The Kansas City Royals hired Trey Hillman in October after he spent the previous five seasons as manager of Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan. While Bobby Valentine has shown that a manager can go back and forth from the United States to Japan and be successful, no one without previous major league experience has made that same transition while taking the trip across the Pacific. Yet, while Hillman has made a name for himself across the ocean, the Royals believe he is the right man to get them back on the winning track. Kansas City has had just one winning season in the past 13 years, lost a combined 403 games in the last four seasons, and hasn’t been to the postseason since winning the World Series in 1985.
“There is not a more qualified person out there to lead,” General Manager Dayton Moore said when he hired Hillman last October 19 to replace Buddy Bell. “He’s been a winner his whole life. There are a lot of guys with great bubble gum cards who aren’t great managers.”
Indeed, the back of Hillman’s baseball card doesn’t say much, not unless you can read Japanese. Yet, while staying in the shadows of the minor leagues, Hillman developed a strong reputation in the U.S. before going to Japan. Hillman managed in the Yankees‘ minor league system for 13 seasons, three times winning league manager of the year honors. After being bypassed for major league jobs, Hillman left the Yankees and spent 2002 as Texas’ minor league director and field coordinator before departing the States to take up the reins with the Ham Fighters. Hillman was charged with what had traditionally been one of the worst franchises in Japan, and led the Fighters to the Japan Series title in 2006. They returned to Japan’s version of the World Series again last year, but lost.
Hillman began drawing interest from major league clubs in recent years but was under contract to the Fighters. However, he announced last August that 2007 would be his last season in Japan; the gamble paid off when the Royals came calling. Hillman’s previous gambles also had a way of paying off. It wasn’t easy to leave an organization like the Yankees. Yet, Hillman felt he had no choice but to move on. “I’ll be brutally honest. I was bypassed definitely once and probably twice by the Yankees for jobs that I felt like I was qualified for at the major league level,” Hillman said. “There were other people who felt like I had been bypassed, as well. At that point in time in my innermost thoughts in my soul, I said, ‘You know what? If I will focus solely on getting better at getting guys to the major leagues and developing my relationship with players within what I do as a baseball man then God will take care of the rest.'”
While that wound up taking Hillman on a different path than most, he feels his time in Japan helped make him become a more resourceful manager. In fact, he was forced to make changes in his style last season because of a shuffling of personnel following the Fighters’ championship season. “We lost 58 home runs between 2006 and 2007 and I had to get involved a little more with fake bunts, hit-and-runs, steals,” Hillman said. “We upped our stolen base average and base hits, and bunted more.”
Hillman would prefer to manage the Royals with more of an American style, making like Earl Weaver and waiting for the three-run home run. However, he is also aware that he may have to stick with the one-run strategies so popular in Japan as he inherits a club that was last in the major leagues last year with 102 home runs and last in the American League with a .388 slugging percentage. “If you have more slug, it means you give fewer signs,” Hillman said. “I only want to diversify on a need-to basis but we will be playing controlled scrimmages early in spring training, and more often than any of these guys have ever experienced, simply for the possibility of the need of diversification with the offense.”
The Oakland Athletics won four more games than the Chicago White Sox last season. Yet, it’s the White Sox who are looking to win now and the Athletics who are going, in the words of General Manager Billy Beane, “full-bore into a rebuilding mode.” Those directions were made quite clear in the trade the teams made this past Thursday, as the Athletics dealt outfielder Nick Swisher to the White Sox for three prospects: left-hander Gio Gonzalez, right-hander Fautino de los Santos, and outfielder Ryan Sweeney.
Swisher is going into his age-27 season, seemingly beginning the prime of his career, and coming off a year in which he hit .261/.381/.455 in 659 plate appearances. BP’s Kevin Goldstein recently ranked de los Santos and Gonzalez as the White Sox’ top two prospects and had Sweeney eighth on that list. “From the day I was assigned to this position, we have been in win mode,” White Sox General Manager Ken Williams told the Chicago Tribune. “We’re going to worry about winning a championship for ’08 before we worry about winning a championship for the 2010 or ’11 seasons, when it’s likely the (traded) players will be able to contribute on a championship team.”
Williams finally landed an impact bat for the outfield–unless he trades Paul Konerko to the Los Angeles Angels for a package centering around second baseman Howie Kendrick, in which case Swisher would play first–after failing to sign Torii Hunter, Kosuke Fukudome, or Aaron Rowand in free agency. However, he was willing to give up a gaggle of prospects for a player like Swisher, who has four years and $26.05 million left on his five-year, $26.75 million contract.
“We knew if we would not be able to go the free agent route–and that was our first plan of action, as everyone knows–it was going to cost,” Williams said. “I did not plan on having to pay this type of price, but I also did not plan on getting this type of player.” Swisher also gives the White Sox versatility as, assuming Konerko stays on the South Side, he will play either left field or center field, depending on whether Chicago goes with Carlos Quentin in left or Jerry Owens in center.
The Athletics, meanwhile, have added nine prospects in two trades over the past two months as they dealt ace pitcher Dan Haren and right-hander Conner Robertson to Arizona on December 14 for a package that included left-handers Brett Anderson, Dana Eveland, and Greg Smith, first baseman Chris Carter, and outfielders Aaron Cunningham and Carlos Gonzalez. It appears Beane isn’t done trading established players for prospects, as it is believed that right-hander Joe Blanton, closer Huston Street, second baseman Mark Ellis, and third baseman Eric Chavez are also being made available. The New York Mets are chief among many teams interested in Blanton.
Athletics owner Lew Wolff has embraced Beane’s quest to restock the organization with young players. “I honestly think we’ll have a better team–Billy won’t admit this–but we’ll have a better team on the field in terms of results than we had last season,” Wolff told the Contra Costa Times. “I think Billy and his group have made a really intelligent and smart (trade) of two players that I really think a lot of.”
The Philadelphia Phillies have seemingly wrapped up their off-season moves. The most significant came in November when they acquired closer Brad Lidge and Eric Bruntlett from Houston for center fielder Michael Bourn, reliever Geoff Geary, and minor league third baseman Mike Costanzo. The addition of Lidge also means Brett Myers moves from closer back into the starting rotation. Beyond that, the Phillies signed right-hander Chad Durbin and outfielders Geoff Jenkins and So Taguchi as free agents. Durbin will either be the fifth starter or long reliever, while Jenkins will be a pricey platoon mate with Jayson Werth in right field, as he was signed for two years and $13.5 million. Taguchi will back up all three outfield spots.
Meanwhile, the Phillies lost Rowand, their starting center fielder, to free agency along with right-hander Kyle Lohse and second baseman Tadahito Iguchi. They also have failed to address their hole at third base, losing out to Boston in the bidding for free agent Mike Lowell and being re-stuck with a platoon of Wes Helms and Greg Dobbs. One wonders if the Phillies are improved over last year’s team. “We’ll just have to wait and see,” General Manager Pat Gillick told the Philadelphia Daily News. “I like our (starting pitching) better than last year, but there’s still a lot of slack to be made up.”
Jenkins believes he can replace Rowand as the favorite of Phillies’ fans. “I don’t want to run into any walls or break any noses like Rowand but I’m an aggressive outfielder and I take it just as seriously as he did,” Jenkins said. “This is going to be a good fit for me. I definitely will bring some of the same things Rowand did to Philadelphia.”
The Milwaukee Brewers led the NL Central race for nearly the entire 2007 season before finishing second, two games behind the Chicago Cubs. While the Cubs have added Japanese outfielder Kosuke Fukudome as a free agent, the Brewers’ biggest move from a position player standpoint has been to sign free agent catcher Jason Kendall, who is very obviously in the decline phase of his career. Instead, the Brewers have revamped their bullpen, replacing closer Francisco Cordero and set-up man Scott Linebrink–both lost through free agency–by signing Eric Gagné and David Riske as free agents and trading for both Guillermo Mota and Salomon Torres.
The Brewers did try to acquire a big-hitting third baseman at the winter meetings but failed to land Scott Rolen from St. Louis or Hank Blalock from Texas. Those deals–which would have enabled defensively-challenged Ryan Braun to move to left field–now appear dead and has left a fan base that hasn’t seen a playoff team in 25 years wondering when General Manager Doug Melvin will make a move to counter the Fukudome signing.
Instead Melvin seems likely to stand pat, with the possible exception of signing a veteran like Luis Gonzalez or Kenny Lofton to play left field, the Brewers’ only lineup hole. “We’re set at a lot of places,” Melvin told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “A lot of these other clubs are trying to fill holes. “We like our team. We won 83 games (in 2007) and we expect some of our guys who struggled a little to bounce back. And we expect our young players to improve. We’ve explored a lot of situations and we’ll continue to look at things. But we want to make sure anything we do would improve the club. We don’t want to fill one hole but create another hole.”
Rumors and Rumblings: All has been quiet on the Johan Santana trade front, except for Hank Steinbrenner saying the Yankees have made the best offer to Minnesota for the ace left-hander. However, it still appears Boston’s offer of center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, shortstop Jed Lowrie, pitcher Justin Masterson and a fourth prospect to be determined is the most likely to get Santana. The Mets are also trying hard to trade for prospects that they could package in a deal for Santana. Whoever gets Santana will have to pony up seven years and $140 million for a contract extension. … If the embattled Roger Clemens–it is now mandatory to use that adjective in front of his name–comes back for another season, it won’t be with the Yankees as Hank the Head Yank says his club has no interest. That means Houston is the most likely landing spot, though the Red Sox would likely at least think about bringing The Rocket back to Boston. … Kyle Lohse remains on the free agent market and is hopeful of the Mets cracking and giving him a four-year contract. Lohse was originally looking for five years. The Mets, meanwhile, seemed more interested in signing a pair of pitchers coming off injuries in Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia. Kansas City is also intrigued by Colon, who is looking for at least a two-year contract despite an unimpressive winter ball showing in the Dominican Republic.
Though Tampa Bay failed in its attempt to sign left-hander Scott Kazmir to a multi-year contract, the Rays have no plans to trade him unless they would be completely overwhelmed by an offer. … Colorado is considering signing Marcus Giles–who crashed and burned in San Diego last season–as a free agent to compete with rookie Jayson Nix for the second base job. … Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington says he is not looking to add a starting pitcher and is satisfied going into the season with a rotation that would include Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny, and Paul Maholm from the left side, and Matt Morris and Ian Snell from the right. Seattle would like to trade for Snell but would have to give up highly touted young outfielder Adam Jones to have any chance of making a deal work. … Texas designed hitter Jason Botts is out of minor league options and the Rangers would be willing to listen to trade offers on him.
San Francisco, in desperate need of power, has been in contact with a pair of free agent corner infielders, Shea Hillenbrand and Dallas McPherson. … Outfielder Gabe Kapler’s decision to come out of retirement and sign with Milwaukee reportedly upset Boston, who employed him as manager at Low-A Greenville last season. … Chris Roberson, purchased from Philadelphia this past week, has a chance to become the starting center fielder in Baltimore. Tike Redman is considered the incumbent in the wake of Corey Patterson‘s departure as a free agent; he had a strong 2007 playing for the York Revolution in the independent Atlantic League, and followed that up with a strong September.