When the Toronto Blue Jays signed Yunel Escobar to a multi-year contract extension over the weekend, it might not have been all genuine handshakes and back pats in the Jays clubhouse. No, the team’s shortstop isn’t hated by his teammates or known to cause any of the chemistry problems he was accused of in Atlanta. The new deal merely represents something for his double play partner at second base to worry about as his own contract in Toronto will potentially come to a conclusion at the end of this season.
If the Toronto Blue Jays value Yunel Escobar’s contribution to be worth $5 million annually (and they do, based on the dollar figures of his new contract), there is no way on God’s green astroturf that the organization should be willing to pick up Aaron Hill’s $8 million team option at the end of this season. Even without the team’s recent valuation of its other middle infielder, the team would be hard pressed to justify spending $8 million for another year of Hill’s sub .300 OBP and far below league average wOBA.
Despite his ongoing struggles, the one time heir apparent face of the franchise is still remembered fondly by casual Jays fans, more for his 36 home run season in 2009 than his subsequent disappointing years in 2010 and so far in 2011. In fact, I’d guess that the most often asked questions and highest number of speculative comments on our weekly live streams revolve around Aaron Hill’s future with the Blue Jays.
For those who think about baseball in more realistic terms, there’s little question, now that the team has locked up Escobar, that the Blue Jays would be willing to pick up their option on Hill. But here’s where things get tricky. Hill, buoyed by his 26 home runs last year, currently ranks as a Type A free agent among American League second basemen, shortstops and third basemen according to the Elias Rankings.
As you’ll remember, Type A free agency means that once that player is offered arbitration and he refuses, any team that signs him that finished in the top half of the standings must give up their first round draft pick to his previous team, while any team that finished in the bottom half gives up their second round pick.
Even if Hill falls down three more places in the rankings and secures Type B status, there’s no guarantee that he’d reject an arbitration offer that would guarantee a raise from the $5 million he’s making this season. If he finishes the year as a Type A, Hill is even less likely to reject an arbitration offer from the Blue Jays, because he’s less likely to see a free agent offer coming in from a team willing to a) pay him more than $5 million a season; and b) give up an early round draft pick to sign him.
It’s a strange scenario, much like the one Toronto found itself in with Jason Frasor last year, where it would almost be preferable for the player to require less compensation than more from his future team. Elias ranks players in that middle infield / third base tier according to plate appearances, batting average, on base percentage, home runs, runs batted in, fielding percentage and total fielding chances at his position over the last two seasons. Hill remains an excellent fielder with home run and RBI totals from last year that could keep him near the upper echelon. However, his sinking AVG and OBP could also continue to drag him down.
I wonder if the Blue Jays would consider manipulating his plate appearances in an attempt to drag down his free agent status, possibly doing a favour for both themselves and the player.
If Hill finishes the season as a Type A, the Blue Jays should 1) not pick up his option, 2) offer Hill arbitration, 3) hope that negotiations prior to an arbitration hearing go well, because he’s likely not going to reject it. This isn’t the worst outcome imaginable. With no middle infielders knocking on the door in the Minor Leagues and a total lack of awe inspiring free agents at second base, Hill could be useful as a stop gap measure until another option arises.
If Hill finishes the season as a Type B, the Blue Jays should 1) not pick up his option, 2) offer Hill arbitration, 3) hope he declines and that the lack of strong second basemen on the free agent market work in their favour and he signs elsewhere giving Toronto a compensation pick; or 4) if he doesn’t sign a contract, float him an offer.
During the last offseason, only two second basemen signed multi-year free agent contracts: Orlando Hudson’s deal with San Diego for two years at $11.5 million and Juan Uribe’s ridiculous contract with the Dodgers for three years at $21 million. Both players were coming off back to back threeish WAR seasons at a slightly older age than Hill, while the Jays second baseman will most likely be coming off back to back oneish WAR seasons (depending on what defensive metrics you use to calculate wins above replacement).
At the moment, a more apt comparison in last year’s free agent class might be Bill Hall. The former Red Sox second baseman negotiated a one year deal with the Astros for $3.25 million this winter (and was subsequently released) after a 0.7 WAR season in Boston. Hill is better defensively, but both players have a 35 HR season on his resume. Hill has, before this season, shown a little more consistency with his power than Hall, but will that consistency be worth more than $5 million on the free agent market this offseason?
It’s a risk that the Blue Jays can take with a worst case scenario being a slightly overpaid stop gap measure kicking around the team for another season, and the best case being an early round draft pick. Sadly, this is what our once promising face of the franchise has been reduced to.