Evan Longoria Is the Rays’ Derek Jeter

Derek Jeter and Evan Longoria

The Yankees are in trouble. With three straight series losses to open the season, the Yankees have to get back on track before their remaining seven-game road trip ends. If they don’t, the season could be lost before it even begins.

With the Yankees into Tampa Bay for their first series against the Rays, Daniel Russell of DRaysBay joined me to talk about losing Andrew Friedman to the Dodgers, having a rookie manager in Kevin Cash take over for Joe Maddon and the frustration of watching the roster turn over due to finances.

Keefe: This offseason you lost general manager Andrew Friedman to the Dodgers and manager Joe Maddon to the Rays. Both men played an integral part in the success of the Rays from shedding their Devil Rays image to becoming a consistent winning and postseason team.

What were your feelings on the two leaving for big-market teams?

Russell: There’s so much I could say about each of these men, in appreciation, in admiration, and in heartfelt sorrow that they are gone. The Rays only had a few faces of the franchise, and these two were the primary names on that list.

Andrew Friedman’s departure was at some level expected, far back in my mind I thought he’d leave one day. His interviews and dinners about town had come and gone in the past, but after 10 years with the franchise (nine as de facto GM), his leaving didn’t add pain the the surprise.

Friedman is gone but the franchise is in a great place. The brain trust he built stayed in tact when he left for L.A., and his departure freed up the staff to make some moves that other wise might not have happened, like getting value for Joel Peralta or Wil Myers, who both looked pretty busted last season, despite their pedigrees.

Joe Maddon was different, just a week prior he was adamant about his commitment to the franchise, and once he was gone the front office was legitimately stunned. As were the players, and the coaching staff. The Rays believe some tampering occurred on the part of the Cubs, who hired him seven days later, and that investigation is still ongoing, even though Manfred said it would conclude by Opening Day. So there’s something fishy to the situation.

I don’t blame Joe Maddon for leaving, the opportunity to become a legend with the Cubs is something I think I would have pursued if I were in his position. It just happened in the wrong way.

Keefe: With Maddon leaving, Kevin Cash became a rookie manager and sort of under-the-radar selection for the Rays as their new manager. Just four years removed from the league, Cash, who had a short stint with the Yankees in 2009, was suddenly a manager in the majors after serving as part of Terry Francona’s Cleveland staff for two years.

Who did you want to be the Rays manager after Maddon left?

Russell: I’m not sure I had an opinion on who the manager would be among the list of first round finalists, but once it was narrowed down to Don Wakamatsu and Kevin Cash, I’m glad it was the latter.

Cash is a feel good story, a local kid who played Little League and went to high school in Tampa, then played in multiple College World Series at Florida State before becoming a Devil Ray. Coming back is a welcome home.

He scrapped his way into a major league career, transitioning to catcher in Cape Cod ball before joining the Blue Jays, and he won World Series rings with Boston (2007) and New York (2009) as the third catcher. He’s got the right mind and is super relatable in the clubhouse. He’s ridden those busses and he’s also found success.

Cash was an advanced scout for the Blue Jays, then the bullpen coach for the Indians, his second turn under Terry Francona (the guy who beat Joe Maddon for the job in Boston). He identified Yan Gomes for them, and helped turn around the careers of guys like Carlos Carrasco and Corey Kluber. He’s the kind of guy who destined to be a manager, and his hiring (while the youngest in the game with no true managerial experience) lends itself to the underdog role this Rays team needed to embrace.

Keefe: Tampa Bay was my favorite non-Yankees team before 2008, which is before they got good, and I don’t have a favorite non-Yankees team. Maybe it was because they were an easy win for the Yankees and a standings-padding opponent, which helped the Yankees to the division title year after year. But I enjoyed watching the Rays’ young talent and Lou Piniella manage that young talent even if it seemed like they would never put it together.

In 2008 they did it put it together. The Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993 and I rooted for the Rays in the postseason, mainly because I knew they could beat the Red Sox. Whn you look at the 2008 Rays roster, the only player left is Evan Longoria, who has been the face of the franchise and is the one true face of the franchise since the team’s inception.

Seven years ago when you thought about the Rays’ future, did you think Longoria would be the only player still with the organization from that World Series team?

Russell: I’m glad we’ve been able to fall out of your good graces, because the Yankee fan presence in Tampa can be quite unbearable.

Roster turnover is an expectation, and seven years later who could I have reasonably expected to remain? David Price and James Shields might be the only clear answers, maybe Carlos Pena if he’d kept his career in tact.

James Shields was the only type who had the talent and mindset to take on a second contract extension like Longoria, and David Price’s control ran through this season. Perhaps starter Matt Garza could have remained, but he was volatile and valuable to the market, so his departure was a bit more expected.

It’s worth mentioning that Ben Zobrist was a part of that 2008 team’s bench, but using a 2008 mindset I don’t think he was expected to become one of the five most valuable hitters in the game, so his mention would be unfair. As for other big ticket names, Upton and Crawford were destined to leave after long turns with the franchise far before 2015 rolled around.

If I may, this is probably a good moment to say kudos to Longoria for signing two team-friendly deals with Tampa Bay.

Speaking to a fanbase that has enjoyed several long Yankee careers, you need to understand he’s all we’ve got. Our franchise is only nearly 20 years old, that’s not a long time to retire the same numbers you all have in that cemetery or whatever that garden at Yankee Stadium is called.

Longoria knew he wanted to be a one-franchise man. He’ll be the first bronze statue one day as well. I’m looking forward to it.

Keefe: After Longoria, David Price was the second face of the team (at least from an outsider’s perspective). His trade was inevitable and now he is doing for the Tigers what he did for the Rays.

Is it hard to watch Price pitch for another team after being a homegrown player for the Rays, or are you used to the idea of superstars leaving because of finances?

Russell: It’s an unfortunate reality, truly it is. Your perception isn’t wrong, he really was the hearbeat of the team in a lot of ways. He’s still texting the Rays starters before they take the mound and offering encouragements. Losing him was hard.

The Rays don’t have the money to lock down many players, and the farm system has not been well stocked through the draft lately, so trading players has been the best avenue to bring the future to bear without going into an Astros re-build, or having to constantly trade away what remains like the Athletics.

So here we are in 2015 without David Price. I’m used to the idea, yes, but it’s no less frustrating. That excitement to watch him take the mound never really goes away. You always knew he was likely to give you something special.

Keefe: The Rays entered the season with an over/under win total of 79 after a 77-85 season in 2014. The turnover on the roster since last season has been immense and the 2015 Opening Day Rays are basically unrecognizable from the 2014 Opening Day Rays.

However, the Rays have gotten off to a strong 6-4 start despite some tough first-week opponents to once again prove that no matter who the Rays lose, they seem to find a way to stay competitive.

What are your expectations for this season?

Russell: Always take the over on the Tampa Bay Rays. This team has pressed into the playoffs in all but two seasons since 2008.

That said, injuries are a bear, and this year we might have 10 players on the disabled list before the week is out. The Rays starting depth is limited to the No. 2, No. 4, No. 7 and No. 9 starters from the depth chart, if we’re counting Matt Moore (recovering from Tommy John – returning in June) as the No. 5. The current fifth starter is the long man, and he’s laid an egg in both of his outings thus far.

Meanwhile, the Rays are going through an AL East bloodbath – only one series (already played against the Marlins) from Opening Day to May 6 is against a team outside the division. Right now the Rays just need to tread water, without their 1B, 2B, DH and maybe even without Longoria for one or two games after a hit-by-pitch last night.

It’s not going to be easy, but if this team can break even through April, I think they stand a decent chance of remaining competitive in the division, and following the projections from Baseball Prospectus to place second in the division around 85 wins.