Thursday, December 09, 2010

All About The Money

In case there was any question: it’s still All About The Money.

It looks like the Twins are trading JJ Hardy and Brendan Harris for two minor league pitchers, one of whom is in A-ball and one of whom has been hurt a lot over the last four years. The primary benefit is that it saves the Twins about $9M in money this year. And here’s the punchline:

I like this deal.

I suspect I’m in the minority. I know I was on Twitter yesterday, when the rumored deal didn’t include Harris. But it’s unlikely that Harris was added to the deal by the Orioles; he was probably added by the Twins so they could get his $1.75M contract off the books.

Because, it’s still All About The Money.

The Twins still have a budget to meet, and this trade makes it increasingly likely that the budget went up 10-15% instead of 25-30%. This is why we question whether we should be overpaying for Matt Capps. Or whether or not we should sign a 35-year-old to a 3-year deal for $10M per year to be our sixth starting pitcher. They’re all nice luxuries to have, but they’re luxuries that cost money, and that money needs to come from somewhere.

Last night, the Twins confirmed that they could do without one of those luxuries. They Twins committed to making Alexi Casilla a starting middle infielder when they let Orlando Hudson go. In fact, I think they really committed to that sometime back in August.

And by the way, there were almost no complaints about this from the Twins faithful, which is one of the interesting subtexts about this trade. For all the people suddenly worrying about Casilla’s consistency as a starter because of the Hardy trade – where was that complaint two months ago? Because that’s how long he’s been a starter.

The Twins also committed to Tsuyoshi Nishioka when they bid $5M just to negotiate with him. That commitment isn’t formal yet – Nishioka hasn’t signed – but the organizational commitment is there. And that commitment is going to cost the Twins about $5M/year all told.

That meant the Twins had three starting infielders under and two positions to play them. That’s a nice problem to have, but it’s a luxury, and it’s a luxury that was costing the Twins about $9M ($7M for Hardy, $1.75M for Harris).

The trade isn’t about the players. The trade is (repeat after me) All About The Money and what that money can buy. The trade is about Hardy and Harris for Nishioka, two minor league pitchers and $3.5M to spend on another couple of relievers.

That’s the first thing I like about the deal. There’s more, but it comes at a price. And that price is losing Hardy.

JJ Hardy
Last year, as winter turned to spring, I graded the Twins offseason moves. There was only one A+:

Trading for JJ Hardy (Grade A+)
If Hardy goes belly up - and he's certainly gone belly up a couple of times in his career - then I'm dead wrong. But the Hardy move was almost the perfect way to start the offseason. The free agent market was stacked with second basemen and third basemen, but there was almost nothing at shortstop. Acquiring Hardy didn't just boost the lineup. More importantly, it gave the Twins the ability to sit back and let free agent prices come down. They did, and that's what made the Hudson and Thome signings possible.

Perhaps it was because the Hardy trade happened so early, or because it cost Twins fans the lovable Gremlin Carlos Gomez. But it seems like it was almost overlooked. It easily the most difficult of the offseason moves and I'll argue that it provided a solid basis for everything else the Twins did.

Hardy didn’t go belly up, though I think it’s fair to say he also didn’t meet expectations.
· His OPS was 714. If he would have had enough at-bats to qualify, that would’ve ranked 8th among major league shortstops. But, of course, he was hurt and ended up 125 plate appearances short of that qualification. So offensively…
· He “created” about 43 runs offensively. Among all shortstops, that was 29th in the majors.
· He compensated somewhat with his defense by saving an additional 8 runs over an average shortstop during the season. That ranked 5th in the majors. If you added those 8 runs to his runs created, the 51 runs would’ve boosted him to 23rd on the shortstop “runs created” list.

There are also a few other things that play into Hardy’s value:
· He’s young. He’s only 28 years old.
· He’s right-handed, something the Twins lineup needs.
· He’s not fast, and never will be, having stolen a total six bases in his entire career.
· He finished strong last year, with an OPS of 805 after the all-star break.

Finally, he battled ongoing injuries for the second straight year. I don’t want to apply inexact labels such as “injury prone” to players, so let’s be precise: in his professional career, going back to his first full professional year, he has averaged 104 games played. That’s exactly what he played last year with the Twins and their minor league teams. Over the last four years he’s had two unhealthy years preceded by two healthy years.

Add all that together and you get this: Hardy has not been a particularly good shortstop for the last two years, but there are indications he could be better than that in the future. Maybe not as good as he was in 2008 (89 runs created) or 2007 (85 runs created) but a lot better than the Brewers or Twins have seen this year.

That’s usually enough for the Twins to hang onto a guy. (See Rivas, Luis) The problem is that Hardy is going to get paid about $7M thanks to the arbitration process. That’s a bargain for 2007-8 Hardy. It’s expensive for 2009-10 Hardy. So his value is dependent on who you think 2011 Hardy is.

It is a myth that Hardy is exceptionally cheap for his salary. Hardy fans want to point out that Juan Uribe just signed for $7M/year, and he’s 31, hit .248, and resembles a fire hydrant. But Uribe also accounted for 20 extra runs of offense over what Hardy did last year, posted an OPS 36 points higher than Hardy, and had a positive impact defensively last year too (albeit at second base).

Hardy is a solid major league shortstop being paid a salary commensurate with a solid major league shortstop. He’s not a terrific bargain. Trading him away is not my favorite way of balancing the budget, but it’s not going to get an “F” in the next offseason grades.

The Minor League Pitchers
Even if the deal is mostly about the money, I also like the players the Twins got back in this trade. Or rather, the type of players the Twins got back in this trade. They are exactly what Twins fans have been pining for: intriguing arms.

The guy you’re most likely to see next year is James Hoey. The bad news is that he underwent shoulder surgery a couple of years back and has yet to have made it back to the major leagues. Shoulder surgery is often a death sentence for pitchers, as they never really get their power back.

However, it doesn’t look like that’s going to be a problem for Hoey. Last year between AA and AAA, he struck out 70 in 52.2 IP. That’s a stunningly high rate. On the other hand, he’s also walked a ton of batters, and that looks like it’s been a problem most of his career. I’m absolutely licking my chops to see what Rick Anderson and the Twins organization can do with this guy (and hoping the answer isn’t “bury him like Anthony Slama”).

The second name is Brett Jacobson, an who was the Orioles 4th round pick a couple of years ago. He also has the big strikeout numbers (67 in 71 IP) without the walks. People are concerned that he’s 24 years old and only in A-ball, but age isn’t as big of a concern for evaluating pitchers as hitters, and that’s especially true for relievers. We’ll know more about him when he hits AA ball next year, but he looks like the kind of arm the Twins have had success with.

So that’s why I like the deal: I like the money and what it’s going to be spent on. I like the players they got back. And while I don’t like parting with Hardy, I don’t think he was a particularly big bargain.