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Revisiting the short-lived Shea Hillenbrand/Alfonso Soriano debate

In the year 2002, the Red Sox and Yankees had a pair of young All-Star infielders who looked like important parts of each team’s future.

Boston Red Sox third baseman Shea Hillenbrand catches the la Photo by Andrew Savulich/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

One of the beautiful things about a rivalry as long-standing as the one between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees is there is always something to compare between the two teams. Often that is which team is better in a given year, but such a rivalry also gives rise to a number of debates about individual players. Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio? Nomar Garciaparra or Derek Jeter? Dustin Pedroia or Robinson Cano? Mookie Betts or Aaron Judge? These are some of the most interesting to explore, even if each side of the debate will dig in their heels and blindly support their own guy.

Although debates like Williams vs. DiMaggio stand the test of time, there are other debates that got started but didn’t last. These are debates that we usually forget or don’t consider because things worked out a little too one-sided, even if you think some of the ones I listed above fall into that category. One such debate rose from the back of my mind this week when I was sending in my response for our weekly roundtable. My response to the incredibly difficult question that forced me to pick a favorite Yankee was Alfonso Soriano. You can read the roundtable itself for my reasoning, but thinking about Soriano also got me thinking about a debate that is long over but started with such promise for both the Red Sox and the Yankees. So follow me back to 2002, when the Red Sox and Yankees both seemed to have found future infield cornerstones. I

It is difficult to remember the pre-2004 days when the Red Sox were still searching for relief from an incredibly long title drought, but in 2002, they were still wandering. After a magical 1999 playoff run ended at the hands of the Yankees, the Red Sox still found themselves trying to break through in those first few years of the new century. The 2000 season was forgettable from a team standpoint, as the Sox went 85-77 and missed the playoffs despite the best efforts of Pedro Martinez and Garciaparra. In 2001, they were even worse. It was clear that they needed an infusion of young talent to push them forward. That’s why the emergence of Shea Hillenbrand in 2002 seemed like such a positive step.

On the other side of this equation, Soriano’s 2002 season came as the Yankees continued to dominate the AL East and baseball in general. Sure, they lost in devastating fashion to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2001 World Series, but they won three-straight titles from 1998 to 2000 and were pretty much locked into first place in the AL East every year. That’s why Soriano’s impressive 2002 season just seemed like an example of the rich getting richer.

Before we get to 2002, however, we have to go to 2001 because that’s where this conversation really got started. Hillenbrand flashed some promise, but ultimately had his growing pains. As a 25-year-old rookie, Hillenbrand slashed .263/.291/.391, posted a 73 wRC+ and was a slightly below replacement level player (-0.1 fWAR). Meanwhile, things went much better for Soriano — who had made brief appearances in the 1999 and 2000 seasons — although perhaps not as much better as you remember. Soriano finished third in AL Rookie of the Year voting that season, while Hillenbrand didn’t receive any votes, but Soriano, who also was in his age-25 season, only produced 0.1 fWAR despite hitting 18 home runs and stealing 43 bases, partially because of a .304 OBP and a crushing number of strikeouts (125) compared with walks (29).

When 2002 rolled around, both players got better and during that season it seemed like we were watching the next great individual player debate between the Red Sox and Yankees take shape in real time.

Hillenbrand’s case got started because of a blistering first half. He started the season with a 12-game hitting streak and was slashing .341/.390/.582 at the end of April. Suddenly the Red Sox had their third baseman of the future. Hillenbrand didn’t keep up that pace exactly, but by the All-Star break he was at a .298/.331/.490 slash line to go with 13 home runs and 51 RBI. Never mind that he had 55 strikeouts compared with 11 walks, the Red Sox had a new star and that was confirmed when Hillenbrand was named an All-Star Game starter at third base.

Of course, Soriano would join him as the starter at second base in the All-Star Game, as he was having a stellar season of his own over in the Bronx. He also got off to a great start of his own and was slashing .348/.372/.600 at the end of April. His numbers fell slightly from there, but stayed above Hillenbrand’s, as Soriano slashed .315/.342/.576 with 20 home runs, 51 RBI and 23 stolen bases in the first half. However, just like Hillenbrand, Soriano was striking out way more often than he was taking walks, with 87 of the former and 13 of the latter.

After the All-Star break, Hillenbrand didn’t match his first half performance, especially in terms of power numbers, with just five home runs in the last 317 plate appearances of the season. Still, his final numbers (.293/.330/.459, 18 home runs) were a solid foundation. Soriano was even better, slashing .300/.332/.547 with 39 home runs and an AL-leading 41 stolen bases along with the most hits (209), runs (128), at-bats (696) and plate appearances (741) in baseball. He also won a Silver Slugger and finished third in AL MVP voting.

Even if Soriano had the early edge, when we reached the the end of the 2002 season, it looked like the Hillenbrand/Soriano debate would rage on for the next decade between Red Sox and Yankees fans.

Obviously that’s not what happened. FanGraphs shows that Hillenbrand’s 2002 season wasn’t as great as Red Sox fans hoped it was, as his defense and minuscule walk rate meant he posted just a 105 wRC+ and 2.2 fWAR that year. In 2003, he once again got off to a hot start hitting-wise, batting .303 in 49 games for Boston. However, he managed only three home runs in that time before he was sent to Arizona as the Red Sox made a deal to improve the bullpen by adding Byung-Hyun Kim, ending the Red Sox/Yankees angle of the Hillenbrand/Soriano debate right then and there.

Of course, it wouldn’t be long until Soriano left New York. After making another All-Star appearance for the Yankees in 2003, he was playing with the Texas Rangers in 2004 because he was the centerpiece of the deal that brought Alex Rodriguez to the Bronx.

The Hillenbrand/Soriano debate may not have had a Red Sox/Yankees element anymore and was purely an exercise in following two parallel careers at that point, but it still had a little juice left in the next few seasons. Hillenbrand found new life after Boston, hitting 17 home runs during the rest of 2003 and returning to the All-Star Game in 2005 with the Toronto Blue Jays. During that time, Soriano didn’t lose a step outside of New York, making the All-Star Game and winning Silver Sluggers in 2004 and 2005 with the Rangers.

After the 2005 season, however, whatever was left of the debate disappeared. Soriano had always had a pretty commanding lead in the discussion, but in 2002, there was the hope Hillenbrand could improve and match him. By 2006, it was clear that was never going to happen. Hillenbrand would play for four teams across the 2006 and 2007 seasons before leaving the big leagues for good. Meanwhile, Soriano made three more All-Star appearances between 2006 and 2008 while playing for the Washington Nationals and Chicago Cubs and then tacked on six more seasons before calling it a career after the 2014 campaign.

Looking at their overall resumes, with Hillenbrand sitting at 3.0 career fWAR and Soriano at 38.9 fWAR, there’s no debate about who was better overall, but in 2002, the duo looked like the future cornerstones of not only the infields of the Red Sox and the Yankees but the rivalry between the two teams.