Remembering when the Red Sox made a big trade in May

Rob Bradford
May 29, 2020 - 11:55 am
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Bill Lajoie was a trusted resource for Theo Epstein back in 2003. The former Detroit general manager had been hired to serve in the front office that year to work alongside Epstein, who was living life as Major League Baseball's youngest-ever GM.

And in late May of that year, it was Lajoie's advice that offered direction when it came to making what would be Epstein's first-ever in-season trade.

"Sometimes it's better to make the trade too early than too late."

So on May 29, 2003 -- exactly 17 years ago -- Epstein sent third baseman Shea Hillenbrand to Arizona for pitcher Byung-hyun Kim.

During normal baseball season, trades of such magnitude executed so early in the season remain a rarity. It's why it's worth remembering the deal on its anniversary seems like a worthwhile endeavor ...

For context, When May 29 rolled around that season the Red Sox were just 1/2 game up on the Yankees, who the night before claimed a walk-off win over the Sox via Brandon Lyon's bases-loaded walk. Boston was starving for pitching, both in the back-end of their starting rotation and at the end of the bullpen. Kim could potentially help with both.

The story of the trade goes back to Dec. 20, 2002, just before Epstein left for his unsuccessful recruitment of Jose Contreras in Nicaragua. The then-GM had signed free agent third baseman Bill Mueller with an eye on what seemed to the inevitable trade of Hillenbrand. It seemed like such a foregone conclusion that Hillenbrand -- who was coming off a 156-game season with the Red Sox in which he hit .293 with 18 home runs -- would be dealt they delayed the announcement of the Mueller deal.

But no trade was struck (although at one point it appeared Hillenbrand might be going to Arizona first baseman Erubiel Durazo), leaving the Red Sox with somewhat of a logjam at third base. And in those first two months, both players were on fire, with the eventual American League batting champ Mueller hitting .382 with a 1.066 OPS in 43 games while Hillenbrand's average stood at .304. (They also needed to free up time for another new acquisition named David Ortiz, who had only managed to get in 30 games to that point.)

Meanwhile, the Red Sox had a pitching staff was struggling through the slumps of Derek Lowe (5.34 ERA), John Burkett (5.28) and Casey Fossum (4.92), along with trying to right the ship in the bullpen after the failed bullpen-by-committee experiment. For most of May, Lyon had been counted on to close but had seen his ERA skyrocket throughout May leaving the Sox with the kind of end-of-game unreliability that wasn't going to work.

Kim to the Red Sox seemed logical.

The sidewinder could start or close, and although his velocity in 2003 had dipped there was enough movement on the pitch many called a "Shooto" that he still represented a solid option. (He also had a nickname, "The Lion," given to him for his propensity to sleep all the time no matter where he was. It was based on the 1961 song by The Tokens "The Lion Sleeps Tonight.")

The problem was that Kim had suffered a pair of injuries in May, limiting the Red Sox' opportunity to scout him. But out of nowhere, the Diamondbacks gave the righty the go-ahead to start a May 27 game in San Francisco in which he gave up just one run over seven innings with Red Sox scouts Jerry Stephenson and Jerry DiPoto in the stands. He also held Barry Bonds hitless, fanning him once, to help placate the concerns regarding handling lefty hitters. This after not having pitched in a big-league game since April 29.

Arizona was also a perfect fit for Hillenbrand, not only because he represented an offensive-upgrade for the struggling Diamondbacks' lineup but he also was a native of Mesa, having been named the high school soccer player of the year for Arizona his senior year.

It was also seemingly just a matter of time before Hillenbrand and the Red Sox parted ways despite his early-season production. Things had gotten uncomfortable between the player and the front office in the midst of all the trade rumors, making calling Epstein a derogatory name during an interview on WAAF in late April.

Still, it was Epstein's first in-season trade and he felt the correct thing to do was fly up to Toronto -- where the team was beginning its weekend series -- and present the news to Hillenbrand directly, which is what he did in then-manager Grady Little's suite. While the get-together was cordial, the next day's flight back to Boston, which coincidentally had both the executive and player on the same plane, was a bit more awkward.

Kim went to serve a starter for five of his first seven appearances with the Red Sox before being moved into the closer role starting the beginning of July.

Hillenbrand had two solid seasons with the Diamondbacks before finishing his career playing for the Blue Jays, Giants, Angels and Dodgers.

Both players' last MLB season would be 2007.