As Spring Training continues, one of the major storylines to watch has been the progress of contract negotiations between the Orioles and three team centerpieces in catcher Matt Wieters, first baseman Chris Davis, and shortstop J.J. Hardy. Today, let’s take a look at Hardy, what he brings to the table, and decide if it’s worth it for the Orioles to bring him back after his contract expires at the end of this year.
Throughout the offseason and into Spring Training, Orioles General Manager Dan Duquette has expressed his desire to sign Hardy to a contract extension, prolonging his time in Baltimore and giving the Orioles a dependable option in the middle of its infield. According to Hardy, there has been no contact thus far, leaving fans to wonder what the plan is in the Warehouse.
Hardy has been a key piece of the success the Orioles have had over the last two years, winning two consecutive Gold Gloves and one Silver Slugger, establishing himself as one of the best shortstops in the game. Hardy is a proven commodity, and the Orioles pretty much know what they’re going to get out of him: great defense, low-ish batting average, low on-base percentage, and power production that blows most other major league shortstops out of the water.
At 30, Hardy likely has a few more years of above average production left, and the Orioles would gladly take a few more repeat performances of Hardy’s 2013 season, where he slashed .263/.306/.433 and made the American League All-Star team. League average shortstops only slashed .256/.307/.373 in 2013 and hit less than 12 home runs.
Hardy is also a valuable team leader. Since Hardy joined the Orioles in 2011, only team stalwarts Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, have remained with the team up to this point and played a significant role.
There seems to be a lot of reasons to keep Hardy on this team, especially if he agrees to a contract extension that doesn’t bring him into his declining years — likely somewhere around age 33 or 34. However, extending his contract beyond that length could mean losing the man who currently plays to Hardy’s right, third baseman Manny Machado.
Machado came up through the Orioles farm system as a shortstop and has expressed his desire to play the position at the major league level several times. He feels strongly about it and it doesn’t appear he’ll have a change of heart. As crucial as it seems to sign J.J. Hardy now, how does that compare to the importance of signing Manny Machado when he becomes a free agent in 2019?
Unless Machado is guaranteed that he will be the shortstop heading into the 2019 season, it’s unlikely he want to remain an Oriole. If Machado continues to progress and turns into the major league superstar he’s projected to be, there would likely be plenty of competitive offers on the table that would both pay Machado big money and allow him to play his position of choice.
Before today, some fans dreamed of an infield that still included both Hardy and Machado, granting Machado his wish of playing shortstop and moving Hardy to second base. However, Hardy all but defused that possibility when he told MASNsports.com’s Steve Melewski this:
“If there are any intentions at all of signing me to a long-term deal and wanting Manny to move over to short, I would definitely want to know that before. Because, yeah, I still feel like I can play shortstop and that is what I want to do.”
It’s become increasingly clear that Machado and Hardy can’t coexist on the Orioles in the long term, so the Orioles are left with three options: sign Hardy to a shorter term deal and move Machado to shortstop after Hardy’s departure in three years or less; let Hardy walk after this year and move Machado immediately, forging goodwill between the team and its future face of the franchise and increasing the likelihood of a long term contract; or sign Hardy to a long term deal, taking him into his declining years and alienate Machado.
You don’t need to be a major league GM to understand the importance of keeping players with upside. Machado has it, while what we’ve seen from Hardy is likely the best we’ll ever see from him again.
Machado needs to be the shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles in 2019 or earlier. However that affects the negotiations with Hardy, so be it. The worst case scenario for Orioles fans isn’t losing J.J. Hardy after this year, it’s losing Machado and potential for him to be the team’s cornerstone for years to come.