Monday, December 13, 2010

Twins Foolishly Trade JJ Hardy

When the Twins won the bidding for exclusive negotiation rights with Japanese shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka, many people connected the dots and assumed it would mean the team was going to trade JJ Hardy to free up some salary to make it happen. That's precisely what the team did last week, trading Hardy to the Baltimore Orioles for two hard-throwing minor league pitchers. Brett Jacobson is a 24-year-old with a mid-high 90's fastball, and the Twins undoubtedly are hoping he can be a power arm for them this coming season and for years to come. James Hoey will be 28 in a few weeks, but his minor league strikeout and walk numbers were impressive enough that the Twins clearly think he can be a cog in their bullpen as well.

Unfortunately, neither pitcher is considered even an above-average prospect. The Twins are really trusting their scouts*, as they always tend to do, rather than looking at the stats that would make it apparent neither player is likely to be a great reliever. Jacobson has never pitched above A-ball, despite being old for every level he's played at, so while his sub-3 ERA and 9.0 K/9 are impressive, they're not nearly as dominant as you would expect from a pitcher repeating the same level with mid-90's gas. Hoey's minor league numbers last year were more impressive, as he struck out 70 batters in just over 50 innings between AA and AAA. Of course, Anthony Slama has better numbers than Hoey over that time and is still slightly younger, but because Slama doesn't have mid-90's heat the team has shown over the last year and a half they don't think Slama is for real.

*I'm sure when I write I come off as pro-stats and anti-scouts, but that's not the case. I use stats because obviously there aren't scouting reports of these players available from my computer. I think scouts are massively important, and the Twins have done a very good job with their philosophies over the last decade. I remember when the Twins traded AJ Pierzysnki to the Giants, my initial thought was that they got nothing of real value.

I was like 13 or 14, though, and didn't seem to care because it meant Joe Mauer was going to be the starting catcher. I decided just now to look at Nathan, Liriano and Bonser's numbers to that point prior to the trade, just to see if the Twins scouts picked out gems or if the stats had also suggested potential greatness. Joe Nathan didn't 'break-out' at least from a national perspective until he arrived in Minnesota, but the year prior to coming to Minnesota Nathan was great, posting a 2.96 ERA in 79 innings, striking out 83 and walking just 33. The stats and scouts agreed. Liriano wasn't as clear as Nathan, and the scouts deserve credit for him, although I think most people would have only needed to see Liriano throw once or twice to know what he had. He had a great year as an 18-year-old in 2002, striking out 85 in 80 innings in low A before pitching just 18 innings in 2003 after being injured. Still, I think looking at just his minor league stats it would be apparent he had an injury history but a chance to be dominant. Not as dominant as he was for that stretch in 2006, but still top-of-the-rotation type numbers. Boof Bonser was pushed as the centerpiece of the trade by some, because he was a former first rounder whose minor league ERA looked solid. He posted a 3.75 ERA between AA and AAA as a 21-year-old, but his strikeout and walk rates didn't suggest anything more than bottom-of-the-rotation starter, albeit sometime soon. He eventually had one solid year for the Twins before having arm troubles and bouncing around the league.

The point of that random tangent was hopefully to show an example of when scouting was much more important than stats, but it actually had a reverse-effect and instead showed anyone with knowledge of stats back then would have come to likely more correct conclusions on the three players than the scouts did. Interesting, if nothing else.

Hoey and Jacobson at least have the power arms to suggest dominance is possible, and Rick Anderson has done some amazing things with project starters and relievers over the years as the team's pitching coach, but this return for Hardy is underwhelming to say the least. I've already explained that Hardy is an above-average shortstop, with a chance to be elite if he can stay healthy. Basically, when you have a middle infielder on a one-year contract, someone like Hardy is ideal. If he performs like he has the last two years, he's above average, and if he hits like he did after allowing his wrist to heal, he truly is elite. For a team that's willing to be in the top 10 in payroll for the foreseeable future, paying $6 or $7MM for one year of that kind of play is hardly a burden and actually is extremely likely to be a bargain.

Now, most people see that Hardy is coming off a season in which he hit just .268, while the player the Twins replaced him with hit .346 in Japan last year. These people will naturally assume that they have upgraded the position, and there's nothing wrong with that assumption. I understand not everyone cares nearly as much as I do about stats, but there is a lot of flawed logic in simply looking at Hardy and Nishioka's batting averages last year.

One problem with this logic is that Hardy hit .268 in the best league in the World, while Nishioka hit .346 in a very good but still inferior Japanese league. Seeing that Nishioka was the first player since Ichiro to lead his league in hits with more than 200, and knowing that Ichiro has been one of the best lead-off hitters in baseball history, the assumption would be that the Twins have added at least an all-star caliber player. Again, that assumption is likely to be off-base.

There's no doubting that Nishioka had a great year last year, but as I've mentioned here before, it's worrisome  that he has shown little to no power even while in Japan. The comparable middle infielders that have come over all had great power numbers, like Kaz Matsui and Akinori Iwamura. Iwamura went from a 35+ HR hitter in Japan to a speedy, slap type hitter with little power here in the states. Matsui was probably the biggest free agent flop of the last ten years, at least based on the hype he had when coming over. Most expected him to become an all-star, and he's been just replacement level pretty much his whole career.

What makes Nishioka even more worrisome is that his previous three seasons prior to 2010 were below average years even in Japan. Trading a shortstop who has proven over the years to be above-average to elite and replacing him with a shortstop who has defensive questions, little power and whose 2010 season may be an outlier based on his previous performance in Japan is likely going to cost the Twins multiple wins this coming season.

Taking Hardy's loss a step further, the Twins organization doesn't seem to understand the correlation between infield defense and ground ball pitchers, or outfield defense and fly ball pitchers. The Twins are the favorites to re-sign Carl Pavano, likely for two years with a third year option, and while I wouldn't be upset to see Pavano leave he has been good and it's not the end of the world to bring back the team's second best pitcher last year. Unfortunately, Pavano is an extremely ground ball heavy starter, and trading one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball is not going to help Pavano's contract look like a great deal. Much like last off-season when I said the Twins were foolishly going to start below average defenders throughout their outfield despite having one of the most fly-ball heavy staffs in baseball, the Twins are now trading a fantastic defensive infielder while at the SAME TIME working on bringing back a veteran starter who relies heavily on great infield defense. The Twins outfield defense deserves at least some of the blame for Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn's struggles last season, and while I don't think Pavano is going to go from a solid #2 starter to a #5 starter because of a lack of Hardy's defense, it's possible he becomes another mid-rotation type starter without an elite defensive shortstop**.

**The Twins were apparently interested in acquiring Brendan Ryan from the Cardinals , and while I would have obviously preferred Hardy to Ryan because Hardy is a much better hitter, Ryan is the best defensive shortstop in baseball. So if the Twins had decided to go with a Ryan/Yoshi middle infield, while not as good as it would have been with Hardy, adding Ryan would have been a great move and one that would have made a Pavano return even better. Unfortunately, Ryan was sent to Seattle yesterday, so there really isn't a capable replacement available. Sigh.

Regardless of what happens, the Twins to this point seem to have simply made their team worse, despite promising more spending this off-season. While this hasn't been a fun off-season, the team should remain in contention for the division title next season if nothing else, and then a ton of money is coming off the books before next off-season. That could mean we see the Twins make their first real big free agent signing at this time next year. I'm guessing that player won't be JJ Hardy, though.


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