As the Milwaukee Brewers look toward a long off-season filled with projects, one objective that will have priority is their effort to trade 27-year-old shortstop J.J. Hardy.
Hardy, just two years removed from a 2007 National League All-Star selection, watched his production and value to the club drop sharply in 2009. After a 2008 campaign in which he batted .283/.343/.478, and saved the Brewers 16 runs with his glove alone, Hardy sank into futility as the season wore on.
Milwaukee replaced him in a full-time starting role with top prospect Alcides Escobar, and Hardy saw just 75 plate appearances from Aug. 1 on. With injured Rickie Weeks returning to man second base next season, and Escobar now firmly entrenched (he will be just 23 years old next season, and hit .304 in 38 games with the parent club), Hardy appears nearly certain to move this off-season.
If such a move is in the offing, Milwaukee may find the teams best suited to trade for Hardy to be those they might be most reluctant to engage.
The Chicago Cubs, the Brewers' neighbors to the south and NL central division rivals, need to fill a hole in their middle infield, and have discussed acquiring a shortstop who could bump incumbent Ryan Theriot to his more natural position, second base.
Hardy fits in Chicago both because he plays stellar defense at short, and because he will be a free agent after 2010. Chicago hopes to find an inexpensive stop-gap to fill the spot until 19-year-old Starlin Castro can come up and take over. Castro has speed and some pop, and plays above average defense at both middle-infield positions.
Hardy made $4.65 million in 2009, but unlike many players progressing through arbitration, he will not see that number rise next season. He may even see it fall to four-and-a-half million or so.
If so, he'd be the right price from Chicago's perspective. His .280/.364/.439 career line in 28 games at Wrigley Field could help motivate Chicago General Manager Jim Hendry to pull the trigger.
In return, Milwaukee could receive pitchers Sean Marshall, Mitch Atkins, or Esmailin Caridad from Chicago, as part of a small package, and thereby improve its starting rotation, which ranked dead last in the NL in ERA in 2009.
Hardy's other best destination would be the regional rivals of the American League, the Minnesota Twins. Minnesota will probably say goodbye to current shortstop Orlando Cabrera, whom they acquired at midseason from the Oakland Athletics. Cabrera will be a Type A free agent, and if the Twins offer him arbitration, they could receive a pair of top draft picks when he signs elsewhere.
Hardy would fit well in Minnesota, where defense is valued highly and a solid seventh hitter would improve the Twins on the order of leaps and bounds. Meanwhile, Milwaukee could demand one of a number of young Twins pitching prospects, or even the Major League-ready Anthony Swarzak, to bolster its roster of hurlers.
In either eventuality, Milwaukee would gain the middle-of-the-rotation arms it craves, while getting rid of a player who no longer has a position on this club, and who will be paid more next season than a small-market team like the Brewers can afford to pay a reserve.
If GM Doug Melvin is wise, he will make one of these trades happen, and soon.