Aaron Hill took the field Tuesday afternoon with one final admonishment in his ears - this one from general manager Alex Anthopoulos. In two words: "Go easy."
Judging from Hill's demeanour, following the Toronto Blue Jays brain trust's orders to the max hurt more than the tight right quadriceps muscle that has hampered him this spring. Coming off a season in which he turned into a flat-out masher - 26 home runs, but a paltry .205 batting average put together by a toxic combination of bad luck (a .196 batting average on balls in play, light years lower than any other player with enough at bats to qualify for the batting title) and a swing that seemed to be put together by gum, string and tape - until Tuesday Hill was limited to step-by-step workouts and at-bats in minor-league games.
This much is clear: it's going to be hard to hide an unhealthy Aaron Hill in 2011. This team will pitch, but unless Hill and Adam Lind get their games back together, much of the good work threatens to be undone. Lind has been a diligent student adapting to his role as a full-time first baseman, to the point where he is an average defender. That's progress. But as was demonstrated in Tuesday's 5-4 Grapefruit League loss to the Philadelphia Phillies at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, having Hill at less than 100 per cent presents issues beyond the offensive.
Lind was lost on a pair of makeable foul pop-ups down the line, and manager John Farrell said later Hill's lack of range factored in - "There was even more ground to cover without the full range of Aaron," he said - and Raul Ibanez led off the sixth with a grounded single on a play that Hill had to make.
"I know that they [the team]know it's not there yet," Hill said. "So, there was no reason to extend the injury.
"I can play. It's just going to be their decision. If they want to go forward with me being 80, 90 or whatever per cent, I'm ready."
Hill said that his swing isn't an issue, as much as "just not being able to bust out of the box." He said that his experience from 2010, when he had a smoking hot spring training only to be placed on the 15-day disabled list with a strained right hamstring on April 7 (two games in) and never recovering his swing, has forced him to learn that "it is better, in the long run, not to be stupid with injuries."
Hill acknowledged that his swing was irreparably damaged the rest of the way by favouring his hamstring. "I was a little cautious putting weight on it at the plate; it was like I was all twisted up," he explained during an in-season interview.
"You could point in a lot of different directions," Hill said Tuesday, looking visibly uncomfortable when asked if he was at all worried about another nagging leg injury impacting his swing. "I think it was a bad year; that it was just one of those things so … I don't know. Maybe."
The Blue Jays have a decision to make before opening day: exercise Hill's 2012-2014 options or wait until the end of the season to exercise his 2012-2013 options. Last spring, with the glow of Hill's 2009 season, still in full effect, there was talk that the Blue Jays might even redo his contract because it seemed painfully undervalued from the player's point of view.
There has been none of that this spring. But never mind the long range. What about the immediate future? Hill became an all-star in 2009 hitting out of the No. 2 spot, and while Yunel Escobar was tabbed for that spot going into spring training, whatever thoughts of moving Hill back to the position cannot now be seriously entertained. Not with a bad wheel. "We've got another eight days to go here before we make that determination," Farrell said, when asked if he could play the regular season with a second baseman at 80- or 90-per-cent effectiveness. "We'll let this continue to play itself out."