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Transaction Roundup: Giants and Blue Jays Swap

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After designating 1B/3B/DH Shea Hillenbrand for assignment following a few highly publicized altercations and disagreements, general manager J.P. Ricciardi still found a trading partner out west in Brian Sabean. The deal looks to be very fair without delving deeply into analysis, as the Giants needed an upgrade at first base desperately, and Jeremy Accardo brings the Jays a more useful reliever than Vinny Chulk, who was also sent to San Francisco.

The acquisition of Hillenbrand means that Lance Niekro has lost his starting job as the Giants first basemen. Outside of his defensive prowess, Niekro is a terrible option at first.

Using positionally adjusted Net Runs Above Average, we can see how Niekro has done so far in his major league career.

Lance Niekro 2005-2006 pNRAA
2005 215 .253 113 -2.44 1.90 -11.60 .284 -13.49 -10.16
2006 136 .221 52 -7.83 5.66 -11.85 .277 -28.52 -9.89
PECOTA 184 .254 65 -1.80 5.00 -7.24 .277 -11.70 -5.07

2005 saw Niekro post a well below average season, and his PECOTA projection augered more of the same for 2006. He has been much worse than anticipated though, and has almost matched his negative output from last year in less than half of the playing time. It's somewhat mind boggling that the Giants can be this much into contention out in the NL West with a player like this on their roster, considering the injuries they have had to deal with.

Shea Hillenbrand is normally not a very good candidate to replace anyone at first base, but due to Niekro's replacement level value this year, he finds himself in just that situation.

Shea Hillenbrand pNRAA 2005-2006
2005 425 .267 152 5.03 5.73 -13.06 .284 -7.16 -7.25
2006 212 .267 80 2.51 1.01 -3.76 .277 -6.04 -3.22
PECOTA 375 .268 129 5.09 0.00 -6.00 .277 -6.98 -6.00

Hillenbrand has also been a below average first basemen the past two seasons -- and according to PECOTA -- but he is certainly much closer to the average than Niekro. It doesn't appear as if he will hurt the Giants defensively (meaning he won't play below average; he's not as flashy with the leather as Niekro was) but he certainly can outhit him easily enough, even if he's below average for his position with the bat. Niekro is hitting at a sub-replacement level with plus defense, while Hillenbrand is slightly above average with the bat with league average defense, albeit below average for a first basemen. Hillenbrand can also play third base if Pedro Feliz needs to head to the outfield as a replacement at any point. This would bring Niekro back into the lineup, but depth does count for something. A nifty pickup for the Giants.

As for Accardo and Chulk, Accardo has the better Win Expecation Above Replacement (WXRL) and has been used in higher leverage situations than Chulk this season. Accardo has a WXRL of 0.582, good for third on the Giants, while Chulk is down at 0.045, eighth in a strong Toronto pen anchored by B.J. Ryan. This is my only complaint with San Francisco in this deal; they don't exactly have the strongest bullpen in the league, and they dealt Accardo to acquire first base help without receiving a quality reliever in return. Such is the way of trades though, and the Giants may have still gained enough at first to offset that, although a few blown leads that cost the Giants a win or two might change that thought. The Jays on the other hand add another reliever to a pen that already has B.J. Ryan (second in WXRL at 4.196), Justin Speier (.874), Brian Tallet (.824), and Jason Frasor (.725). Since Pete Walker is having season ending surgery, adding another arm to the pen will certainly help, even if Walker has not been very useful in 2006.

Considering Hillenbrand is a league average hitter overall -- one who is actually below average this season at third and first according to EqA -- the Jays should not have too much trouble replacing his bat once the team is healthy. They still need to solve their situation at either shortstop or second base, and Alexis Rios and Troy Glaus need to return from injury soon, but once that occurs the Jays will not miss Hillenbrand's production for a second. It may have been worth ditching him even with the injuries in order to avoid distraction. It isn't like Gregg Zaun (.293/.367/.497) or Ben Molina (.281/.322/.418) cannot capably replace him as the full-time DH, and even Eric Hinske has had a better season thus far (.267/.359/.507 with a .278 EqA). A quality move by Ricciardi, all things considered.

On Edit: I'd just like to mention that if you calculate Niekro's worth using positionally adjusted Net Runs Above Replacement, rather than average, Niekro is valued at -11.94 pNRAR per 150 games played; that's pretty awful. Replacement level EqA at first base is .246 in 2006.

Another Edit: Whoops, made a mistake, pointed out by a commenter at the fine McCovey Chronicles. Here's my comment from there:

I did not know he was replacing Sweeney. For some reason, I thought Sweeney was bouncing around as a utility guy in San Fran once Niekro came back. Running the numbers again, Sweeney's pNRAA is -6.27, which is a wash with Hillenbrand's -6.08.

Zone Rating thinks Sweeney is a much better defender, and his bat has improved as the season has gone on; historically, he's also a better option with the stick than Hillenbrand is. So now I think I can move this trade from pretty even to "what the #% is Sabean thinking when the bullpen has no depth already!?!".

Thanks for picking up on my mistake.