November 6, 2009

Twins Give Up On Gomez, Get Hardy From Brewers

Two winters ago the Twins got Carlos Gomez from the Mets as the centerpiece of the Johan Santana trade and made the 22-year-old Torii Hunter's replacement in center field despite little evidence that he was ready. He predictably struggled, batting .248/.293/.352 over the next two years, and started just 10 of the final 37 games this season as Ron Gardenhire sat him in favor of Delmon Young. And now just 21 months after trading for him the Twins have traded Gomez to the Brewers for shortstop J.J. Hardy.

Gomez has gotten a bum rap, because he wasn't ready for the job handed to him and his ineptitude is overstated by those undervaluing defense and overrating Young. He's been awful offensively and great defensively, but with the exact same overall value split instead between an average bat and poor glove Gomez would be perceived far differently. Consider that he's been about 30 runs above replacement level in two years with the Twins, while Young has been about 20 runs below replacement level.

All of which isn't to suggest that Gomez is destined for stardom, but rather that he's way closer to being a good, solid starter than most people think. He doesn't need to be a great hitter to have big-time value because he's a great fielder, whereas Young must be a great hitter to have huge value because he's a brutal fielder. I'm far from convinced that Gomez will develop into an above-average hitter, but combined with his defense even something as modest as .275/.325/.400 would make him All-Star caliber.

For all the talk about how the Twins are buying low on Hardy they're also selling low on Gomez, but they were smart to pull the trigger. Hardy is a truly elite defensive shortstop who prior to struggling this year hit .277/.323/.463 with 26 homers in 2007 and .283/.343/.478 with 24 homers in 2008. In each of those two seasons he was worth around 50 runs above replacement level. To put that into some context, Joe Mauer was about 85 runs above replacement level this year and no other Twins cracked even 40 runs.

Hardy has been an exceptional all-around player in the past, but this year he hit just .229/.302/.357 in 115 games while spending three weeks at Triple-A following a late-season demotion. By conveniently sending him to Triple-A for the 20 days needed to impact his service time the Brewers pushed Hardy's free agency back an entire season, which no doubt added to his value in talks with the Twins. He's now under team control through 2011 rather than 2010, although he'll be fairly costly thanks to arbitration.

Even if he can't bounce back from what was a career-worst season and repeats his 2009 performance Hardy will still be a decent starting shortstop comparable to the options available in a weak free-agent crop. And as a 27-year-old with no major injury concerns he's certainly a good bet to get back on track. Hardy has a chance to be a hugely valuable player for the Twins and they did well to get him for a player who'd clearly fallen out of favor, but Gomez still has lots of upside and the deal creates a few problems.

For one thing, Young is now an everyday player after batting .290/.322/.416 with awful defense through 452 games in the majors. He's certainly still young enough to improve, but has a long way to go just to be a decent all-around player and so far at least has shown no signs of progress. If the Twins give him 150 starts in 2010 and Young again fails to take a significant step in the right direction he'll be one of the least valuable players in all of baseball while wiping away much of the good done by Hardy.

Beyond that, parting with Gomez means that the Twins are committed to Denard Span as their starting center fielder. Span is an excellent all-around player and clearly deserves to be in the lineup every day, but if Ultimate Zone Rating is to be believed the one weakness in his game thus far has been defense in center field. When they paired Gomez and Span together in the outfield the Twins had great gloves in center field and left field, but moving Span to center field full time hurts both positions.

In other words it's not just about Span replacing Gomez, because in addition to that dropoff in center field the defense also takes an even bigger hit with Young replacing Span in left field. An alignment of Young, Span, and Michael Cuddyer could be among the AL's worst defensive outfields and for a team that consistently has one of baseball's most fly ball-heavy pitching staffs that has the potential to hurt a lot. The hope, of course, is that Span's ugly UZR numbers in center field are a small-sample-size fluke.

In isolation swapping Hardy for Gomez is a quality move for the Twins, but the trade is not without risk given Hardy's problems this season and comes with some potentially negative ramifications. If it turns out that Span simply isn't a very good center fielder or Young fails to step forward offensively the Twins will have downgraded the outfield and upgraded the infield using $5 million of precious payroll room. Still, the front office deserves credit for getting good value for Gomez and I'm cautiously optimistic.

When he's right Hardy is one of the top handful of shortstops in baseball and the Twins haven't had a shortstop produce even 15 homers in a season since Roy Smalley in 1979. Hardy hits 20 homers per 600 plate appearances for his career and his right-handed bat adds some much-needed balance to a lefty-heavy lineup. He also keeps the Twins from re-signing Orlando Cabrera, which likely would have been a mistake. All in all a very positive start to the offseason, but there's more work to be done.

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