The Blue Jays dipped into the post-deadline trade season, shipping Aaron Hill and John McDonald to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Kelly Johnson. On the surface, the deal is more or less a wash, a “challenge” trade, or moving deck chairs, if you may. On a deeper level though, this has the makings of another savvy Alex Anthopoulos move, with a dash of Public Relations magic worked in.

For Arizona, it adds some versatility for a playoff run, but may also cost them at the plate. The initial Toronto reaction seems to be mixed, with some applauding AA for another shrewd asset acquisition, while others have taken the more personal side and don’t want to lose two high-character players. While I understand the second opinion, I think it’s a short-sighted one, especially with some of the comments made by the players in the press conference.

That is, Hill and McDonald both alluded to the possibility of returning to Toronto, as both are free agents at season’s end. While Hill’s role and compensation would be unclear, McDonald’s spot as a de-facto utility-player/coach will be open, and he himself said he’d like to return in that role. Based on comments AA made about McDonald’s interest in the management side of the organization, and his own expressed desire to bring playoff experience back to the club, it seems the club and McDonald have a mutual interest in a working relationship moving forward.

2010 Impact – Hill vs. Johnson
Now obviously, the Jays aren’t that concerned with their record the rest of the way. Hill-to-Johnson isn’t necessarily a huge upgrade based on their stats for the year, but Johnson is certainly a better player. The loss of McDonald hurts from a versatility stand-point, but for the purposes of analysis, this is a Hill-for-Johnson swap.

While Hill had the higher baseball-card peak (2009, with 4.1 WAR, 36 HR, and an .819 OPS), Johnson’s 2010 trumps that in a less flashy way (5.9 WAR, 26 HR, 13 SB, .866 OPS). Johnson’s career-OPS of .779 bests Hill’s .694, and other than Hill’s power peak, Johnson has been a better hitter throughout their careers.

This year, both have been suffering from poor seasons, though Hill’s is his second in a row. Johnson has been the victim of a .257 BABIP, 47-points below his career mark, while his isolated power has hardly dropped (at .202 down from .212 in 2010). His BB% and K% have both moved in the wrong direction, sapping his formerly above-average on-base skills. Hill has also been hurt by a .242 BABIP, a 40-point drop from his career mark, and while his K% is an impressive 12.4%, his walk rate has shrunk to just 5.4%, and his ISO is down all the way to .088.

Basically, Hill now has a two-season sample size suggesting his 2009 season was a large outlier. It’s possible that the 36-homer binge changed his fundamental approach so much that it passed the proverbial point of no return, as Hill originally projected as a decent-average doubles hitter, not a slugger.

For Johnson, this continues a career-long pattern of inconsistency, one that may be chalked up to a change in approach or, as is becoming the Jays’ trademark, a situational issue. After success in Atlanta, he faltered, and then improved upon moving to Arizona. If a scenery change can again get things going for Johnson, this might be a big win for the Jays.

Off-Season Impact
But again, the Jays don’t really care about 2010. Johnson may be a small upgrade at the moment, but the crux of this deal is that in Johnson, they have a player that is more likely a part of the immediate future or provide returns upon leaving. Johnson makes $5.8M but his contract expires after this year. Hill has a two-year team option at $8M/year after this season.

The team was not going to pick up Hill’s options. As a likely Type-B free agent, for the Jays to reap the compensation pick from losing Hill, they would have to offer him arbitration, and it would have been foolish for Hill to decline, as he would be likely to receive a raise on the $5M he made this year. Thus, to get the compensation pick, the Jays would run the risk of being stuck paying Hill more than he made this year. In addition, Hill may not end up qualifying as a Type-B, in which case there would be no compensation.

On the Johnson side, he would appear to be less likely to accept arbitration, as he has a more recent record of success and is generally regarded higher than Hill, so he could make more via free agency than arbitration. In addition, Johnson is a lock for Type-B status, so receiving a pick for his departure is far more likely in his case. While a slight up-tick into the Type-A class could complicate things, it’s also possible the Jays just choose to retain Johnson.

AA has allegedly been after Johnson for some time, and as an upgrade on Hill in a bare middle-infielder market, the Jays may like what they see from this six-week audition and decide to keep Johnson at the keystone moving forward.

The PR Side
A final note is that this move looks good on the Jays as an organization. John McDonald is a 36-year old veteran who had the opportunity to join a competing club for a pennant race, and the Jays made that happen for him. While the fans may not be happy to see a fan-favorite pack his bags, this is a chance McDonald deserves, and fans should wish him the best and hope for a 2012 return.

For Hill, it’s less obvious, but the writing was on the wall that his options would not be picked up. It’s possible the Jays saw a trade as a better transaction for a well-liked player than a declining of options and a non-offer of arbitration.

I like the deal, which should be clear by now. The Jays move a player who was not a part of the future on his current contract (Hill), while performing a good-karma move for a veteran player (McDonald), and in return get to test-drive a high-upside player before deciding whether or not to make a run at him in free agency (Johnson), while also stealing the potential compensation for him if they don’t (Generic Compensation Pick #421).

Another sly victory at the trade table for AA.

Note on Jeroloman
To fill the extra roster spot, the Jays called up catcher Brian Jeroloman from Triple-A Las Vegas. Jeroloman is not a prospect to get excited about, and while his minor league track record is adequate, he projects as a back-up catcher or organizational depth (which Anthopoulos indicated himself). While I don’t necessarily agree with coming right out and telling a 26-year old he’ll never be better than back-up (even though is 2011 numbers support the notion), it certainly makes sense for the team to burn service time on someone that doesn’t figure in long-term. In addition, he may get the odd chance to show the club he profiles as a back-up instead of organizational filler, in which case…well, good for him.

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