Skip to main content

The Best Season Few Talked About & Even Fewer Came Out To See

Pop quiz: How many wins did the Tampa Bay Rays end up with this season? Seriously, don't cheat. Attempt a guess, or at the very least, come up with a range. 75-80, right? A few games over .500, maybe?  

In major league seasons such as this, where all ten playoff teams were settled prior to the final Sunday, the average fan's stock response goes something like: "It was a busy Week 4 in the NFL. I know there's a tiebreaker or two on Monday, but I don't have a clue how the other teams ended up." 


Well, would you trust me enough to not fact check it on your own if I said the Rays got all the way to 90-72? And I'll do you one better. Take a look at all the promising teams that didn't make it to the 90-win plateau. 


A sexy sleeper pick by many, this was supposed to finally be the year where the Seattle Mariners' 17-year playoff drought would end (89)Sparked by a managerial change in July, it sure looked like the St. Louis Cardinals could get there, but they had an abysmal final week (88). A prohibitive favorite, and several writers' pick for participant in the 2018 World Series, the Washington Nationals could never get the train on the track (82). The Arizona Diamondbacks now own a mystifying footnote to their 2018 campaign: They were in first place in their division on the first of each and every month of the season (yes, including September) and somehow didn't make the playoffs (82). Stop me if you've heard this one before: the Los Angeles Angels squandered yet another MVP-caliber season out of this generation's best player (80). Everyone's midseason darlings, the Philadelphia Phillies, completely fell off the wagon with only eight September victories (80). The Minnesota Twins were allegedly a year early in 2017, when they shocked us all with a Wild Card berth; I guess not (78). There was a ton of noise coming out of Queens this year, but a broken-record lack of substance (77). In an attempt to get back to that even-year title spree, the San Francisco Giants went all-in with a veteran free-agent approach that was abject failure (73). The Toronto Blue Jays could never find anyone to pitch (73) and the Texas Rangers could never find anyone to pitch or play defense (67). And the funniest part about all of this: the preseason expectation was that the Rays weren't supposed to be better than any of these teams. 


2018 became just the second season in seven years of the current playoff format in which all ten teams reached 90 wins. For the second year in a row — seventh time in league history — three clubs got to the century mark. And yet, twice in the recent past (2014 and 2016), an MLB-record four teams made the postseason with fewer than 90 wins. The point is: Baseball is cyclical and silly. The Tampa Bay Rays have nothing to hang their heads about; some years are just like that. Realigned to the American League Central and they likely push the Cleveland Indians all season for their automatic ALDS bid. Swapped over to the National League and they are battling it out for the two seed on that side of the playoff bracket. 


The Pittsburgh Pirates were a similarly fun surprise to the Rays. They carried that cute factor well into the second half, generating some national buzz for their showing. On August 11, Pittsburgh was four games over .500. By contrast, the Rays were three. The difference in the publicity was all in the context. Pittsburgh was only 4.0 games back of Atlanta for that second Wild Card spot; Tampa Bay was 9.0 GB of Oakland. It's all about staying in arm's reach.


What I'm alluding to is that Tampa Bay's narrative was out of their hands. They played as well as National League counterparts that kept our attention for longer. But the bar to clear in this year's American League was near historic heights — the Central Division and its three teams with 97+ losses not withstanding. It took 98 wins just to host the Wild Card game. So, without that immediate proximity to the playoff teams, the quality season in Tampa Bay was skewed. Fair or foul, commentaries like this piece aim to calibrate what occurred into its proper perspective. Objects in mirror are better than they appear. 


With all due respect to Bob Melvin in Oakland, Alex Cora in Boston, and Aaron Boone in New York, Kevin Cash is my overwhelming favorite for American League Manager of the Year. And his Tampa Bay Rays might have completed the most astounding, better-than-alright ("okayest" to my hipster millennial readers) regular season in modern baseball history.

In every sport and at every level, coaching has always been more about "Johnnies and Joes" than the "X's and O's." The players you have define your success. Period. With that, look at Tampa Bay's final 2018 roster and tell me who else squeezes a 90-win season out of it. In doing so, Cash's club joined three blue bloods — Red Sox, Yankees, and Dodgers — as the only teams in Major League Baseball to post six 90-win seasons since 2008.    

At .556, The Rays laid claim to a tie for tenth-best winning percentage in all of baseball. Their record equaled that of the Atlanta Braves; one behind the Colorado Rockies, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Cleveland Indians — all of whom will be participating in this year's postseason in some capacity. Juxtapose their week ahead with that of the Rays. Same 90-72, but Cash and his players are free to make a tee time for Monday morning. 


Sadder still, Tampa Bay was once again at the bottom on the league's attendance figures (29th; ahead of only Miami). Their 51-30 home record was third-best in the league, but for the ninth time in the franchise's 20 seasons, Tropicana Field failed to draw more than 1,300,000 fans. And it's a shame so many missed out on a deceptively-good product. Bolstered by left-hander Blake Snell's improbable Cy Young season (21-5, 1.89 ERA, 221 SO), the Rays closed out the year 34-16. The only thing more preposterous than these numbers is how well they went undetected for months.


Truthfully, I began this article last Friday and was hoping for 92 or 93 victories. Then, a 4-6 stumble to the finish line arrived and killed that plan. Alas, the Rays still got to 90, which is optically significant. 


Even with a hot second half, the Rays never got within real striking distance of either the division or Wild Card race. The final count was 18 games back of Boston in the East and seven shy of Oakland for WC2. This made it easier for the national media to adhere to its annual coverage strategy: Ignore Tampa/St. Petersburg until the team is within two games of a playoff spot. 


The Rays beat the Red Sox 6-4 in front of 31,042 at The "Trop" on Opening Day — an annual clean slate full of so much optimism league-wide. The Rays are going 162-0! But by April 8, that first win remained the only victory for Cash's club (1-8). They had already fallen well beyond the threshold of Casual Fan Interest Level (CFIL). There was no line of major networks fighting to get Tampa Bay games on their national broadcasts.  


Of the teams whose season ended on Sunday, at least a few had glimmers of hope. The following shows the number of days spent in a postseason spot (among non-playoff teams):

  • Arizona Diamondbacks - 120 
  • Philadelphia Phillies - 98
  • Seattle Mariners - 83
  • St. Louis Cardinals - 56
  • Los Angeles Angels - 46
  • New York Mets - 31
  • Pittsburgh Pirates - 31
  • Minnesota Twins - 15
  • Toronto Blue Jays - 8
How about the Rays? Zero. 90 wins and not a single day. While no one on this list will walk away with a consolation prize, these teams at least had moments to reflect and build on. A 162-game season can seem a lot like a game of musical chairs. The glass-half-full approach is to say "If the music had only stopped on the right day, then we would still be playing." This just wasn't ever the case for Tampa Bay. And yet the club never packed it in. Again, huge credit goes to Cash and his staff.

Getting all the way back to .500, at 26-26, was seen as a minor miracle. However, they dug themselves too big of a hole for any of that compensatory winning to matter. By that point, May 28, the Red Sox were already 20 games over .500; Mariners (in the final postseason position) were 13. That's a tough row to hoe. And in baseball, if you can't sustain that below-the-fold "Storyline To Keep An Eye On" through the All-Star Break, it's tough to be relevant nationwide. The sport that has become too regionally popular for Tampa Bay's second half to stay on everyone's radar. 


⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻


The Rays sure didn't do themselves any favors in trying to garner exposure, though. It was tagged to be a lost season as far back as last November, so ownership began to liquidate anything that wasn't bolted to the floor. As the calendar flipped to 2018, it appeared that Tampa Bay had officially hit full rebuild mode. Decisions like these are toughest on fragile franchises — where the age of the club is that of an unstable toddler, and there is no rich pedigree of championships to fall back on. The latter is important. Banners in the stadium remind us that a "tank job" can have the ultimate reward (2015 Royals); that the ebb can be followed by a flow. MLB executives with a ring on their Wikipedia page are entrusted with a slightly longer leash. But if you've never successfully executed a 50-win turnaround, there is little buy-in that entering that black hole is in fact a tunnel and not a cave.  

The public relations hit was real for the Rays in 2018. Have kids and live in West Florida? There was a high probability that your young child's favorite Tampa Bay player was traded away this year; a good chance his/her top three all left. That's a tough pill for a talent-starved market. Stars sell, and the Rays cast off nearly every one they had. 


Over the course of the last ten months, the club parted ways with a fairly comprehensive portion of their 2017 roster: The face of their franchise (Evan Longoria), their four-time Opening Day starter (Chris Archer), a Silver Slugger-winning catcher (Wilson Ramos), a guy coming off a 47-save season (Alex Colome), another coming off of 38 homers (Logan Morrison), a 29 year-old with a career OPS over .820 (Corey Dickerson) in left and a 20 HR/20 SB threat (Steven Souza Jr.) in right, the best defensive infielder (Adeiny Hechavarria) in their system, a 12-game winner (Alex Cobb), and a ten-game winner (Jake Odorizzi). 


This initial list fails to include valuable complementary pieces like Brad Miller, Tim Beckham, Lucas Duda, Colby Rasmus, Peter Bourjous, Tommy Hunter, and Matt Andriese. Even the newest guy to join the team, Denard Span — acquired in December's Longoria trade to add a veteran presence — lasted only 43 games before being shipped off to Seattle. If you're keeping track, that is turnover at nearly every position. 


In the case of Longoria, any time a club loses its franchise statistical leader in games played, runs scored, doubles, home runs, and runs batted in, it is going to sting. Furthermore, Archer, Cobb and Odorizzi were Tampa Bay's four, five, and six. No, not in their projected 2018 starting rotation... in rank of most career wins throughout the history of the Rays. They purged proven talent in a baseball town that is hanging on by a thread; a bold play for sure. 


The Rays had also taken a few gambles on injury-prone free agents. Nathan Eovaldi — who underwent the second Tommy John surgery of his career in August of 2016 — was brought in this winter to stabilize the starting staff. The 27 year-old right-hander missed all of 2017, so no one knew exactly what he would bring to the table. After a minor hiccup in Spring Training, Eovaldi came back healthier than ever and outperformed the wildest expectations. He became a fantastic bargaining chip with contenders in need of another starter. The Rays flipped him to Boston in July, after only ten starts in Tampa. 

But the winner for most successful transaction, from a humankind perspective, involved Jonny Venters. As a Ray, the left-handed pitcher returned to the big leagues after 2,048 days and three (and a half) demoralizing elbow surgeries. In a similar vein as the Cardinals' trade of Stephen Piscotty, Rays' general manger Erik Neander did right by his player's best interest. Though the reasoning behind the deal couldn't hold a candle to Piscotty's story, the Venters move was equal in one way: A gesture that reminded us all goodness still exists in a cut-throat industry. The starter-turned-reliever was traded to Atlanta, where his career had begun with such promise... and where it tragically fell apart. It was a first-rate decision by both parties.     


It rarely works this way, but the Rays pulled the lever and hit jackpot on every deal — and non-deal. Not many among the group came close to matching his production value from 2017. Cobb had a 15-loss, 4.90 ERA season in Baltimore; Archer's alarming trend of allowing multiple base runners per inning (1.375 WHIP) continued in Pittsburgh; Odorizzi posted career highs in walks, WHIP, and full-season ERA in Minnesota. His Twins' teammate, Morrison, only hit 15 bombs with a .186 batting average. Souza had to split time in Arizona's outfield after a pectoral injury sidelined him for the most of the year. Longoria, clearly on the back-end of his illustrious career, posted a slash line of .243/.281/.413 with 16 home runs and 54 RBI — his lowest totals as a pro. They sold high on nearly all their precious assets and came out smelling like a rose. 


Of the guys that were low-cost, high-ceiling additions (Span, Eovaldi, Venters), each worked out beautifully as trade bait. The Rays were able to leverage the timing of their peak performances to demand more cash and minor leaguers. The Red Sox gave up their seventh-best prospect in LHP Jalen Beeks for Eovaldi. Span (along with Colome) fetched RHP Tommy Romero and RHP Andrew Moore; Venters simply landed the Rays an opening to sign a future international player. Who knows how these youngsters will pan out, but it is the calculated version of the lottery that every small-market GM must play each year. 


⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻


Fire sales like this are typically met with a winning percentage under .400 that following season. So how did Kevin Cash piecemeal this mess into a team that won 56% of its games? For starters (pun very much intended), the Rays used 31 unique pitchers in 2018, 17 different starters, and four position players on the mound — all the most in Major League Baseball. Their 726.0 IP out of the bullpen is a new big-league record. As is only having two pitchers make more than 17 starts. If for no other reason, Cash should be presented Manager of the Year simply by picking up a win in a ballgame where his back-up catcher pitched (Jesus Sucre, June 3). 

Players from Tampa's Triple-A affiliate in Durham obviously had to step up with all the roster voids. 
It was no surprise to find that the Rays used 20 rookies this season. That is a club record and third most in the big leagues after the Angels and the Marlins. Tampa Bay's rookies combined for 767 games, more than anybody. The Rays' rookie pitchers contributed to 569.2 innings, most in the American League. 


I'm sure many in the community had their infamous Major League moment: "I never heard of most of these guys." No offense to them, but Brandon Lowe and Nick Ciuffo aren't exactly household names. But they sure gained some valuable experience. Coaches that cannot stand tanking typically point to the negative effect losing has on young players. The theory is that being okay with getting your butt kicked night after night will make you numb to it. When it's finally time to flip the switch and begin winning again, will they remember how? If this was a rock bottom season for the Rays, fans are in for a treat. Their rookies experienced far more happy days than sad.


Guys like SS Willy Adames, 1B Jake Bauers, 2B Joey Wendle, RHP Ryne Stanek, and LHP Ryan Yarbrough stepped up and had really nice seasons. Yarbrough and Wendle, in particular, played like seasoned vets: 16-6, 147.1 IP, 3.91 ERA, 128 SO and .300 AVG, .354 OBP, 33 2B, 16 SB respectively. If not for the video game numbers that Yankees' third baseman Miguel Andujar put up (.297 AVG, 27 HR, 47 2B, 92 RBI, .855 OPS), either could have captured the Rookie of the Year Award. 


It was well documented that Wendle may never have what it takes to remain at the game's highest level. He spent the better part of two seasons in Triple-A for Oakland and, despite a few call-ups, that appeared to be his ceiling. When he was traded to Tampa this offseason, it was to compete for a platoon role at second base. No one in that organization could have expected a full season with 145 hits; the man only had 29 in the bigs prior to 2018.


Wendle's exit from Sunday's finale (in the eight inning of a 9-4 win vs. Toronto) epitomized Kevin Cash's appeal. The manager clearly had the pulse of his young team; knowing how to execute nearly every moment, down to when to pull his third baseman. The move allowed the 28 year-old to cap his rookie year with a .300 batting average. The scene was a master class in class. The only down side was that the standing ovation — and subsequent curtain call — was not orchestrated by more fans.  


During the Rays' hottest stretch, Kevin Cash rolled out a fairly-consistent lineup with an Island of Misfit Toys written in as hitters two through six: Tommy Pham, Matt Duffy, C.J. Cron, Ji-man Choi, and Carlos Gomez. Each ran out of time and/or patience in their former place of employment. Management began to see them as money-pit projects that would be better served having some other club try their luck. For Pham, it was the Cardinals' crowded outfield issue; the Giants thought Duffy would never be able to match the pinnacle of his rookie season; Cron had exhausted all his minor-league options with the Angels; to the rebuilding Rangers, Gomez wasn't worth the trouble; and Choi had already been given up on by the Angels, Yankees, and Brewers midway through his third major-league season.


Pham, especially, proved to be a brilliant acquisition. The 30 year-old outfielder will carry a 32-game streak of safely reaching base with him into 2019. He hit .331 with 19 XBH and a 1.042 OPS in only 38 games as a Ray. I think the Cardinals might have been able to use that of production this past week. They would likely be playing on Tuesday if they hung onto him. Instead, Tampa Bay now has a cornerstone two- or three-hole hitter to build around.     


Over time, the revamped roster of 2018 evolved into something that stylistically better fit the Rays' home field. As the team got younger, the dome turned into a race track. Led by Mallex Smith's 40 steals, the Rays went from a team that swiped 88 bags in 2017 to 126 in 2018. The year-to-year philosophy overhaul shed even more light on Cash's versatility; everyone can manage a club that hits 250 bombs. Manufacturing more wins, despite 78 fewer home runs this season, is a true testament to his baseball IQ.  


⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻


All season long, Cash had a knack for getting the best out of unconventional means. The man spent half the year revolutionizing the game with use of an "opener" — a short-use reliever that begins the game. Instead of trying to get a starting pitcher as deep as possible into his outing, Cash never let an opener face more than nine batters. The next man in took on that lion's share responsibility, the traditional task of a starter. He would reap the benefits of a specialist facing the opposing team's best hitters in the first inning. It's like a risk management course in liability exposure; brilliant for teams in need of some smoke and mirrors. 


Fifth starters are guys a manager can call upon for 160+ innings a season (macro) and to consistently get through a lineup three times (micro). If you're the Rays and don't have that veteran hanging around the clubhouse, this is a creative way to protect young arms and egos. Sure, Cash didn't invent the position, but he recognized that it would be perfect for his circumstances. He took a wild concept — perfect for the repercussion-free world of bar debate and television sets — and put it to the test at the game's highest level. It took some serious stones. It earned my respect when I realized it was utilizing a quirky, stat-driven strategy out of need rather than just to be gimmicky. When it comes to things of that nature, today's day and age has turned me into a cynic. 


The experiment first showed up on May 19 in Anaheim and was employed on 55 occasions. On that initial date, the Rays' 4.48 ERA ranked 22nd in Major League Baseball. To mark the effect of the change, look no further than the Rays' final team ERA: 3.75, fifth-best in the league. As is said, t
he proof is in the pudding. Fittingly, the final game of the year began with a reliever (Ryne Stanek) on the mound; a game in which they won. People like me will remember to tell the grandkids that use of an opener — a mainstay by 2040 — all began in 2018 with the Rays. 


Part of the necessity for going to the opener was the division in which they reside. They annually take on the Yankees and Red Sox — essentially all on the road — 19 times apiece. This year, the gravy on that perennial sadness sundae was that both won 100 games for the first time in their 116 seasons of co-existence. Think of that when you want to discredit Cash's candidacy by playing the "They got to beat up on the Orioles" card.  


⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻


If the world was fair, two major individual MLB awards (Cy Young and Manager of the Year) would compensate for the Rays' bleak third-place position in the standings. The honors paint a more genuine picture: One of the greatest seasons this century... versus the expectations of the outside world. I'm not a betting man, but I like to turn to the Vegas' Westgate SportsBook for more accurate assessments of teams as they break camp. People in the Nevada desert always seem have that really good intuition and intel. As such, the win total for Tampa Bay was set at 73.5 — equal to that of the San Diego Padres.


At its fundamental core, shouldn't the guiding principle behind voting for Manager of the Year be to identify who trounces their expected win total by the most? If it is not, then I don't know why we even hand the award out. As a coach, I'm only going to be as successful as my talent ceiling can be pushed beyond. Or else give me the best players in the league. Place the Red Sox trio of Andrew Benintendi, Mookie Betts, and J.D. Martinez in the Rays' meat of the order and Cash could go win a 100 games, too. He should not be punished for playing the hand he was dealt, for he played it better than most would/could.


So, if we continue down the path of Westgate SuperBook's preseason over/under as our gold standard, then here's the objective data on the subject:
  • 75.5 - Oakland Athletics, +21.5 (97-65)
  • 73.5 - Tampa Bay Rays, +19.5 (90-72)
  • 92.5 - Boston Red Sox, +15.5 (108-54)
  • 75.5 - Atlanta Braves, +14.5 (90-72)
  • 83.5 - Milwaukee Brewers, +11.5 (95-67)
  • 81.5 - Colorado Rockies, +9.5 (91-71)
  • 74.5 - Pittsburgh Pirates, +7.5 (82-79) 
  • 94.5 - New York Yankees, +5.5 (100-62)
  • 86.5 - St. Louis Cardinals, +1.5 (88-74)
As you can see, the Rays are second on the list with a jaw-dropping +19.5 wins over expectations. I have some grievances with the A's +21.5, but more on that later. 

We do all these preseason rankings/mock standings for every sport on the planet, but those lists are rarely used for anything — except gambling, of course. Major League Baseball would never openly push its writers to measure managerial success solely off of a sports book in Las Vegas, but they should at least nudge them in a comparable direction. I don't care if it's Westgate, Sports Illustrated, the pundits on MLB Network, or something else. "Experts" make predictions, and their numbers are a barometer in gauging the national perception as to how a ballclub is likely to finish. Pick your poison and use it as a third-party baseline. From there, it's really up to the front office, manager, and his coaching staff to marginally change that consensus for the better. When the year draws to a close, do the simple math, and voilàthere's your Manager of the Year and/or Executive of the Year. 


Look to the National League for an example of demolishing expectations and winning your division. The Manager of the Year vote will undoubtedly go to Atlanta's third-year skipper, Brian Snitker, and second place should be distant. The man was tied for the lowest-paid non-interim manager in the bigs ($800,000). The Cardinals paid Mike Matheny more money to have him stop coaching and go away. And given the remotely suburban location of new SunTrust Park, there's a strong chance much of Atlanta's population probably doesn't know who Snitker is. Using the purely objective numbers as a measuring stick, they got themselves a good one. Probably time to learn his name. The Braves' over/under was set at 75.5 — a projected fourth place in the NL East. Snitker's youthful bunch wound up posting 90 wins, 14.5 over expected; the greatest jump in the Senior Circuit, plus an NLDS host.

⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻

To me, the award all boils down to expectation management. Overachieving, shocking the world, outkicking the proverbial coverage; call it what you like. But it certainly isn't reserved solely for the doormats that turned out to be mediocre instead. I don't want the pendulum to swing to a point where the format only rewards tanking teams that can't even get that right. Playoff teams that people knew would be playoff teams can still amaze fans with impressive growth. 


Slated to be a contender (10-1 odds to win the World Series entering the season), Boston's 108 wins outperformed their predictive total by 15.5 games. It goes down as the most victories in the illustrious 118 years of Red Sox baseball. But, to say that first-year manager Alex Cora is the best in franchise history — or even better than his recent predecessors — is short-sighted. Except Bobby Valentine. That's not too early to be decided. I don't enjoy casting aspersions on people I don't know or have never met, but all roads point to Valentine being incompetent for the better part of three decades. He is, however, a poster boy for how talent maketh the man-ager.


No matter how bad Valentine was, the guys making millions of dollars to play the game ultimately affect the outcome of a season far more. And as hard as I can be on Valentine, his lone season in Boston (2012) didn't include Xander Bogaerts, Mike Napoli, Jake Peavy, John Lackey, Jonny Gomes, Koji Uehara, David Ross, Stephen Drew, Shane Victorino, or Jackie Bradley Jr. With that 2013 influx of big-name veterans and upstart youngsters, new skipper John Farrell was able to capture a 28-game improvement in the win column — as well as runner up for Manager of the Year. But how much of that World Championship was to do with Farrell's leadership? We will never know if Valentine could have produced similar results if those personnel acquisitions were granted to him. It should make you think long and hard a manager's ability to really sway anything that wouldn't ordinarily happen on its own. 


Baseball analysts these days cannot shut up about WAR (wins above replacement). I, for one, think the stat is admirable in its objective attempts, but ultimately a total farce. Until we know how to better catalog defensive metrics, it's a fool's errand to even attempt a read out. Save your time punching the numbers into the machines, it's all too context neutral anyway.  


What you could convince me of, however, is that WAR has a legitimate place in the game when applied to managers. How many more wins do the 2018 Yankees put up with Aaron Boone than if they were managed by Al Pedrique (their Triple-A skipper)? Do the 2017 Golden State Warriors still win the NBA title if coached by a bag of flour? Now that is something I'd like to use empirical data to find out. 


When it was finally Farrell's turn to get the heave-ho, Cora stepped in to similar next-season success. But with him came potential AL MVP (and damn near Triple Crown winner) J.D. Martinez in free agency. Hmm, a star power arrives in Boston and the win total jumps. As Yogi Berra — a seven-year MLB manager in his own right — famously said, "It's like déjà vu all over again." Cora is going to have to prove to his fan base that he can cash in on a great regular season. There has to be justification for firing a manager in John Farrell who was coming off back-to-back 93-69 seasons and brought the town a title not that long ago (2013). 


The point is: It is very rare for any manager to really cause an uptick in performance that isn't directly tethered to front office acquisitions of proven commodities. This makes the case for Kevin Cash in 2018 even stronger. He had nothing short of a proven commodities exodus... of near biblical proportions.  


⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻ 


There is precedent for someone like Cash taking home this hardware. Oddly enough, the only American League Managers of the Year that finished in third place in their division won the award in back-to-back seasons — 2003 (Tony Pena, Royals) and 2004 (Buck Showalter, Rangers). In 1987, Buck Rogers led his Montreal Expos to a nearly-identical 91-71 record as Cash's Rays, also only good enough for third place. Rogers was still able to win the National League honor. So too was Joe Maddon in 2015 with his third place — yet postseason qualifying — Chicago Cubs. Ah, gotta love expanded playoffs and loaded divisions. Maddon would go on to validate the voters' selection by taking his second Wild Card to the NLCS that October.     


Fun piece of trivia: The only fourth-place finisher in a division (and the only award winner with a losing record) was 2006's Joe Girardi-led Florida Marlins; 78-84. He won it because of expectation management. The club already had the third-lowest payroll in 2005, but cut it by $45.4M entering 2006. It remains the largest year-to-year salary dump in the sport's history, both in total dollars and percentage of previous (75.2%). 17 of the team's 25-man roster made the league minimum that year. It was thought to assure a 100-loss season for the Marlins. But, by coming up a mere three wins shy of a .500 record, Girardi was aptly rewarded. 

The 30-member panel of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) clearly love a sexier narrative than shear dominance. Since the awards were first handed out in 1983, there have been thirty-six 100-win seasons in Major League Baseball. However, only seven managers of teams that hit triple-digit W's were chosen by the writers. There's clearly something more to it and/or win totals are graded on a curve based on extrinsic factors. 

⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻

How would I go about thwarting Bob Melvin from winning the award? Well, that suggests I think he isn't worthy. Let's be honest, the A's manager will win the award. And that will be more than tolerable. Picked to finish last in the AL West, Melvin's club had a projected win total was 75.5, ending the year with 97. I need a crack team of researchers to tell me if any other team has ever before shattered its projected Vegas win total but 21.5 runs; I can't find an instance that insane. He did it all with the lowest Opening Day payroll — $62.6M, slightly below Tampa Bay's $69.6M. 


However, if you want me to split hairs, I gladly will. I stand by Cash's qualifications over Melvin for some key reasons. Right off the top, Oakland's payroll wasn't truly the lowest in baseball. On Opening Day, sure. But when the season hit crunch time, Oakland began spending to retool their roster. Unlike the A's, the Rays were sellers up to (and through) the July 31 trade deadline. 


By bringing in five established big-league right-handed pitchers: Mike Fiers (Tigers), Fernando Rodney (Twins), Edwin Jackson, Jeurys Familia (Mets), and Shawn Kelley (Nationals), the final tally of Oakland's payroll "skyrocketed" to $80.3M — good enough for 28th in all of baseball. That's a $17.7M midseason increase while Tampa Bay managed to shed an additional $1.2M.


Even with expanded September rosters, the Rays only retained four players who made a million dollars this year (Kiermaier, Gomez, Romo, Cron). The Dodgers had 19; 10 of whom made more than Kiermaier's $5.6M. All by himself, Kershaw's $35.5M challenged Tampa Bay's dead-last standing on the final 25-man payroll ranking. And they're not even getting reliable production out of what little money they do spend. Their highest-paid player missed 74 games due to injuries this year; another 44 without Gomez. 


I'm not saying that a payroll increase that takes you from 30th to 28th complete negates Melvin's affect on the season, but it certainly changes the perception that Oakland had a bunch of nobodies. And that's exactly what VP of Baseball Operations Billy Beane has learned to manipulate so well. Since he took control of player personnel decisions (1997), the running theme has been that his club is haplessly undermanned and slept on by the media. Quite literally, 60% of their games are played past the bed time of the nation's biggest sportswriters. But I'm not buying the "woe is us" routine Beane peddles. 
Expect Oakland to win their way into the postseason four of the next seven years. And if that comes to be, it doesn't have to signal a corresponding book deal, movie script, or Manager of the Year Award.


A track record for success has to start accounting for something. 
They aren't a club without a World Series title (they have nine, four in Oakland) playing in their 20th season (50 in California alone). They may not play in front of many fans either, but they also don't play in the American League East. 


The last team to win 90 games with an Opening Day payroll under $70 million came in 2013 — the 96-win A's. This is their schtick. When are we going to start calling them solid from Spring Training regardless of what that payroll number says? It's not Kevin Cash's fault that those setting the over/under line for Oakland got caught in Billy Beane's trap once again.


If we do an All-Star comparison, it shows how the A's are not as big of a surprise as you would think. Oakland finished the regular season with a respectable eight former All-Stars with 11 total appearances: Fernando Rodney (3), Jonathan Lucroy (2), Matthew Joyce (1), Blake Treinen (1), Jed Lowrie (1), Trevor Cahill (1), Edwin Jackson (1), and Jeurys Familia (1). When Chris Archer was dealt to Pittsburgh in August, the Rays closed 2018 with only three such players and four total appearances (Romo - 2013, Gomez - 2013 & 2014, and Snell, 2018).


In essence, the A's were closer to a 97-win team back in March than the Rays were to a being a 90-win team. Can't stress it enough: [Offensive] players win you ballgames. They had the major league leader in home runs (Khris Davis) and a future MVP + Gold Glover at third base (Matt Chapman). Five A's finished with 30 or more doubles (Rays only had one); five A's had an OPS over .780 (Rays had two); four A's eclipsed 80+ RBI (Rays didn't have any); the A's scored 813 runs and had a +139 run differential (Rays scored 716 with a +70). 

There is an argument to be made that the Rays were better than the A's defensively. Tampa had a +60 RTOT (Total Zone Runs) rating, which is a sabermetricians way of saying "They got to batted balls other teams wouldn't and cut down runs others couldn't." Oakland was a +34. If you were born prior to 1980, thus requiring total errors as your be-all-end-all for team defense, I present the following: OAK - 89, TB - 85. Doesn't appropriately depict the margin between the two, but it at least acknowledges there was one — in archaic-enough language for the layperson.   

As a broad generalization, the pitching debate was a wash. The rotations were equally nameless (going into the season at least), but highly productive. The two were only separated by .05 in final team ERA. In addition, the back-end relievers were eerily similar in nailing down victories: The A's bullpen secured 44 saves in 62 opportunities (70.9%), while Rays' relief pitching was 51-for-72 (70.8%).


The last point of comparison comes with their Pythagorean Win-Loss Record. The iconic Bill James' construct shows the effects of a little good fortune during the course of 162 games. Call it baseball's version of "puck luck" or "the ball bouncing our way" — to steal from hockey and football. According to the formula, the A's were a 94-68 team, while the Rays finished with a Pythagorean W-L of 89-73. This shrinks the gap between Oakland and Tampa Bay even more. Something else super nerdy for you to consider when judging the seasons of the two. 


If you're like me, you subscribe to the theory that baseball seasons should be graded like Olympic diving. No? Just me on this one? Well, hear me out. The name of the game is all about that base (difficulty value) and then execution scores as a kicker. There is no denying that Oakland put up a lofty score on this, or any, scale. The panel of judges would be giving several 10s for what they were able to achieve in 2018. But, in my opinion, Tampa Bay carried a much higher degree of difficulty — greater than anyone in Major League Baseball that finished with a winning record — which boosted their aggregate score to the top of the list.     


No matter where the final win totals fell, Oakland should have finished ten games clear of Tampa Bay in the AL standings. But they didn't. I contest that has value; and it wasn't anything the A's didn't do. Kevin Cash did more with less, even though the initial payroll numbers aim to skew that fact.

⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻


It's no secret that this blog is authored by a diehard Indians fan, so I had to slow play my adoration for Kevin Cash's 2018 performance. As his players really caught fire in the second half, I had to continue sitting on my hands. I wasn't going to trumpet the greatness — err, not terribleness — of the Rays until all of my team's business interests were sewn up. But as soon as the year-long formality of an AL Central crown was finally put to bed, I was given time to reflect on Tampa Bay's season with wider-encompassing reverence. Color me a fan adjacent. 

Not much of what the Rays were doing positively had any direct bearing on the Tribe, so there no reason to not pull for them. Their six head-to-head games all took place within two weeks in early September; Cleveland went 2-4 but still managed to see their magic number to clinch decrease. The only thing the late-season match-up did hurt was Corey Kluber's back-to-back Cy Young chances, for Snell grabbed two more wins and 18 strikeouts against two total earned runs.


There's very little to hate about the Rays (sans "Devil"). They have always been a fun team to observe from a distance. All too often, they valiantly throw themselves in front of the Evil Empire(s) in the AL East as an out-manned and out-gunned stumbling block. Those elsewhere in the American League respect the hell out of that. And as a general fan of the game — with hope for its indelible growth — of course I want that franchise to get more popular and succeed. I own a Tampa Bay cap, but to be fair I own at least one from most of the MLB clubs. Note: None have been purchased since the logo creep of New Era turned the authentic on-field collection into amateur hour. I bought my Rays lid in 2008 when I jumped hard on their World Series bandwagon. 


Even though I "have to" get to Tropicana Field to complete my stadium odyssey (currently at 21 of 30), part of me wants to skip St. Petersburg — in what would go down as the weakest form of box-office protest the commissioner's office would never feel. But for real, get them a new stadium and play outside already. 


Looking at that Rays' record — only one game behind that of the Tribe — leaves me feeling one part resentment and two parts praise (enough so to pen this and lobby for him). When Josh Donaldson's was acquired, Cleveland finished the year with 13 rostered players (14 if you include Danny Salazar) who have at least one All-Star Game appearance on their resume. That lauded group has been named to the Midsummer Classic a grand total of 27 times. With two legitimate MVP candidates, a duo of 100-RBI men, a trio of 30+ home run hitters, a quartet of 200+ strikeout pitchers, another foursome of 20+ stolen base guys, three straight division titles, and a former Manager of the Year of our own, how were the Indians not better? 


But my bitterness soon fades, when I think of the ALDS the Indians get to go compete in. Sure, it is largely the byproduct of a historically-awful division where two clubs (Kansas City and Chicago) eclipsed 100 losses, another got close (Detroit, 65-97), and only Cleveland possessed a winning record. The framework of the postseason won't allow Cash to continue his team's magical season, but allows the Indians' to continue theirs. And for that, I feel strangely enough... guilty.


Cash still feels like part of this current Cleveland family. When Tito Francona took the Indians' job in 2013, he made Cash his very first hire, as bullpen coach. While in that role, he urged the Tribe front office to take a flier on a lesser-known Brazilian-born catcher named Yan Gomes. In the 2014 offseason, when Cash was offered the shot at becoming the league's youngest manager, the situation played out like the penultimate scene in Good Will Hunting. Francona was losing a confidant and Spring Training roommate, but couldn't have been happier to see him go.


When he returns to town, however, Cash has to stay on his toes. The consummate practical joker, Francona isn't the easiest buddy to have. While the Indians hilariously took the first battle, Cash ultimately slammed the door shut on the 2018 Prank War


Beneath all the degrading high jinks, there is a ton of mutual love, respect, and admiration between the two skippers. Francona would never admit it, but I don't think there's any other person in the business that he would willingly turn his managerial keys over to — if and when it ever comes to that in Cleveland. But the Tampa native, managing minutes from his childhood home, might be tough to convince to ever leave. He can clearly get winning results no matter how much ownership gouges his budget.  


⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻


In sports, you're hired to be fired. 99% of the time it is a question of when and not if. Cash began his fifth season on the job 3-12. This occurred in the very same season where the Reds fired Bryan Price after a similar 3-15 start. It's not hyperbole to say that in today's instant gratification climate, Cash's managerial seat — after a mere three weeks into a 27-week season — was as equally hot as Price's. They were supposed to be bad, but not that bad.


Thankfully, ownership allowed Kevin Cash to think his way out of the problem. The result was his first winning season as a big-league manager, but oddly enough, his third year with 80 or more wins. The age-old question in sports is whether a season that doesn't end in a title/finals appearance/playoff series can ever be labeled anything but a failure. This 2018 Rays' season was a resounding "yes".  


Don't get me wrong, they were an extremely flawed team. Last Thursday night in Toronto, the Rays took an 8-2 lead into the ninth inning and somehow found a way to lose. Partly because of nights like that, Cash should take home American League Manager of the Year honors. He had 95, 96, 97 wins right there in his grasp; talent gaps have a tendency to rear their ugly heads at some of the most inopportune moments. And the top managerial award should come with its fair share of gray-hair-inducing, frustratingly sleepless nights. Can't picture too many of those in Boston or New York this year.  


Since it's truly a full coaching staff award, Cash would get to share it with, among others, first base coach Ozzie Timmons. I've singled him out in particular because the man does ten push-ups for every run the Rays score. Last year's best dugout storyline was hands down the Indians' collection of player baseballs. 2018 could very well go to Timmons. Second place might go to closer Sergio Romo's annual bat boy cameo in Game 162, this time in a Kevin Cash jersey — hand-drawn dollar sign on athletic tape under the nameplate. Chalk these shenanigans up as things about this Tampa team you would have liked, if you had only tuned it.   


At the very least, give Kevin Cash & Co. a raise. The Rays got the tenth-best record out of the 21st highest-paid manager. The David Copperfield trick he executed should be worth more than a million bucks per season. Better give him two and ask to see it again.

(Photo Credit: Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

Popular posts from this blog

From Wounded Wood Duck To Thoroughbred In A World Series-Bound "Stable"

Do you know the typical setting of a rookie reliever making his 1,000th Major League pitch? That answer is an emphatic "No" perhaps followed by a good-natured "No one does." Even in today's pitch count-centric world, that's not a threshold any analyst is rattling off during a telecast. But, by diving heavy into the research, I found out that we may have witnessed the most iconic instance in baseball history on Saturday night. For your [modern] classic one-inning bullpen guys, with an average of 17 pitches per, you're looking at their 58th career appearance. With the focus on service time and "starting the free agency clock" it's become really tough to squeeze that many outings into a singular rookie campaign.  On the rare occasion that a rookie spends an entire season with a Major League club  — like a Jeurys Familia did with the 2014 New York Mets  — 1,000 occurs during appearance number 61 in the dog days of summer (August 20). He went o

For MLS Expansion, 27 Is The Magic Number Garber & Co. Continues To Disregard

What a wild two months it has been for the next (and final) wave of expansion in Major League Soccer. The recent surge of headlines has been a welcome sighting; the league office had gone radio silent on the topic for far too long. If you can believe it, the awarding of  Nashville SC  as a future franchise is already coming up on its one-year anniversary.  The most contemporary piece on the subject — team number 24 going to  FC Cincinnati  — turns six months old next week. It sure feels like just yesterday, but time flies when there is nothing else verifiable to report. Until early September, that Cincinnati announcement sat on the "Recent News" tab of MLS expansion sites collecting dust. Even the most speculative bloggers were in wait-and-see mode. Forecasting any further seemed futile until a deadline for the next batch of proposals was presented.    The only other expansion story of 2018 came out in January, when  David Beckham's South Florida endless soccer quest

Dear St. Louis, The MLS Isn't Coming To Town (Because 'The MLS' Doesn't Exist)

We all have that one friend that butchers a particular word within a quote/phrase/song lyric/idiom, to the point our blood boils whenever it resurfaces. And I'm not even talking about grammatical mistakes like  there ,  their , and  they're  or the difference between affect  and  effect . Those go largely undetected in speech; only ever showing up as egregious typos in a text or email. No, I'm talking more about painful linguistic attacks on the ear drums.  These instances can be as innocuous as assigning a plural verb to a singular subject. I recently saw a commercial that aims to  dissuade Illinois residents from driving buzzed or drunk . Nothing to really joke about there. And I'll admit that the music, voice-over, and simulated car crash are powerful enough to command attention. If it happens to follow an ad that is frequently mocked in your household, this ominous 30 seconds certainly re-centers the tone in the room. Or at least it should. So what is wrong with me

How The Super Bowl Has Ruined Your High School Football Program

Back to work the day after the Super Bowl is always a tough one. The football season has come to an end and all that's left behind is a bitter chill in the air. There's nothing overly exciting on the sports docket until Major League Baseball's new Thursday Opening Day and the first two days of March Madness — all of which should be national holidays.  Until then, hockey and basketball teams will either be jockeying for playoff positioning or riding out the end of a disappointing season. That means an awful lot of tanking for Jack Hughes and Zion Williamson (personally I prefer R.J. Barrett), salary cap dumping, or attempting to land Artemi Panarin and Anthony Davis via trade. In each case, February has become more about off-field/court noise rather than the games themselves.  Face it, most of the month is a real nothing burger for sports coverage. If you want to hear people talk on screen, your time would be better spent catching up on Netflix stand-up specials. The flu

The Power That's Returned to 'Flower': Revising Marc-Andre's Postseason Legacy

For the life of me, I cannot come up with anything comparable for what Marc-Andre Fleury is doing in these playoffs. Resurrections of this magnitude rarely appear anywhere outside of the New Testament. Yet, here he is; back from the dead, leading (yes, leading) Pittsburgh to the Eastern Conference Final.  The liability has been converted to an asset, and share-holders that stuck with him through his penny stock days (i.e. me) are loving it.    There is a theme of this piece centered on rebounds. On the micro level, Fleury was able to respond from a 5-2 beat down in Monday's Game 6. In a hostile Verizon Center, he stopped all 29 Washington shots in Wednesday's series finale -- stealing the 2-0 victory . He was nothing short of spectacular in Round 2's only shutout. Fleury's name was apropos for the the barrage sustained. Even 5-on-5, the ice tilted in the home team's favor from the onset. To the nervous spectator, the game's first eight minutes read like a conti

Predicting The Next Moves For MLS Reconfiguration: A 33-Game Schedule

It is said that chess grandmasters can visualize the next fifteen moves their opponent will make. Experience is the biggest reason why. Since every player has a finite quantity of options available, the more unique situations a person studies, the more he or she can draw upon patterns from the past.  Complemented with trustworthy instincts, and a dash of luck, advanced players can make near-perfect assumptions as to what the future holds.  At the moment, this is what the expansion of Major League Soccer (MLS) feels like to me.  Now, I don't claim to be spot-on with my viewpoints, but I have done enough research to at least say I have an educated hunch. Together, we'll have to see how many moves I am ahead of the league office. Recently, I've outlined why I believe the MLS  should only carry 27 teams  in their portfolio. And since that isn't likely to occur, I've also followed up with a timeline for spots 27 and 28 . The CliffsNotes  synopsis of those college di