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October 3, 2002

The Daily Prospectus

The Daily Prospectus: The Shea Hillenbrand Quandary

by Jonah Keri

Recently, BP's authors got into a heated debate over the merits of Shea Hillenbrand. Hillenbrand, you may remember, started the 2002 season on fire, setting Red Sox Nation hearts aflutter and confounding statheads everywhere.

Then came June. After posting lines of 341/390/582 in April and 303/345/523 in May, Shea Hillenbrand regressed back into being... well, just plain old Shea Hillenbrand. His OPS counts for June through September: 726, 705, 817 and 674. His OBPs? Walk-absent figures of 286, 319, 360 and 287, thanks to his continued quest to win the coveted DiSars Award.

So what were the Red Sox to do after Hillenbrand's fast start? It's a dilemma many teams face. Every year, scads of players start the season performing at an obscene level, far better than they've ever played before. And every year, teams do nothing to take advantage of these aberrations. Worse still, instead of leveraging a mediocre player's fast start, some teams let a few weeks of goodness delude them into doing dumb things: batting a guy way too high in the order for far too long, giving up the search for a better replacement, or, worst of all, signing a guy to a big contract he'll never justify.

A shrewd tabletop or fantasy baseball player never has this problem. He simply calls Wade Miller's frustrated owner, points to the pitcher's early-season struggles and injuries, and fleeces the poor bastard. Real life is obviously more complicated, but that doesn't mean teams can't sell high on a player whose perceived value outweighs his actual value. Before they do this, the team needs to ask a few questions.

Is the player's improved play really an aberration, or a newly-established level of performance?

With every move they make, teams should be asking themselves questions like these, or more precisely: "What can I expect from this guy going forward?" Too many teams make awful decisions, letting small samples of data cloud their judgment.

Some of the factors a team must consider include minor-league and major-league records, a player's age and possible changes in environment (league and park effects, etc.). In Hillenbrand's case, you had a player who never hit well, who still didn't walk even when he was producing, possibly only posting a peak season as he turned 27 in July, while playing for the same team in the same park.

If we deal this guy, do we have an adequate replacement?

Whatever you think of Hillenbrand, a team whose best alternate may have been Jose Offerman at 3B will suffer if it makes the deal. Which, if you can forgive me dislocating my shoulder to pat my own back, brings us to...

Where are we in the success cycle?

If you're the Devil Rays, it hardly matters who your replacement is. The only relevant question should be: "Does trading this guy get us closer to success when we're ready to compete?"

If you're the Red Sox, it matters, since you fancy yourself a contender. Even if the difference between Hillenbrand and Offerman over three or four months amounts to no more than a couple of wins, those couple of wins can make the difference between October baseball and October golf.

Of course there's a fine line between a legitimate contender and a team that deludes itself into thinking it can contend. Thanks to the Wild Card and a little too much self-affirmation, teams cling to fleeting playoff hopes way too long.

Imagine how much well the Mets could have done by trading Pedro Astacio or Jeff D'Amico when they looked like Koufax and Drysdale. Too bad they kept holding out hope, waiting for Rey Ordonez to drop the charade and start hitting .350.

Do we really have the guts to do this?

Thirty or forty beers into a conversation, you might convince a GM to question his fourth starter's 1.25 ERA or his shortstop's .800 slugging percentage. But once he sobers up, will he be willing to take the next step and pull the trigger? It'll take a hell of a sell job.

First, he has to feel confident enough in his player evaluation skills to toss a few weeks of stats out the window and trust the clearer picture years of data provide. That's doubly tough when a player rips up the league to start a season. Fans and media get sucked into believing a new off-season workout regimen or breakthrough diet can turn an ordinary player into an MVP candidate. General managers are human--even Steve Phillips. They can make the same mistakes as the rest of us--even Steve Phillips.

Even if the GM realizes that his player will soon turn into a pumpkin, he has to do something. Sitting back and hoping for his Hillenbrand to keep it going likely won't get him into much trouble. The risk-averse GM can always argue that he thought that this was the player's breakthrough year, and in the long run, he can claim that it's the player who let everyone down.

But trading his Hillenbrand, only to see him blossom on another team, might just cost a GM his job. Never mind that the odds of continued success at that "inspired" level may be 1 in 1,000. Better to do nothing and not make a mistake than take an aggressive gamble, or so some GMs figure. Even if a GM finally comes around, he may find no takers. Some teams won't be fooled into overpaying for a mediocre player's hot streak. Others may chomp at the bit to make a deal, but refuse due to their policy of not making trades too early in the season. If a team can't trade its Hillenbrand, so be it. Keep him for now, look for something better, dump him before he gets expensive. Just don't do anything stupid.

Let's go back to the real Hillenbrand. The opportunity to trade him for Scott Rolen? Already gone. So what should the Sox do with him?

The real Hillenbrand hits a little, isn't the worst fielder, and works cheap for another year before arbitration kicks in. Nevertheless, the Sox should do their damnedest to find an upgrade now. If they can't find one, they can ride Hillenbrand for one more year, all the while looking to improve the position. If nothing gets done by this time next year, and Hillenbrand is still Hillenbrand, then the team needs to strongly consider non-tendering him in November 2003 before he gets expensive. The last thing that Sox fans should hope for would be to see their placeholder third baseman turn into an Eric Karros-sized stumbling block.

So Sox fans, if you see John Henry and Shea Hillenbrand shaking hands on a five-year, $30 million deal this off-season, think about taking up another sport. That new skip from Nova Scotia's supposed to be dynamite.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here

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