Thursday, December 16, 2010

Twins Deal Hardy and Harris to Orioles For Bullpen Help - And I Rail On Multi-Year Deals For Fringy Positional Players

With his team nearing a payroll of 105m and without having resigned any of their departing free agents (less Jason Repko), Twins General Manager Bill Smith knew he had a lot of holes to fill and not a ton of money to fill those holes with. While we don't know exactly what the Twins 2010 payroll will look like, my best guess is in the 110m range, perhaps as much as 115m. Either way, the Twins were pressed for payroll flexibility given catcher Joe Mauer's significant raise and a number of players due to receive raises via arbitration.

It's with that in mind that it would seem the Twins made a bit of a salary dump move to gain payroll flexibility by dealing off starting shortstop J.J. Hardy and utility man Brendan Harris.

Harris, who is essentially the definition of a replacement level player had a terrible 2010 before clearing waivers and being demoted early and never making it back. That would seem to put a cap on what was a weird contract for Bill Smith to give out in the first place - a two year, $3.5m deal to a replacement level player entering his arbitration years. I railed on GM's giving out three year contracts a few days ago when discussing the Tigers signing of Joaquin Benoit (I'll have more ranting soon when I get to the Jesse Crain signing) - so let me now rail on GM's who give out multi-year deals of any sort to fringe level position players. The Twins did it with Harris and Nick Punto, and the White Sox are still feeling the pain of the Mark Teahan deal.

A couple things:

1) There is never any reason to sign an arbitration eligible player to a multi-year deal unless they've demonstrated consistently above-average play prior. You still own that player regardless.

2) If you have to give a fringy (1.0 WAR) free agent an extra year to sign with you - dont. Let someone else make that mistake. No matter what you think, you can almost certainly find someone else on the free agent scrap heap or on the waiver wire who will provide nearly the same production for a fraction of the cost, and with none of the multi-year headache.

Just say no... Now back to the topic at hand.

With Harris going to the Orioles (along with $500K to subsidize the move) the prime trade chip going to the Orioles, J.J. Hardy is an interesting study. Obviously for a couple of years, Hardy was one of the best shortstops in baseball, posting very solid 2007 and 2008 campaigns with solid OPS marks and his trademark great defense. But Hardy fell off the proverbial cliff following that 2008 season, posting an OPS of just .659, and was demoted by the Brewers in 2009 in favor of Alcides Escobar. He was then dealt to the Twins for Carlos Gomez during the 2009-2010 off season.

Hardy did rebound to some extent in 2010, posting a .714 OPS that was actually a fair amount above the MLB average for shortstops of .690. That above average offense, combined with his trademark standout defense was good for a solid 2.4 WAR despite appearing in just 101 games. It's perfectly feasible that Hardy, given a full season of health (a big question given his inability to stay healthy the past two seasons) could be worth as much as 3.5 WAR. Mark no mistake, the Twins just traded away a player who, in a vacuum was certainly worth every penny he was going to make in arbitration - and more.

Furthermore, the player they're most likely to replace him with, Alexi Casilla, played a big role in the Twins efforts to revamp their middle infield following a disastrous the 2009 season that saw the team receive essentially zero production from their middle infield. In that 2009, Casilla posted an OPS of just .538 - a mark that could duplicated by a decent hitting pitcher. Casilla rebounded somewhat in 2010, posting a .726 OPS in limited duty - a mark that more closely resembles his decent 2008 campaign. If Casilla can replicate his success of 2008 and 2010 over a full season, the Twins should essentially break-even offensively. However, most defensive metrics have Casilla - who came up as a shortstop - as a below average defender at second base where he's spent essentially all his time during his MLB career. If he can't manage to play at least a league average defense at shortstop, the Twins will be losing out on significant production.

It all breaks down like this:

The Twins will almost certainly be worse at shortstop. The only question is, "can Casilla's offense be respectable enough to minimize the loss?" That's a big question, and one that could ultimately end up costing the Twins 2-3 wins in 2011.

In return, the Twins receive approximately 7m in payroll room - the 6m or so Hardy was due in arb. and the 1.25m in Harris' contract that the Orioles are taking on) - and relievers Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson.

Hoey is a survival story with has MLB experience. In 2005, he had Tommy John surgery and is one of those pitchers who came back stronger, as he added velocity after the surgery. He came back and saw limited action in both 2006 and 2007, but missed the entire 2008 season as he recovered from shoulder surgery. He's spent the last two years toiling away in the minors. Hoey has always had the stuff to strikeout batters, be it in the Minors as he's consistently racked up K rates over 10.00 but that hasn't translated to the Majors. He's also struggled with control issues throughout his career, and that hasn;t changed. He could be a 6th or 7th inning option or minor league depth for a thin bullpen like the Twins will have in 2011.

Jacobson is an interesting player. The Twins like that he has a live arm and so far, he's looked solid in the low minors, posting solid strikeout and walk rates. He's still got a ways to go, but he could eventually develop into a bullpen arm for the Twins.

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