Ahhh, the elusive challenge trade.
With just five weeks left in the season, the Diamondbacks and Blue Jays opted to swap second basemen Tuesday. Toronto received Kelly Johnson and sent along Aaron Hill, also including shortstop John McDonald in the bargain.
That all three players in the trade are free agents-to-be makes it an especially odd deal. Only Hill is under control for next year, but there’s no way the Blue Jays were going to pick up his options worth $16 million for 2012-13. The Diamondbacks won’t, either.
So, what’s the motivation for both sides?
– The Diamondbacks are hoping that Hill will get better with a change of scenery and figuring that even if he doesn’t, they’re at least getting a better defensive shortstop in McDonald than they had previously.
– The Blue Jays get to take a look at Johnson to see whether he’ll be worth the offer of a 2012 contract while also positioning themselves to get a draft pick if he leaves in free agency.
Toronto’s side is easier to see. The Blue Jays were done with Hill, and while he and Johnson are both set to be type-B free agents, it certainly appears that they had decided they weren’t going to risk offering Hill arbitration because, as poorly as he’s played the last two years, there was a good chance he just might take it. Johnson is someone who intrigues them as a possible 2012 regular, and it’ll be easier offering him arbitration this winter.
McDonald was the extra piece it took to get the deal done. It wouldn’t be any surprise at all to see him re-sign with the Jays as a free agent this winter.
Arizona is taking the bigger risk. Johnson has hit just .209/.287/.412 this year, but that’s still quite an improvement on Hill’s .225/.270/.313 line. Johnson was also far better than Hill last year, hitting .284/.370/.496 to Hill’s .205/.271/.394. Hill was the vastly superior player in 2009, but that’s a pretty distant memory now.
Defense is interesting. Hill looked like a legitimate Gold Glove candidate in his mid-20s, but his defense has definitely dropped off the last two years and there was some talk of him moving to third last winter. Johnson’s defense rates from average to significantly below depending on whom is asked. For what it’s worth, Baseball Reference’s WAR gives Hill a modest advantage the last two years, while Fangraphs’ data gives Johnson a big edge.
I’m not buying that there’s much of a defensive advantage either way, and I’ve seen enough ugly at-bats from Hill recently that I don’t see him outproducing Johnson the rest of the way. Still, this could work out OK for Arizona. McDonald would likely be an upgrade at shortstop from Willie Bloomquist if the Diamondbacks give him a chance to play regularly, and Johnson really was playing terribly of late. I’d have rather taken my chances with Johnson and surrendered a prospect for a shortstop upgrade, but since the Diamondbacks probably weren’t re-signing Johnson, there’s nothing here to be up in arms about.