"Player X and Player Y just need a change of scenery." It's a saying you hear a lot of in baseball. No recent move I can think of exemplifies this idea better than when the Diamondbacks and Blue Jays agreed to swap second basemen late in the 2011 season. In the exchange, Arizona -- in addition to getting shortstop John McDonald -- received Aaron Hill, who was just two years removed from 36 home runs, 103 runs and 108 RBI, for Kelly Johnson, who was himself coming off a career year in 2010.
2011 wasn't as kind to either player, however. Prior to the trade, Johnson was hitting a disappointing .209/.287/.412 with the Diamondbacks, while Hill was hitting an even more miserable .225/.270/.313 with the Blue Jays. So on August 23, the two clubs -- with both players clearing waivers -- worked out a post deadline deal, giving both Hill and Johnson a change of scenery and a new lease on baseball life, so to speak.
Both players finished 2011 strong, but since then, one player has severely outperformed the other, making this "change of scenery, challenge" trade more like a "ha-ha, you got duped" robbery. Since the trade, Hill is outhitting Johnson .304/.364/.517 to .252/.335/.460. Hill has 810 plate appearances to Johnson's 713 with nine more home runs, 39 more runs, 37 more RBIs and two more steals, and FanGraphs WAR has Hill ahead of Johnson 7.8 to 1.5 (prior to the trade Johnson led Hill, 15.9 to 12.6). Two 30-year old players separated by less than a month on the calendar; two players headed in opposite directions.
2012 was a career year no one saw coming from Hill, who set career highs in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. His 26 home runs and 85 RBI trailed only Robinson Cano among second basemen, and his 93 runs were good for third best. Hill even proved to be a threat on the base paths with 14 steals in 19 attempts, a year after stealing a career high 21 between the Blue Jays and Diamondbacks. Only two other second basemen hit 20 home runs and stole 10-plus bags; yet outside of Arizona, few seemed to notice Hill's great season (although he did receive two MVP votes from non-Arizona beat writers).
Hill was buried in preseason rankings as 19 other second basemen were taken before him in drafts, and only one of them, Cano, finished the season with better all-around numbers. Even the player Hill was traded for, Johnson, was taken two spots ahead of him. It's no surprise why Hill was passed over in drafts, as he put up a .246/.299/.356 line and an abysmal .110 ISO in 2011. But like I said, Hill was just two years removed from a 36-homer season, and the year before that, he had 26 more -- along with a (AH!) .205-average -- so completely abandoning ship might have been the wrong reaction.
The question for 2013 is simple: Can you trust Hill to put up another monster season knowing you'll likely have to draft him as a top-five option at second base? Hill is one of those players who seems to switch off good years and bad years. If that's that case, Hill is set up for a down year in 2013. But in his favor is one good full season (2012) and one good half season (2011) in Arizona. Hill put up his best slugging percentage in 2012, and only in his breakout 36-homer season in Toronto did Hill top his half-season with Arizona in 2011 (even that was close, .499 to .492). And while I don't expect Hill to hit .300 next year, the fact he's maintained a .304-average through 810 plate appearances with the Diamondbacks gives me enough confidence to predict a .275-plus season (he's a career .272 hitter).
One thing I'm absolutely sure of: Hill will continue to hit for power. At Chase Field, he's slugging .547 with 16 home runs and 31 doubles in 431 plate appearances. In parks he has played in with more than 50 plate appearances, he only has a higher slugging percentage at Coors Field, where he also has the pleasure of playing in the NL West. At the end of the year, Hill is going to be among the league leader's in home runs at his position, and he should provide double-digit steals as well. He likely won't be the second best second baseman in 2013, but for one year, at least, Hill was second to one.