SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Two summers ago, Aaron Hill and Alex Anthopoulos sat down for a chat. The second baseman wasn’t in a good place mentally, grinding for the better part of a season and a half, in a near-constant state of tinkering with his approach at the plate in search of something that worked.
By the time they were done talking, Anthopoulos came away with a sense that his player probably needed a change of scenery, even though Hill says he wasn’t asking for one. But the longer he remained with the Toronto Blue Jays, it seemed, the less likely it was he’d regain his all-star form of 2009.
“I wasn’t looking for a change,” Hill recalled Wednesday. “You’re comfortable in a place, my family and I, Toronto was all we knew, we loved it, we had a good time, but things just weren’t working out. We were trying to make it work, Alex and I sat down, he knew I was troubled, and they worked something out where we ended up here.”
Now he is with the Arizona Diamondbacks, where Hill is once again a star. Since the Blue Jays sent him west with John McDonald on Aug. 23, 2011 for Kelly Johnson in a trade that has become remarkably one-sided, all Hill has done is hit and hit and hit, earning extensions of $11-million over two years after that season, and this winter $35 million more through 2016.
Right from the outset, Hill's troubles disappeared in the desert. In 33 games after his acquisition, he batted .315/.386/.492 with 12 doubles, two homers and 16 RBIs in helping Arizona win the National League West. Last year, he batted .302/.360/.522 with 44 doubles, 26 homers and 85 RBIs, his OPS of .882 a career best.
And Hill's been a perfect fit in the Diamondbacks, clubhouse, too. The day of the trade they ended a six-game losing streak and proceeded to win nine in a row en route to the post-season.
As manager Kirk Gibson put it, "it was just what the team needed."
"It started out right, it felt comfortable here, he fit in perfectly and the whole situation manifested itself in a positive way," Gibson added. "I know when he came in here he was free and he played very well. I didn't sense he was carrying any weight when he came to us."
That's probably because Hill left it all in Toronto, where he had posted a career-worst OPS of .584 in 104 games before the deal.
The drop-off from his breakout '09, when he returned from a concussion the previous year to rip 36 homers, 37 doubles with 108 RBIs, had become worrying and in so many ways he was chasing his numbers that season.
Once in Arizona, all that became a thing of the past.
"I read something that Eric Chavez said the other day, there's not the expectation of a place when you've been there so long and had success," Hill said. "You go and you have a fresh start and mentally it's lifting to start over. You see it happen a lot, some guys that go to a different spot after being somewhere figure it out and revamp their careers a bit. Who knows what the right or wrong answer is, but it's worked out great, I'm more than happy with everyone here, the coaching staff, this is fun. We've got a bunch of old-school baseball guys as coaches, there are a lot of good things I'm comfortable with."
Another thing missing in Arizona is the uncertainty over his future created in Toronto by the clever option structure put into the contract he signed on opening day 2008 that guaranteed him $12 million through 2011.
The deal gave the Blue Jays the right to exercise a trio of options by opening day '11 that would have paid him $8 million in both 2012 and 2013, plus US$10 million more in 2014, which they declined. That left them with the chance to exercise options for 2012 and 2013, or decline them and make Hill a free agent.
They traded him to Arizona before having to make that call.
While Hill didn't want to use the contract as an excuse, he acknowledged, "you always want a team to pick up any option, that means you're playing well, and after it wasn't picked up, it was like, 'OK, I obviously didn't play to that ability and I've got to play better.'"
"Automatically you're putting the pressure on yourself," Hill added. "At the same time looking back, I'm glad I went through some of the struggles, because you learn a lot more mentally than anything, and this game is much more mental than physical. You've got to put in your time, put in your work, but to know and believe that what you've been doing your whole life will come out of it, I tried so many different things. I don't think I stuck with one thing more than a week or so because I was frustrated with the way things were going. I don't think you can do it that way."
Clearly not, and Hill has without doubt found himself with the Diamondbacks. He's moved from Florida to the Phoenix-area where he lives year-round, and is again displaying the potential that led J.P. Ricciardi to pick him 13th overall in 2003.
As for the Blue Jays, they got a .270/.364/.417 slash line from Johnson in 33 games after the deal, and the second baseman returned for the 2012 season after accepting an arbitration offer when his Type A free agent status kept him from getting any serious offers.
In 2012, he batted .225/.313/.365 with 16 homers, 55 RBIs and 159 strikeouts to match Jose Canseco's single-season club record. Johnson left as a free agent this winter, signing with the Tampa Bay Rays for $2.45 million.
At the time it was assumed the Blue Jays' prime motivation in the deal was to turn Johnson into compensatory draft picks after the '11 season, with the insurance of getting him back on a one-year deal should he accept arbitration.
But as it turns out, it was also about trying to get some value back in return when a player's time with a team is obviously up, and giving him a fresh start somewhere new. One Hill is making the most of.