Most of the baseball talk in Minnesota these days revolves around Joe Mauer's contract extension saga, and for good reason: He is the best catcher in baseball and the face of a franchise with hopes of contending. The Twinkies potential to make the playoffs does not rest squarely on Mauer’s shoulders, however, as GM Bill Smith made sure to improve what was arguably the team's most glaring weakness a season ago.
By trading for shortstop J.J. Hardy and signing second baseman Orlando Hudson, Smith not only brought in two of the better defenders at their respective positions, but solid hitters who look extra tasty when compared to who they will be replacing.
The Twins managed to rally back to a tie for the AL Central at the end of last season and went onto win a one-game playoff to qualify for the playoffs, but that was in spite of the awful performance they got from the men in the middle of the diamond. Orlando Cabrera, Alexi Casilla, Nick Punto and Matt Tolbert each saw their fare share of time at shortstop and second base, and their overall True Average (TAv) amounted to a pathetic .229 mark. Hardy and Hudson, although on different teams, combined for a .262 TAv that vastly exceeded the Twins in-house options. So what does the new keystone combo for the Twins project to produce this season?
Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection system sees Hudson as capable of putting up a .271 TAv with Hardy coming in at .261. Weighted together, their .266 TAv would rank sixth amongst middle-infield combos in the junior circuit:
American League SS/2B Combinations, PECOTA Projections
Minnesota didn't add a big-impact player, but the combination of their two new middle infielders gives them a huge upgrade from last season.
The acquisitions of Hudson and Hardy represent a very important point in the world of statistical analysis: A team does not need to acquire a superstar at one position to improve more than marginally. The Twins brought in two solid players who might not get picked first in a sandlot game, but are certainly above average, and being above average is Ruth-ian compared to who they penciled in at those spots last year. If Gardenhire’s gang once again plays meaningful baseball into October, Joe Mauer is likely to be a big reason why, but do not underestimate the contributions of Hudson and Hardy and the upgrade they will provide.
Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus