Many considered J.J. Hardy as the potential silver medal to Jose Reyes in the shortstop trade market this summer. The Orioles put an end to such talk over the weekend, as they locked up the 28-year-old to a three year, $22.5 million deal. The deal appears to be a simple $7.5 million per year contract without any options, although it does include a limited no-trade clause, allowing Hardy to block trades to eight different teams each season. The price tag is high for a player who has struggled to stay on the field, but Hardy is also of a quality to warrant it.
At this point, there should be little doubt about Hardy’s quality as a player. Hardy has a legitimate ability to hit for power which seems more or less absent among most shortstops these days; he has a career .166 ISO and a .212 mark this season after his freedom from spacious Target Field. He doesn’t have any major flaws, either, as his walk rate, strikeout rate, and BABIP all hover near the league average for his career.
Despite his more than competent bat, Hardy is most known for his defense. Every defensive metric available here at FanGraphs has rated him well above average each and every year of his pre-Baltimore career except for two years of -1 performance in 2005 and 2006 by TZL. Having watched him as a Brewer for five seasons, I can sufficiently say he passed the eye test. But this year his defense has been graded below average by DRS, UZR, and TotalZone, all marking him around three runs below average. This has led to speculation that Hardy’s injuries are hampering his defensive ability; personally, I hesitate to call Hardy anything worse than average at shortstop.
This overall quality has made Hardy one of the league’s better shortstops since 2008, compiling 10.6 WAR in 1,751 plate appearances. Of course, attention must be paid to the number 1,751 — a low number of plate appearances for three-and-a-half seasons. As a result, Hardy has the unenviable perception of being injury prone. I’m not sure this is entirely fair. Hardy is looking at about 100 more plate appearances if the Brewers don’t stupidly demote him to the minor leagues in 2009. His first major injury in 2006 was the result of a freak play at home plate in which Sal Fasano‘s shin guards broke Hardy’s ankle. Since then, he’s had a left wrist injury in 2010 (45 games) and an oblique injury (25 games).
Past injury is a good predictor of future injury, but if Hardy can make it through the rest of the 2011 season without issue — and he hasn’t even had a day-to-day since returning on May 10th — he will have averaged around 120 games per season over the last four years. Considering he’s averaged about 3.0 WAR per 120 games, he would have surplus value in spades if he can accomplish that.
The move does seem short-sighted for an Orioles team which doesn’t appear to have any legitimate aspirations for contention in the next three years. But if Hardy does indeed manage to be a moderately durable player — a fair designation for a player who appears in 120 games per year, I think — his contract would be immensely movable, able to bring in necessary prospects for the rebuilding effort. The Orioles also aren’t a small-market team or even a mid-market team — this is a team that had the money to offer nine figures to Mark Teixeira without worry, and $7.5 million won’t be a backbreaker for a team in that market.
So yes, the Orioles are taking a bit of a risk with a player who has suffered a few injuries in his career. But make no mistake, there is a significant amount of calculation on the part of Andy MacPhail and his front office. The prospect of failure is there, for sure. But the risk is minimal, and the potential reward for the Orioles is much greater, whether it comes from Hardy’s performance for the club or his return in a future trade.