Hardy asking Why?’
Whenever he is sitting in his minor-league hotel room and dwells on how it all went down, the same inquiry pops into his head.
“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.”
Hardy, the Milwaukee Brewers’ starting shortstop last month and an all-star in 2007, is talking about being sent to Class AAA Nashville on Aug. 12 as part of the team’s housecleaning when they fired pitching coach Bill Castro and designated infielder Bill Hall for assignment.
Hardy was underachieving, hitting .229 with a .300 on-base percentage, 11 home runs and 45 runs batted in. He knew he was bad. He knew his swing was out of whack.
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 Tuesday, 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).”
Melvin said he can see why Hardy might be upset with the move, but he noted that the team allowed Hardy to gain early service time through some lean months in his career.
“We waited a long time for the player,” Melvin said. “We carried certain young players, I won’t name them, when they weren’t performing earlier in their careers to help develop them.”
The first half of Hardy’s rookie season in 2005 left much to be desired, for sure. He batted .187 with one homer in 67 games, but things turned in the second half. Hardy hit .308, including .329 in the final month, and hit eight home runs.
Hardy said Melvin told him the team’s stat crunchers predicted Hardy’s turnaround, and Hardy also believed the team stuck with him because their options at shortstop were limited at the time.
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.”
Hardy, who is hitting .246 with a .279 OBP with Nashville, has tinkered with his swing this entire season and believes he’s taken twice as many cuts at this point in the year than he has in any other. He showed up for extra batting practice regularly until he felt the extra swings were wearing on his arms and the fatigue had him dragging.
But that’s when he started to hear whispers that rubbed him wrong.
“I started hearing them late,” Hardy said. “I could hear the coaches say, ’Why isn’t J.J. taking extra swings? Why isn’t he out here?’ “
Batting practice wasn’t working, but it was clear a change was needed. The Brewers were in position to make one. Alcides Escobar entered the season as a top prospect and after playing well with Nashville, he crept closer to taking time from Hardy.
Melvin, who admits he is sometimes too patient with players, finally made the move to “reward” Escobar, sending Hardy down as the corresponding move.
“What comes into play is we had another player down there performing,” Melvin said. “We felt this was a chance to give Escobar a feel for what it takes here. Unfortunately it was at the expense of J.J.
“I don’t want him to look at it as punishment. It’s not something I expect him to accept. I expect him not to agree with the decision. It’s good that he feels he’s a major-league player. He is. But we have two major-league shortstops while some teams are scrambling to find one.”
So could Hardy, 27, find himself with another club, maybe one of the teams that was rumored to have interest in him in July?
“I don’t know,” Melvin said.
Hardy believes the organization has been mostly loyal to him, despite never offering him a multiyear contract, and he has been loyal in return, even working out with prospects in Arizona during the off-season.
He understands he needed to perform better and was willing to accept a demotion based on his sub-par season.
But Hardy’s feelings changed only when he believed the motive for the move had more to do with an off-the-field issue than his statistics.
“I think there was some good intentions, but at the same time I don’t think I’ll ever believe 100 percent 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.
“I always saw myself as a Brewer and hoped I could spend my whole career in Milwaukee. I just wish there was another way they could have done this so there wasn’t such a bitter taste in my mouth.”