Tuesday, September 01, 2009

J.J. Hardy Turns Into Whiner in Minors

For J.J. Hardy, it's been a rough season. Especially the last three weeks.

It started Aug. 12, when the Milwaukee Brewers sent Hardy to Triple-A Nashville. It was a no-brainer for general manager Doug Melvin, who watched Hardy slump at the dish all season, and then watched as it seemed to start affecting his defense.

The Brewers wanted to take a look at Nashville shortstop Alcides Escobar, who -- unlike Hardy -- was actually performing.

This doesn't seem like a difficult concept to understand, unless you start overthinking things.

Enter Hardy, who apparently decided it was a good idea to start overthinking. You could argue that this was part of his problem when he had a bat in his hands.

See, Hardy was scheduled to be a free agent after the 2010 season. The only way this could be delayed was if he spent 20 or more days off the Brewers' major-league roster at any point. Since he didn't have enough service time to refuse a minor-league assignment, he had to go to Nashville.

He was called up Tuesday, after 20 days.

Hardy, with the help of his snake-oil salesman of an agent, has decided this could have been a deliberate ploy by the Brewers.

"It's been simmering. There are questions in my mind," Hardy said. "The more and more I think about it, the more I think, 'Why would they do this to me?'

"It beat me up inside. For them to give up on me this year, it kind of hurt. I definitely feel like I was being punished."

Well, J.J., you're not hitting. That's your job.

This is supposed to be punishment. With all due respect to the Nashville franchise, it's not like the Brewers sent you there hoping you'd celebrate it.

So when general manager Doug Melvin told Hardy he was going to the minors to work on things, Hardy didn't protest. He admits it was "a tough pill to swallow," but he understood he wasn't performing and needed work.

Hardy was fine with the move.

Then he talked to Mike Seal, his agent. Seal informed Hardy if he ended up being a September call-up, which is expected to happen today, he'd spend exactly 20 days in the minors and lose service time in the majors. If a player spends fewer than 20 days in the minors, his service time isn't affected.

Now the Brewers will control Hardy for one more season because he won't have the service time required to be a free agent after 2010. Instead, Hardy will go through an extra year of arbitration and won't be on the open market until after the 2011 season, also making him more tradable.

That's when Hardy's mood changed.

"At first I felt OK. It would give me a chance to relax," said Hardy, who avoided arbitration this season by signing a one-year, $4.65 million deal in the winter. "But that's when my agent told me about the 20 days.

"That's when I was like, 'Now I understand.' The more I replay the conversation with Doug, the more I realize there was never a chance for me to be called up before (the 20 days)."

Especially when you throw up a less-than-sparkling .279 on-base percentage while in the minors. Surely, the Brewers expected better numbers out of a one-time All-Star facing Triple-A pitching. It would be an absolute stunner if they didn't.

Hardy's assumption that the team had no intention of calling him back before the 20-day clock had run out is completely irrelevant. He gave them no reason to call them up before then.

Seriously, if Hardy had gone down to Nashville and hit .300 with a handful of extra-base hits over a week to ten days, do you think they would have left him there? The Brewers have been starving for consistent offense for a good portion of the season.

Seal said sending a player with Hardy's service time and production to the minors is nearly unprecedented, so Hardy can't help but think it was done to control him for an extra year. Seal doesn't think this move can be defended by the team sticking with Hardy early on.

"I don't think the right move was sending him down just because they stuck with him four years ago," Seal said. "I don't think sending him down was the right move, period."

Then what's wrong with asking the player to let his performance do the talking? If Hardy's so miffed about this awful miscarriage of justice, he should have shown it in the minors, instead of giving Melvin more reason to think he's forgotten how to hit.

"I think there was some good intentions, but at the same time I don't think I'll ever believe 100% that I was sent down to work on my swing," Hardy said. "I think they've always had Escobar in the back of their mind."

Perhaps the Brewers saw the writing on the wall with this talented young player. Maybe they knew that he would turn into a whiner at the first sign of trouble.

Also working against Hardy is his unconscionable unwillingness to change positions.

"If the Brewers want to use him, I feel like I'll still be playing shortstop somewhere," Hardy said. "Just not with Milwaukee. There's nothing I can do about it, so it's one of those things I don't worry about.

"But no, I don't see myself moving (positions) anytime soon."

You can either have the character enough to do what is best for your team, or you can be J.J. Hardy, who is evidently only worried about J.J. Hardy.

It's unsettling, because he's a guy many fans have latched on to over the years. He turned himself into a popular player with a bit of defensive flair and constant improvement at the plate. Now, he may have just burned the bridge with the Brewers. How he conducts himself over the last month of what is now a lost season will be key. If he truly wants to be a Brewer long-term, it would be smart of him to look at moving to the hot corner, a spot the Brewers need at least some short-term help in.

Either that, or he can pack his bags for wherever Doug Melvin wants him to go.

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