On Monday, it was announced that J.J. Hardy, the Orioles starting shortstop, fractured his right wrist after being hit by a pitch on Father’s Day. The recovery period is expected to be somewhere around 4-6 weeks. Of course, it’s never nice to see someone get hurt, especially a fan favorite, locker room leader, and everyday player. But it’s possible that there is a silver lining to this injury.
Hardy’s hard time
It’s no secret. Hardy’s 2017 season at the plate has been, in a word, horrible. Through 64 games, the Arizona native has a slash line of .211/.248/.308 with three home runs, 21 RBI, 11 doubles and a triple (somehow). Among qualified hitters, Hardy’s 43 wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) is the second-worst mark in all of Major League Baseball, ahead of only the Royals Alcides Escobar and his 19 wRC+.
That means the Orioles essentially have no where to go but up when it comes to offensive production from the shortstop position. Ruben Tejada is likely to be the replacement for the foreseeable future. While far from an offensive stalwart, he does have a career .252/.326/.321 line and is only 27 years old, making him a child compared to the nearly 35-year-old Hardy. He won’t give you too much pop, but Tejada should get on base more often and is considerably faster than the injured veteran.
Avoiding awkward conversations
The 2017 season is the final guaranteed campaign of Hardy’s current contract. However, he does have a team option for 2018 worth $14 million. Given the player’s current production, it would seem unlikely that the Orioles would be interested in such a deal. Instead, they would prefer the $2 million buyout.
But Hardy’s contract states that if he were to reach 600 plate appearances this season, then that 2018 season, and the massive salary, would automatically vest. To this point, he was on a 569 PA pace, and it would have been within the realm of possibility for him to reach that 600 number. This injury all but eliminates that chance.
If Hardy had been closing in on that magic number come September, the front office may have put pressure on manager Buck Showalter to sit Hardy down the stretch. The Orioles still view themselves as a playoff contender. Those teams don’t want to be haggling over lineups based on off-field concerns.
While the right wrist is the latest health problem for the O’s shortstop, it’s obvious by watching the veteran move around that the bumps and bruises are piling up. Earlier in his career, Hardy has suffered a dislocated shoulder, torn labrum, sprained ankle and a broken foot. Some extended time off will not only help his wrist recover, but may improve the rest of his achy joints.
This could be a good time for Hardy to get off the field. If everything goes as expected, Hardy will hit free agency this winter. He may return to Baltimore on a much lower salary, or he may have a few suitors, or he may even retire. No matter what, the shortstop will want to finish the season with a strong final two months.
Despite his offensive deficiencies, the Arizona native remains a steady, major league caliber shortstop with the leather. Fangraphs gives him a defensive rating of 3.4 above average and a UZR/150 of 2.9. Granted, both of those are career-low marks, but they are each vastly superior than younger players at the position, like the Astros’ Carlos Correa.
Admittedly, Hardy’s approach at the plate has been tough to watch for a while now, but he is probably still worth a couple million bucks to the right team. Putting together a healthy August and September could be hugely important as winter approaches and teams look for a cheaper alternative to the shortstop position’s big prize, Zack Cozart.
Exploring other options
With Hardy hurt, the Orioles will surely institute the “next man up” philosophy. Right now, that man is Tejada, a 27-year-old who has been in the bigs with the Mets but also spent time in the minors with the Cardinals, Yankees and Giants. At one point, in 2009, he was the Mets number nine prospect. But odds are he will never reach that ceiling. Instead, expect Cesar Izturis with a little more on-base ability.
If things don’t pan out with Tejada, the team could turn to Paul Janish or, eventually, Ryan Flaherty to fill the void. But everyone knows what to expect from them. Either would be fine if this were a day-to-day type of injury, but it’s not.
Dipping into free agency or even the trade market at this point is a fool’s game. Anyone available to sign can’t be too great, and with the trade deadline more than a month away, other team’s have no reason to accept anything less than a substantial return, something the O’s can’t offer.
So, the pressure falls within the organization once again. The big three internal options (Tejada, Janish, Flaherty) were mentioned already. But the elephant in the room is Manny Machado. The soon-to-be-25-year-old wants to play shortstop. He’s done it before in the bigs, and done a fine job. If Hardy leaves in the offseason, expect to see Manny in his spot for the 2018 season. But then the problem becomes filling those massive shoes at the hot corner.
Drew Dosch is Norfolk’s starting third baseman. His numbers look quite solid; .307/.371/.471 with six home runs and 37 RBI. He is about to turn 25 as well, but he is not even one of the Orioles top 30 prospects, according to MLB Pipeline. In one of the worst minor league systems in baseball, that says a lot. And the organizations top-regarded young players for the position are Ryan Mountcastle and Jomar Reyes, but both are only 20 years old and not nearly ready to make the jump.
If the Orioles fall too far out of the playoff race before Hardy returns, it would make sense to move Machado to shortstop and see what Dosch, or even Bowie’s Aderlin Rodriguez (25 years old, .318/.373/.504 with 12 home runs and 46 RBI) can do. But for now, Tejada is a good band aid and maybe even an improvement over Hardy.