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What does the future hold for J.J. Hardy?

In Sunday's Game Thread we had a prolonged debate about J.J. Hardy, his value and his future. While there was some conversation about how to handle the situation with Hardy and Escobar, there seemed to be two general consensuses on Hardy:

  1. When Hardy becomes a free agent following the 2010 season, he's going to make a lot of money somewhere.
  2. While he would still have value at either second or third base, his value is maximized by remaining at shortstop.

After just four seasons as a Brewer, Hardy has already accumulated more wins above replacement than all but two shortstops in Brewer history. He consistently draws the obvious comparison to the greatest Brewer shortstop, Robin Yount.

But who else is having a comparable career to Hardy? At Baseball Reference, these ten players are the most similar to Hardy, through age 25:

  1. Lance Parrish
  2. Rich Gedman
  3. Jhonny Peralta
  4. Russell Martin
  5. Benito Santiago
  6. Tony Batista
  7. Stephen Drew
  8. Felipe Lopez
  9. Edwin Encarnacion
  10. Matt Nokes

Here's what immediately jumped out at me: Of the top ten hitters most similar to Hardy, no less than five, and four of the top five, are catchers. I don't know what to make of that, really, but I'd be curious to hear your thoughts.

Beyond that, though, there is something else worth noting: five of the players listed above (Peralta, Martin, Drew, Lopez and Encarnacion) are contemporaries at similar stages of their respective careers. But among the other five, there are also a few who had careers that would be a disappointment based on our expectations for Hardy. Let's take a look at them.

Lance Parrish

None of Hardy's comps are in the Hall of Fame, but Parrish is probably the closest to meriting consideration. An eight-time All Star and three-time Gold Glove winning catcher, Parrish caught over 1800 games in his 19 year career. Like Hardy, Parrish never drew many walks, finishing his career with a .313 on base percentage. He spent the first ten (and most of the most successful) seasons of his career as a Tiger before splitting his final nine seasons among six teams.

Rich Gedman

Another catcher, Gedman made the big leagues in 1980 at age 20 but wasn't a full time player until 1984, when he hit .269/.312/.506. He had two more successful seasons with the Red Sox in 1985 and 1986, but at 26 years old he was done as a regular player and posted an OPS+ of 76 or lower in each of his six remaining seasons as a backup.

Benito Santiago

Santiago spent 20 seasons in the major leagues as a Padre, Marlin, Red, Phillie, Blue Jay, Cub, Red (again), Giant, Royal and Pirate. He was a five time All Star and started the Midsummer Classic at catcher three times. After looking like he might be done in 1994 at age 29 Santiago had a nice resurgence, and may have been a better player in his 30's than he was in his 20's. Like Parrish, Santiago caught a lot of games in his career (1917) and that's the primary source of his value.

Tony Batista

A journeyman third baseman, Batista hit 25 or more home runs in six straight seasons, but was an all-or-nothing player, posting an OBP of .280 or lower in three of his last five seasons as a regular. Batista also wore out his welcome fast, playing for seven teams in his eleven season career. He was done as a regular at 30, and out of baseball at 33.

Matt Nokes

In a theme that should sound familiar, Nokes was a catcher who played for several teams and was done early. He was a Giant, Tiger, Yankee, Oriole and Rockie over eleven seasons, but his 1987 season, at age 23, was his best one, and he was done as a regular at age 28.

Admittedly, this is an exceptionally small sample size: five players with a comparable batting line in their first few seasons. It's entirely possible that Hardy's career won't follow the path of any of them. With that said, though, the five comps listed above provide a surprisingly low long-term upside for a player many of us consider to be one of the faces of the franchise. We all seem to be in agreement that Hardy will make a fortune as a free agent in 2010, but history might suggest Hardy's most productive years might already be behind him at that point.