Earlier this week, CC's Mark Brown asked for votes to determine who the Camden Chat community thought to be the Most Valuable Oriole of the 2014 season. While he may not be first on everyone's ballots, shortstop J.J. Hardy was someone that many people had to at least consider.
He is still as solid in the field as any other shortstop in the sport. Sure, he has disappointed with the power numbers this season, but he has seen his batting average climb to nearly a career high. On top of that, he is a consummate professional who is easier to root for. What's scary for the Orioles is that every other team in the league sees these things as well.
Hardy and the rest of the league
As mentioned above, in the field, Hardy is great. According to Fangraphs, he ranks second out of all shortstops in ultimate zone rating, third in double plays turned, fourth in defensive runs saved, third in range runs and second in double play runs. If you like to judge strictly on overall WAR then he is third in the MLB with a 3.6 behind Jhonny Peralta (5.5) and Erick Aybar (3.9).
Taken right from Fangraphs, range runs are "The number of runs above or below average a fielder is, determined by how the fielder is able to get to balls hit in his vicinity". Double play runs tells us "the number of runs above or below average a fielder is as compared to an average fielder".
Of course, I won't ignore things like the fact that he is middle of the pack when it comes to errors this season. He has made 13 flubs in the field. Not to mention, he is going to turn 33 during the season next year. You don't see many shortstops in their mid-30s.
And where the heck has his power gone. He used to be the premier home run hitter at the six spot on the diamond outside of Troy Tulowitzki. This season, he has just nine long balls. He is hitting .281, good for fourth in baseball by a shortstop, but the guy also strikes out the fourth most out of shortstops in the league and possess one of the lowest walk rates in the game.
Hardy and the Orioles
Hardy is not a great on-base guy. However, his .321 OBP is the highest he has ever had in an Orioles uniform and the best he has done since 2008 with the Brewers.
Who else are the Orioles going to put at shortstop in 2015? The obvious answer would have seemed to be Manny Macahdo a few months ago. That's great. Machado has all of the skills to be an elite player both defensively and offensively. The only problem is that his knees seem to have constant issues. This coming spring training, the young Oriole will be recovering from his third knee injury as a professional. That doesn't exactly bode well for long term reliability.
Who's next? Ryan Flaherty? Come on. The guy is an alright bench player. He can contribute solid defense and has a little pop in his bat, but everyone, even his biggest fan, Buck Showalter, knows he isn't the answer.
There are limited other internal options. Steve Lombardozzi doesn't have the arm for the position. Jonathan Schoop's skills are better served at second base. The only guy in the minors that possibly profiles as a big league shortstop is Adrian Marin, but he is only 20 years old and may also be a better fit elsewhere on the diamond.
Free agent options
There are six possible starting shortstops available on the free agent market in addition to Hardy. They are Mike Aviles, Asdrubal Cabrera, Stephen Drew, Jed Lowrie and Hanley Ramirez. Aviles has an option for 2015 with a $250,000 buyout.
The big fish here is obviously Ramirez. He is the shortstop that provides the biggest threat with the bat when he is healthy, which has been a bit of an issue the last two seasons. In 2014 he has slashed .276/.361/.442 with 13 home runs. That will come with a big price tag, however. One that the Orioles, if they were going to match, would likely prefer to spend on Hardy.
Drew has been awful for the Red Sox and Yankees since signing late with his name tied to draft pick compensation. He could be had on the cheap and that may not be a bad idea for some team. His batting average on balls in play is just .189. And he rates above average in the field with a UZR of 3.1. He will be 32 by the start of the 2015 season.
I had such a positive picture in my mind of Cabrera, probably because of that play he made against the Orioles and Felix Pie back in 2010. The reality is more grim. Cabrera shifted to second base when he moved to Washington at July's trade deadline. No matter, his defense has deteriorated with Fangraphs giving him a UZR of -6.5 at shortstop this season. He is slashing .243/.311/.393, but as a 28 year old, the switch-hitter should be just starting to figure it out, not rapidly declining.
In 2013, Lowrie was fantastic for the A's. He hit .290 with 15 home runs and 80 RBI, making himself a 3.5 WAR player. But 2014 has been a very different story. The 30 year old has clubbed just six long balls and owns a batting average of .245. His defense is OK (1.8 UZR at short in '14) but, overall, he doesn't represent a marked improvement on Flaherty if what is being seen this season is closer to reality. The switch-hitter suffered through a hairline fracture in his right index finger for much of August (going on the DL from Aug. 15 through the end of the month). He plays in a huge ballpark in Oakland and the pitching in the AL West is some of the best in baseball, but neither thing seemed to bother him just a season ago.
Aviles is going to be 34 by the start of the 2015 season. But that is not really the big point. He has only been at shortstop for 110 innings this year. He is more of a utility guy that is familiar with two-thirds of the positions on the diamond. He isn't going to be anyone's everyday shortstop in 2015.
Apart from the free agents named above, MLB Trade rumors named Alexei Ramirez , Jimmy Rollins, Elvis Andrus, Starlin Castro, Troy Tulowitzki, Chris Owings and Yunel Escobar as targets for teams in need of shortstop help.
Ramirez, soon-to-be 33 years old, will make $10 million in 2015. He is a real good all-around player, smacking 15 home runs this year with a slash line of .273/.306/.414 and rating as a really good fielder prior to this season.
Rollins is old. He is gonna be 36 years old in November. But he is still good in the field and he saw a rebound at the plate, hitting 17 home runs, scoring 78 runs and stealing 28 bases. He is still a viable starting option and will cost $11 million
I doubt the Orioles want any part of the deal that Andrus recently signed. Technically, he is penned through 2022 with an option for 2023, slated to make $14 million-$15 million per year. He can opt out after both the 2018 and 2019 seasons, but that just doesn't sound like an "Oriole contract" to me.
And it is similar for Castro. He is signed through 2019 with a $16 million option through 2020. Now, he is 24 years old so I don't think it is a ridiculous contract. But it would take a heck of a lot for the O's to pry Castro from the Cubs. They would likely be asking for Kevin Gausman and Hunter Harvey plus others. We know the Orioles aren't keen on losing those two.
Tulowitzki has a long term deal himself and is going to make $20 million in 2015. He is possibly the best hitting shortstop in the game, but he is expensive and has constant health issues. Baltimore isn't touching him.
Owings was Arizona's third ranked prospect entering the season, according to Baseball America. He is a nice player, but again, team's love their young guys. They aren't going to give them away for peanuts.
The most attainable of the group has to be Escobar. He is inked through 2016, with a $7 million option for 2017. Next season he will make just $5 million. This season, he has slahed .256/.323/.341 with seven home runs and 38 RBI. But he has been bad in the field, putting together a -16.6 UZR at shortstop this season. Prior to 2014, he was above average with the leather.
What will the Orioles do?
As you can see above, the O's have plenty of options but only a few really makes sense.
It seems likely that the Birds will have some money open with Nick Markakis either leaving via free agency, when his option is declined, or coming back for less than the $15 million he made in 2014. They will likely extend a qualifying offer to Nelson Cruz but he may get priced out of their range. Chris Davis was scheduled to make $10.35 million this year. It is possible the O's may not even bring him back at all next season.
Relying on Machado's wobbly knees is a questionable decision, at least it is coming off this season.
The free agent options are few. Ramirez doesn't fit the mold for what Showalter wants at shortstop and he is likely to cost even more than Hardy. Cabrerba or Drew could be a possible Plan B.
They won't want to pay (and have them on the books so long) what it takes to have some of the pricier trade options around, nor do they have the prospects. Escobar could be had, but his defense has become suspect and his bat is nothing great.
It makes the most sense for Baltimore to re-sign their current shortstop and pay the man what he is worth. Being that he is 32 years old, it would be fair to offer a three-year deal with an option for a fourth at right around $15 million per season (3 year, $45 million). They may even have to guarantee that fourth season. That would more than double his current salary ($7 million). Peralta, the leader in WAR for shortstops, signed with the Cardinals last year; 4 years for $53 million. Aybar, second in WAR for a shortstop, makes $8.5 million.
Hardy may very well get more than either one as he has two All-Star Game appearances, a Silver Slugger and two Gold Gloves himself. Peralta has gone to the Midsummer Classic twice. Aybar has gone once and has a Gold Glove.
What do you think the Orioles should do at shortstop for 2015? What is a fair contract for Hardy or any other option? What would you do? Let us know in the comments down below.