Tipping Pitches: Sports: Brewers and Twins Swap Enigmas


Friday, November 6, 2009

Sports: Brewers and Twins Swap Enigmas

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Today, the Milwaukee Brewers shipped former All-Star shortstop J.J. Hardy to the Minnesota Twins for 23-year-old center fielder Carlos Gomez.

While the list of reasons why the Brewers did not return to the playoffs this season is long, an item near the top has to be the performance of Hardy.

In 2007, Hardy was a major reason for the Brewers' fast start out of the gate, propelling his team to a 24-10 record. He was a surprise All-Star selection that season, and established himself as one of the game's finest hitting shortstops, batting .277 with 26 home runs and 80 RBI.

Before that season, however, Hardy was seen as a potential star, but not necessarily with his bat. He was an excellent defensive player, but his offense was an unknown. Maybe he'd hit. But with power? It was a surprise, to say the least.

Hardy nearly duplicated those All-Star numbers in 2008, batting .283 with 24 home runs and 74 RBI. So was Hardy still an offensive overachiever, or had he now established himself among the game's elite at the position?  The question seemed to have been answered.

But those questions resurfaced and multiplied in 2009 when Hardy could never get going. He was so bad (hitting .229 with 11 home runs and 47 RBI) that he'd eventually be optioned to the minors and replaced by rising star Alcides Escobar.

The minute Hardy was sent down was the minute we all knew his days as a Brewer were numbered. Escobar hit .304 and lived up to the hype. Hardy never recovered.

Meanwhile, Carlos Gomez of the Twins is reaching a crossroads. Though only 23, the luster on his "can't miss prospect" status is fading. Once the centerpiece of the trade that sent Johan Santana to the Mets, Gomez was the odd man out in a crowded Twins outfield.

Gomez is widely considered one of the fastest players in all of baseball, and his skills in the field cannot be denied. But he has yet to prove that he can regularly hit Major League pitching.

For the past two seasons, the Brewers have had Mike Cameron roaming center field. Though he has been a leader in the clubhouse and a productive player overall, he turns 37 in January and made $10 Million in 2009. He recently filed for free agency, and the cash strapped Brewers were not expected to resign him.

In Hardy, this is what the Twins get:
  • 2007 All-Star
  • Above average defender at the game's most difficult position with a canon for an arm
  • 27 years old and turning 28 in August of 2010
  • Two years until free agency
  • Expiring 2009 contract of $4.65 Million that is likely to increase through arbitration this offseason
  • A player who could repeat his 2009 performance and be a marginal Major Leaguer
  • A player who could return to 2007 and 2008 form and be an All-Star
  • No speed.  A negative that is rare for his position.

In Gomez, this is what the Brewers get (though, being a Brewers fan, there's quite a bit I don't know):
  • Centerpiece of the trade that sent Johan Santana to the Mets
  • One time top tier prospect
  • One of the fastest players in baseball
  • Raw player who has yet to show much offensively
  • Impatient hitter who has an On Base Percentage below .300
  • Speedster who had 30 bunt singles in 2009
  • One of the game's finest defensive center fielders
  • Despite his defensive abilities, unable to secure a starting job due to his offensive deficiencies
  • At one time, projected as a five tool player whose offense would come last
  • 23 years old
  • Four years until free agency
  • Making near league minimum
Make no mistake, neither team really knows what they're getting.  Hardy has at least proven he can be a star in the league.  Gomez is more the unproven player.

But at the same time, this is a deal between two small market clubs.  Salary and service time are important factors.  The Brewers may have done Hardy and the Twins a favor by demoting him at the end of last season, putting off his free agency for one more year.  He has two seasons with the Twins before becoming a free agent.

If Hardy is any kind of a player, he's unlikely to last more than two seasons with the Twins.  They simply won't be able to sign a desirable player at a high profile position.  This is one reason, Hardy's decline aside, the Brewers opted for the younger Escobar.

Hardy is also expected to make at least $5 Million this season.  His salary is unknown as he is arbitration eligible and made $4.65 Million.  Such a salary would be quite steep for a team like the Twins if Hardy repeats his 2009 performance.

On the flip side, Hardy wasn't needed in Milwaukee.  It was unfortunate for the Brewers that they had two star players at a position in demand, but one player's trade value completely withered away.  They save money with Escobar, presumably the better player, and aren't worried about filling that position for the next six years.

Meanwhile, it's a big risk to put an unproven player in center field and let the proven, though admittedly over priced and aging, Mike Cameron walk.

In Milwaukee, the general consensus seems to be that Brewers GM Doug Melvin could have gotten more.  They're disappointed that a one time All-Star could fetch little more than a light-hitting back-up center fielder.

Of course, that's short-sighted Brewers fans talking.

In Minnesota, fans are probably happy to get a former All-Star for an extra outfielder who had trouble reaching base.

Of course, that's short-sighted Twins fans talking.

As a rational Brewers fan, I'm ready for the Alcides Escobar era.  Is Carlos Gomez the answer in center field?  Maybe.  But at about $500,000, he's not much of a risk.

And if Gomez is the answer, he's on the team for four years at a very affordable price.

Might J.J. Hardy rebound and become a star again?  Maybe.  But I watched him almost every game last season.  He was lost at the plate.  Once a big Hardy fan (we practically named our youngest after him), I've lost faith in the guy.

In five years, this may look like a trade of two enigmas.  One prospect who would never become anything for a flash in the pan shortstop who passed his prime at the age of 27.

Or, one team may get fleeced.  I'm not going to claim to know which team won.  Let's see how it plays out.  But both teams had reason to make the trade.  Neither general manager was in the wrong for pulling the trigger.

But ultimately, both teams' fans will find something to cry about in 2010.


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