This time last year, there were more questions than answers about Orioles shortstopJ.J. Hardy.
Personally, the newcomer fit in well: Unassuming, friendly, movie-star good-looking and the unrivaled and unbeaten king of the clubhouse ping pong table.
But professionally, who was he? What had the Orioles received from the Minnesota Twins in December 2010 when they acquired Hardy and his nearly $6 million contract for two minor league pitchers (Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson)?
Was Hardy the shortstop with the explosive bat and rocket arm that impressed early on in Milwaukee, a guy who had the potential to be — gasp — included in the same sentence with Hall of Famer Robin Yount among Brewers fans?
Or was he just another one of those 'should have beens' if he could only stay healthy, something that eluded Hardy in his previous two seasons in Milwaukee and Minnesota?
More important, was this a guy Orioles fans could get attached to, or was the pending free agent simply a rental, a guy who would be dealt at the trade deadline or walk away for greener pastures at season's end?
"I didn't know much about him. I didn't really get to see him play too much when he was in Milwaukee," said Orioles infielder Robert Andino. "I heard he hit 26 [homers in 2007] in Milwaukee, and anybody who hit 26 is pretty good. But I also knew he had a few injuries."
Hardy lasted all of six games last April before succumbing to a nagging oblique strain that cost him a month. He returned May 10, and that night demonstrated his worth with four hits, including a home run against Seattle's Michael Pineda in his first at-bat off the disabled list.
He really didn't slow down much after that, ending 2011 with a .269 average, a career-best 30 homers and career-tying-high of 80 RBIs, all the while playing a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop. He finished a vote behind center fielder Adam Jones for Most Valuable Oriole.
"I didn't come back in May and expect to hit 30 [homers]. No way. It never crossed my mind," Hardy said. "I came back [from injury] and my first at-bat I hit a home run and it kind of continued from there. It felt good. It felt comfortable for the five months I was able to play."
By mid-July, the Orioles had seen plenty of Hardy's upside, and signed him to a $22.5 million, three-year extension with a limited no-trade clause. He's now one of three Orioles on the projected 25-man roster (along with Nick Markakis and Wei-Yin Chen) to have a guaranteed contract through 2014.
"Obviously, it is nice that you have a three-year deal and you know where you are going to be," Hardy said. "That they want you here."
Hardy had been in a mini-slump (.166 average and two homers in 13 July games) before the extension. He immediately responded with a multi-hit game the day he signed and four more in his next nine games.
He points to that stretch to explain why he doesn't regret signing a long-term deal before the completion of what arguably was the finest offensive season of his career. If he hadn't signed, Hardy, who turns 30 this August, likely would have been one of the 10 most desirable free agents this offseason.
"Everyone always says hindsight is always 20-20. I know when we started talking contract, I think I was at  home runs and I don't think I got a hit for a week. When I signed the deal it was that night or the next night I started hitting again," Hardy said. "Who knows? Maybe signing that deal helped me relax and not worry about anything else. You never know what would have happened. Who knows if I had gotten hurt if I didn't sign that deal. Then I could have been rehabbing the whole offseason and not have a team. So I don't regret it one bit. I am happy to be here. I like being here. And that's another reason why I signed."
Orioles manager Buck Showalter admits he wasn't overly familiar with Hardy before 2011. And now?
"I don't like to think about baseball life without him," Showalter said.
Like former Orioles shortstop Mike Bordick and, to an extent, even Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., Hardy is so prepared and so effortless in the field that he seems to be more appreciated by those who observe him daily.
"He is just a consistent human being. He is a solid teammate, a solid person. … He doesn't try to impress you, but he's like having another coach on the field," Showalter said. "He does everything on the field with a purpose, whether it is infield or relays or bunt defense. J.J. sets such a great example, because he does everything with a purpose."
That lead-by-example philosophy is not going to change now that Hardy has the stability of a long-term deal. He just can't be a bombastic leader; it would be disingenuous if he tried.
"I have seen it [done by others] and no, I am not a guy that is going to yell at someone," Hardy said. "I will say something to someone if I can tell they are not giving 100 percent, but I am not the guy to get in someone's face and yell at them. No."
The only obvious change with Hardy this spring is his time in front of the ping pong table. A tremendous athlete, Hardy ruled that territory last year, but this spring he has "picked my spots." With Jeremy Guthrie in Colorado and Nick Markakis battling back from injury, there's a dearth of worthy ping-pong adversaries. He's mainly playing club special assistant Brady Anderson these days. Hardy finally lost to a player this year — minor league catcher Brian Ward.
Otherwise, Hardy is basically the same guy that walked into Sarasota last year with all those questions swirling.
Except now there are answers. He'll be an Oriole for several years. And he is healthy, though he has been receiving daily treatment for an achy right arm recently.
He's regained his status as one of the best all-around shortstops in the game. His hope for 2012 is to stay off the disabled list.
"I don't look at last year as being a healthy year. I missed a month with my oblique," he said. "So when I say I want to be healthy, I want to play 155 to 162 games. That, to me, is healthy. I always say if I am healthy and I am able to play, hopefully my numbers will be there at the end."
The respect from his teammates is already there. It was earned in 2011 — by his play and his demeanor.
"He is one of the funniest people in here. He is real sneaky, he is low key," Andino said. "And he is one of those guys you look up to."
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