It wasn’t too long ago that Aaron Hill looked like he was untradeable at any price. Through the end of April, Hill had a wRC+ of 20 — he was 80% below league average in creating runs. The weak ground balls that helped make that happen have all but disappeared now — in May, his line drive rate has more than tripled, and he’s hit the ball hard more often. Hill has emerged from the latest of a career’s worth of valleys, and the 251 wRC+ he’s had in the last 14 days is third best in baseball among players with at least 30 PA in that span, just behind #2 Bryce Harper at 262 wRC+ and a fair bit ahead of the D-backs next-hottest hitter, #10 Paul Goldschmidt and his 220 wRC+.
Hill’s re-animation also breathes new life into a prominent question in the D-backs Universe at the end of spring training: should Hill be traded? As with any situation where a willing partner is needed, the answer now as then depends on what the deal would be. To get a read on that, we need to know where those potential fits actually are.
To Trade, or Not to Trade
It’s not the foregone conclusion that it was at the beginning of April that Hill could be deemed expendable by the team. As Jeff wrote toward the end of April, Nick Ahmed has been almost completely vacant at the plate — and he is exactly as lost now as he was then, with a 13 wRC+ in the last two weeks to follow up on the 12 wRC+ he had last month. I still admire the organization for embarking on this experiment and sticking with it so far. If it works, it makes an enormous difference for the 2016-2017 window. And while that alone justifies an extended experiment, the fact that he happens to be helping the pitchers get some traction in the meantime is, I suspect, more important than we generally give it credit.
At some point, however, the team has to start to act as if Chris Owings will continue to get at least a big chunk of his playing time at shortstop. And with all of the multi-player time shares at several positions seen or planned at multiple positions, the only players on the roster likely to fill in at second when Owings moves over are Hill and Cliff Pennington.
While Hill’s current surge would therefore make it an ideal time for a trade in one way, the team is probably not very motivated to pull that trigger right now. If Ahmed isn’t in the long term picture at shortstop, Owings is; and Owings isn’t likely to get the lion’s share of playing time at second, someone else will. Brandon Drury has one of the strongest claims to second base time in 2016, a possibility that is itself the product of a D-backs experiment — but even in July, we might expect that Drury will only be about as ready for the majors as Jake Lamb was in August of last year, with just a sprinkling of Triple-A time. Drury has solid numbers in 32 Double-A games this year after playing 29 games there in 2014, but not so strong as to think a promotion to Triple-A is imminent. Drury’s readiness would be the key if the D-backs thought about trading Hill toward the end of July (either for a promotion then, or in terms of playing out the string with the expectation that Drury would break in at the beginning of 2016).
Now, not so much. There is a better-than-solid chance that one of Hill or Pennington will be traded by August, but scant chance both will be moved. If Ahmed doesn’t turn things around at the plate at all, eventually he’ll be sent back to Reno to see if he can fix his approach there. If that works, Owings is the guy that takes over at second full time if Hill or Pennington gets traded. If by early July Ahmed’s most likely role appears to be utility infielder, that’s the role he’s likely to occupy with the big club in August and September.
All that is to say: though the D-backs are maybe more likely to find a trade match for Hill than they were a month ago, they might not be more likely to make an actual trade. With a little finagling, they could always find a 40-man spot for Danny Worth (Danny Dorn and/or A.J. Schugel could be outrighted, although a spot will soon be needed for Patrick Corbin). It’s possible for the D-backs to trade Hill, but they won’t do so just to move him out of the way a la Trevor Cahill.
Working Out the Fits
Usually there are a few teams with a hole at any one particular position, but that well is really dry at second base right now. The Blue Jays may finally have a solution in Devon Travis, Neil Walker seems back to himself in Pittsburgh, and the Royals have had Omar Infante work himself back over the “costs too much to improve here” line.
Further frustrating any market for Hill is Chase Utley, who is almost a carbon copy of Hill. Sure, Utley is three years older, but he does have a much more consistent track record; you might doubt that Utley’s mediocre start is less likely to continue than Hill’s surge. Both offer sure-handed defense you’d be willing to deploy at second, but neither is plus there right now. And in terms of size of contract, they’re vaguely similar in value — although Utley’s is much more unusual. For each of the next three years (2015-2017), 500 PA guarantees a $15M vesting option for the next year (2016-2018). If they don’t vest, they become club options valued between $5M and $11M based on DL days the previous year — and it looks like those carry with them a $2M buyout. A team that takes on Hill is on the hook for whatever remains of a $12M salary in 2015 and $12M for 2016; take on Utley, and you may owe him a prorated portion of his $15M salary this year and just $2M for next, but you could also end up owing him over $50M. And since a team isn’t going to trade for Utley if he’s on the DL, there’s a good chance that Utley-as-trade-asset would bring with him a $15M salary for 2016. Hill may be more attractive in those circumstances, but you never know — taking on Jimmy Rollins is looking smart for the Dodgers right now.
If a trade for Hill is to develop before mid-July, the likeliest scenario seems to involve a team that is currently set at second, but which is not well-positioned to handle a significant injury (as in, 6+ weeks type of injury) to their current starter at the position. In no particular order, I’d say those include: the Padres and Jedd Gyorko; the Mets and Daniel Murphy; the Angels and Johnny Giavotella; the Cardinals and Kolten Wong; the Marlins and Dee Gordon; and the Indians and Jason Kipnis. I’d put the Blue Jays back in this category, as Travis has already been “banged up.”
Add to that list a few teams that are under .500 but not out, and who arguably have a “need” at second right now. Headlining that list is the Orioles, who are trying to get by with Jonathan Schoop out with knee woes, Everth Cabrera down with a foot injury, and even backup Ryan Flaherty out of commission with a groin injury. With Schoop and Cabrera both on the road to return, however, the Orioles are likely to count on at least one of them coming back; both would have to have setbacks for the Orioles to start shopping, I would think. Jace Peterson was never a can’t-miss prospect for the Braves, and so it wouldn’t necessarily take an injury for the Braves to consider alternatives if they hang around in the race — and yet they’re one of the teams in the majors least likely to take on money right now, despite the Cahill trade and the fact that they might be open to picking up someone who’d also be on the squad in 2016. The Yankees are iffy, and yet it wouldn’t necessarily take a Stephen Drew injury for them to look around. I hesitate to include the Rangers, but I’m also not sure they’re any less likely than any of the options I’ve already raised.
Maybe the best possibility is the White Sox (so long as the D-backs don’t also try to send Addison Reed back?). Micah Johnson has offered an empty .270 batting average (79 wRC+) but also hasn’t been helping in the field, and the White Sox aren’t likely to fret over keeping playing time open for him in 2016. Gordon Beckham is in the picture, but this isn’t the first time he’s been the team’s definition of replacement level at the keystone. Carlos Sanchez might be the option they’re most likely to commit to next, but a lot like with Jace Peterson, Sanchez just isn’t a can’t miss guy. I don’t want to minimize the willingness the White Sox probably have to turn the job over the Sanchez, but that still makes the White Sox possibly the most promising option in a field of not that promising options.
The key to reading the tea leaves on Hill trades is probably 2016, not 2015. Even if the D-backs ate half of the money owed Hill, $6M could be a little too much for a team to not be concerned with how Hill fits into 2016 plans. In other words: the truest Hill options are either likely to have no strong 2016 plan at second, are one of the above “if injury” teams with an injury that is much more long term (like, maybe a full year), or just don’t really care right now about 2016.
Through that lens, I think the options get narrowed even further. So far, we’ve discussed the Padres, Mets, Angels, Cardinals, Marlins, Indians, Blue Jays, Orioles, Braves, Yankees, Rangers, and White Sox. The only teams for which I can make a vaguely realistic “2016 be damned” argument are: Padres, Mets, Angels, Yankees, and White Sox. The other teams have either demonstrated a desire to stay flexible (Marlins, Orioles, Rangers), will be too concerned with other options they have developing next year (Orioles, Blue Jays), or just will not take on a 2016 financial commitment for an iffy Hill (Marlins, Indians, Braves, Rangers). So let’s talk about the other five teams, in ascending order of likeliness.
What a hard team to get a read on — like the D-backs this season, they have seemed pretty concerned with not falling completely out of contention, picking up a few players like Curtis Granderson, Bartolo Colon and Michael Cuddyer that don’t really fit the mold of value plays, and yet aren’t really calibrations for a title run, either. The time is… soon? Noah Syndergaard is up now, Matt Harvey is back, Steven Matz is not far away, and while Jacob deGrom may not be the beast he looked like last year, the Mets still have to treat him as a building block. Add Kevin Plawecki‘s recent promotion — under circumstances similar to Blake Swihart‘s “sooner than we wanted and potentially too soon” call up. Matt Reynolds (yeah, not that one) is probably not part of The Plan but helps make a need for an extra guy less likely. It’s coming together, ish. A Hill trade works here for that reason, but also because the Mets do have some money, and because the Mets don’t have enough extra talent to trade something of actual value in order to make an upgrade. 2016 is probably too soon for Dilson Herrera. This could work, but if it does, expect a trade to include a non-prospect and for the Mets to take on slightly more than half of the money (instead of slightly less, a la Cahill).
If any team should be allergic to dead money right now, you’d think it would be the Angels, who still have some $60M going to Josh Hamilton and who may have some regret regarding Albert Pujols. And yet the Angels have prospects for days, so long as you’re only talking about the fringy kind, and they can’t and won’t pack it in for a rebuild right now. They’re more or less committed to the model of hoping that good is good enough, kind of where the D-backs will be at the beginning of 2017 if most of the current experiments go sour. Waiting on Alex Yarbrough would be tempting, and yet not a significant obstacle all by itself. I don’t know. The chances that this develops is pretty darned low. If it does happen, expect the D-backs to eat more than half of what’s owed Hill, but to receive one or two fringy but meaningful prospects in return.
Seems like any time we make a list like this, it’s going to include the Yankees — but the reason for that isn’t the reason why they might be the third-likeliest Hill destination. Maybe Stephen Drew gets a mulligan for 2014, but he doesn’t get another one this year. The Yankees are 21-14, and aren’t ignoring their very strong playoff odds. Rob Refsnyder doesn’t seem like enough of a Yankees-style solution to be a Hill obstacle. Not saying this is likely, but if it did happen, I’d expect a prospect fringier than Peter O’Brien and for the D-backs to eat about half of the money owed Hill.
For reasons stated above, there could be a hole worth filling with Hill. But through our 2016 lens, it’s worth noting that where the White Sox are right now is more or less where we’d expect the D-backs to be next season, except that their 2016 may not be quite as bright as the D-backs’ 2017. The White Sox tried to do a year ago what the D-backs tried to do this last offseason — short-circuit the rebuilding process, knowing they wouldn’t have the promise of a Nationals- or Astros-style rebuild, but that they could improve enough to compete. That might be exactly when taking on money for an iffy asset makes sense. Like the Mets, they don’t have talent to burn. We’d look here for basically a non-prospect, and for the White Sox to take on two-thirds of the financial commitment to Hill.
Here is where it gets the most interesting (finally). Jedd Gyorko was supposed to be an offensive second baseman, and to the extent that meant he’d be a slight liability on defense, that’s panned out. Gyorko was also supposed to be a third baseman, and of the Padres’ many moves this last offseason, filling the hole left by Chase Headley with Will Middlebrooks really hasn’t worked. Gyorko could still end up there, or end up playing some of both; Yangervis Solarte can’t play both positions, and isn’t necessarily a solution at either spot. With Gyorko more or less repeating his 2014 stat line and 26 years old, would you really put it past A.J. Preller to throw in the towel there? I have no idea whether the Padres offseason was an all-or-nothing attempt at the playoffs or whether the the priority was to inject some excitement with a .500 floor (I suspect it might be the latter), but either way, they haven’t necessarily achieved those goals. Currently one game over .500, it wouldn’t take much for the Padres to need to do something to stay as competitive as they want to be, and if they improve all on their own even without a resurgent Yonder Alonso, they might also need to add a little bit to go from being an 86-win team to being a playoff team. It’s possible, in other words, that the problem won’t be whether the Padres are willing to make a move as “big” as trading for Hill — it might be that a Hill trade isn’t big enough. This only happens if Hill looks good at the plate for another month or so, I think. But as unlikely as it might be, this could happen. The 2016 money wouldn’t be a significant obstacle. Here, especially since it probably wouldn’t happen for at least another month, the D-backs might be able to trade Hill while eating less than half of the money and receiving a non-trivial prospect or two. Nothing earth-shattering, but maybe a prospect of O’Brien’s quality.
So that’s where I’m going to land: Padres might be the most likely trade option here. The D-backs like “known” pitcher prospects, and we’ve seen them go after guys with stuff even if there are significant warts. Guys who could help by 2017 are especially enticing. The Padres have a guy who fits that lottery ticket model (and who, like Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster, were once moved in an Adrian Gonzalez trade): Casey Kelly. I may ask you for roulette-type odds, but that’s where I’d put my money. Trading Hill still seems pretty unlikely despite his incredible recent run at the plate, but a Padres trade involving Kelly (maybe with a reliever like Oliver Perez also going to San Diego?) seems at least possible.
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