Instead of dealing away their most valuable pending free agent this month, the Orioles have decided to lock up shortstop J.J. Hardy through 2014, agreeing to terms Saturday on a three-year extension worth between $22 million and $22.5 million.
"There's a lot of things I don't have to worry about now," said the 28-year-old Hardy, who is in his first year with the club. "It's definitely a relief, a big weight off my shoulders. I can just worry about playing baseball now."
The deal is pending finalization of specific contractual language and Hardy passing a physical, which is expected to occur Sunday.
The extension includes a limited no-trade clause. Hardy cannot be traded to eight designated teams in 2012, 2013 or 2014. Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis has a similar no-trade clause, and second baseman Brian Roberts had an escalating one that averaged eight teams per year, but is up to 12 in 2011.
Although it may not be an official part of the new deal, the Orioles also have assured Hardy that he would not be traded before his contract kicks in next season — so he will not be flipped to a contender in July.
That stability is important to Hardy, who has played with three teams since 2009.
"That's a big part of the whole contract," said Hardy, who makes $5.85 million this year. "That I know I'm going to be here for three years and go from there."
Hardy could have pursued free agency for the first time in his career this offseason, but he said he wanted to remain an Oriole.
"I like all the guys in this clubhouse. I like the coaching staff," he said. "I just think overall I've had a lot of fun here, and there's been years I didn't have a lot of fun playing. That's a big thing for me, to have fun, and all these guys allow me to do that."
Orioles President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail and Matt Klentak, the director of baseball operations who negotiated the deal, do not comment on potential signings or extensions until the transaction is completed.
When asked about the extension before Saturday's game, Orioles manager Buck Showalter said, "I'd rather wait and not jinx it. I'm very supportive of it, I hope it happens."
Drafted in the second round in 2001 by the Milwaukee Brewers, Hardy was traded to Minnesota before the 2010 season. The Orioles acquired him from the Twins this winter for minor-league pitchers Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobsen.
He's fit well in Baltimore, both on the field and in the clubhouse. Heading into Saturday, he was batting .275 with 13 homers and 33 RBIs and has made just two errors in 63 games this season. He was asked to fill in at leadoff for an injured Roberts and had eight doubles, nine homers and a .274 average in his first 135 at-bats at the top of the order after never hitting there before in his career.
"I get the opportunity to play with him. I appreciate what he does at the position he's at and the position he got put in the lineup," Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis said of Hardy. "He's done a great job filling in for B-Rob. You know what you're going to get out of him every day. He plays the game hard, and he plays the game right. You can put him anywhere in the lineup pretty much. He's an all-around ball player and he's a guy you want on your team."
The signing also signifies that the Orioles will not be in full rebuilding mode this summer despite their last-place standing in the American League East. Hardy was the team's most attractive trade chip, as other pending free agents such as Michael Gonzalez, Vladimir Guerrero and Derrek Lee are unlikely to bring young building blocks in return.
"[The Hardy signing] means a lot to the club, the organization and most of all the fans," Markakis said. "They've been here longer than I have and all the guys in this clubhouse. They deserve it more than anything. We're working, we're trying to climb that mountain. We're on our way. It's only a matter of time."
Hardy is the club's best all-around shortstop since Miguel Tejada in his prime. Hardy has already hit more homers this season (13) than all Orioles' shortstops in the past three seasons combined (10).
The only knock on Hardy is his injury history. He missed a month this year with an oblique strain and hasn't played 145 games in a big-league season since 2008. But there hasn't been one reoccurring problem, so the Orioles believe he can stay healthy enough to provide a strong bridge to 19-year-old top prospect Manny Machado.
In turn, Hardy said he believes the Orioles, who started play Saturday with a nine-game losing streak and a 36-54 record, can turn things around.
"Right now it's not going that well, but there is some potential, and I feel like this team is a lot better than what we've been doing the last couple weeks," Hardy said. "I like challenges as well as being competitive. I feel like it's definitely a big challenge to turn this whole organization around, and if I can help and be a part of that, great."
Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.