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Jim Hickey: Other than 2008, this may be the most impressive Rays season ever

Pitching coach Jim Hickey, far right, celebrates with outfielder Kyle Schwarber, center, and first-base coach Will Venable (25) after the Cubs defeat the Pirates 1-0 on Aug. 17, 2018. [Associated Press]
Pitching coach Jim Hickey, far right, celebrates with outfielder Kyle Schwarber, center, and first-base coach Will Venable (25) after the Cubs defeat the Pirates 1-0 on Aug. 17, 2018. [Associated Press]
Published Aug. 31, 2018|Updated Aug. 31, 2018

ATLANTA — Jim Hickey was a little surprised walking into a meeting at the Trop two days after the end of last season to hear he would be leaving his post as Rays pitching coach after 11 impressively successful seasons, and with one more on his contract, by mutual decision.

But by the time he walked out, learning what team officials and manager Kevin Cash were thinking and planning going forward pitching-wise, realizing that he likely wouldn't have been signed to a new deal and that promising Kyle Snyder was ready to move up from Triple A and replace him, he felt it made "perfect sense.''

And now, after signing a rich pact to go home to Chicago, reuniting with manager Joe Maddon, leading a veteran (though injury-plagued) staff on a big bucks Cubs team that has the National League's best record, and enjoying the Wrigley Field and Wrigley­ville neighborhood experience daily?

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"I don't think it could have worked better actually for both parties,'' Hickey said Thursday before the Cubs-Braves game. "For myself, I think the timing was probably perfect. I think for (the Rays) the timing was perfect. I think — I don't think, I knew — Kyle was going to do a great job and is going to have a great career.

"And what they've done over there, apart from possibly the 2008 season, I think this may be the most impressive season in Rays history, what they've done, all things considered. I cheer for them, that's for sure.''

Also, "Kevin Cash really should, and probably will, get consideration for manager of the year."

So what does Hickey, 56, think of some of the specifics involving his former team?

• On the plan of using relievers as openers and young starters as relievers three times a week:

"I have mixed emotions about it,'' Hickey said. "It's pretty darn interesting. You've got to have the right pieces, and you've got to have enough of those pieces where you're moving them in and out. That's what makes what they've done so impressive.''

Hickey does not think, as some others do, that it will spread widely throughout the game, that it's more likely to be teams trying it out of necessity due to injuries to starters and lacking depth, much as the Rays did.

"Give me five guys that flirt with 200 innings over two guys and three openers,'' he said. "I'm not bashing that system by any means. But I think at the end of the day, when you look back, even 10 or 15 years from now, if you're looking at playoff-caliber teams, if they didn't look a lot like they do right now, I'd be surprised. But who knows? It's definitely created some conversation.''

Hickey had some idea before he left that the Rays were considering using the opener, but he didn't think — and doesn't feel Cash or Snyder did either — that it would've been implemented as extensively if not for the injuries.

And even given his apprehension, Hickey said he would've been willing to give it a try under the circumstances.

"It would have been kind of fun I think, in a way,'' he said. "Actually it would have been a lot of fun. You really have to have the right personnel.''

• On trading Chris Archer to the Pirates on July 31 for pitcher Tyler Glasnow and outfielder Austin Meadows, plus prospect Shane Baz:

"I'm not really surprised that they traded him,'' Hickey said. "I'm actually a little bit surprised they had not traded him sooner just based on what they were doing. And I was a little surprised he went to the Pirates because you never think of the Pirates as a team adding on. I think the timing was probably right for him also and the Rays organization. And they got a couple of darn good players.''

Hickey is surprised Archer hasn't done better than 1-2, 6.45 in his first five Pittsburgh starts. "I thought he would have considerable early season success because teams had a little bit of unfamiliarity with him,'' he said.

• On Blake Snell's emergence as an All-Star, with a 16-5, 2.05 record:

"I'm not sure you could ever say you saw what he's doing coming, where he's nearly leading the league in ERA, but absolutely, positively this guy was a top-of-the-rotation, front-line guy, no question about it,'' Hickey said. "He showed that over this last 10 starts last year. It's not like he just came out of the blue. All he ever needed to do was start channeling that stuff and putting the ball over the plate, which he's doing now. He's extremely aggressive. And he's confident, obviously. …

"Even with the success of a guy like David Price, (Snell) has the chance to be the best one that's ever come through there, and that's saying something.''

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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