With the departure of Mike Butcher to Los Angeles, there has been plenty of debate on who should have replaced him at the Major League level. It's Jim Hickey's job whether you like it or not, and it almost wasn't his job. From what I understand, it's not a bad thing to have Mr. Hickey in town.
Butcher's exit to the Angels is not upsetting or unacceptable to me. Butcher saw an opportunity in Los Angeles after Bud Black left for the Padres' managing job. With knowledge of most of the Angels' pitching staff, and friends and family back west, the shift back to the Angels was a no-brainer for Butcher and I wish him luck.
As for his time spent here... that's where I'm not upset about his departure. Granted Butcher was in his first year as a big league coach and you have to give some slack with the learning curve, but it seems to me there was plenty of friction between him and some of the staff. The best example is that of Chad Orvella, who had a decent 2005 season before being asked by Butcher and Joe Maddon to change his delivery in an attempt to speed things up a bit. The change altered Orvella's delivery and in the end was a factor in his early season meltdown before he was sent back to Durham. When Orvella returned in August, he subtly smacked Butcher in the face when he told the press that Bulls' pitching coach Joe Coleman got him back on track and sometimes you just have to tune out other peoples' advice. Orvella pitched better, Butcher looked bad, and to this day I don't think Coleman's dismissal from Durham in the postseason housecleaning was a coincidence.
Speaking of Durham, that's where Jim Hickey was supposed to go. In a recent interview with the Houston Chronicle, Hickey mentioned he was supposed to be heading to Durham as the Bulls' new pitching coach when the position opened up with the Rays. Hickey was brought in by Gerry Hunsicker after he was fired by Houston in October, a fact Hickey eludes to in the same article. So what does this all mean for the Rays?
Hickey's firing from Houston was a shock, because pitching was the least of the Astros' problems. The 'Stros have put up impressive numbers during the past two seasons when Hickey was in charge, including a World Series appearance in 2005. One Astros blogger at chron.com said, "Jim Hickey will be missed. Roy Oswalt, the ace of the Astros' pitching staff, grew to trust Hickey tremendously. Hickey was brilliant at helping the starting pitchers with their mechanics, and quite a few pitchers cannot believe that he was fired after the staff overall performed so well this past season."
Now let's keep one thing in perspective here; while Hickey should be commended for helping guys like Oswalt, Brandon Backe, and Dan Wheeler become better pitchers, the trio of Kazmir/Seo/Shields is hardly Oswalt/Pettitte/Clemens. That is NOT Hickey's fault. Rather it is on the shoulders of the Rays management to get the right pieces for Hickey to work with.
Imagine for a moment the Astros without Clemens and Pettitte the past two season. That would be a combined 51 wins off the record for two years, and who knows who else would have been pitching well enough for the Astros to cover those victories. While the Rays aren't in the market for a Clemens or Pettitte, they do need to get one or two veteran arms to help this young staff. I still see veterans like Ted Lilly and Adam Eaton hanging around in the free agent market, even Vicente Padilla waits for a contract. Yes, it will cost some money, but bringing in a valuable veteran arm has so much more return on investment in wins than touting how 2008 might be a good season. Besides if Hickey can make Kazmir/Seo/Shields the next Oswalt/Pettite/Clemens on his own, then we need to send him to Iraq for peace talks or get him a labcoat to start hammering out that cure for cancer.
One thing I would like to see out of all of this, other than a much-improved pitching staff, is the retaining of Hickey for the long term. We are coming up on the tenth season of Rays baseball, in terms of actually having a team on the field. Hickey is the seventh pitching coach since March 31, 1998. In order for him to stay here longer than Rick Williams, Bill Fischer, Jackie Brown, Chris Bosio, Chuck Hernandez, and Butcher, he will have to perform miracles with the young staff he has.
And more importantly, the NDRO has to spend some money on the tools that will help Hickey perform those miracles sooner than later.