

They ranked 25th (14th in the AL) with runners in scoring position with a .244 average. There were last in the AL with two outs, posting a .203 clip. Overall, they averaged 3.98 runs per game, 25th in the Majors.

President of baseball operations Matt Silverman has spent this offseason improving Tampa Bay's lackluster offense. The most important addition is outfielder/designated hitter Corey Dickerson, obtained from Colorado for reliever Jake McGee. Brad Miller, Logan Morrison and Steve Pearce are also newcomers.

Video: Cash on Rays acquiring LoMo, Miller, Farquhar

"It lengthens us out a little bit," Cash said. "There were plenty of times last year where we fell short. That's not discrediting any of the players we had out there, but we've got some established hitters now who are going to lengthen and balance out our lineup."

After a year on the job, Cash admits managing in the big leagues isn't easy, but he has a great appreciation for the job.

"Reaching that plateau as a big league manager -- you never lose that [appreciation]," Cash said. "And if you do, you shouldn't be doing it anymore. The thing we are most proud of is how we competed. We dealt with adversity. Everybody did. But watching the way the guys competed was satisfying.

"I think it's easy for a lot of clubs come Sept. 1, whatever, and know you're a long shot out and just say, 'Let's just go through the motions.' We didn't. We were playing competitive baseball right to the end. That's a credit to the character of the club."

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The Rays won five of their last six games, including a 12-3 rout of Toronto in the season finale.

As manager, Cash says he can do better -- lessons learned, so to speak.

"The appreciation I have for the job is different today than it was a year ago," Cash mused. "Last year, it happened so fast. There were conversations that I probably had and have forgotten. Now, I want to do everything I can to remember every conversation I've had and realize there's a lot of communication that goes on, a lot of attention to detail that goes on."

Pausing, Cash added: "Our baserunning needs to get better. I need to learn how to control our running game on offense better. When to stay out of the way, when to put the brakes on, whatever the situation is."

It took this young skipper, who goes out of his way to avoid the spotlight, most of his first year to become comfortable with the enormous scrutiny and second-guessing that comes with the territory.

Fans and the media can be especially tough. And, of course, the folks up above who run the franchise.

Mention this and Cash responds with another frown, but he refused to sugarcoat his answer.

"Look, there are a lot of benefits to this job, no doubt about it," Cash started. "There are things that come with it that aren't that great -- getting blown up by fans every once in a while, a bad article written about you. You have to be able to handle that and not overreact.

"The working relationship with the front office and coaching staff -- when that scrutiny comes in, you have to be able to handle it and make yourself better for it. We all have bosses. I have enough respect for Matt Silverman and his group upstairs and our coaching staff that I want as much feedback as possible. That's the only way we're going to continue to get better."

Hal Bodley, dean of American baseball writers, is the senior correspondent for Follow him on Twitter @HalBodley

Tampa Bay Rays