January 14, 2011
When the Twins dealt J.J. Hardy to the Baltimore Orioles on December 9, it signaled a complete turnover from the middle infield employed by the club in 2010 season. Along with Hardy, gone are starting second baseman Orlando Hudson (who signed with San Diego) and the utility player who often spelled both of them, Nick Punto (who remains unsigned). For a club whose starting rotation is primarily made up of pitchers who pitch to contact, it’s a bit puzzling that the club would move on from both of the middle infielders who were instrumental in the success of its starting staff. Today’s B-Warned will focus on one, Hardy, and what his future may hold on the East Coast.
Hardy was a second-round draft pick of the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2001 MLB draft. However, it wasn’t always his play at shortstop that garnered all of the attention. “If there are 30 teams out there,” Hardy noted in a recent phone conversation with TwinsTarget.com’s Andrew Kneeland, “probably 25 of them wanted me as a pitcher. I prefer to play every day, and if it didn't work out I'd like to try pitching, but I felt like that as long as I've got a shot playing shortstop, if that didn't work I could pitch. I felt that if I got drafted as a pitcher there's no way it would work out that I could go back and play shortstop." The decision paid off for Hardy, as he shot through the Brewers' farm system and was named to Baseball America’s top 100 prospects lists in both 2004 and 2005. Hardy made his big-league debut in 2005 at age 22, and by 2007 was a National League All-Star, drilling 26 home runs while compiling a .273/.323/.463 slash line.
Almost as quickly as Hardy’s career took off, it began to crumble. After four seasons in the major leagues, his career line stood at .270/.329/.446 while he was coming off his finest season as a pro, knocking around NL pitching for a .283/.343/.478 line with another 20-plus homer, 30-plus double campaign. However, 2009 was what Hardy called a “nightmare year,” as his line sunk to a meager .229/.302/.357, and he spent a good chunk of August in Nashville re-working his swing. “I don’t want to think about it anymore,” Hardy said after the season to Star Tribune columnist Joe Christensen. “Even when I was up there in the big leagues, I wasn’t at a level I wanted to perform at, and then when I got sent down, it just made things worse.” With Alcides Escobar waiting in the wings and Hardy's swing in a serious funk, the Twins and Brewers engineered an enigma for enigma swap, with Carlos Gomez heading to the Crew and Hardy slated to don Twinstripes.
Hardy’s season in Minnesota started off with a bang, as he pounded two home runs in the season-opening series against the Angels. He cooled considerably before stealing the show on May 4 against Detroit, making a diving stab and throwing out the potential go-ahead runner at the plate in the top of the ninth before driving a triple to the deepest depths of left-center field at Target Field and scampering home on a wild pitch just two pitches later. Hardy was the hero for the night, but it came with a price. Hardy jammed his non-throwing wrist sliding into third base on the triple, and would miss the next 17 games as the injury continued to linger. Hardy was activated on May 25, but would end up on the disabled list yet again on June 6 as the cortisone shots were unable to effectively assuage the pain.
To anyone observing Hardy’s play, it was pretty obvious he wasn’t right. From the period between the two disabled lists stints, Hardy ‘hit’ .132/.175/.158, dropping his season line to .217/.265/.333 and casting much doubt about how long he would be on the shelf. Hardy would miss 23 more games before returning for good at the exact midpoint of the 2010 season, and would play in 64 of the remaining 81 contests on the year.
From that point on, something clicked for Hardy. Up to that point, and in spite of his rough year at the dish, Hardy was at least providing the club with value by virtue of his typically solid defense. For a man with relatively sub-standard foot speed, Hardy has very good instincts and range, and as suggested before, was nearly drafted in the early rounds as a pitcher, so his arm strength is almost never in question. However, Hardy’s bat seemed to regain its All-Star form, as he hit .302/.356/.436 the rest of the way, including an impressive .304/.363/.442 in the second half once his wrist proved strong enough to generate some more lift in his swing.
So, while Hardy’s overall line of .268/.320/.394 (good for a 714 OPS, which was identical to Derek Jeter’s mark) isn’t exactly aesthetically pleasing, there is certainly room for growth in his game as he shifts from the AL Central to the East. As a whole, with AL shortstops hitting .258/.312/.357, Hardy at his 2010 numbers still comfortably checks in at well above average, so provided he’s healthy enough to get into 120-130 games in 2011, he’s likely to improve on the 1.8 WARP he posted last season, and be an asset in both real-world production and on fantasy teams alike. Hardy’s 10-year forecast seems to agree as well, with him checking in at 2.0 or better WARP every year until he turns 32, with solid power numbers.