The Tampa Bay Rays have been on a tear so far to start this 2020 season. At the time of writing, the Rays have the best record in the American League, and 2nd in the MLB. A mixture of both solid pitching and hitting have truly propelled the Rays to an elite record. They have an ace in Tyler Glasnow and second baseman Brandon Lowe, who is continuing his breakout from 2019. The Rays are top ten in both runs scored (8th) and runs allowed (7th). An excellent lineup structure and fantastic decisions in the bullpen have played a huge factor in Tampa’s success. These strategic choices can be attributed to Rays’ manager Kevin Cash, considered by many as baseball’s best manager.
Any manager can find success when led by an extremely talented roster, but Cash is able to get the most out of his players on a consistent basis. Neither injuries nor poor general management decisions have been able to stop Cash from getting Tampa atop the AL East. As of now, the Rays are 4.5 games up on second place in the division, and Cash plans to use new innovations to get Tampa deep in the playoffs.
Who is Kevin Cash?
The Toronto Blue Jays signed the undrafted Kevin Cash out of Florida State in 2002, where he spent his first 3 MLB seasons. Cash was a journeyman, playing on six teams in 8 years. These 8 years were lackluster at best, with an abysmal .183 career average as a backup/emergency catcher. The highlight of the catcher’s career was his 2007 World Series ring as knuckleballer Tim Wakefield’s personal catcher for the champion Boston Red Sox. Cash’s retirement from an underwhelming career was capped off by a hire as an advanced scout for the Toronto Blue Jays, which was quickly transformed into a hire as the bullpen coach for the Cleveland Indians. The Indians decided to sign Yan Gomes after he was recommended by Cash, and these decisions led to a promotion.
Brand New Manager
After 2 years in the bullpen, the Tampa Bay Rays made Cash the youngest manager in baseball in 2015. The Rays decided to hire Kevin Cash after two very successful seasons developing Indian pitchers. After Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco emerged for the Indians, Rays fans were excited to see what their new manager could do in Florida. The 2014 Rays (77-85) saw a slight improvement in 2015 (80-82) under Cash, but nothing to rave about. This mediocre record led the front office to strip down the core of the team.
This decision was a successful one as the 19th ranked farm system in 2015 was improved to ninth in 2016. (Minor League Baseball) After an expected but poor 2016 (68-94), the Rays short rebuild was trending upwards, and by 2018 (90-72) the Rays were back to contention. The only problem was, the 2018 Rays were not expecting to compete.
The 2017 Rays (80-82) saw a ten-game improvement in 2018 with a similar roster. Despite returning three starters in the lineup, their starting rotation was the exact same other than adding Tyler Glasnow. The players did not magically improve but were influenced by their brand-new manager. However, the team did not start the season off red hot. A 4-13 start induced panic mode in the front office, where Denard Span and closer Alex Colomé were traded. A Nathan Eovaldi spring training injury also derailed the pitching rotation plans for Cash. The sport that many think is too boring was about to be innovated, and the Rays started to heat up.
With Eovaldi’s injury and no pitcher’s available and ready for the major league level, Cash started the season with three starting pitchers in his rotation, and the other two days to be spent as bullpen days. Usually bullpen days were spent if a starter was scratched with short notice, and there was no other pitcher ready. But no team had ever attempted bullpen games on purpose as a long-term strategy, so Cash’s idea was outlandish. Then, the bullpen games started working. After the shaky start, the Rays bounced back with wins in 9 of their next ten, including an 8-game streak. The Rays, who were not expected to succeed yet this season, were hovering around .500 at the all-star break.
The trade deadline was where the front office really destroyed Cash’s chances. Although the Rays acquired Tommy Pham, they dished out Chris Archer and Nathan Eovaldi, who was finally back, for prospects. Losing these two veteran pitchers along with bullpen arms set the Rays up for the future, but really slashed their chances of winning in the present.
Cash combatted his starting pitching losses with another innovative strategy. Before a midseason game against the Angels, it was announced that reliever Sergio Romo would get the start. Romo came in and shut down the Angels first three hitters, all strong right handers, in order. Kevin Cash brought in rookie lefty Ryan Yarbough to pitch the next few innings, and the Rays won the game.
A major sign of a strong manager is willing to make decisions that maximize the talent of a team. The opener was not a traditional strategy, but bullpen guys such as Ryne Stanek thrived in the role. Stanek had a 2.98 ERA in the role, and the Rays exploded for 90 wins with the brand-new idea. Traditional starters such as Blake Snell and Ryan Yarbough did alright, as Snell grabbed the Cy Young award. Yarbough also did well in his rookie season, winning sixteen games with a 3.91 ERA.
The pitching was Tampa’s strong suit, but Cash implemented a new offensive strategy that was beneficial as well. The Rays played small ball better than any team in the league. They didn’t have the power (29th in homeruns) but were top five in both average and OBP. (Baseball Reference) Any team can just hit, but the Rays were also able to lead the league in HBPs, and they attempted the most steals in the league in 2018. Cash was able to take the 27th best offense in 2017 to 15th in 2018. Despite having minimal offensive superstars and an injury-prone rotation, the Rays just missed the playoffs in the competitive AL East.
Building for the Future
Tampa Bay has been of the most exciting teams to watch so far throughout this 2020 season. The Rays are looking like the definite favorites to win the AL East. Earlier this year, I even predicted them to reach the ALCS, it seemed crazy then, but seems like a very real possibility now. (MLB Predictions) Cash has continued with his innovations this season. He even recently loading his lineup with all 9 left-handed batters for the first time since 1906. This unique lineup structure against righty Andrew Triggs worked, and the Rays won 11-1. If Cash can use his innovations and continue to be successful with them, do not be surprised to see the Rays on top of baseball as champions in the very near future.
Or check out my most recent article on the Rise of the Houston Astros