The First Big Trade of 2003

It was going to happen sooner or later: the Red Sox were going to trade Shea Hillenbrand for someone.  As surprising as he was last year and as productive as he's been the first couple of months this season, he just didn't draw enough walks to fit their profile.  Still, he was a valuable commodity - a guy with some power who makes contact - and the Red Sox had several needs that  had to be addressed if they hoped to stay ahead of the Yankees.  

Unfortunately, I'm not sure starting pitching was one of them.  Although his ERA wasn't very good in his two starts, Bruce Chen actually pitched pretty well, and might have come away with very good numbers had it not been for a Yankee Stadium-aided home run; it traveled no more than 320 feet, which would have been a warning track out in almost any other stadium.  And both his starts came against the Yankees, who have a pretty decent offense.  It'd be interesting to see what he could do against the Tigers or Devil Rays.

He's not alone, though.  The Red Sox also have Ryan Rupe toiling in AAA for no apparent reason.  He's been close to invincible (3-1, 1.91 ERA, 0.909 WHIP, 30 Ks in 33 IP) and deserves another shot in the majors.  So if the Red Sox were really concerned about their rotation, they already have 2 parts of the solution in hand.  Byung-Hyun Kim, the guy they got for Hillenbrand, adds to the logjam.  The biggest benefit for the Sox is that they can finally give Kevin Millar, Jeremy Giambi and David Ortiz the at bats they deserve.  

But how will Kim do?  Generally, guys who've pitched in the AL who come to the NL do very well.  It doesn't work as well the other way around.  This is largely due to the fact that AL pitchers face the DH, whereas the NL pitchers get to face the opposing pitcher.  It's easier pitching to a line-up when you know there's an automatic out due up soon.  

Still, Kim should do reasonably well the first time through the league as few American League hitters have had a chance to get a good look at his repertoire or delivery.  Thanks to three years of interleague play, we do have some idea of how well he'll do.  In the last three years, Kim has accumulated 27 innings pitched against American League competition, all of it as a reliever.  In those 27 innings, he's allowed 18 hits, 12 walks (1.111 WHIP) and struck out 39 batters.  He's also allowed 2 home runs and 8 earned runs (2.66 ERA).  Interestingly enough, 7 of those earned runs came against the Texas Rangers back in 2000.  So other than a rough time against a homer happy club from Texas three years ago, he's been pretty dominating.

Of course, he was pretty dominating as a closer in the National League as well but not quite as tough to hit as a starter.  His WHIP as a reliever since 2000 is 1.126 and he's posted an ERA of 2.95 in the role.  As a starter this year, his WHIP is 1.139 and his ERA is 3.56.  Some difference, but not a whole lot.  As you might expect, he's been especially tough the first time through the order, allowing a .197 batting average against.  What is surprising is that he's actually tougher in the next three innings, posting a lower OPS against (.594 vs .695), so there is some evidence that his transition as a starter is legitimate and that he could be a huge addition for the Red Sox rotation.  The only real worry, and what the Yankees exposed in the 2001 World Series, is that if he's not precise, right-handed hitters can pummel him.  His splits this year (.715 OPS vs righties, .593 OPS vs. lefties) indicates that it is still an issue with him.  Still, these numbers have come against a league that has seen him for three years.

From the Diamondbacks perspective, the trade is much harder to figure.  Hillenbrand does relieve some of the pressure on the offense for them this year, but Chad Tracy, arguably their best prospect, is hitting .347 with a .401 on base and near .500 slugging in AAA.  And he's a third baseman.  Where does he go next year?  Hillenbrand won't be a free agent for a couple more years, and with Lyle Overbay at first, there's simply no place to put Tracy.   Maybe the D-backs will now go after Carlos Beltran with Tracy as the bait; Royals GM Allard Baird has been asking for a young, major league-ready third baseman in exchange for his superstar centerfielder.  Of course, then there's the issue of paying Beltran.  For a team that claims poverty, trading for a centerfielder that will command a $10 million per year salary in 2005 might be a hard sell to ticket holders.

With the injury to Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling currently too pre-occupied with Questec to pitch well, the D-backs need some starting pitching.   Journeyman Elmer Dessens has struggled in the 3 spot, so the D-backs must now depend on quality innings from swingman Miguel Batista and two rookies, John Patterson and Brandon Webb.  Chris Capuano will get more of an opportunity to show what he can do, and Edgar Gonzales is pitching well in AAA, so they may have more depth than is commonly perceived. But this switch-up makes their rotation more dependent on young starters than most contending teams have and will likely put additional pressure on their bullpen.  

D-back GM Joe Garagiola Jr has shown he's unafraid to make trades, good and bad, so it's hard to grade this trade on reputation.  But on the surface, it appears that this is a good trade for the Red Sox and a questionable one for the D-backs, although it may well turn out pretty well for them if this is the beginning move of an aggressive game plan by Garagiola.