Blue Jays trade Koch to A's

J.P. Ricciardi traded his closer on Friday. And left himself open to criticism.

Ricciardi, the rookie general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, raised a few eyebrows by trading fireballer Billy Koch to the Oakland Athletics for minor leaguers Eric Hinske and Justin Miller.

It was Ricciardi's first transaction with his new club and, to little surprise, was completed with his old one.

"It's a chance for us to address some of our needs, which is young pitching and corner power," said Ricciardi, who was director of player personnel for the Athletics before being hired by the Blue Jays on Nov. 14.

"They're very close to being in the big leagues."

Miller was 7-10 with a 4.75 earned run average for the triple-A Sacramento River Cats of the Pacific Coast League this past season.

He struck out 134 in 165 innings and is 34-27 record with a 3.85 ERA in five minor league seasons.

"He's won throughout the minor leagues," Ricciardi said. "Sinker, slider, split guy ... can throw four pitches for strikes.

"There's a chance for him to come in and compete for a starting job for us, at some point. He's going to be quality starting guy or a guy that pitches in your bullpen leading up to a closer."

Hinske, a 24 year-old third baseman, hit .282 with 25 home runs and 79 runs batted-in for Sacramento last season.

In four minor league seasons, he has averaged .284 and clubbed 75 home runs with 294 RBIs.

Drafted in the 17th round by the Chicago Cubs in 1998, Hinske was shipped to Oakland for second baseman Miguel Cairo in March.

"Hinske is a guy that fits everything that I love about a player," Ricciardi said. "He's an on-base freak.

"He's got power. He runs well."

"We like Eric Hinske quite a bit, but we have a Gold Glover (Eric Chavez) who just turned 24," A's GM Billy Beane added. "So to make this possible, you have to deal from a position of strength.

"You're not going to acquire a guy like Koch without giving something up. I guess we filled a need."

Koch, who turns 27 next week, was 2-5 with a 4.80 earned run average and converted 36 of 44 save opportunities in 69 appearances last season.

"I struggled a little bit," Koch said. "I don't think it's anything that I really worry about.

"I got away from what I'm used to doing. My head's been spinning, just trying to get my thoughts together, but it's also real interesting and I can't wait to get started."

Koch has averaged 31 saves in three major league seasons and, at an affordable $2.35 million US, also attracted interest from the Los Angeles Dodgers.

"They really didn't have an everyday player that I thought we were entitled to getting for Billy," Ricciardi said. "If you ask anybody in baseball, Hinske's probably one of the top offensive guys in the game."

Comparing Koch to free agent closer Jason Isringhausen, Beane said: "He's got a lot more experience than when Izzy first came here at the same age. He's coming in at age 26 and he has 100 career saves."

More changes are said to be in for Toronto, which is looking to trim its estimated $75 million US, and Raul Mondesi and his $11 million US stipend are likely next to go.

Not that Koch was a salary slash.

"I don't have to move salary, first of all," Ricciardi said. "I was never told I have to move salary.

"It's just a matter of us trying to maximize what we had. I wasn't just going to get one guy.

"I wanted to get two guys that addressed a couple of our needs and we were able to do it with the A's."

Ricciardi also has an ace in the hole in Kelvim Escobar, who is slated to replace Koch as closer.

Escobar has pitched in a variety of roles for Toronto -- as a starter, middle reliever, set-up man and closer.

If there is one concern, other than inconsistency, it is the nerve problem in his pitching arm that plagued him late last season.

"Everything I've gotten medically shows that he's sound," said Ricciardi. "I feel comfortable with him being our closer.

"The guy's going to know his role now."