One big subject on the mind of Brewers fans and across the Brewers blogosphere lately has been Carlos Gomez, both at Bernie’s Crew and at Brew Crew Ball. There’s no doubt that Gomez has been disappointing this year: he’s posted a paltry line of .236/.289/.363. Even wOBA, which includes the value of his 10 SB to only 2 CS, only has him a .297. Given that wOBA is on the same scale as OBP, that’s simply not good.
All in all, that’s come out to a meager 0.4 wins above replacement in 233 plate appearances, which comes out to a sub-average 1.0 WAR over a full season of 600 plate appearances. That’s an incredibly disappointing return for an asset like Hardy, who, despite a down season, still was one of the best defensive shortstops around and had shown the ability to hit with power in the past, something that is incredibly rare at the position.
As Jim Breen mentions in the Bernie’s Crew post, the Red Sox reportedly offered Michael Bowden for J.J. Hardy. (Note: Any time this trade is mentioned, I have to point out this tweet from Jonah Keri). Bowden was part of a wave of Red Sox arms making noise around baseball, but was he really that good? In 2009 in AAA, Bowden was very unimpressive. Yes, he posted a 3.52 ERA, but nearly every peripheral number after that suggests he just wasn’t that good. His 6.2% HR/FB rate accounts for a half-decent FIP of 4.18. When it comes down to it, though I just don’t see a guy who posts a K rate of 6.2 with a BB rate of 3.3 (that’s a K/BB below 2.0) making a good or even competent starter in the major leagues. He’s been turned into a reliever, but given the low K rates, I’m not even convinced he can succeed in that role.
Breen suggests that the fact that Bowden was offered means that the Brewers likely had some solid offers on the table, in terms of pitching prospects. To me, what it suggests is that the market for J.J. Hardy was extremely low. How else could a player like Hardy, who despite the worst season of his life in 2009 had posted a remarkable 10.7 WAR from 2007-2009, only bring in mediocre pitching prospects or projects like Gomez? Hardy was just coming off being demoted to AAA. Even though other teams may have understood that he is a better player than he was in 2009, they had no reason to offer anything even approaching fair value for him. Demoting Hardy to AAA was just like shouting to the rest of the baseball world that you believe that he’s done; it’s a complete value killer.
Meanwhile, Alcides Escobar was climbing the organizational ladder, and his stock really couldn’t have been higher. By all accounts, he was the best fielding shortstop in minor league baseball and potentially in the MLB as well. His bat wasn’t great, but he showed decent contact skills in the minors and hit .298/.351/.411 with Nashville in 2009. This was probably the peak of Escobar’s value – now, and rather predictably, given the .240/.267/.300 minor league equivalency for that AAA line, Escobar is one of the worst hitting shortstops in the NL, and although his defense has shown flashes, there’s definitely no proof that it is better than J.J. Hardy’s.
It’s very easy for me to say it now, and given that this blog didn’t exist last year, it may just seem like hindsight is 20-20, but I had been saying this throughout the 2009 offseason that the proper course of action for the Brewers would be to trade Alcides Escobar, and not J.J. Hardy. Escobar’s value was at it’s peak, and Hardy would be under team control for an additional year due to his demotion to AAA and probably wouldn’t hit as poorly in 2010 as he did in 2009 – much of his issues were due to a .260 BABIP.
Turns out Hardy is still struggling at the plate – only a .286 wOBA with the Twins, which is only slightly better than Escobar’s .277. The park factors aren’t completely set in Minnesota, and that might be part of the issue, but still, it doesn’t look like Hardy’s power has returned. Still, even if you make the questionable assumption that Escobar’s defense is just as good as Hardy’s, you have essentially the same player. Escobar has a higher chance of breakout, and Hardy is more expensive, but what about the possible trade return for Esocbar, who was the #19 prospect according to Baseball America prior to 2009 and #12 before 2010? According to Victor Wang’s prospect value research, a #11-#25 prospect was worth about $25.1 million in surplus value. That can buy roughly 6-8 WAR, meaning that Gomez, a player whose best-case WAR is probably about 3.0, would be far less than any package likely offered for Escobar.
Do the Brewers bring in a solid SP? Do they shore up the farm system? Obviously, this is just a big game of “what if.” The point, though, is that the problem with the Hardy trade isn’t so much the return. The issue is that you’re simply not going to get fair value for a player when you trade him at their absolute worst. See Alex Rios, who was traded for literally nothing and now is already at 3.2 WAR with the White Sox. The Brewers doomed themselves from the moment that Hardy was demoted, and that’s why we’re stuck with a weak hitting, speedy center fielder and a shortstop who has looked utterly lost at the plate in the big leagues.