J.J. Hardy would have been the top priority for the Orioles during the offseason. Instead, he enters the offseason with a shiny new contract of $40 million over 3 years that was announced just before the start of the ALCS. The contract is a nice reward after Hardy enjoyed another productive season with his outstanding glove and satisfactory bat. With Hardy extended, the O's do not have to worry about finding a replacement at shortstop in free agency, nor about whether to move Manny Machado there after his second knee surgery.
Hardy's glove has never been a problem. In his 10 seasons in the majors, UZR has never rated him as below average defensively at SS, while DRS rates him as negative only in a single season in 2010. While Hardy rarely makes the spectacular plays that Andrelton Simmons does, his best quality defensively is his sure-handedness.
When the O's pitchers allow a ground ball toward the general direction of the shortstop, I expect the play to be made. Defense tends to decline rapidly as a player ages, and Hardy is already 32 years old, so it's unclear how long his defensive excellence can last. However, Hardy's defense relies less on speed and explosiveness than usual, so it's possible he can remain elite defensively over the duration of the contract.
It's Hardy's bat that has fluctuated between valuable and acceptable for a shortstop. In his four seasons with the O's, his wRC+ has oscillated from 113 to 78 to 100 to 90. Although a wRC+ of 90 is more than adequate for a shortstop of Hardy's glove, there are some worrying signs in the way he achieved it in 2014.
At this point, we can give up our wish that Hardy might someday learn how to take a walk, the same way we treat Adam Jones. Since arriving in Baltimore, Hardy has never cracked 6% in walk rate. It's not Jones territory, but it's the reason why Hardy has a difficult time cracking .300 in OBP.
As has been mentioned more than a few times, Hardy lost a lot of his power this season. In his three previous seasons in Baltimore, he averaged 25 homeruns a season. In 2014, he managed to hit the ball over the wall only a measly 9 times. Thankfully, his doubles output did not diminish at all.
Still, he posted his lowest ISO in his career at .104, down from .170 in 2013 and his career average of .161. More worryingly, he has coupled his declining power with the highest strikeout rate of his career at 18.3%. This came after his 2013 campaign where he almost set the lowest strikeout rate of his career at 11.3%. His strikeout rate grew by 7% over just a single season, the fifth largest increase for players with more than 300 PA in both 2013 and 2014.
So how has Hardy retained most of his production at the plate with his contact and power significantly diminished? The answer is simply BABIP. Hardy has always had a low BABIP due to his lack of line drives and propensity for pop ups. From 2011 to 2013, Hardy had a combined BABIP of of .262, far below the league average around .300, In 2014, the trend reversed and Hardy posted an above-average BABIP of .317.
While some of the growth can be explained by his uptick in line drives, the rest of his batted ball profile remains similar and he still popped the ball up at a very high rate. It's likely that the BABIP surge is unsustainable, and if he does not regain his power or cut back his strikeouts, Hardy's production at the plate might plummet.
Despite these concerns, Hardy would probably be the best free agent shortstop on the market had he not been extended, depending on whether you deem Hanley Ramirez as a SS. Hardy's departure would have left a gaping hole at SS for the O's that is very difficult to fill. While the extension does not represent a significant discount, no one should be complaining about Hardy's extension.