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Updated: August 23rd, 2011 12:34am
Mackey: Easier said in hindsight, but trading Hardy has proven costly

Mackey: Easier said in hindsight, but trading Hardy has proven costly

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- If Delmon Young homering against the Minnesota Twins in his first at-bat as a Detroit Tiger last Monday didn't sting, J.J. Hardy made sure to add another cup of salt to this season's wound with a solo blast off Carl Pavano on Monday night.

Hardy, 29, is in the midst of perhaps the best season of his career for the Baltimore Orioles, which is saying something, considering he missed three weeks in April with a strained oblique, and also considering he was one of the best-hitting shortstops in baseball in 2007 and 2008 with the Milwaukee Brewers.

Hardy's .512 slugging percentage this season ranks second among MLB shortstops, as do his 24 home runs. And although he's spent nearly the entire season batting leadoff -- oddly -- Hardy's 60 RBIs rank fourth among shortstops.

The Twins initially dealt for Hardy in November, 2010 -- in exchange for Carlos Gomez -- because they wanted to take a low-risk, low-cost flier to stabilize a position that hasn't been solidified the Cristian Guzman era ended in 2004. Hardy was coming off a difficult season in 2009 with Milwaukee, mentally and statistically, and it was worth seeing if a change of scenery could provide a jolt.

But 13 months later, resigned to non-tendering Hardy had Baltimore not showed interest, the Twins wound up trading the shortstop for whatever they could get -- relievers Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson, as it turned out.

"At first, honestly, once the last game ended (in October), I would have said 90% chance I was coming back (to Minnesota)," Hardy said while sitting in the visitors' dugout at Target Field on Monday.

"And then after talking to (reporters) when I was cleaning out my locker, I think it dropped by a 30% chance that I was coming back. It just kind of opened my eyes that they want to cut back on spending or whatever it was. Then after that, I mean, as time went on I basically knew I was going to be somewhere else."

Injuries, productivity, payroll considerations, and the desire for more speed in the lineup were the four main reasons cited for dealing Hardy at the time -- and perhaps the possibility of acquiring Tsuyoshi Nishioka.

"He was just beat up with us," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He had numerous different injuries and fought a lot of different things, but he's put up some pretty good numbers in the past. That's why we (traded for) him. But like I said, injuries kind of beat him up last year for us."

But needless to say, if the Twins could call for a mulligan, they probably would.

Or, at least they should.

Yeah, but...

Let's be honest. Hardy currently plays his home games at Camden Yards -- a much more homer-friendly ballpark than the spacious pastures of Target Field.

And he'll be the first to admit that.

"Baltimore is one of the best hitters ballparks," said Hardy, who still keeps in contact with Twins teammates via text message on occasion. "Really, the league we're in, I feel like any place you go is better than (Target Field) when it comes to driving the ball somewhere. Even in this division, there's really not -- other than the White Sox during the summertime -- there's not really any good hitter's ballparks in this division like there is in the division I'm in now."

Hardy said there is no better example of the spacious nature of Target Field than on the go-ahead triple he hit on May 4 last year that eventually led to his continued wrist problems.

"I think that would have been a homer in a lot of ballparks," Hardy said, "and had that left the ballpark instead of hitting off the wall I wouldn't have to slide into third base, and my wrist would have been healthy the rest of the year. But that's definitely one I think about."

That said, 13 of Hardy's 24 home runs this season have come away from the friendly confines of Camden Yards. And of his 11 home runs at home, five of them are considered no-doubters -- home runs in any stadium -- according to HitTrackerOnline.com.

So it's fair to say Hardy likely would have 16-18 home runs, at worst, in a Twins uniform this year. That number would rank second behind Michael Cuddyer's 18.

Injuries and salary

Hardy's wrist injury -- or injuries -- cost him a total of 45 games in 2010, including two separate trips to the 15-day disabled list.

"I've never had a wrist injury before that," he said. "The slide (on the triple), the bone bruise, whatever it was, the first time I went on the DL for it was the bone bruise. The second time I'm not sure if it was the bone bruise or something else, but it was the same wrist. Maybe I was favoring it somehow and hurt it another way, but it was always the wrist that was bugging me last year."

The pain subsided enough for Hardy to play the final three months uninterrupted -- sans five days in August -- but then it flared up again in early-March with the Orioles

"In spring training I started to feel it and got a little bit nervous, going, 'Oh (expletive), here we go again,'" Hardy said. "But the trainers worked on it, got rid of it in about a week, and I haven't dealt with it since."

Hardy said the treatment he received from Orioles trainers was different than what had been tried in Minnesota, but he added, "I don't want to get into that too much and make people look bad, but yeah. It definitely was a little bit different."

Had Hardy stayed healthy, his time in Minnesota may have been extended. But even with a sore wrist, Hardy wasn't punchless by any means.

In fact, in the 101 games he played, Hardy was one of the best overall shortstops in the American League last season -- a thin and watered-down crop, admittedly, but his positional value was clear.

And it was understandable that the Twins wanted to inject some speed into a plodding lineup, but the problem is speed doesn't matter if it never sees the base paths, which is what the Twins are experiencing with Nishioka.

Not to mention, the Twins will have spent approximately $14 million through 2013 on Nishioka, who has been sidelined the last three games with oblique and back soreness. Hardy's 2011 salary is $5.85 million, and the three-year, $21 million extension he signed in July kicks in next season.

Not a huge difference.

Massive gap

Hardy's impressive season is magnified by the fact that Nishioka is having a disastrous year -- a .217/.257/.241 batting line, shaky defense and two months missed due to a broken leg.

Twins shortstops as a group are hitting just .231/.283/.307 with three homers and 40 RBIs. League-average production for shortstops this season is .260/.315/.375 with nine home runs and 50 RBIs.

For any sabermetric geeks reading, Hardy has been worth 2.8 Wins Above Replacement this season heading into Tuesday, and Nishioka worth minus-1.4. That's a four-win difference, per WAR. The margin would likely be even wider had Nishioka not missed two months. At his current production rate, he's actually more valuable NOT playing.

"I definitely feel like I'm doing what I'm capable of doing," Hardy said. "In 2009, we've talked about how (my struggles) were more of a mental thing, and it was by far my worst year ever, and I wasn't hindered by injuries. It was just mentally a terrible year.

"Last year I never felt that part. I felt like had I been healthy I could have done more, but it was just ... Last year was a grind. Even when I was playing, my wrist wasn't feeling good. This year I feel healthy, and I've gotten past the '09 season and I feel good. I'm having fun playing again."

Now, let's not pretend that Hardy's presence would have pulled this sinking ship out of the water. The Twins have been too decimated by injuries, mistakes and poor pitching to contend, with or without the shortstop upgrade.

But to consider the Hardy-for-anything trade last offseason as a necessity is proving to be short-sighted.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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