In August 2011, both Kelly Johnson and Aaron Hill were disappointments to their respective teams. Johnson, who was coming off of the most productive campaign of his career in his first season with the Diamondbacks, had hit just .209/.287/.412 in his second go-round in Arizona. Hill, on the other hand, was at the end of a two-year stretch of constant letdowns, as he had hit .286/.330/.499 with 36 homers in 2009, but mustered just a .213/.271/.359 showing in the 1,000-plus plate appearances after.
The trade deadline had passed, but if a player has cleared waivers in August, he can still be dealt. On August 23, the Jays and Diamondbacks did just that, swapping Hill for Johnson, with the Jays attaching John McDonald to the outgoing second baseman.
This is what's known as a challenge trade, when a change of scenery is the hopeful medicine for a pair of players who are struggling in their current environment. They don't always work out -- sometimes, players just don't have what they used to in the tank anymore -- but in the case of both Johnson and Hill, things have worked out for both clubs.
Both second baseman were in their age-29 seasons in 2011, and both could be waved away following the season, should neither produce in their new homes. Johnson was still in his arbitration years, so he could be non-tendered, and Hill was at the end of a four-year contract, that, while it had options for 2012-2014, wasn't as appealing as it was when it was signed before the 2008 season, with $26 million spread out over three years. There was some risk here -- more so for the Diamondbacks, who were headed for the playoffs -- but there was room for that risk thanks to the contracts.
Things went well enough in the month-long trial the end of the season allowed that Johnson accepted Toronto's arbitration offer and then settled prior to a hearing for $6.375M. Hill's options were replaced by a two-year, $11 million contract that showed some faith from Arizona given it was guaranteed money and years, but at a reduced cost compared to the options.
Johnson doesn't have eye-popping numbers with the Jays, but the .252/.340/.390 he's put up in 110 games and 467 plate appearances is markedly better than what Hill provided post-2009 for the Blue Jays. According to Baseball-Reference's wins above replacement, Johnson has produced a well above-average three WAR since coming to Toronto, whereas Hill was below replacement level from 2010-2011 while north of the border.
Johnson hasn't been perfect, by any means, but his 96 OPS+ is about 20 percentage points better than what the Jays got out of second with Hill around. While his rWAR is likely inflated a bit due to defensive shifts, both Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus say that Johnson certainly isn't hurting Toronto with the glove. For just over $6 million, and at the cost of someone who was actively hurting your team, that's a nifty second baseman.
Johnson's been useful, but Hill has been a revelation for the Diamondbacks. He finished up the 2011 season hitting .315/.386/.492 for Arizona, and posted an 879 OPS in the playoffs in a losing effort against the Brewers. He hasn't slowed down with the new year, either, with a .297/.354/.507 slash effort and 11 homers -- already one more than he mustered in all of 2011.
He's hit for the cycle twice this year, and while that's something of a fluke occurrence -- especially twice in one season -- he has 36 extra-base hits in 300 at-bats, so it's not like those are the only times where he's earned more than just a single. His new home park has something to do with it -- Hill is slugging .628 in his hitter-friendly digs -- but even with park effects in mind, he's still the owner of a shiny 128 OPS+ as a Diamondback.
Things are much uglier on the road, but he's more than making up for that when he takes advantage of Chase Field's dimensions. It also helps that the advanced defensive metrics agree that Hill has been helpful with the glove in 2012, so even if he's not mashing in road games, he's not killing his team as he did in the previous two years.
This deal is a reminder that trades don't have to have a clear winner or loser. Sometimes, trades work out for both parties in the end, and it isn't just happenstance. The Blue Jays and Diamondbacks had similar situations on their hands, with formerly productive players failing to meet expectations, and they decided to jointly shuffle things up, in the hopes of solving their problems. Of course, both wished they were more right than the other -- this is game, and that's the spirit of competition -- but both were taking an equal chance on a similar situation. And, to their credit, both teams ended up benefiting, as did the players themselves.