One of the more interesting decisions Dan Duquette and the Orioles front office has to make is in regards to their shortstop, JJ Hardy. Hardy is entering his age 31 season and will be a free agent at the end of the 2014 season. The decision of whether or not to extend Hardy will be difficult for a number of reasons. First, he won’t be signed for his prime seasons. He also will be entering a difficult age range for shortstops as most do tend to lose a step or two. And, likely most importantly, the decision likely impacts the career of Manny Machado.

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The Orioles’ organization and fans have to be pleased with the production they have received from Hardy since he was acquired in December of 2010 for Brett Jacobson and Jim Hoey. Looking back, this was one of the more lopsided trades of the decade. At the time, Hardy has in the middle of a two year run where he couldn’t stay on the field. His last season in Milwaukee, he played in just 115 games. After being acquired by the Twins for Carlos Gomez–which makes this whole trade look even worse for them–he played in just 101 games.

Since coming to the Orioles, Hardy has averaged .256/.298/.434 with 28 doubles and 27 home runs. More importantly, after playing in just 129 games in 2011, he has played in 158 and 159 games in each of the past two seasons, which has more than justified the 3 year $22.5 million contract he was given. In fact, if Hardy replicates his production in 2014, the Orioles have had one of the better bargains in the sport.

While the .298 on base percentage is poor, it is offset by his defensive prowess. Since 2011, Hardy has been a top defender in the sport. According to defensive runs saved, his 34 runs saved over that period ranks third behind just Brendan Ryan and Clint Barmes. His 27.2 UZR ranks second, just behind Barmes for the best in the sport. Considering that Hardy has logged about 900 more innings than the other two and his offense is far more valuable, there hasn’t been a better overall shortstop in the sport over the past three seasons. That’s not to say he is the top offensive shortstop in the game or even the best shortstop in the game as that title belongs to Troy Tulowitzki. However, he is a top 10 shortstop when weighing his defensive skills. Heading into a free agent year and with a number of job openings for 2015–specifically in New York–Hardy should be a sought after free agent.

All of this leaves the Orioles in a difficult spot. Projecting players whose value comes from defense is difficult as they enter their mid-30’s. A long term deal is problematic for someone in this age range as the defensive regression won’t likely be felt until three or four years into the deal. If Hardy hits the open market at age 32, is it difficult to see him getting a five or six year deal? Judging from this winter, it would be a disappointment if he didn’t.

Offensively, there isn’t much room for improvement. His walk rate has been a steady 5.5 percent over the past three years. With the exception of his age 25 season, he has never gotten on base at a league average rate. And, he doesn’t have all that much speed. With the exception of home runs, he doesn’t get many extra base hits. He generally produces the same number of home runs and doubles. But, his strikeout rate does give some indication of a better approach. His strikeout rate has dropped in each of the past two years. Last year, it was just 11.3 percent, while the league average was 19.8 percent.

While his offensive game is limited, one skill that likely won’t go away is his home run power. Since 2011, Hardy leads all shortstops with 77 home runs. The next closest is Tulowitzki with 63. While that has more to do with Tulowitzki’s injury troubles, one cannot underrate Hardy’s ability to take the field since coming to Baltimore. While Hardy is out of the top 10 according to wOBA and wRC+, he ranks sixth amongst shortstops since 2011 in terms of WAR.

The Orioles decision with Hardy will be a window into their clouded philosophy. The organization hasn’t shown that it wants to spend a premium on free agents. If Hardy hits the open market, he will most likely get a contract that will be costly in terms of length. Any team that signs him will be paying for a two year window of current play before defensive regression starts to get serious. The last year or two on the deal will most likely be a sunken cost. The Orioles have never shown a willingness to do that. If they did, this winter would have played out far differently.

It’s further complicated by the presence of Manny Machado. While he is still so young and can likely switch back to shortstop at any time, is it wise to move someone who you already know is an elite defensive third baseman and who is coming off of a leg injury? At some point, Machado may just have to be left at third base. Obviously, he is capable of the move, but the more time he logs at third base, the more he becomes a third baseman. The move back to shortstop should not be considered easy, even with the young Machado. Re-signing Hardy means Machado is a third baseman for his career.

Duquette’s ideal situation would be to get Hardy to agree to some form of a three or four year extension. The first two years would likely net value. After that, the Orioles would have to hope his defense doesn’t fall apart too quickly. That would be ideal. It doesn’t, however, behoove Hardy unless he loves playing in Baltimore. He will get a big contract as a free agent if he can produce in 2014 like he has since 2011. The other option is a trade. That won’t happen unless everything goes wrong in Baltimore this season. If the Orioles are out of contention, a trade could bring back a decent package. That return will have the be weighed against the the possibility of a first round pick that the Orioles would (most likely)receive if Hardy leaves as a free agent.

For the past three years, the Orioles have had one of the most underrated players in the sport and were paying him as such. It’s now time for them to decide if they want to take a chance on the mid-30’s version of Hardy or simply feel good about getting his best years at a value. Projecting a decision is difficult because there are a few key Orioles in line for an extension. Matt Wieters and Chris Davis are two key decisions to make. Chris Tillman and Manny Machado might need a long term deal relatively soon in order save arbitration costs. In other words, Hardy could be a lower priority. Yet, if he leaves, it will impact the team defense–a foundation of the team–in a big way.

It’s a bit surprising that the Orioles haven’t been aggressive with Hardy, who has given them all-around excellent play for three seasons. Yet again, it fits in perfectly with their actions this winter.

Gary Armida
Gary Armida

Orioles Analyst

First and foremost, a Father. After that, I am a writer and teacher who not only started my own company and published an i-magazine as well as a newsletter, but have been published by USA Today, Operation Sports, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Digest, Gotham Baseball Magazine, and numerous other publications. As an educator, I have 20 years of classroom experience and am utilizing that experience in my current position as department coordinator. Wrote the book The Teacher And The Admin ( and operate that website which is dedicated to making education better for kids.