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May 30, 2003

Prospectus Today

Fun in the Sun

by Joe Sheehan

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Yesterday's Shea Hillenbrand-for-Byung-Hyun Kim trade is many things, all of which can be summed in one word: Fun.

It's a baseball trade, one in which the financial considerations are a tertiary concern. It's two teams getting together to exchange strength in an effort to patch weaknesses, with an eye towards glory this year. It's a challenge trade: one-for-one, no cash, players to be named or future considerations. I'm not ashamed to say that the deal put a real hop in my step; there are so many angles to the swap, so many facets to be examined, and so many ways in which it could go right or wrong for either team.

My initial reaction is that the Diamondbacks got the bad end of it. For the second time in six months, Joe Garagiola Jr. correctly identified both a need and a surplus, yet botched the deal (the first being Erubiel Durazo for Elmer Dessens). Hillenbrand is an average player, working on his second season of .290/.330/.440 hitting with plus defense at third base. He's better than the ghost of Matt Williams, but only a moderate improvement on what the D'backs could have gotten from prospect Chad Tracy (.347/.401/.492 at Tucson this year, good for a .254 Major League EqA vs. Hillenbrand's .278 this year and .277 last year). As badly as the D'backs need offensive help, Hillenbrand doesn't put enough runs on the board to be worth the cost: a pitcher with a career ERA of 3.26 who has proven himself able to fill just about any role on a pitching staff.

There are some markers in the D'backs' favor. Hillenbrand makes less money in 2003 and has about a year's less service time than Kim, so the Snakes will save some dough immediately and can control Hillenbrand for an extra season. That would mean more if the D'backs didn't have Tracy coming up right behind Hillenbrand, and if Hillenbrand wasn't exactly the kind of player--solid batting average, RBI total--likely to be overpaid in arbitration.

A more significant edge for the Diamondbacks is that Hillenbrand has a huge home/road split, and not in the usual way: for his career, he's hit .259/.293/.359 in Fenway Park, but .308/.340/.505 everywhere else. With more than 1,300 career plate appearances, that split starts to look meaningful. As a gap-to-gap hitter who puts a lot of balls in play, Hillenbrand could benefit from going to Bank One Ballpark, which is big up the middle and at as high an altitude as any non-Coors park in MLB. If there's one thing D'backs' fans can hang their hopes on, it's that split.

There's something else nagging at me. Despite the criticism of his work, Garagiola's history is that the prospects he trades away never amount to much. I'll have more on this in a longer piece next week, but as much bile as we've heaped on his work, the fact is that only one player he's dealt away--Tony Batista--has had the kind of career that makes you miss him. Some of the guys Garagiola has traded have had good seasons here and there, but only Batista stands out as being one that got away. After five seasons, 20 or so trades involving at least a dozen top prospects and 15 other players, that kind of record takes on meaning.

Now, Kim isn't a prospect as much as he's an established star (albeit an unknown one), but does he look that much different right now than Brad Penny (4.24 career ERA) did, than Vladimir Nunez (4.62 career ERA), than Travis Lee (742 career OPS) or Nick Bierbrodt or Jack Cust did? Think about how highly-regarded those players once were, and what the reaction--even my reaction--was to those deals.

Anyway, I'll have more on Garagiola next week. For now, though, his track record has to be considered in evaluating this deal. He's earned that.

When word of the trade first came down, I thought it was the perfect deal for the Sox. Earlier this month, I wrote:

I didn't see this coming. I was so enamored of the idea that the Red Sox were abandoning the concept of the high-save closer that I ignored that fact that they were missing a key element: The ace reliever who you want to funnel 100 high-leverage innings to, a guy who can handle the workload. The Red Sox lack the talent needed to make this work. There's speculation that they'll trade for Scott Williamson, who is just the type of pitcher that they need: dominant and capable of going multiple innings a couple of times a week. Williamson did very well in Jack McKeon's version of this bullpen in 1999, and would be a great addition for the Sox, immediately becoming their ace reliever.

Kim is that kind of guy; he's a dominant pitcher who is capable of making more than one multi-inning outing in a week. He doesn't have the platoon split he used to carry, and he has enough of a repertoire that he can face a guy twice without giving away the store. If I made a list of pitchers suited for the role of relief ace a la 1976, Kim would be right there with Williamson and Octavio Dotel.

When the trade first went down, I thought how unfortunate it'd be if Byung-Hyun Kim continued to push for a spot in the rotation, the way he had in Arizona--especially given Boston's bullpen needs. At first it appeared that the Red Sox would acquiesce to that demand. The decision to acquire Kim had been positioned as a patch for Pedro Martinez's injury, which ignores the fact that you cannot replace Pedro Martinez. The marginal difference between Robert Person or someone of that ilk and Kim, as compared to Martinez, is small.

If the Red Sox were to start Kim, they'd likely get 130 or so innings of varying leverage from him. Once Martinez returns, John Burkett would probably go to the bullpen, adding to Boston's unbelievable depth in second- and third-tier relief arms, and leaving them with the same hole in the pen they've had all along.

But an article in today's Boston Herald suggests the Sox will move Kim to the pen once Pedro returns. Quoth Sox manager Grady Little: "We feel when Pedro gets back and all of our pitchers are pitching well and doing the job, we'll move (Kim) to the back end of the bullpen."

Convincing Kim to relieve means they'll get fewer innings--probably something between 65 and 80--from him, but the vast majority of them would be high-leverage. Having Kim in the bullpen would make the fabled Red Sox Bullpen Plan of 2003 work in a way it hasn't worked all year. He is the missing piece to the puzzle if used that way. If the Sox change their minds use him suboptimally instead, that further closes the gap in this trade.

Happily, Kim seems OK--for now anyway--with the idea of working out of the pen: "I really love to be a starting pitcher but whatever the team needs--if the team needs me to do the closing role--I will do it," he said. Sox fans should hope he keeps that view all year long. Kim added to that bullpen could cement the Sox' position as the divisional favorite.

While the Sox do appear to win on a talent-for-talent basis, the deal weakens their defense. Hillenbrand was their best defensive first baseman--faint praise, I concede, but he was all right--and he was a key part of Grady Little's daily matching of the defense to his starting pitcher. Derek Lowe, John Burkett and Ramiro Mendoza will lose a little because of this. Presumably second-base prospect Freddy Sanchez (.391/.484/.577) will be promoted (fun fact: the Sox have used just 13 position players all season), but he has no experience at third base.

More importantly, trading Hillenbrand makes this team heavily reliant on Bill Mueller. Now, Mueller was a great signing, and his .382/.441/.625 bat is a big reason why the Sox are in first place and sending Hillenbrand west. However, he has an extensive injury history, and has missed large parts of three of the past four seasons. His knees, healthy so far, are a source of constant concern. If Mueller had to miss time, Kevin Millar could play third base, which would be unpleasant defensively. Millar also now gets the right-handed at-bats at first base. While Millar has a reputation as a professional hitter, his bat is nothing special for a first baseman and he's no great shakes with the glove, either.

The Sox should come out ahead in this deal, because they've acquired the better player. It's not clear-cut, however, because the marginal edges--and the potential for surprise--go to the Diamondbacks.

Not knowing. That's the most fun of all.

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

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