Thursday, December 09, 2010

Twins ship Hardy to Baltimore

In what became an inevitable transaction from the front office’s standpoint, the Twins dished off shortstop J.J. Hardy to the Baltimore Orioles for two minor league relief arms in return.

Back in September, in a conversation I had with a Twins official, it became apparent that J.J. Hardy was not in the team’s long-term plans. In not so many words, I was told that the Twins did not have the desire to extend him past his 2011 expiration with the team. Still, I was hopeful that his above-average defense and his terrific second-half at the plate was going to be enough to convince the decisionmakers that keeping Hardy, in spite of a nominal increase in his salary, would be the right choice. After all, as I outlined last March, Hardy’s defense would help solidify a spot where the team had troubles dating back to ’07.

Nevertheless, the team continued to cite speed as their main need in 2011 and often dropped Hardy as an example for an area where the team can improve. In November, Ron Gardenhire lamented about his need for more speed. On 1500ESPN radio with Reusse & Mackey, the manager targeted Hardy specifically:
"We all know Hardy doesn't run like he used to, and when you're talking about injecting speed, there [are] only a few places that you can do that, and shortstop is one of them. We like Hardy a lot. He's a great guy, great teammate, and we believe when he's healthy he's solid at shortstop. But when you start looking at speed and everything, and other options, that's one of the areas we're going to look at options at and see if we can find more speed -- a little more versatility out there. So we're looking, and not to say we don't want Hardy back, but we're just trying to make our ballclub better."
But there appeared to be more to targeting Hardy than simply his speed, which Bill Smith cited as the main impetus for this transaction. In addition to his lack of foot speed, according to some reports the Twins were less than impressed by Hardy’s rehabilitation process. On several occasions, Hardy would have waited until the last minute to inform the manager that he was not able to play, ultimately irritating Gardenhire and leaving him needing to make an unexpected adjustment to his lineup card.  

So the Twins place him on the shopping block.

After some interest from the Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles along with openings in San Diego, San Francisco and St Louis, it appeared to be a very favorable market for the Twins to dangle Hardy in the water. In the end, the Twins reached an agreement with the Orioles to send Hardy, Brendan Harris and his deadweight plus $500,000 (likely to offset Harris’s contract) in exchange for two minor league relief arms in James Hoey and Brett Jacobson.

Unlike most of the arms in the system, the big-bodied Hoey (6’6”, 200 pounds) and the equally sizeable Jacobson (6’6”, 205 pounds) can throw heat and have exercised impressive strikeout rates (26.8% K% for Hoey, 21.7% for Jacobson). Hoey and Jacobson are not your prototypical Twins’ spot-hitter. 

The 28-year-old Hoey, with his power arm, was once viewed as a potential closer. In the past, when other teams inquired about Hoey’s availability, the Orioles would tell them that he was not available under any condition.  However, in 2004 he required Tommy John surgery that took him out of play for much of that season and the next. Prior to the 2008 season, Baseball Prospectus did not have too many favorable things to say about him aside from his triple-digit heat:
“Hoey came back from TJ surgery a couple of years ago and has since teased the Orioles with minor league dominance and major league submissiveness. He’s a one-pitch guy, that pitch being a fastball that can reach 1000 on a kind gun but that lacks movement. It doesn’t help that he’s been a lot worse from the stretch, but it does account somewhat for the gap between his major and minor league performances; once runner start reaching base against him, the boulder starts rolling downhill.”
After that, he fell off of the prospect radar as Hoey once again needed major surgery, this time to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder. In 2009, Hoey returned and, like most labrum surgery recipients, indicating that his experience that season was viewed as rehab. He spent the entire year at AA, working 48 innings and posting a 47-to-32 strikeouts-to-walk ratio. This past season, Hoey worked in both AA and AAA, regaining his velocity while attempting to harness his command better. In 52.2 innings, he allowed just 37 hits while striking out 70 and walking a robust 34.If the Twins can assist him in improving his control, Hoey has the potential to be a very strong relief arm, with the potential contributing immediately.

Meanwhile, Jacobson, 24, who was originally drafted by Detroit in 2008 but sent to Baltimore for Aubrey Huff in 2009, had just finished his second consecutive season in High-A. While his age at that level would raise some eyebrows, Baltimore had Jacobson repeat High-A because what they viewed as Detroit mishandling him. The Tigers have an infatuation with fireballers – and Jacobson can dish up some gas to be sure – however, the Orioles wanted him to have strong secondary pitches to avoid being a one-pitch guy:
"With the Tigers, I threw mostly fastballs. I've pitched just once here, but I've noticed the Orioles have a different approach. I didn't get much of a chance to work on my off speed stuff with the Tigers. But I threw my off speed here, which is good for me because that's what I need to work on."
In addition to his repertoire, judging from his Cape Cod League video, Jacobson had see-saw shoulders in his mechanics – first down, then back up and then down again – which is a waste of movement. (For comparison, watch Kevin Slowey’s shoulders in this video.) For the most part, you want this level. Depending on either the Tigers’ or Orioles’ minor league approach, either team would have attempted to smooth out. There are clear signs of someone attempting to working on a new pitch or making mechanical adjustments. After tossing just three wild pitches and hitting one batter in his first 84.1 innings of work in the Tigers system, Jacobson has since drilled six batters and uncorked 14 wild pitches in his last 81 innings of work with the Orioles. If the Twins can accelerate Jacobson’s development in this department, he could possibly be pitching in a Minnesota uniform in a year or two.

Moreover, in addition to the two power relief arms, the Twins also have appropriated approximately $8.5 million (after shipping Brendan Harris and his $1.75 million along with $500,000 to the Orioles) to spend this winter. Of course, while it seems like a substantial among of savings, it is likely earmarked to retain Carl Pavano and potentially add another bullpen arm.

Given the market for shortstops and the morose quality of shortstops available coupled with Hardy’s potential as a starter, the Twins return-on-investment obviously came as a disappointment. One would think, given the circumstances, the Twins would have been able to extract something useful in the present, not just iffy hard-throwers (as Dan Wade pointed out, neither pitcher was a part of prospect maven Kevin Goldstein’s Top 20 of the Orioles’ system). Personally, I cannot overstate how much more valuable a starting shortstop can be in comparison to a pair of bullpen arms. On the other hand, if Hoey and Jacobson can indeed develop into quality relievers, they could have cost-effective method to stabilize the relief staff for several years instead of having to repurchase expensive free agent arms.