Baltimore Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy got his season off to a somewhat predictable start with an oblique injury that kept him out for most of April. However, since coming back, he’s not only played typically good defense, but is having the best offensive season of his career. The contact rate and strike zone judgment have always been there, but his power surge so far this season (.186 ISO from a shortstop) hearken back to his 2007-2008 heyday in Milwaukee. In a tough 2011 run environment, a .287/.383/.473 (129 wRC+) from a good defensive shortstop is quite valuable. While Hardy is likely due for some regression, it’s not hard to imagine that his former employers who traded him away — the Brewers and Twins — looking back with some regrets.
Hindsight is 20/20, of course. After consecutive seasons over four WAR for the Brewers in 2007 and 2008, Hardy’s bat crashed badly in 2009. It wasn’t all due to a low BABIP, as his power dropped off, as well. His defense was good as always, but the Brewers had then-heralded Alcides Escobar seemingly ready for the big leagues. For better or worse, they manipulated Hardy’s service time by sending him down, moving his free agency back by a season and thus giving him more trade value. They then traded Hardy to the Twins for center fielder Carlos Gomez, his great glove, and his problematic bat.
I’m not doing a straight-up trade/contract analysis here, so the focus isn’t so much on Gomez’ up-and-down time with the Twins and Brewers. Instead, I want to look at Hardy’s replacements at shortstop. As a prospect, Alcides Escobar was seen as primarily an excellent defensive shortstop, but one with enough contact abilities to hit for at least an empty batting average of around .280 with a good number of steals. In 2010, however, not only did Escobar manage only a .270 wOBA (an “empty” .280 is one thing, an empty .235 is another), but his defense wasn’t exactly world-changing either. In 145 games and 552 plate appearances in 2010, Escobar managed a 0.9 WAR, while Hardy, despite only paying in 101 games for the Twins, managed a 2.5 WAR. Prior to 2010, Escobar’s prospect status probably would have made him the main piece in a trade for a pitcher like Zack Greinke.
After 2010 season, he was one piece among others as the Brewers sent most the last and best of their young talent (particularly pitching prospect Jake Odirizzi, but Lorenzo Cain might also have been helpful this season) to the Royals. To replace him, the Brewers took back (ahem)… wait for it… Yuniesky Betancourt. While Hercules‘ bat (all the way up to a .240 wOBA after a nice series against the Angels!) has kept him around replacement level in Kansas City despite excellent fieldling, Betancourt’s bat has been almost as bad (.249 wOBA) and his glove has been, well, Yuni-rrific. The Brewers are in first as of today, Gomez’ glove has made him quite useful, and, oh yes, Zack Greinke has been dominating, so there probably aren’t too many regrets. Still, with the admitted benefit of hindsight, the Brewers probably wonder what might have been if they had chosen Hardy over Escobar prior to 2010, as not just the present, but the near future of their shortstop is beyond bleak.
The Twins haven’t been so lucky. Trading Gomez for Hardy was one among several moves Minnesota made during the 2009-2010 offseason that impressed observers. Despite playing in only about two-thirds of their games, Hardy brought an acceptable bat and a good glove to a position of weakness in the organization, and helped them make the playoffs yet again. Like the Brewers before them, the Twins decided to move Hardy in the offseason. Unlike the Brewers, there did not seem to be a very good reason for doing so other than money, which, given their offseason designs on 2011 contention, doesn’t seem very smart. Perhaps they thought that Tsuyoshi Nishioka could play shortstop, but even if he could have, his partner was slated to be Alexi Casilla either way. Predictably, Casilla was a disaster at shortstop, and while he’s been okay since coming back at second base, it will be interesting to see how long it lasts. At shortstop, the Twins have turned to former-first-rounder-turned-fringe-prospect Trevor Plouffe. With the mess that their season has become, why not try out Plouffe and see what happens? But that doesn’t justify their offseason decision to trade Hardy for a couple of relievers when they were going to try and contend. Even now, he would have trade value.
The Brewers’ decision to trade Hardy made sense at the time they did it. The Twins’ decision, not so much. In retrospect, neither worked out well. Hardy will finally be a free agent this winter, and if he can stay healthy and play to his expected standard, he should do quite well on the open market (even if he doesn’t get Carl Carl Crawford money). As for his former employers, the Brewers have a very good shot to make the playoffs without him, while the Twins need to hit the franchise mode reset button. Despite that big difference, both teams have a Hardy-sized hole at shortstop for now and the near future. Hardy is understandably seen in Baltimore as a stopgap until the Manny Machado Era begins. Will the Orioles also succumb to The Curse?