Like most interested observers, Cal Ripken Jr. doesn’t know exactly what the Orioles will do with the left side of their infield next year.
This much he’s sure of, though: At least for 2014, the Orioles appear set with Gold Glovers J.J. Hardy and Manny Machado at shortstop and third base, respectively, the two positions that Ripken occupied for 21 Hall-of-Fame seasons in Baltimore.
“You have one of the best shortstops in the league playing shortstop for you every day, being productive,” Ripken said. “And then you have a young kid next to him that has proved out that he can be considered one of the best third basemen in the league. So you have a great left side of the infield. So who wouldn’t want that?”
Ripken, who was at Ed Smith Stadium on Wednesday to promote and sign his latest baseball novel for young readers, “Squeeze Play,” which he co-wrote with former Baltimore Sun columnist Kevin Cowherd, stopped short of saying that the Orioles should sign pending free agent Hardy to a long-term extension.
But the greatest shortstop in club history didn’t hesitate when he was asked what he thought of Hardy’s skills at the position.
“The results have been obvious. He does it without a lot of fanfare. He does it consistently. He makes all of the plays and is in the right spot all the time. And [it’s not] unnoticed to me,” said Ripken, who played catch with Hardy, and then threw the ceremonial first pitch to him before the Orioles played the Philadelphia Phillies. “Being able to see him in an Orioles uniform gives you a chance to see him a little bit more every day, and you fully start to appreciate what his presence means.”
Hardy, 31, is heading into his fourth full season with the Orioles. If he plays for the club through the end of the 2015 season, he’d be the first shortstop to play five full consecutive seasons at the position since Ripken from 1982 to 1996 (Mike Bordick spent six seasons at shortstop for the Orioles, but he was traded in the middle of 2000 season and then returned as a free agent in the offseason).
As much as he admires Hardy, Ripken admits he is also curious about what Machado could do at shortstop, which the 21-year-old had played his entire life until switching to third base in the major leagues in 2012.
“If J.J. goes down to injury or J.J. ends up moving on, it’s interesting to look at the skill set that Manny Machado brings and to project him at the position. But I’m not in the inner meetings of [Orioles manager] Buck Showalter and [executive vice president] Dan Duquette,” Ripken said. “I’m saying it from a shortstop’s perspective, seeing a skill set that Manny brings and the strength of his arm.
“At some point, it would be interesting to see him apply those types of skills to the position of shortstop. But if you had a choice of having those two guys for five, six more years, that’s a pretty good left side of the infield.”
Ripken, who works as a baseball analyst among other business endeavors, said he’s pretty impressed with what the Orioles did in the offseason and the product the club will have on the field in 2014.
“It’s kind of funny to me, being around Baltimore, that the expectations have risen the last couple of years about this team. In the early parts [of the offseason], everyone was saying we hadn’t made any moves, kind of stood pat,” he said. “There’s an expectation now that there’s a foregone conclusion you’re a competitive playoff team, and that you need to improve your team each and every year like everybody else in your division is doing.”
Ripken was part of a 1996 playoff club that set the franchise record for runs in a season (949, compared to 745 last year). With the addition of slugger Nelson Cruz to an already potent lineup, this version of the Orioles potentially could challenge that group.
“We had people throughout the lineup that had power [in 1996]. And being able to score a run without having someone in scoring position is a pretty valuable asset to have,” Ripken said. “This lineup here [has] a lot of guys that can hit the ball out of the ballpark, a lot of guys who are good hitters … So, potentially this offense has the potential to be one of the better offenses in the league and score a lot of runs.”
The key, as always, is how the club pitches in the American League East.
“What wins, ultimately, is your ERA and your pitching,” Ripken said. “The potential for this team to have a deep pitching staff is there as well.”
Ripken spent a few minutes in the clubhouse before the game talking with Showalter, players and several of his old teammates, who are now coaches in the Orioles’ system.
“I get the best of both worlds. I get a glimpse of what my life used to be like and also stay busy and do some of the things that I like to do as well,” Ripken said. “I feel very comfortable going into Buck’s clubhouse. I sat down with [Alan Mills, Scott McGregor and Mike Bordick]. In many ways, it feels like old times, which is really cool, and I enjoy that.”
Showalter said Ripken is always welcome to stop by. He said he’d love to have the Hall of Famer work more with the team in the spring, but Ripken’s hectic schedule makes that difficult.
“He is so busy. We tried to get him down here as much as he can, but he is the type of guy, if he isn’t able to commit for a long period of time, he’d rather not. He doesn’t just want to come in and out as some figurehead. He has so much to offer,” Showalter said. “When we get a chance to be around him, it’s an honor. The players like having him around.”