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Hill Heads to Camden Yards

This winter, the Chicago Cubs have strung together a series of puzzling transactions. From shipping versatile infielder/outfielder Mark DeRosa to the Indians for three lukewarm pitching prospects (Jeff Stevens, John Gaub, Christopher Archer), acquiring Kevin Gregg from Florida for six years of team control over Jose Ceda, not offering arbitration to type-A free agent Kerry Wood (the “worst case scenario” there involves Wood accepting, giving the club a good, injury-prone reliever under control for just one year) and essentially swapping option-less former prospects Felix Pie and Ronny Cedeno for Aaron Heilman, GM Jim Hendry has sent out quite the load of talent without receiving comparable value in return. Signing Milton Bradley is a risky-but-defensible move and swapping Jason Marquis for Luis Vizcaino is unlikely to create ripples, but on the whole, it has been a winter of trading down in the Windy City.

The “out of options” fire sale continued yesterday, as the pitching-starved Orioles snagged left-hander Rich Hill from the Cubs for a player to be named. The move is all upside from Baltimore’s vantage point: they acquire a guy who was pretty useful as recently as 2007, and if Hill busts, they won’t give up much of anything: the quality of the PTBNL is contingent on Hill’s performance for the O’s.

Hill, 29 in March, certainly has a better chance of cracking Baltimore’s rotation than he did in Chicago, where his turbulent 2008 made him a forgotten man within the organization. While the O’s have an impressive collection of well-regarded arms on the farm (Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, and to a lesser extent guys like Brandon Erbe, David Hernandez, Troy Patton, Bradley Bergesen and Chorye Spoone), the current rotation depth chart reads like a collection of waiver-wire talent.

Jeremy Guthrie‘s peripherals suggest he’s more league-average starter than rotational pillar (his FIP has hovered around 4.50 the past two years, with a .270-ish BABIP and a high strand rate making things appear sturdier). Control-oriented import Koji Uehara “should be roughly around average, and more likely on the low side than the high”, according to Baseball Prospectus’ Clay Davenport (subscription required). Beyond that? The O’s are left hoping that Radhames Liz and/or Matt Albers have good enough control or a deep enough repertoire to be sufficient starters. And there’s Mark Hendrickson, who’s tall. So, there’s that.

I do not claim to have any special insight into Rich Hill’s health, mechanics or mental state, and the results in ’08 were grim. In 67 combined innings tossed last year between the majors, AAA, High-A and Rookie Ball, Hill walked 62 batters. Small sample size and all, Hill’s 2008 plate discipline numbers tell the story: aware that Hill couldn’t locate, opposing batters swung at just 10.8% of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone (the league average is close to 25%), and hitters swung just 34.8% of the time overall. Why go up hacking against a guy who’s very likely to issue a free pass?

Things didn’t get any better during the offseason, as he walked a batter per inning for Aragua in the Venezuelan Winter League. Is it possible that Hill has “Steve Blass Disease” and the strike zone will continue to elude him? Sure.

But, what I do know is that on the whole, Hill has shown a solid skill-set in the majors. In 337.2 career frames, the University of Michigan product has punched out 8.24 batters per nine innings while walking 3.65 per nine. An extreme flyball pitcher (career 34.3 GB%), Hill has been burned by the home run (1.28 surrendered per nine innings). Overall, the 6-5 southpaw has posted a 4.57 FIP, close to league-average. Hill’s flyballing ways likely won’t serve him well as he transitions into the insanely competitive AL East and a ballpark that inflates home run production (Camden Yards has a 3-year HR park factor of 123).

So, what does Hill have to do to reclaim his past success? Aside from the obvious (“uh, throw more strikes”), Hill could stand to diversify his repertoire. He has always relied upon a high-80’s fastball and a big, slow-breaking curveball, but Hill basically eschewed his changeup last season, and also did so during a rough and short stint with the Cubs in 2005.

While keeping in mind that we are dealing with pitch data from only 19.2 innings, Hill threw a changeup just 2.3% of the time in ’08 compared to 8.3% in 2007. With no confidence in his fastball and a reluctance to pull the string, Hill threw his trademark curve 35.4% of the time (27.3% in ’07). Recapturing his fastball control and command will surely be paramount, but it couldn’t hurt to be a little less predictable as well.

Hill is no sure thing, but he presents the same “low-risk, high reward” opportunity for fantasy owners as he does for the Orioles. After such a brutal season, Hill is unlikely to be on many radar screens. Keep an eye on his progress during spring training- 2008 was disastrous, but he posted a near 3/1 K/BB ratio as recently as ’07. If Hill regains his control, he could prove to be a shrewd acquisition for open-minded owners.