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With J.J. Hardy out indefinitely, Twins have some serious patching work to do on their tattered infield

J.J. Hardy tags out New York Yankee Mark Teixeira at Target Field on May 26.
Photo by Craig Lassig
J.J. Hardy tags out New York Yankee Mark Teixeira at Target Field on May 26.

Of all the things a despondent J.J. Hardy said Thursday night after going back on the disabled list, this was the most ominous: The Minnesota Twins’ medical staff could not predict how long it will take the bone bruise in his left wrist to heal.

“Some take weeks. Some take months,” Hardy said he was told. “That’s the frustrating part. The only thing that will help it is rest.”

Months? Could this be the last we see of Hardy at shortstop until after the All-Star Break, or maybe August?

Keep in mind that even if Hardy heals quickly — in two weeks, say — he’ll likely need at least a week of baseball-skills work and another week of at-bats on a rehabilitation assignment before he returns to the Twins’ lineup. That puts us into the second week of July, and the All-Star Game is July 13.

And that’s the best-case scenario. Given how long this has lingered — he hurt the wrist on a May 4 slide into third — the Twins are unlikely to rush Hardy, and Hardy would be smart to take it slow.

“We don’t want to have this conversation again in a few weeks,” said Hardy, seated at his Target Field locker Thursday night with his wrist heavily wrapped.

“That’s the hardest part, I think — not knowing, and I can’t do anything to make it better. I can’t do any exercises to make it better. The more I do, the worse it is. There’s no telling what it’s going to take, or how long it’s going to take.”

With Hardy joining fellow infielders Orlando Hudson (sprained left wrist) and Alexi Casiila (right elbow surgery) on the disabled list, the Twins enter the meat of their schedule without their steady-fielding starting middle infielders and one of their experienced backups. It’s not catastrophic, like losing Joe Mauer would be. But it’s troublesome for a team that relies as heavily on defense and pitching as the Twins, especially since none of the replacements have Hardy’s — or Hudson’s — track records as hitters.

The Twins hope Hudson can return next week. If he does, that leaves a grab bag of fill-ins on the left side of the infield among veterans Nick Punto and Brendan Harris and call-ups Matt Tolbert, Trevor Plouffe and Danny Valencia.

Ron Gardenhire
REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
Ron Gardenhire

Manager Ron Gardenhire said Thursday night he’ll work in all those guys. But he needs to choose a shortstop quickly, for stability. Punto, his favorite, could end up there. But it’s worth giving Plouffe or Tolbert a look. To these eyes, Punto’s best defensive position is third base, and the Twins would be better served leaving him there if someone else can play shortstop adequately.

Keep in mind, too, that Punto and Tolbert may be playing for their futures as Twins. Punto is in the final year of that two-year, $8 million sweetheart deal general manager Bill Smith gave him, partially as a favor to Gardenhire. It’s hard to imagine the Twins picking up Punto’s $5 million option for 2011, given the $58.75 million already committed to Mauer (whose salary bumps from $12.5 million to $23 million), Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Nathan.

If Tolbert, a terrific defender at multiple positions, can hit .250, he’s a cheaper utility alternative. But he’s 28, and this might be his last chance to show something.

Plouffe, who turns 24 on Tuesday, needs to be steadier than the minor-league record indicates. He averaged 28 errors a season over his last five years in the Twins system; last year he led International League shortstops in total chances (542) and errors (26). He has nine errors in 53 games for Rochester this year but handled 10 chances cleanly in a three-game stint with the Twins last month.

Valencia has been competent with the bat (.308) and the glove at third in his first major-league look. It will be interesting to see if he stays when Hudson comes back.

The Twins especially need Hudson’s bat starting next Friday, when they begin a nine-game interleague road trip to Philadelphia, Milwaukee and New York. Pitchers must bat in National League parks, so that takes one productive stick out of the Minnesota lineup — a big problem if two of your infielders aren’t productive at the plate.

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