Despite concerns, Hudson should thrive with Twins

One National League scout, upon hearing that free-agent second baseman Orlando Hudson was headed to Minnesota, declared the Twins the favorites to win the American League Central.

Such is the modest state of the Central, the Twins might have been favored to repeat as division champions even without the O-Dog.

The division is becoming more competitive — the White Sox’s rotation is among the league’s best, and one rival general manager mused that the Twins’ addition of Hudson further will prod the Tigers to sign free-agent left fielder Johnny Damon.

The question of the moment, though, is how much Hudson will help the Twins, winners of five of the past eight division titles.

Not as much as the average fan might expect, considering that Hudson was an All-Star and Gold Glove winner last season. But more than the Dodgers, Hudson’s previous club, would imagine.

For the first two months of last season, Hudson was a revelation. In the final month, Dodgers manager Joe Torre benched him for — ahem — Ron Belliard.

Hudson’s free-agent value: $5 million.

Belliard’s: $850,000.

Granted, Belliard got hot, absurdly hot, and few could argue with the move when the Dodgers advanced to their second straight National League Championship Series. But what the heck happened to Hudson? Did he suddenly just stink?

Well, sort of — Hudson, 32, had a .915 OPS before May 28 and a .696 OPS after that date. Still, two of the three scouts for a postseason team that scouted him down the stretch categorized him as a fringe All-Star.

Hudson remains an asset in the opinions of most scouts and executives.

Torre obviously felt differently in September, and some evaluators believe that Hudson no longer is the hitter or defender that he was before undergoing surgery on his left wrist in August 2008.

That, however, might be too simple a view.

Opponents adjusted to Hudson last season by pounding him inside. Perhaps Hudson, a switch-hitter, was unable to counter because of lingering soreness in his wrist. But one rival executive notes that Hudson was vulnerable on the inner third even before his injury.

Defensively, Hudson remains outstanding on popups and above average to his glove side. He is weaker to his backhand, but again his wrist might not be the only explanation. A second executive says that even before Hudson suffered his injury, his defense was in decline.

“He used to be a difference-maker,” the exec says. “Now he’s a tick above average.”

Still, from the Twins’ perspective, the package looks pretty good.

Hudson should prove an effective No. 2 hitter behind Denard Span and ahead of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. His pride in his fielding makes him a natural fit for the defensive-minded Twins. He plays hard every day, and his non-stop energy is infectious.

The Twins had questions at second base and third before signing Hudson; now they can just use Nick Punto, Brendan Harris and Co. at third and hope for the best. Punto had a Yuniesky Betancourt-like .621 OPS in 440 plate appearances last season. He figures to get less playing time now.

The bottom line is this: The Twins are better today than they were yesterday, and many in the game find it curious that the Dodgers turned on Hudson with such conviction.

There have been rumblings that Torre, an old-school type, grew disenchanted with Hudson’s chatty personality, but that doesn’t sound right. Hudson, in many ways, is old-school himself. He was one of the Dodgers’ hardest workers. He reacted to his benching with dignity, never complaining.

Hudson’s contract demands might have been excessive in the opinion of many clubs, but that was not an issue during the season, and the Dodgers never were going to pay him, anyway. In the end, Torre cares about performance. Belliard, toward the end of the season, was the better performer. OK, fine.

Now O-Dog gets his chance to bite back.