One of the most important and immediate decisions that the Twins' front office will face this offseason is whether or not to offer arbitration to J.J. Hardy. There a number of other interesting arbitration cases, but few seem as up in the air as Hardy's. It's not difficult to see why.
Hardy earned $5.1 million in 2010, and is entering his final year of team control. If the Twins offer him arbitration, they will lock up his services for 2011 while also guaranteeing him a raise of at least a million (in the Offseason GM Handbook, we projected his salary at $6.5 million). That seems like a hefty price to pay for a shortstop who characteristically struggled with injuries while posting unspectacular offensive numbers for a second straight year.
This decision represents a gamble of sorts. If Bill Smith decides to offer Hardy arbitration, he's gambling that the shortstop can put together a healthier campaign next year, because it's hard to justify such a large salary for a player that's only going to play 101 games (as he did this year) while putting forth somewhat meager production.
If Smith decides not to offer Hardy arbitration, he's gambling that he can find a better and perhaps less expensive option elsewhere. That could be Alexi Casilla, though I suspect he's currently pegged to start at second base next year with Orlando Hudson set to depart. It could conceivably be Trevor Plouffe, but that's highly doubtful given his pedestrian minor-league track record and lack of big-league success.
Non-tendering Hardy probably seems like a no-brainer to some. He came nowhere close to replicating his 2007/08 production, as many had hoped, and couldn't really stay on the field this year. However, when we compare Hardy's contributions to those of other shortstops across the league, his numbers start to look a whole lot more impressive.
Let's run through the players who led each American League club in games played at shortstop this year. Listed alongside each player are their core offensive numbers, and I'll also include each player's UZR/150 in an effort to get a snapshot of their defensive proficiency, while acknowledging that Ultimate Zone Rating -- like all fielding metrics -- is flawed, especially over a one-year sample. Finally, I'll include their WAR, or Wins Above Replacement, a figure meant to represent the number of wins they contributed over a replacement-level player based on a formula developed by FanGraphs that factors in both offense and defense.
We start with our own guy:
TWINS: J.J. Hardy
101 G, .268/.320/.394, 6 HR, 38 RBI, 12.8 UZR/150, 2.4 WAR
Now, the rest of the AL:
ORIOLES: Cesar Izturis
150 G, .230/.277/.268, 1 HR, 28 RBI, 5.8 UZR/150, -0.3 WAR
RED SOX: Marco Scutaro
150 G, .275/.333/.388, 11 HR, 56 RBI, -3.3 UZR/150, 2.1 WAR
WHITE SOX: Alexei Ramirez
156 G, .282/.313/.431, 18 HR, 70 RBI, 10.1 UZR/150, 3.8 WAR
INDIANS: Asdrubal Cabrera
97 G, .276/.326/.346, 3 HR, 29 RBI, -13.4 UZR/150, 0.5 WAR
TIGERS: Ramon Santiago
112 G, .263/.337/.325, 3 HR, 22 RBI, 16.1 UZR/150, 2.0 WAR
ROYALS: Yuniesky Betancourt
151 G, .259/.288/.405, 16 HR, 78 RBI, -9.2 UZR/150, 0.6 WAR
ANGELS: Erick Aybar
138 G, .253/.306/.330, 5 HR, 29 RBI, -2.6 UZR/150, 0.9 WAR
YANKEES: Derek Jeter
157 G, .270/.340/.370, 10 HR, 67 RBI, -5.4 UZR/150, 2.5 WAR
ATHLETICS: Cliff Pennington
156 G, .250/.319/.368, 6 HR, 46 RBI, 8.8 UZR/150, 3.7 WAR
MARINERS: Josh Wilson
108 G, .227/.278/.294, 2 HR, 25 RBI, -2.9 UZR/150, -0.3 WAR
RAYS: Jason Bartlett
135 G, .254/.324/.350, 4 HR, 47 RBI, -13.8 UZR/150, 0.7 WAR
RANGERS: Elvis Andrus
148 G, .265/.342/.301, 0 HR, 35 RBI, 0.3 UZR/150, 1.5 WAR
BLUE JAYS: Alex Gonzalez (includes second-half numbers w/ Braves)
157 G, .250/.294/.447, 23 HR, 88 RBI, 5.1 UZR/150, 3.4 WAR
So, there you have it. If you were underwhelmed by Hardy's numbers before looking at this list, you're probably not anymore. Despite the fact that injuries limited the Twins' shortstop to 101 games and tainted his overall production when he was able to get on the field, only FOUR shorstops in the Junior Circuit managed a higher WAR.
Now, I'm not going to say that WAR is a perfect stat, but it is cumulative so the fact that Hardy's mark was fifth best in the AL despite his missing close to half the season says something about the state of regular shortstops in this league. There just aren't very many good ones, and very few who can hit for power or play truly outstanding defense. Even though Hardy played in only 101 games and his six home runs were fewer than we'd expect from him based on his history, only four players at his position hit more homers. Just one AL shortstop rated better defensively according to UZR.
Hardy's numbers only look bad when you look at them in isolation and not in the context of his position and league. Darn near every other team in the AL would like to upgrade at shortstop, and the free agent market at that position is exceedingly thin so Hardy would get snatched up very quickly with no real desirable options left over.
It's for that reason that I have always felt, and continue to feel, that bringing back Hardy is a no-brainer, even if the price seems high. I hope Smith and the Twins feel the same way.