Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy has had a rough start to the 2017 season. Through the end of April, his batting average (.195), on-base percentage (.225) and slugging percentage (.273) are all in the bottom four of qualified major league shortstops. Meanwhile, natural shortstop Manny Machado, and his eventual free agency, cast a large shadow from third base.
At this point, it feels like a foregone conclusion that the $14 million team option on Hardy’s contract for the 2018 season will not be picked up. Instead, the Orioles will probably opt for the $2 million buyout and go from there.
Maybe Hardy will re-sign for a lesser amount. Maybe he will search for a starting spot elsewhere. Or maybe he even retires altogether. But at this point in his career, Hardy is not a $14 million player; that much is certain.
The Arizona native, who will turn 35 in August, is the oldest player on the Orioles roster and plays one of the more physically demanding positions on the field. By now, the shortstop’s injury history is well known.
Since being drafted by the Brewers in 2001, he has suffered a dislocated shoulder, a torn labrum (twice), a severely sprained ankle, a broken foot and recurring back issues. This past spring training, he missed time once again with those same back spasms.
Back in 2015, Hardy was also sidelined in Sarasota with injury concerns. At the time, it was a shoulder problem that was eventually revealed to be a torn labrum. He ended up playing the entire season with that shoulder problem and struggled mightily to break even with a 0.0 WAR for the year thanks to continued defensive aptitude, but floundering offensive numbers. This year, even his work with the glove has been an issue.
Through 21 games, Hardy has two errors and and a .979 fielding percentage. Those really aren’t bad numbers, but they aren’t up to the level that we are used to with the three-time Gold Glove winner either. Last year, over 115 games, J.J. had just six total errors. Roughly, he is on pace for about twice as many errors if he plays the same number of games this season.
More concerning are the advanced statistics from Fangraphs. Spoiler: they aren’t kind to Hardy so far this season. His range runs above average is -2.0, the worst mark of his career. Similarly, they give him an ultimate zone rating of -1.5, the first negative rating of his career.
It’s a small sample size, and there is plenty of time for Hardy to make up for it, but it would seem that Hardy is slowing down, literally. He’s not covering as much ground as he once did. As a result, he can’t get to as many ground balls or fly balls anymore.
It is the same story with the bat. Hardy just doesn’t have as much pop or strength behind his swing. This was a guy who hit 30 home runs and drove in 80 runs back in 2011, his first season in Baltimore. This year, he is on pace for about six home runs and 36 RBI; both would be career lows for a full season.
Look no farther than Hardy’s 39 OPS+ or his .078 ISO. Those would be fine for a National League pitcher, but a starting shortstop?
Surely, Hardy will get as much time as he needs to work this out. He is a 13-year veteran, earns a hefty salary, is beloved by both the fanbase and his teammates and has a proven track record that affords him a longer leash than most. He deserves the chance to get back on track and manager Buck Showalter is one of his biggest supporters.
That said, the Orioles are in “win-now” mode. A huge chunk of the roster has contracts that are set to expire after this season and the next, including Machado, Chris Tillman, Zach Britton and Adam Jones. Hardy is in that group as well.
If he can buoy himself through defensive wizardy, the O’s will have no problem carrying his light bat. But if he continues to struggle on both sides of the ball, they may need to find another solution. It’s tough to win a championship with a black hole at one position.
Where to go from here?
It’s scary and weird to even think about, but what if Hardy is at the end of his rope, and we are watching the painful end to an awesome career? What should the Orioles do? The answer, unfortunately, is that they don’t have many options.
Moving Machado to shortstop makes sense. He would be great there, and would immediately become the best-hitting player at the position in all of baseball. But then what do the O’s do at the hot corner? Sliding Manny over doesn’t solve the problem, it just changes which hole needs to be filled.
Other internal shortstop options include Ryan Flaherty, Paul Janish and a couple of Double-A guys who probably aren’t ready for the bigs just yet.
If Machado made the move to short and you were looking for solid third base options, you won’t find much in Norfolk, or elsewhere in the organization. The Tides’ Drew Dosch is getting on base at a nice clip (.333/.415/.431) but has never shown much power as a professional. Norfolk also has Alex Castellanos, who has had a cup of coffee with the Dodgers, but he is more of a utility guy than a starting third baseman.
The only notable free agent is Alexei Ramirez, but he is a year older than Hardy and there is a reason he is available in May. He stinks.
And at this point, or even within a month or so, the trade market is dry. Unless a team is willing to part with a guy for cash considerations, the Orioles don’t seem to stand a chance at anyone who is an upgrade. Two names that may be available later on: Pittsburgh’s Jordy Mercer and San Diego’s Erick Aybar. Get hype!!
My opinion: stick with Hardy unless an incredibly intriguing trade pops up. He won’t hit this bad forever and his glove will get back to its solid form. However, he should be given frequent days off; like two or three per week. If that means Flaherty at short, or maybe third with Machado at short, then so be it. But Hardy needs to save his body or else he will need another lengthy DL stint with his troublesome back or shoulder.