So much for holding their cards.
I was prepared to have Alexi Casilla get his shot at 2B as a savings over what re-signing Orlando Hudson might have cost. Winning the negotiating rights for Tsuyoshi Nishioka briefly gave the Twins the depth to make Casilla the backup MI, while relegating Matt Tolbert to the edges of the 25-man roster (where he probably belongs). But it didn't likely save any money over Hudson. Then all this talk of pushing to re-sign Carl Pavano. Was the payroll going to get a lot bigger than we expected? Perhaps, but there are clearly limits.
Everyone talks about Hardy as someone who's going to make over $6M this year. It didn't have to be that way - I think the Twins could have used Jhonny Peralta's deal with Detroit as a fair comparison and signed Hardy for a 2-year deal at a nominal raise over last season's $5.1M. A player signed for 2 seasons is worth more in a trade than an impending free agent. There was value there, but I think at that moment the Twins were still on the fence about whether to even tender him a contract. And once Juan Uribe got a 3-year, $21M deal from the Dodgers, all hope of signing Hardy for under $6M went out the window.
It's obvious that Gardy was adamant that the Twins and Hardy part company. There's been a lot of talk since the start of the offseason about improving the team by getting faster up the middle. They stole by far the fewest bases in 2010 of any year since Gardy took over. And they probably looked at the way Texas ran all over the Yankees (and perhaps remembered how the Rays ran all over them) and felt like that was their best chance of slaying that particular dragon. And, with Victor Martinez returning to the division and AJ Pierzynski re-upping for 2 more years in Chicago, it's not a bad idea to have a few more base stealers in the lineup.
Hardy wasn't going to do that - he's successfully stolen just 3 bases in the last 3 years. But he's a rock-solid defender at SS, and even surpassed the league average for the position offensively despite another relatively disappointing year at the plate. Target Field wasn't kind to him, though (.252/.313/.340), and there's no reason to think it would get any easier for him in the future. He also had a negative platoon split (.210/.291/.324 vs. LHP) for the 2nd straight year. He didn't hit that great at home, and he doesn't make the lineup tougher on lefties. I can see the Twins feeling ambivalent about his offensive upside. There were probably some personality things there, too, like there were with Kyle Lohse or Matt Garza. If Gardy doesn't want a guy around, the front office usually finds a way to move him along.
Realizing that he would have some trade value, the Twins did tender Hardy a contract. Their biggest need would be low-cost bullpen help. They may have found a 2011 piece in Hoey, who had plus-plus strikeout numbers last year, but walked waaaaaay too many hitters. He had pretty good control before his 2008 shoulder surgery, though. If Rick Anderson can get him headed back in that direction, the Twins might have a minimum-wage replacement for Jesse Crain. If.
I would have preferred to see the Twins land somebody who was more of a sure thing for next season, even if it meant getting only one guy back instead of two. I bet that if they'd held onto Hardy for awhile, even as late as spring training, they would have found a taker desperate enough to upgrade their IF that they'd have given the Twins a better return. But I think Bill Smith looks at it like they just picked up a couple of hard-throwing relievers for nothing, since Hardy might just as easily have been cut loose. Add in the fact that they were able to rid themselves of Harris, and I can't feel too bad about it. I wouldn't have done it, but it's not a disaster.
That's especially true if Nishioka's spectacular 2010 season represents the breakout of a young player, finally healthy, entering his prime. And if the skills that are sufficient to steal bases and win batting titles and gold gloves in Japan translate to the Majors. If.
As for Casilla, a lot of people have been tossing around his career numbers and poor defense at 2B as an indication of what kind of talent he has (i.e. not much). He was dreadful in 2007 and 2009, but one of those years was his first taste of the big leagues as a 22-year-old. I'll give him a mulligan on 2007. Over the last 3 seasons he's at .256/.316/.344 in 863 PA, with 29 doubles, 7 triples, 8 homers and 24/27 stolen bases. The slash line isn't too far from the average bottom of the order hitter, and the SB numbers are great. In 2008 and 2010, his numbers were pretty comparable to Hardy's last year. As for defense at SS, he hasn't played enough innings there to give a good picture by the defensive metrics, but so far they rate as right around average. By swapping Casilla for Hardy, the Twins probably stand to lose some defensively, gain a lot of speed, and match what they were getting offensively. If Casilla can deliver another season like '08 and '10. If.
I guess that's my biggest problem with these maneuvers. The Twins have a huge pile of question marks heading into 2011, and some of them won't work out. With Hardy in the fold, the Twins had 3 potential starters for 2 positions, giving them a fallback if one of them gets hurt or doesn't work out. Now, the fallback is Tolbert, or perhaps Trevor Plouffe. That doesn't mean that they're doomed next year, or that the team is necessarily weaker than it was. It just means that Smith is more of a gambling man than I thought. He's betting the farm on Casilla and Nishioka. He'd better be right.