Monday, September 8, 2014

Making the Case for J.J. Hardy in his First Free Agency Foray

At first glance, J.J. Hardy should be in line for a pretty large multiyear contract this offseason: a power hitting SS with Gold Glove credentials (and deservedly so) should be most team’s dream with money to spend and a hole to fill.  Sure, he comes with cause for concern when it comes to his back, having battled lower back spasms off and on this year, but it hasn’t prevented him from being worth 3.7 wins above replacement level this season.  

J.J. Hardy, 2014
But Hardy finds himself in an interesting position with just under a month left to play in his age 32 season.  Despite his reputation for putting balls into the seats (averaging 25.667 homers per season in his three Baltimore years leading up the 2014 campaign), he’s only hit 9 on the year thus far.  The back spasms could be to blame, making it harder for Hardy to clear his hips as he gets the bat head through the zone.  But there’s no evidence to suggest that the lingering issue is serious, and the offseason of rest may be all he needs to be back at full power in 2015.  To be fair, Hardy is making up for lost time in a big way.  After having not homered even once this season through June 20th, he’s hit .272/.317/.434 since.  That’s opposed to a triple slash line of .288/.317/.354 prior.  With just over 3 weeks left to play, he still has a chance at 15 dingers if he stays hot.  And that uptick in power comes with the always strong defense.  Could he land something in the range of a 5 year, $70M deal?

I think Hardy is worth the big multiyear deal to a lot of teams, and here’s why.

At age 32, many people would shy away from giving a shortstop known for strong defense a long contract, unless they thought they could shift him to a different position down the road and still get value from him.  Not known so much for his range but for making the plays that he should make, and personally from watching him make the plays when they matter, the Orioles’ shortstop is very steady.  Per Fangraphs’ Inside Edge defensive rating, which judges how hard a play is to make as rated by scouts, Hardy has made 96.7% of the “routine chance” plays, 76.2% of “likely chance” plays, 50% of “even chance” plays, 30% of the “unlikely chance” plays, and 0.0% of the “remote chance” plays; compare this to Braves wunderkind Andrelton Simmons at short who has made 98.6% “routine”, 87.0% “likely”, 84.6% “even”, 53.8% “unlikely”, and 13.0% “remote”.  At 32, Hardy does not have the young and incredibly athletic ability of his counterpart Simmons to take hits away from the opposition, but he makes up for this with preparation and positioning prior to the pitch and a strong arm.  That’s a skill set that generally ages much more gracefully than a defender that earns his reputation for an incredible range.

If a team was to dole out big money on an aging shortstop, J.J. Hardy has to be one of the best bets for holding up over the life of the contract, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.  Many teams with a hole at short will be enticed by his power bat, even if he ends up coming off of a down year and not capitalizing on the opportunity of playing half his games at Camden Yards.  If Hardy even posts slightly below average offensive numbers over the life of the deal, he’s going to be one less headache for any GM and manager going into games every night.  Let’s break down a few possible destinations for the free agent to be and why they’re a fit.

Baltimore Orioles
This one’s pretty obvious, considering Hardy is comfortable here, has put up strong numbers for three seasons going into 2014, has a good working relationship with Manager Buck Showalter, and the ballpark dimensions favor his right handed power bat.  Whether or not the front office will make the necessary adjustments in their payroll to make it work, a reluctance that has seen them miss out on many players before, remains to be seen.  There has been speculation as to whether Manny Machado will play short (his natural position coming up in the minors) if and when Hardy leaves, but with his recent knee problems, it may be in Machado’s best interest to stick at 3B.  There’s definitely going to be a need at Short come the offseason for the O’s, and probably and desire to stay on both Hardy and management’s part.

New York Yankees
In a turn that would surprise absolutely no one, the Yankees landing Hardy on a large multiyear deal makes a lot of sense for both parties.  Hardy should have the starting shortstop job going into the 2015 campaign with Jeter retiring, and there will even be a void at third sooner or later (perhaps sooner) once A-Rod’s contract is finally off the books.  This would allow Hardy to slide over to the left side of the diamond if and when his days of playing short seem numbered (although, as previously stated, I don’t think this will be an issue, figuring that he won’t land more than a 5 year deal).  New Yankee Stadium would actually play better for Hardy’s power swing with smaller dimensions in in Left Field down the line and all the way over to Left Center, as he predominately pulls the ball when he hits it out.  Yet another player into his mid-30s that could benefit from the “Yankee Stadium power hitting fountain of youth”.  I question whether the front office will sing the luxury tax song as it did most of last offseason, only to wind up going on a spending spree.  If staying below that line is once again no problem, I expect the Bombers to be serious suitors for Hardy.

Arizona Diamonbacks
And everyone would write the ol’ “you can go home again” headline, just to throw it in Thomas Wolfe’s face once more.  After having gone to high school and been drafted out of Tucson, Arizona, I’m willing to bet that Hardy probably grew up following a pretty exciting new expansion team in the very early 2000s (he was drafted in ’01, so I’m sure he was paying attention when they won their World Series).  This would be a homecoming for Hardy, and the desert air would be welcoming if he was looking to keep those offensive numbers up.  This move makes sense on the Diamondbacks’ part for a few reasons: first, Didi Gregorious hasn’t exactly wowed anyone at shortstop in parts of 2 seasons now; second, this is a franchise that is looking to contend while it still has Paul Goldschmidt in his prime, despite them being in a pretty tough division with the big spending Dodgers and Giants; third, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised for La Russa to want to make an impact with his new organization.  La Russa’s very familiar with what the shortstop brings to the table after having managed the Cardinals while Hardy was with the Brew Crew.  If this front office decides to spend, and with a new GM possibly free to make some changes, I see this as a very strong landing spot for Hardy.

The Dark Horse/Fringe Teams
There are a few other cities that I could see Hardy signing with depending on how things play out in the SS market (particularly with Hanley Ramirez being an impending free agent).  The big spending Dodgers, if the aforementioned Han-Ram walks; the Nationals, especially if they miss the World Series and feel that this is a move that could push them over the top; and Cincinnati, if they feel that the upgrade over Zack Cozart is enough for them to get back into contention next year in what currently is a parity driven NL Central.

Photo credit: Keith Allison


  1. I can't see the Nats as a landing spot, unless they plan to move Desmond to another position, 'cause they're sure not going to take his bat out of the lineup. I don't know much about his fielding but I haven't heard anything particularly negative, and his power numbers are at or near the top for shortstops.

  2. Right, I should have been a bit more clear about the Nationals... Any move with them would have to come with Hardy's okay to play second I would imagine, unless they'd be willing to move Desmond over to the keystone. Those two would combine for a pretty powerful middle infield. But again, that's why they're a fringe candidate.