Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Position Analysis: Shortstop

Likely Starter: J.J. Hardy
2009 Stats: .229/.302/.357, 11 HR, 47 RBI

Will a change of scenery help Hardy rebound from a brutal '09 season?

Potential Backups: Nick Punto, Matt Tolbert, Alexi Casilla

The Twins entered the 2009 season with Nick Punto as their starting shortstop and finished it with Orlando Cabrera there. If you're wondering how urgently they wanted to upgrade beyond those two, it should be clear from the fact that Bill Smith pulled the trigger on a trade for J.J. Hardy just days after the conclusion of the World Series, while other organizations were still drawing up their offseason plans.

Many fans viewed the addition of Cabrera at the trade deadline last year as an integral part of the team's late surge to the postseason. That makes sense, given the timeline; Cabrera arrived at the end of July with the Twins' record at .500 and by the end of the year he was one of the first players charging onto the field as Carlos Gomez crossed home plate to send the Twins to the playoffs after the team had gone in 34-25 over the final two months of the season with Cabrera as their starting shortstop.

While Cabrera was a relatively productive player in the second half last year, his defense left plenty to be desired and his lack of on-base skills made him a rather poor fit for the No. 2 spot in the lineup. He also turned 35 years old just after the season ended, so retaining him would have, at best, given the Twins yet another passable one-year stopgap at short. Given the team's existing instability at second and third, Smith wanted to go a new direction at short and find a player who could settle in as a long-term solution. He hopes he's found that player in Hardy.

By now, we all know Hardy's story. He came into the league as a 22-year-old, and in his third season turned into a stud, ripping 26 homers and driving in 80 runs while posting a .277/.323/.463 as a 24-year-old shortstop with an excellent glove. That's a tremendous performance -- one that earned Hardy his first All-Star appearance -- and he followed it up with a similarly dazzling effort in 2008, when he batted .283/.343/.478 with 24 home runs and 74 RBI while remaining stellar in the field.

At that point, Hardy was a 26-year-old power-hitting shortstop with excellent defense and several years of team control; he was a player any team in the league would have loved to get their hands on, but one that would require a pretty overwhelming package to pry away from the Brewers.

What a difference a year makes. Last year, Hardy stumbled out of the gates, hitting just .156 over the first month of the season, and after rebounding a bit in May, he slumped through the next couple months and found himself demoted to Triple-A in mid-August (a move that could have had as much to do with delaying his free agent eligibility as getting him out of the Brewers lineup). Hardy returned to Milwaukee in September, but continued to struggle down the stretch and finished the season with hugely disappointing offensive numbers. His drop in batting average coincided with a drop in power (just 11 home runs in 465 plate appearances) and a rise in strikeout rate -- both troubling signs.

Without any major injury to explain away the struggles, there is serious cause for concern that Hardy is no longer the outstanding player he seemed to be emerging as in the 2007-08 seasons. With a strikeout rate that has risen in each of the past three years, it could be that scouts are catching up with him and pitchers have started to figure him out. That very fear has drastically reduced the market for Hardy, as evidenced by the fact that the Twins were able to acquire him in return for their own underperforming head case, Carlos Gomez.

At the very least, Hardy does have a few things going in his favor as he moves across the border to Minnesota. For one thing, he's moving to a new league, where opposing pitchers and managers are generally unfamiliar with him. Getting a fresh start, with new teammates as well as new opponents, may help Hardy get back to doing the things that made brought him success in the past. In addition, Hardy will be under far less pressure in a Twins lineup that already has its fill of star players. He entered last season as the No. 5 hitter for Milwaukee; this year, he'll likely open the season as the Twins' No. 7 or No. 8 hitter.

The Twins seem confident that the change of scenery can get Hardy back on track, and if they're right, his powerful right-handed bat would be a boon for an offense currently dominated by lefties. This club isn't accustomed to having heavy hitters at the shortstop position nor in the bottom part of the lineup, and if Hardy can get back to the level he was at in 2008 -- or close to it -- he'll provide a breath of fresh air while adding balance to the batting order.

Even if Hardy isn't able to return to the level of production he enjoyed during the '07 and '08 campaigns -- and as you'll see below I'm fairly conservative in my projections for him this year -- he'll still be a valuable piece for the Twins as long as he continues to cover significant ground at shortstop. Even with the offensive drop-off last season, Hardy posted an 8.8 UZR/150 in the field, ranking him sixth among MLB shortstops and placing him miles in front of Cabrera, whose -13.7 UZR/150 ranked as the worst in baseball outside of the immortal Yuniesky Betancourt. That's a lot of extra balls gobbled up in the middle infield, which can make Hardy an asset even if his stick is mediocre.

Backup up Hardy at short will be Punto, Matt Tolbert and Alexi Casilla. Should Hardy go down with an injury or continue to decline on offense, I suspect we'd see Punto slide over to short with Brendan Harris taking over at third, although there's a slight chance that prospect Trevor Plouffe could get a look.

As we've seen over the past three installments in this Position Analysis series, the Twins have had a difficult time finding long-term solutions at all of their infield spots outside of first base. With a platoon of backups set to handle third base and a one-year veteran stopgap manning second this year, the 27-year-old Hardy represents the team's best chance at finding a true regular who can hold down his position for multiple years.

A return to his 2008 form would make Hardy one of the American League's finest shortstops and an absolute godsend at the bottom of the lineup. A continuance of his 2009 struggles would render him another in a long line of failed experiments at the shortstop position. I'd settle for something in the middle of those two extremes, which I suspect is what we'll get.

Predicted 2010 Hitting Line for Hardy: .260/.315/.405, 16 HR, 50 RBI


AK47 said...

Is there any reason to say that Hardy's 2009 season wasn't just an anomaly? I know it's hard to say it because baseball fans have a very 'what have you done for me lately' mentality, but isn't it more probable that he bounces back this season?

Nick N. said...

I know it's hard to say it because baseball fans have a very 'what have you done for me lately' mentality, but isn't it more probable that he bounces back this season?

Why is that probable?

Anonymous said...

This is what I see. JJ's career arc was sensational until 09. When the Brewers let the world know that their next SS was ready at AAA. The kid they already had was puttin up corner OF numbers at 24 and 25 yrs old. With plus D. A kid 25 other teams would've loved to have at SS. They didn't handle JJ right. JJ's emotions got the best of him. Ther is no reason to doubt he can rebound to his career trend.