Quickly, and without much fanfare, J.J. Hardy and the Baltimore Orioles agreed to a three-year extension on the eve of last year’s American League Championship Series. It seemed like a good enough deal at the time. For $40 million over those three years, the Orioles would have themselves a Gold Glove-winning player who hit with power from a premium position. The New York Yankees were also seemingly a threat to swoop in and grab Hardy in the first free agency session of the post-Derek Jeter era should the Orioles have let him reach free agency.
All in all, it seemed like the best possible move for the Orioles. Finding premium power at the shortstop position is extremely difficult, and though Hardy was in a tier just below the truly elite shortstops, there are few better. Believe it or not, his 77 home runs from 2011-2013 actually led all Major League shortstops, although Troy Tulowitzki may have had something to say about that had he actually been able to stay on the field.
Here’s the thing about Hardy though. Staying on the field has also been difficult for him. In 2006, an ankle injury limited him to 35 games. The 2010 season saw him deal with nagging injuries and play only 101 games. He suited up only 129 times in his first season with the Orioles in 2011. Last year, a back injury limited him to 141 games and sapped his power. Now, in 2015, Hardy missed most of the first half with a shoulder injury, and is now on the disabled list with a groin injury. His back has also bothered him again.
The injuries have clearly begun piling up for Hardy, and his offensive value continues to dwindle. This year, he has sunk to a .222/.253/.315 line, all career lows. He has never come close to matching the .491 slugging percentage from 2011, and his groundball rate this year is the highest its ever been. At 33 years old, it appears the aging curve has begun its sharp decline for J.J. Hardy.
Hardy has looked a shell of himself this season. His bat speed looks greatly reduced, and he is rolling over pitches with regularity, unable to elevate the ball. On the basepaths, Hardy (never known for being fleet of foot) looks labored, and his range factor at shortstop has dropped below the league average. Though he still makes all the plays on balls hit to him, Hardy is not going to save the Orioles any runs defensively. As he continues to age into the final two years of the extension, his range will only further diminish.
The Orioles took a lot of flak last winter for allowing Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz to walk. The front office defended those decisions by citing the age and injury histories of those players. Were none of those same questions raised regarding Hardy? Markakis and Cruz certainly look like the safer money at this point. Cruz is having another MVP-caliber season, and Markakis continues to be an on-base machine. Though the former Oriole’s power has continued its sharp decline, he is still able to fall back on his ability to walk. That’s something Hardy has never been able to do. As he ages, unless there is some magic reversal in his approach at the plate, there will be a lot of unproductive trips to the plate for the shortstop with a career .308 OBP. With Markakis and Cruz continuing to produce, the Orioles appear to have hitched their horse to the wrong wagon.
The Orioles had their hand forced when it came to resigning J.J. Hardy. The leading candidate to replace him would have been Ryan Flaherty. Had Hardy continued hitting as he had in previous seasons, there would be no comparison between the two. Due to injury, however, Flaherty has produced nearly the same line as Hardy at a fraction of the cost.
With a long list of free agents to address this offseason — Chris Davis, Wei-Yin Chen, Darren O’Day, and Matt Wieters to name a few — Hardy’s contract looks like a sunk cost. The $26 million he will make the next two seasons could certainly have been deployed to keep any one of the team’s pending free agents. With Hardy’s contract looking like a poor investment, and Ubaldo Jimenez once again sparking a dumpster fire, how aggressive will tight-fisted owner feel when it comes time to open the checkbook?
Maybe the injury bug that has bitten Hardy nearly every season of his career will pass, and he will get back to the same level of production of his earlier years. That’s not really something that seems too likely at this point. The miracle reverse aging process that took place with great frequency in the early part of this millennium has been halted for some unknown reason. By the time his contract runs out, Hardy will be either a lead anchor on the bottom of the Orioles’ batting order, or nothing more than a part-time player. Hardy’s contract would have been a good one had he been able to stay healthy, but health has not been his calling card in 11 Major League seasons. The slow decline has started and has been accelerated by injuries. With Father Time still undefeated, the Orioles could have a very bad contract on their hands by the time 2018 rolls around.