As summer waned and the Rays kept winning, Kevin Cash began admitting publicly what had become obvious: No one expected Tampa Bay to be in the position it was. Certainly few expected the Rays to finish 2018 as they did: winners of 90 games despite myriad challenges and arguably baseball's surprise team of the season.
Which is why it barely surprised anyone to see Cash's name among the finalists for this year's American League Manager of the Year Award, the voting for which was announced Tuesday night on MLB Network. Cash placed third for the award behind winner Bob Melvin and second-place finisher Alex Cora. Melvin's upstart A's, whom he steered to the AL Wild Card Game, were perhaps the only team that shocked more people this year than the Rays.
:: AL Manager of the Year voting totals ::
• No denying Cash had an Award-worthy season
Cash received five first-place votes, six second-place votes and 14 third-place votes for a total of 57 points in the balloting by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. Melvin (121 points) received 18 first-place votes, and Cora (79 points) earned seven. Houston's AJ Hinch and Yankees skipper Aaron Boone placed fourth and fifth to round out the balloting.
The annual award historically favors skippers who do more with less, and in this vein, Cash impressed. The Rays opened the season with the second-lowest payroll in the Majors, succeeding despite near constant roster turnover and playing in baseball's smallest market. Cash earned praise from across the industry for his energy and leadership abilities, and an openness toward implementing progressive personnel strategies. He introduced the sport to the concept of "the opener," and used it to withstand a litany of injuries to the starting rotation.
"'The opener' is going to stay for us," Cash said on MLB Network on Tuesday. "We witnessed the benefit of allowing for these young pitchers to come up, potentially late-inning guys, to get their feet wet in the first inning, and also for the more durable guys, it allows us to manage the game a little bit so we affect how many times they get through the order. It's something we bought into. Our guys, I can't give them enough credit for buying into it. We have a lot of information to suggest that it works for us, and we're going to continue with it."
Tampa Bay used a record 54 players, 23 rookies, and won an MLB-best 52 one-run games in 2018. Ultimately, the Rays finished a calendar year that saw the departures of Evan Longoria, Chris Archer, Alex Colome and Wilson Ramos, among other veterans, with the most successful season of Cash's four-year tenure.
"You give a lot of credit to the guys in the clubhouse, the guys who got the opportunities," Cash said. "Our players responded. You have two choices. You can go down and pout about it, or you can bring it together. Our guys did a tremendous job of that."
The Rays rewarded Cash with a contract extension in September that could keep him with Tampa Bay through 2024. At 40 years old, he was the Majors' youngest manager in 2018 (new Twins skipper Rocco Baldelli is 37).
Cash is 318-330 since taking over for Joe Maddon in 2015, when he was hired despite having no previous managing experience. His third-place finish was the highest for a Rays manager since Maddon claimed the award in 2011.