On The Orioles Acquisition of JJ Hardy

I know this is coming a little late, but I liked the move so I wanted to touch on it even if it was no longer “news”.

There was exactly one player I really wanted the Orioles to pick up this off-season. It wasn’t Cliff Lee or Carl Crawford or Adrian Beltre (though singing Beltre would be pretty awesome too). My number one wish was for the Minnesota Twins to non-tender shortstop JJ Hardy and for the O’s to sign him. When the team signed Cesar Izturis a couple years ago, the idea was for the all-glove no-hit Izzy to hold the fort and give the front office some time to acquire a younger replacement. That never happened though – and drafting the 17 year old Manny Machado in 2010 doesn’t count – and with there being a dearth of options at the position on the free agent market this off-season, there was a distinct possibility that re-signing Izzy for another year might really have been the best option. JJ Hardy – while perhaps no longer a star – sure seemed like it by comparison. I usually don’t set my sights on a specific player quite so intently*, but Andy MacPhail really came through even when the Twins (wisely) decided not to release Hardy.

* I was pretty adamant that the team sign Gregg Zaun a couple years ago. They did, and it worked out pretty well. Usually I prefer a wait-and-see approach, since I don’t have enough information on demands and preferences and whatnot.

When there were rumors floating around that the Rays were trying to unload Jason Bartlett, it made sense for the O’s to inquire on the price. That turned out to supposedly be Nolan Reimold, which seemed like a pretty bad deal to me given that the outfielder still has some potential… and five more years of team control. Then there was supposed to be another player involved – a prospect from the Rays to balance things out, I expected. When the second player was revealed to be Alfredo Simon, I went from against the trade to very against the trade*. Luckily that fell through, and the O’s moved on to JJ Hardy, who the Twins made available for some reason.

* I admit that, for personal reasons, I like Simon more than I should.

When the terms were released (some time after midnight as evening last week) – Hardy and infielder Brendan Harris for minor league pitchers Brett Jacobson and Jim Hoey – I almost didn’t believe it. Bartlett required a cheap position player with power and patience and a major league reliever, while Hardy – a not dissimilarly valuable player – required only a couple arms that might never even see time in the majors. When the trade went down as presented – with the Twins even tossing in $500K – I was really excited (stayed up for 2+ hours to do some analysis).

Let’s take a look at a more in-depth breakdown:

The Orioles gave up:

Brett Jacobson, 24 year-old right-handed relief pitcher. Jacobson has a live arm and posted some nice numbers in High A-Ball last season (8.5 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 52% groundball rate). He’s definitely old for that level though, and I can’t see him ending up more than a solid middle reliever in the majors. As a C prospect, you’re probably looking at a guy who will provide his team $1-2 M more than he’ll be paid while he’s under team control (excess value).

Jim Hoey, 27 year-old right-handed relief pitcher. Hoey has had some trouble staying healthy, and though he’s posed some great strike-out numbers in the minors throughout his career (10.3 K/9 career), his control leaves a bit to be desired (4.4 BB/9 career). I doubt Hoey can be considered a C- prospect – or maybe even a prospect at all given his age and lack of major league success (8.13 ERA in 34.1 IP) – so capping the excess value at $1 M seems very fair to me.

So the O’s are giving up around $2.5 M in assets to the Twins (at best, I’d say). In return they’re getting:

JJ Hardy, 28 year-old shortstop. Hardy is going into his last year of arbitration, and though players tend to get around 80% of their free agent market value in that case, I don’t expect Hardy to cost more than $7 M or so in 2011. Back in 2007 and 2008, Hardy was one of the better shortstops in baseball for the Brewers, combining good power at the position (24 and 26 home runs) with solid glovework. After a terrible 2009, during which he was eventually sent to the minors (cutting into his service time and adding an extra year of team control – thanks Milwaukee!), JJ was traded to the Twins for Carlos Gomez. Hardy bounced back some, hitting .268/.320/.394 and posting a 2.4 fWAR season (largely on the strength of his +8 UZR) despite missing a fair bit of time with a wrist injury (he played in only 101 games).

Offensively, Hardy’s probably somewhere close to an average batter. Though his 2010 BABIP of .299 seems to be right where you expect, it was actually a bit above his career rate (.281 – Hardy has put up relatively low line-drive rates most seasons, according to FanGraphs). Expecting a small drop there next season – with an accompanying dip in batting average – doesn’t seem crazy. Hardy doesn’t walk a lot (8.1% career walk rate), but he isn’t a hacker – his swing rates (both on pitches in the strike-zone and out of the strike-zone) have been lower than the league average every year he’s been in the majors. Things haven’t been as consistent in the power department, with Hardy’s home run per flyball rate falling from the 12-14% range in 2006-08 to just 8.3% in 2009 and 6.1% in 2010. Part of that last figure can be explained by the wrist injury, as well as his home park (Target Field played as a bit of a pitcher’s park when it came to home runs, according to StatCorner). Hardy’s ~25 HR days are probably over, but getting up to somewhere in the mid-teens seems reasonable. Something like .260/.325/.420 would make him around a -3 run hitter in 525 plate appearances.

Defensively, things look a fair bit better. UZR sees Hardy as very good at +11 runs per 150 games (both career and over the last two seasons, which is admittedly a small sample size). +/- is almost as high one him (+9-10 runs per 150 games career). Total Zone is around +8. Tango’s Fan Scouting Report has Hardy a little closer middle of the pack, and converted into runs it’s about +5 for the last two years. Considering he’ll be a year older (and a little slower), taking +5-7 as the expected level of production with the glove for JJ next season – scaled down to maybe just +5 for playing time – doesn’t seem crazy (though WOWY apparently doesn’t give such pleasant results). Andy MachPhail himself noted Hardy’s UZR when discussing the trade: “If you look at those UZR ratings, he’s very top-of-the-chart. We think he’ll provide us more offense and he’s a good defender.”

Putting those two areas together would make Hardy about a 2.5 WAR player in 2011. If his bat comes back a little more and his fielding is top notch (and he stays healthy), then 4 wins isn’t out of the picture. With the (apparently) going rate of ~$5 M per win, 2.5 wins of production would be worth around $12.5 M. If Hardy were to get the 80% that players in their final arbitration years tend to see, then he’d be paid around $10 M. If his salary does only come in at $7 M though (as expected), that would leave the Orioles with $5.5 M in excess value.

Brendan Harris, 32 year-old infielder. Harris is already under contract for 2011 for $1.75 M. He hasn’t hit much in recent years (at all in 2010; .157/.233/.213), and he’s not a particularly good fielder. If he’s replacement level in 2011 that would probably be a pleasant surprise. Really, if he was eligible for arbitration then a non-tender would have been extremely likely. I think he was added to the trade primarily as a salary dump, since his excess value is probably negative (maybe -$1.25 M). The money the Twins kicked in will help off-set that somewhat, but it won’t do so entirely.

Adding it up, the Twins gave up around $4.75 M in assets.

Looks like the O’s clearly got a win here, as the Twins received both the riskier side of the deal and the lower upside end. Jacobson and Hoey might never do anything in the majors, while the O’s are very likely to get at least one season of solid production at a position of weakness for them. Relievers are generally pretty fungible anyway, while good fielding shortstops with pop are certainly not. My preference would be to sign Hardy to a three-year contract (starting in 2011) for $20-25 M in order to bridge the gap to when Manny Machado might be getting close to ready. That probably won’t happen (and it’s not unreasonable to want to see him healthy and productive for a year before locking him up), but being spared the type of offensive performances we’ve seen in recent years from the position for even a single season is great news.