In the history of baseball it isn't hard to find All Stars hitters traded for nobodies. Cy Young pitchers have been dealt for a few buckets of warm spit. The 1950s Kansas City A's sole reason for existence was to trade their good players to the Yankees while absorbing organizational garbage in return. Every GM makes mistakes. It's part of the job. Many fans are traumatized by these failures, unable to see the successes for the dark cloud of regret that hangs over their heads. At OTM, we're not that way. We're not going to fall into that negative trap, man. No way. It's sunshine and kittens with little bonnets all the time here. And good trades. Sunshine, kittens with bonnets, and good trades. All this week we’re going to count down the five best trades made while Theo Epstein has been the General Manager. We’ll start with number five.
The Red Sox have made close to one hundred trades on Theo Epstein's watch. Some, like the immortal Tim Bausher for Mike Burns deal, are easy to dismiss. The great part about that deal is you don't know which player the Sox acquired and which they traded away. Neither did I until I looked it up (they received Burns).
To make the list that follows I did not invent sixteen categories and rank each deal on a 1.7-126 scale. That would be ridiculous. No, I used a 1-127 scale. In all seriousness, this list is subjective. But when evaluating the deals, I looked at both what happened post-deal and the situation when the deal was made. Hindsight is important to evaluate what happened, but the circumstances at the time carry an equal or greater weight. Without further ado...
5. Shea Hillenbrand for Byung-Hyun Kim (2003) - The 2003 Red Sox were not one of those impossible to unravel mysteries. They had hitting but were short on pitching, a situation leading your average smart GM to deal some excess hitting for pitching depth. Only Theo did you one better. On its face, Epstein traded a starting third baseman with a shiny .300 batting average and some power for a reliever who had almost blown the World Series. Twice. When the deal was officially agreed to both Arizona GM Joe Garagiola and Epstein probably jumped up and down as quietly as they could to not alert the other to how excited they were whilst continuing to exchange pleasantries.
In Hillenbrand, the Sox gave up a former 10th round draft pick from high school who had steadily moved up the minor league ladder without doing a whole heck of a lot. Outside of one season at A ball when he hit 19 homers, Hillenbrand's minor league track record wasn't that of a future star. His first season in Boston wasn't either, but in 2002, his second season, he slugged .459. It was enough to push him just above league average overall production. At the same time new GM Theo Epstein had come in and was beginning to place a premium on plate discipline and getting on base. Sadly for Hillenbrand, these were two aspects of the game he never mastered.
In 2003, Epstein brought in Bill Mueller, David Ortiz and Jeremy Giambi, all corner infielders with patience. This made Hillenbrand expendable, and he was dealt to Arizona at the end of May. Hillenbrand’s slash stats don’t look bad but his OPS+ is instructive in this case as as it provides some context. In two years in Arizona Hillenbrand’s .294/.331/.471 was good for an OPS+ of 100 or exactly league average production. Two years later Hillenbrand was traded again, this time to Toronto where he was a slightly above average player for a year at age 29 before devolving into Shea Hillenbrand again. Hillenbrand spent a little under two seasons in Toronto before being dealt again, this time to San Francisco. From there he spent a couple seasons trying to play for the Dodgers but his career had essentially come to a conclusion at age 31. By fWAR, Hillenbrand's best season was his 2002 in Boston. Epstein sold high.
Kim is largely forgotten in early Epstein-era Red Sox lore, but a quick look at his ERA+ shows how much above average the reliever was. I use ERA+ because the era so distorted stats in favor of hitters that simple rate stats don't look impressive without context. Kim's ERA+ in 79.1 innings in 2003 was 147 (like OPS+ 100 is average). He was coming off a season of 225 ERA+ ball in Arizona.
Kim's ability to both strike hitters out (his six seasons in Arizona resulted in a sick 10.6 K/9), keep walks to a reasonable level and, believe it or not, keep the ball in the park, made him the relief ace the '03 Red Sox desperately needed. Yes, he got hurt early in 2004* and was ineffective but that wasn't foreseeable. It wasn't unforeseeable either but these are the chances you take.
*Looking at Kim's strikeout rates, one wonders if he wasn't hiding an injury in 2003. Between 2000 and 2003, Kim's K/9 was cut almost in half from 14.1 to 7.5.
Kim fit the Red Sox roster like a drink of water fits someone returning from a long run, while Hillenbrand fit the Sox roster like a cactus in the tookus, which, it turns out, he kinda was. It didn't hurt that Hillenbrand's moving to sandier pastures allowed the Red Sox to start Bill Mueller at third. That's the same Bill Mueller who the batting title that year. So even if the trade only garnered a year's worth of pitching from Kim, it opened the door for one of the real heroes of 2004. This trade was a combination of removing an excess piece of the roster, opening up playing time for better players, and obtaining the exact piece the team desperately needed. Epstein did this all in one shot. Not bad for a day's work.
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Tomorrow: Number Four on the list...