ST. PETERSBURG — Rays general manager Erik Neander and manager Kevin Cash had many nice things to say Tuesday about highly successful longtime pitching coach Jim Hickey, but the most telling — and surprising — was goodbye.
At a time when the Rays plan to continue integrating promising young pitchers into their staff, they also felt it was time — in what they said was a mutual decision — to change the leader, replacing Hickey by promoting Kyle Snyder from Triple A.
Hickey's departure headlines a significant makeover of Cash's coaching staff after a third straight losing season. The Rays also reassigned assistant hitting coach Jamie Nelson and promoted Charlie Montoyo from third-base to bench coach to replace another long-timer, Tom Foley, who was previously reassigned.
Cash lauded Hickey's message, leadership and on-field coaching during his 11-year run and said his impact on the Rays' success was close to that of former manager Joe Maddon. Neander also raved about Hickey, saying, "When it comes to being a pitching coach and making an impact, he's as good as it gets."
But in looking at what their staff may look like going forward, they felt it was "the right time" to try something different. Neander said it wasn't a matter of Hickey not working well with young pitchers or anything philosophical, more that Snyder "had a really big impact" on many of those young pitchers during his six years in the organization, working his way up to Durham for the past three and drawing raves for the success there.
"We have an opportunity going forward with a core group of young pitchers, the ones … that are already here and the ones that are very close to knocking on the door, and Kyle has had his hands in their development along the way," Cash said.
"I felt going forward the best decision for the major-league coaching staff — with also Hick's understanding, support and buy-in to this — was that Kyle lead that group and make us better for it."
How mutual the decision was may be a matter of semantics.
Signed through the coming season, Hickey had no sense a change was pending when he went into a Tuesday meeting with his bosses. A good guess would have been they wanted to talk about their plan to pull certain starters early from games and regularly use relievers for multi-inning stints.
"Going forward we probably had a little bit of a difference of opinion on the strategies employed to get the most out of our pitchers," Hickey said Tuesday night. "I only had one year left on my contract and I wasn't 100 percent on board with the direction, so we simply agreed to mutually part ways one year prior than we probably would have anyway."
Hickey, 56 next week, said he definitely wants to work next season and would seem likely to be in high demand. Since he joined the Rays in 2007, they ranked among the AL best in ERA (3.95), strikeouts (13,988), opponents average (.247) and WHIP (1.28). Several teams have openings, others may soon.
"He has a talent that most organizations search for relentlessly," departing starter Alex Cobb said. "He will have a great time being a free agent."
Cobb and other veteran pitchers were shocked at the change.
"Hick was the best pitching coach I have ever been around," Jake Odorizzi said. "He helped me grow a lot as a pitcher over the time I was fortunate to work with him. So a lot of the pitcher I am today is because of him and the work he put in with me. … I know wherever he goes next that team will be getting a great leader to their pitching staff."
Chris Archer praised Hickey for his intellect, people skills and ability to analyze, apply and convey information. "I'm going to miss many, many things about Hickey and his influence on our organization," Archer said.
Cobb was equally effusive: "I'm not going to try to explain how great Jim Hickey is. There's really nothing I can say that would speak louder than his track record. All I can say is how fortunate I was to have him when I got to the big leagues. No one could have prepared me better."
In explaining how much Foley meant to him during his first three years, and how active a role he still will have with the big-league team once details are worked out, Cash said there will be certain benefits to having Montoyo at his side. (That is assuming Montoyo doesn't get a manager's job elsewhere.)
Specifically, Cash said, Montoyo's 18 years of experience as a minor-league manager "would really be an asset" with in-game decision-making. "We all know that the game moves quick and you can try to map out decisions as best as all of our capabilities, but things adjust," he said. "And I felt that Charlie was really, really good at seeing things before they happen, and providing that heads-up in-game will be very beneficial."
In reassigning Nelson in another mutual decision, Cash said it was an effort to "change the message a little bit, change the voice a little bit" working in concert with hitting coach Chad Mottola.
The Rays are now looking for a third-base and assistant hitting coach, with the potential for at least one outside hire. It's worth noting they have not had an African-American coach the past three years.