Thinking about the Kelly Johnson-for-Aaron Hill swap

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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.

Miguel Cabrera has two herniated discs in his back

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Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera underwent an MRI which revealed two herniated discs in his back, MLB.com’s Jason Beck reports. With six games remaining in the season, if Cabrera plays again, it will be as a designated hitter.

The back issues shed a lot of light on Cabrera’s uncharacteristically subpar season. He’s batting .249/.329/.399 with 16 home runs and 60 RBI in 529 plate appearances this season. He carries an adjusted OPS of 92, which is eight points below the league average and 14 points below his previous career low set in 2003 with the Marlins.

Cabrera, 34, is signed through 2023 and is owed a minimum of $192 million through the end of his contract.

MLB managers weigh in on anthem protests

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No other Major League Baseball player has taken a knee during the National Anthem since Athletics’ catcher Bruce Maxwell‘s protest on Saturday night. The demonstration was sparked by President Donald Trump’s call for the boycott of the National Football League and the firing of any player who chose not to stand during the anthem. The comments drew harsh criticism from many NFL players, coaches and owners and more than a few in MLB have also lended their support. There is still one game left to play on Sunday, but it’s unclear whether any of Maxwell’s league-mates will show their solidarity by refusing to stand as well.

Given a baseball culture that tends toward conformity more often than not, it seems unlikely. But it’s something league managers are prepared for — even if they don’t all agree with the demonstrations themselves.

White Sox’ skipper Rick Renteria specifically addressed Maxwell’s protest on Sunday, speaking to the league’s policy of inclusivity:

None of the White Sox knelt prior to their series finale against the Royals. Neither did members of the Pirates or the Cardinals, though St. Louis manager Mike Matheny and Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington both weighed in on the situation.

Matheny called the president’s comments “hurtful” and, like the Cubs’ Joe Maddon, appeared content to leave the decision to protest up to each player.

The Pirates, meanwhile, took a firmer tone. “We appreciate our players’ desire and ability to express their opinions respectfully and when done properly,” GM Huntington told Elizabeth Bloom of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “When done appropriately and properly, we certainly have respect for our players’ ability to voice their opinion.”

Just what the Pirates consider “appropriate and proper” protocol was left up in the air, and club president Frank Coonelly offered no further insights in a separate statement to the press. Setting strict parameters for players to voice their opinions kind of puts them in a gray area, one they’ll have to clear up should someone elect to protest in the days to come, either with a bent knee and a hand over their heart or in some other fashion.

Equally ambiguous were comments from Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts, who claimed to oppose the movement for personal, if misguided reasons, but also respected the right of his players to make an “educated” statement in protest.

The Indians’ Terry Francona took what was perhaps the most balanced approach of the entire group:

“It’s easy for me to sit here and say, ‘Well, I think this is the greatest country in the world,’ because I do,” Francona told MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian. “But, I also haven’t walked in other people’s shoes. So, until I think, not just our country, but our world, until we realize that, hey, people are actually equal — it shouldn’t be a revelation — and the different doesn’t mean less. It’s just different. We’ve got work to do.”

These may all be moot points. Maxwell may be the only player to formally protest Trump’s comments, despite the good intentions of his teammates and fellow players around the league. Others may feel too ambivalent, threatened or uncomfortable to protest what the A’s catcher referred to as a “racial divide,” especially in a way that is routinely perceived as unpatriotic.

Even if the protests made by NFL players and Bruce Maxwell fail to gain momentum, however, the underlying issues they speak to are not going away anytime soon. Here, then, is where MLB managers can help foster a more inclusive environment throughout the league, not only by showing respect for a player’s decision to stand against racism but by actively partnering with those who do so. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a start.