Friday, May 14, 2010

Hillman Fired; What's Next?

In the season's least surprising turn of events thus far, yesterday the Royals sacked skipper Trey Hillman, just days after he was given the dreaded vote of confidence from GM Dayton Moore. In two plus seasons at the helm, Hillman was just 152-207 (.423), including 12-23 this year, good for the second worst record in baseball.

Hillman certainly wasn't chiefly culpable for the mess that is the Royals, but he wasn't doing much to help either. Even with the bad hand he was dealt in KC, Hillman didn't do himself any favors. Perhaps it was his lack of prior Major League experience. Perhaps it was a bad attitude. Perhaps it was his poor relationships with his players. Perhaps it was simply his pattern of questionable or downright indefensible decisions. Perhaps no one could take him seriously while he sported such a badass 'stache.

Whatever the cause, Hillman deserved the axe sooner or later. His contract was set to expire at the end of this season, and barring something wholly miraculous, he had little to no chance of returning next season anyway. It was probably in Kansas City's best interest to make this move now rather than wait until the end of the season. But make no mistake, a change of managers isn't going to magically cure all that ails this organization.

All of this is a far cry from when Hillman was hired following the 2007 season. After a successful twelve year career as a minor league manager, Hillman took over the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan's Pacific League in 2003. In five seasons in the Far East, Hillman's club made three post-season appearances, twice reached the Japan Series, and took home the championship in 2006. He was something of hot commodity when the Royals inked him to a three year deal on October 19, 2007.

The day before, Joe Torre refused the Yankees' one year offer to return as manager in 2008, and for the first time in twelve years, the Yankees' managerial job was open. Had Hillman not already been past the point of no return in negotiations wth the Royals, he likely would have joined the trio of Joe Girardi, Don Mattingly, and Tony Pena as candidates for the Yankees' job.

Two and a half years later, it's easy to look back and be relieved that Hillman never made it into that mix. I certainly wouldn't trade out Girardi for him, or for either of the other candidates for that matter. But that doesn't mean that Hillman isn't a good baseball man, and it doesn't mean that he won't be of some future value, in another role, to a different organization.

Hillman joined the Yankees organization as a minor league coach in 1989. The next year he was promoted to manager of the short-season Oneonta team, where he won the NY-Penn League championship. He spent twelve years as a manager in all levels of the Yankees' system, with stops at Greensboro, Prince William, Tampa, Norwich, and Columbus. He had three first place finishes, three playoff appearances, and one championship. But more importantly, he oversaw the development of future Yankee stalwarts like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada, as well as one-time prospects like Carl Everett, Ricky Ledee, Ruben Rivera, Mike Lowell, and Eric Milton.

He's still well-regarded in the Yankee organization, has a good relationship with Brian Cashman, and prior to getting hired by the Royals, was in regular contact with the Yankees G.M. His time in Kansas City can't be considered anything but a failure, but that doesn't mean he isn't still a good baseball man. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him end back with the Yankees in some sort of roving instructor or player development role.

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