Is J.J. Hardy really an upgrade for Tigers?

Brad Penner-US PRESSWIRE

Guest columnist Bill Parker of SB Nation's Designated Columnists program weighs in on whether the rumored Rick Porcello-J.J. Hardy-etc trade would be an improvement for the Tigers.

As reported here and many other places a few days ago, a rumor popped up that the Tigers were attempting to orchestrate a three-way trade that would land them J.J. Hardy from the Orioles. It's not exactly clear what else the deal would involve, other than Rick Porcello going to the Cubs. This article says "[Jhonny] Peralta would have to be moved" as part of the potential deal, but I haven't been able to find confirmation of that anywhere else; it'd make sense, of course, since there's nowhere else to put Peralta in the 2013 lineup if the team brings in a new shortstop.

The idea of substituting Hardy for Peralta is a curious one; the second article linked above points out that Peralta and Hardy have very similar offensive stats (in fact, for his career, Peralta has been a touch better, with a 100 career OPS+ and wRC+ to Hardy's 96 and 95). Hardy is slow -- painfully slow, actually, on the bases -- and might hit 25 or 30 home runs again, but isn't going to hit .300 or draw 60 walks. He's not a terribly exciting player, not normally the kind you get excited about bringing in to replace a guy who was an All-Star just the season before last.

As someone who (as a Twins fan) has loved J.J. Hardy and lost him, though, I want to caution Tigers fans not to make the same mistake my team did. Hardy is an easy guy to underrate. Shortstops are little and graceful and fast, and Hardy (kind of like Peralta) is none of those things. After Hardy had quietly put together an at-least-pretty-good season for the Twins in 2010, they decided they wanted a guy who was all those things to be their shortstop, a guy who could steal bases and lay down bunts, so they traded Hardy to the Orioles for two relief pitchers, Jim Hoey, who pitched about 25 innings for the 2011 Twins with a 5.47 ERA and spent 2012 in the Toronto system, and Brett Jacobsen, who has put up ERAs of 4.56 and 7.71 over the last two seasons, both at Double-A.

In return, the Orioles got a guy who wasn't flashy and didn't figure to put up big offensive numbers, but who held his own with the bat and is quietly, weirdly, one of the best fielders in baseball. Despite his lack of speed, Hardy gets the job done (and then some) with excellent reaction times and technique. All the metrics have consistently agreed that he's one of the better defensive shortstops in the game (and most of his 2012 numbers were through the roof). Peralta, meanwhile, has done well by Fangraphs' UZR over the last two years, but that's an outlier; the other metrics confirm what the eye test suggests, that even calling him "average' would be a stretch.

Of course, when he came over to the Orioles in 2011, Hardy did put up big offensive numbers, with a .269/.310/.491 line and 30 home runs. He's certainly capable of doing that, just as Peralta is; he's also capable of huge clunkers, as both he and Peralta had in 2012. Hardy's was likely worse thanks to the dreadful .282 OBP, but much of that likely came from his career-low .253 batting average on balls in play (some was also from his steadily declining walk rate, which of course is more of a concern). The difference is really all defense: Hardy and Peralta might be more or less the same hitter, and both capable of playing at a star level, but when Hardy's bat goes bad, his defense means that he becomes merely a useful starting player; if Peralta's goes (or stays) bad, he might become something pretty close to unusable.

As such, it's hard to escape the conclusion that Hardy would be a sizable upgrade for the Tigers: he'd likely replace Peralta's offense (with a chance to do much more than that) while providing a huge upgrade to an infield defense that features first basemen at both corners. If you're a Tigers fan, you should want J.J. Hardy just as badly as the team's front office seems to. Rick Porcello is a pretty good still-young pitcher and is hard to give up, but he'll never be a star with that strikeout rate, and he's the fifth starter on this team right now; in the win-now position in which the Tigers find themselves, I'd gladly give up a young fifth starter for the solid starting shortstop of my next two seasons.

Unfortunately, the 2013 Orioles do not appear to be the 2011 Twins; they seem to know what they have in Hardy. Even most of the pieces reporting the rumors note that Baltimore likes its infield just the way it is, and would need to be blown away to move Hardy.

It will likely never happen, and maybe it's already off the table, but Hardy would be a real asset to this team and probably the last thing that could be done to improve an already really solid lineup. If what it takes is Porcello -- or, say, Porcello and Peralta -- that strikes me as a move the Tigers should jump all over.

Bill Parker is one of SBN's Designated Columnists and one of the creators of The Platoon Advantage. Follow him at @Bill_TPA.

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