Kevin Cash must balance old and new eras as Rays manager
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Kevin Cash must find balance while walking a fine line. That's clear after he was introduced as Rays manager to the Tampa Bay area Monday afternoon, a time of fresh potential and possibility.
The old era, the one with Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman and underdog teams rising to contend in the American League East, is over. Yet there will be an expectation that the new one, with Cash as the major leagues' youngest active manager at age 37, will include some of the former regime's best traits.
Achieving a balance will be no small chore. The task will be made more difficult by the fact that the Tampa native, a first-time manager, must earn his stripes following the footsteps of a dugout rockstar who made the Rays relevant after helping them escape Tampa Bay's Dark Ages as the Devil Rays.
Cash must be his own man. But he must cultivate the chemistry that produced four playoff berths and two AL East titles since 2008. Both tasks are important. Both will define him.
"I don't know if I look at it as wanting to distance too far," Cash said of the Maddon/Friedman Rays. "What this group has done has been pretty special the last eight, 10 years. I'm fortunate to be from here. I know where the Tampa Bay Rays were years ago. I know where they've gotten, and it's quite successful. I don't know if you want to separate yourself too far from that. I think you'd just like to join and add to it."
How Cash plans to do that remains to be seen, and since baseball is a 162-game roller-coaster of emotion, there will be dips and twists along the way toward discovery. Expect some acclimation to be required. Expect some mistakes to be made.
But Cash will be best served by staying true to himself. Above all, he must not try to become Joe Maddon 2.0. The Maddon Era grew to be successful because it was so different than anything else that came before.
The dress-up trips. The animals in the clubhouse. The quirky postgame news conferences. All were part of a DNA that was so Maddon that it would be unwise for Cash to recapture too much of the Rays' old in his attempt to create his version of the new.
"I think you've got to be your own person a little bit and take some bits and pieces from a lot of the managers I've been fortunate to come across," Cash said. "But ultimately, it comes back down to the relationship with the players and getting their trust, valuing their opinions and then kind of putting a plan in place once you get to know them a little bit."
"Relationships" was a buzzword Monday, and it's easy to understand why. It's simple to tell that Cash is eager to move beyond the introductions and focus on baseball business.
He said that he looked forward to the moment when he could retire his navy blue suit, and for a baseball lifer, he will be at ease when he fastens his No. 16 Rays jersey and walks into Tropicana Field's home dugout for his first regular-season game April 6 against the Baltimore Orioles. That's when he will be most comfortable.
Still, tests await him.
Cash must help the Rays show that 77 victories in 2014, their fewest since 66 in 2007, was an aberration and not a sign of things to come. He must help the Rays show that they can produce more runs, after they finished with just 612 in 2014 (27th in the majors). He must help the Rays show that the departures of Maddon and Friedman don't mean the end of recent momentum, just a change in the characters involved.
There will be lineup questions. There will be curiosity about how Cash will use the bullpen. There will be a magnifying glass on him most days from April to October, his strategies as a rookie manager dissected and his progress charted.
Trust will be the greatest currency he can earn.
How will it be gained within his own clubhouse?
"His way is to start forming those relationships today," said Matt Silverman, the Rays' president of baseball operations. "And he started that last week. He recognizes that it takes time to build those personal connections, and he's not wasting any time in getting started. He knows a couple of our players. He knows many of our staff members already. That gives him a leg up, but he knows that it's a matter of time and effort to strengthen those relationships and get them to where they need to be heading into the season."
No one expects perfection from Cash in 2015. His youthful energy will be a plus, his exuberance the fuel to push him through summer's dog days. But not one person, inside or outside his clubhouse, demands him to build Rome in one season.
That should offer him relief, with comfort found in the knowledge that there will be some freedom as he defines what it means to be the Rays' manager in 2015 and beyond. His presence means a new beginning, and even though magic was created with Maddon in charge, Cash will realize his potential in the manager's chair only if he tries to achieve elite results in his definitive way.
For Cash, his quest to find balance must be done in a healthy manner.
For the Rays, there must be recognition that there will be some departure from life's old rhythms.
"This group is special," Cash said. "I'm going to value their opinions. I hope they're going to value mine, and we're going to work through this together."
The sooner the work begins, the better for all involved, with a delicate balance part of the Rays' new existence.