J.J. Hardy has spent seven seasons in Baltimore. He has been a huge part of the core that returned the Orioles to winning ways. And at his peak, he may have been the best shortstop in baseball, winning three Gold Gloves and a Silver Slugger award. But the 35-year-old has struggled to stay healthy and be productive in recent years. With his contract expiring this fall and the emergence of Tim Beckham at his position, we may soon see the end of Hardy donning the orange and black.
Last week, The Baltimore Sun did a nice piece on Hardy and his current role as a “bench player”. He seems to be taking it in stride. The addition of Beckham made sense and Hardy feels no ill will towards the organization. But just because his deal with the O’s is nearing its likely end (Hardy has a $14 million team option for 2018, or a $2 million buyout) doesn’t mean Hardy is done with baseball.
“I know I can play,” Hardy told The Sun. “I look back at seasons that I’ve had and I’ve never got off to a good start. One year, I think I got off to a good start, and I think that was 2007, and every other year I’ve come out of the gate super slow and then ended up coming back and having pretty good years. Same thing as this year. I got off to a slow start and then instead of me having time to dig myself out of the hole, I got hurt and it basically ended my season. It’s been a tough year for that just because I wasn’t able to bounce back, but to question whether I can still play or not, that’s not a question in my mind.”
Bye bye, Baltimore?
That sounds like Hardy’s plan is to find a job somewhere in the 2018 season. But will it be with the Orioles? It seems unlikely.
Beckham is the clear starting shortstop heading into next summer. He was a key cog in the Orioles offensive outburst in August. During that first month with the Birds, he slashed .394/.417/.646, a major improvement on Hardy and his .217/.256/.313 line this year. Hardy may still be a superior fielder, even at his advanced age, but not by so much that he even comes close to nudging Beckham for playing time.
If Hardy’s not starting, he’s likely not interested in signing a deal, and neither should the Orioles. While J.J. likely has the ability to play elsewhere on the diamond, he’s never done it at the major league level. Over 1519 career games in the field, every single one of them has come as a shortstop. That would exclude him from taking that utility role that has typically been filled by Ryan Flaherty, who can also become a free agent this winter.
Shopping for shortstops
It’s a thin free agent pool at the shortstop position this winter, which makes the O’s trade deadline move for Beckham that much more important. The main prize will be 32-year-old Zack Cozart from the Cincinnati Reds. So, while Hardy is far from his prime, this could be the ideal winter to hit the market.
If Cozart leaves Cincy, Hardy could take his spot. The Reds won’t expect to compete in 2018 and their top three shortstop prospects are all in the low minor leagues. J.J. could serve as a reliable stop gap for one year.
The San Diego Padres have had the worst group of shortstops in all of baseball this season. They boast a slash line of .216/.281/.344 as a unit. Erick Aybar is their starter currently, but he will be a free agent this winter. Their top hitting prospect is shortstop Luis Urias, and he has torn up double-A this year, but could be held back another year.
Beyond that, it may get tough for J.J. to find a straightforward path to starting. The Athletics’ shortstops have struggled, but their top prospect Franklin Barreto looks ready. Troy Tulowitzki had a horrendous season for the Blue Jays, but he has a huge contract and needs to play.
Ride off into the sunset
Hardy does not need to continue playing professional baseball. According the Baseball Reference, he has made nearly $80 million in salary alone in his career. And since he has eclipsed 10 years of service time in MLB, Hardy will receive a nice pension from the league.
While his number two jersey won’t be retired by the Orioles, Hardy is a shoo-in for the team’s Hall of Fame one day, and his sideburns will always been iconic. Throw in his two All-Star selections and the handful of awards he has won and you have a pretty impressive career.
In an ideal world, Hardy would get one last shot at starting on a major league team. That won’t happen in Baltimore, and it may not happen elsewhere either. J.J. doesn’t fit the bench player mold and may have to settle for a minor league deal with an invite to spring training. But don’t expect to see the veteran ride the bus down on the farm. If he’s not on an opening day roster in 2018, he could hang up the spikes for good.