Monday, September 7, 2009

Toss Up: Hardy or Escobar?

The Milwaukee Brewers have a very interesting decision to make this offseason. Do they trade J.J. Hardy or Alcides Escobar?

There is little doubt in my mind that only one of these players is going to be on the 2010 Brewers' roster. The question is who should the Brewers trade? The resounding answer to that question in Milwaukee is trade J.J. Hardy.

Hardy is having a terrible offensive season, but is still contributing with the glove. His .225/.298/.358/.656 line this season is his worst offensive season in his career. So it would seem like a no-brainer to trade him instead of a top ranked prospect like Escobar, but is it really? What do the Brewers actually gain from trading Hardy?

Many fans have criticized Brewers' General Manager Doug Melvin for not trading Hardy this offseason when he has amazing value, but how many actually wanted a trade to go down? There were many rumors involving Hardy being traded to the Minnesota Twins for a starting pitcher. Every fan I talked to had a lot of reserves in parting with a good shortstop like Hardy, and for good reason. Hardy was coming of a season that saw him hit 24 home runs and post a career high .343 OBP with a .821 OPS. On top of that, it was unsure how ready Escobar was after last season. I'm still not sure he is ready to take over.

Although Escobar has always been rated as a top prospect, I have really never understood why. Don't get me wrong, Escobar could be a solid player, but nothing about him really blows me away. He doesn't hit for power. He doesn't walk. The two main arguments for Escobar is that he is a great defender and he is fast. In limited time this season, Escobar's glove has not been all it was cracked up to be. I may be spoiled after watching Hardy over the last couple of seasons though. The second argument was something that I never have agreed with. Just because a player has speed does not make him a talented batter. The old adage reign's true in Alcides' case, "You can't steal first base."

Escobar's main problem throughout the minor leagues has been his inability to draw walks. His career on-base-percentage throughout the minors is nothing special (.333). It's tough to utilize his speed if he is not consistently getting on base. His walk rate in the minors was just over 4%. Couple that with a 15% strikeout ratio Escobar's future doesn't look so bright.

Escobar's stock rose after his 2008 season when he became the Brewers top ranked prospect according to Baseball America. In 2008 Escobar batted .328/.363/.434/.797, an impressive season. What's alarming to me is that he was still not walking. In 546 at bats that season, he drew just 31 walks. So how was he able to post that line despite poor plate discipline? Simple, good fortune. When Escobar hit the ball into play that season, he hit for a .375 average. That's high for even the best of hitters. Take out that season and Escobar's BABIP is right around .320, which is much more likely than another season like he had in 2008.

In all honesty, this argument is like comparing apples to oranges. Escobar and Hardy are two very different players. Escobar has blinding speed. Hardy, well, let's just say he's doesn't. Hardy has great power for a shortstop (50 HR's in 2007-2008). Escobar doesn't (20 HR's in over 2600 pro career at bats). The biggest difference between the players is the main reason why Escobar makes sense over Hardy.

Escobar is still in his first year of major league service time. He has to wait another three years until he is even eligible for arbitration. After that, he has another three seasons before he hits free agency. The kind of money that Escobar saves the Brewers is the main reason why it makes sense to keep him over Hardy. Hardy, after losing a year of service time controversially, will not hit the open market until after 2011. He is going to make around $4 million next season. It seems tough to believe that Hardy would be open to Milwaukee after the way the Brewers delayed his free agency. Even with those reasons, here is why I think the Brewers should go against many and trade Escobar, making Hardy the shortstop for the next two years.

The main reason that the Brewers struggled this season is pitching. The starting pitching was so bad that it completely dismantled a good bullpen. Looking forward, acquiring a starting pitcher is priority number one this offseason in Milwaukee. I don't see the Brewers overspending for a free agent starting pitcher, so trading for a starter seems like the route they will take. The two players whose names have surfaced have been Hardy and Brewers outfielder Corey Hart. I just don't understand why it would a good time to sell either of those players.

Hardy's value has been completely dismantled after this season. There's no telling what Hardy would be able to get the Brewers. I've heard anywhere from a 3-5 starter. Escobar is ranked as one of the best prospects in baseball. He has many cheap seasons ahead of him. The amount of value that he possess to another team is off the charts. It is not hard to think that he might bring a front line starter to Milwaukee. He was the main piece that Toronto coveted for Roy Halladay. Why trade Hardy for a little return when Escobar could put this franchise over the top? The Brewers are two seasons away from losing Prince Fielder to free agency. Hardy is also under control until that season. If the Brewers are unwilling to part with Prince, why trade Hardy? I am completely confident that Hardy will outproduce Escobar over the next two seasons. The Brewers have to determine what the future entails. If they honestly believe that they can compete right away, the choice seems too simple.

Don't get me wrong, I didn't write this article to bash Alcides Escobar. He would be a great option for many major league organizations. I just don't think that he is the right choice for the Brewers. I guess I am just amazed at how excited people get by speed in the game of baseball. Speed is a good asset, but so are many other things. I heard a guy this season say, "you can't teach speed." While that may be true, there are other things that some people are blessed with. You can try to teach plate discipline, but many hitters are not able to learn to lay off bad pitches. If the Brewers do trade Hardy and make Escobar the starter, I hope everything I have wrote in this article proves to be incorrect. I just fear that selling low on Hardy would be an unwise move. Escobar is a good player, but I just don't think he is on the level of what I have seen out of Hardy. One bad season should not constitute trading a player. Escobar is yet to post an .800 OPS even in the minor leagues, the facts just don't lie. The Brewers best hitting shortstop in the organization is, and remains J.J. Hardy.

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