Hill became a free agent when Arizona declined his last contract’s $8 million dollar club option at the end of October. Instead of keeping him for another season on the contract he signed with the Blue Jays in 2008, the Diamondbacks opted to pay Hill a $1 million dollar buyout before negotiating a new deal.
After spending the entirety of his nine-year professional baseball career with the Blue Jays before Toronto traded him to Arizona last August, Hill particularly enjoyed his time playing for the D’Backs during the final two months of last season. Hitting .315 with an .878 OPS and posting an immense 1.7 rWAR in just 33 games with Arizona in ’11, he’s used the change of scenery to resurrect his recently floundering career.
The twenty-nine-year-old Hill is infamous for his streaky performance at the plate and unpredictable health. Following his breakout 2007 campaign, when he hit .315/.386/.492 and led all American League infielders in doubles (47) and defensive WAR (2.3), he missed much of of 2008 due to post concussion syndrome. He returned to the diamond in 2009 on fire, and his career-defining performance on both offense and defense garnered him a Silver Slugger award and honors as the ’09 AL Comeback Player of the Year. However, during much of the past two seasons, nagging hamstring injuries and changes to his swing mechanics have killed his production. His OPS dropped from .829 in ’09 to .665 in ’10 and then to .655 during 104 games with the Blue Jays last year.
Hill’s struggles with Toronto followed by his recent success with Arizona likely has a more complicated explanation than injuries and streakiness. Hill’s hitting coach in 2010– the just promoted– Dwayne Murphy, did his best to extract more power from the young slugger’s swing and approach. While his tutelage did wonders for Jose Bautista, Murphy has crippled the swings and run production of Travis Snider, Adam Lind and Hill. All three players have had their fly ball and strikeout rates sky-rocket and their BB/K ratios and batting averages plummet.
Judging by his All-Star caliber production with the D’Backs during last seasons’ home stretch, Hill obviously still has top-shelf potential. The owner of a Fielding Bible Award, Hill will give the young Diamondbacks pitching staff another strong glove up the middle. If he can re-discover the offensive game that twice produced more than sixty-five extra-base hits in a season, the move to the hitter-friendly Chase Field and a weaker division should light a fire under his production.
On October 31st, D’Backs GM Kevin Towers declined $16 million worth of contract options on Hill for the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Though Towers and Arizona’s front office made it clear that they wanted to re-sign the second baseman, Hill used his brief period as a free agent to explore a somewhat weaker market of available second basemen. On Friday, after Towers put the D’Backs’ contract offer on the table, he showed a bit of frustration with Hill’s willingness to explore free agency– setting a Monday deadline for Hill and his agent to sign.
By signing Hill, Towers helped his club in a big way. Hill brings top-shelf defense and one of the more potent bats among National League middle infielders to the D’Backs at a rate below-market price. Considering has-been Mark Ellis’ $9 million dollar deal and soon-to-be thirty-eight-year-old Jamey Carroll’s $7 million two-year contract, Hill’s $11 million contract seems like a bargain.