With the 2016 season finished, there’s no better time than the present to take stock of the Orioles’ organizational depth at every position around the diamond. Over the next few weeks, we’ll break down every position individually and separate the players all through the system into three categories: who was the man there this year, who else was in the picture, and who is working through the minors to join them. We continue the trip around the infield with shortstop, where J.J. Hardy was the first choice, but in his absence the Orioles went to a special reserve.
The man: Orioles manager Buck Showalter said it enough that it ceased being quiet after like the eighth time, but after every two-hit game or breathtaking defensive play, he’d say that J.J. Hardy was quietly a big contributor when they needed it most.
How big? Well, behind third baseman Manny Machado, Hardy had the second-highest wins above replacement (WAR) among the team’s position players in the second half of the season, according to FanGraphs. Hardy was at 1.6, with Machado at 2.2. No other position player on the Orioles was worth a full win after the All-Star break.
The second half is most representative of what Hardy contributed this year, as he missed seven weeks in May and June with a fractured foot suffered when he fouled a ball off himself. Before that, he’d been hitting the ball hard but not really finding results.
After the All-Star break, he settled into a groove to hit .273/.317/.410 with 22 extra-base hits. That gave him a season-ending line of .269/.309/.407 with nine home runs and 29 doubles.
By that FanGraphs WAR measure, Hardy was the 20th-best shortstop in baseball with a 2.3 WAR, but where he delivered most of his value was in the field. His UZR/150, which credits and debits a fielder for the value of batted balls he turns into outs or allows to go for hits, then measures out their value over the course of a season, was 14.3, tied for sixth in the majors at shortstop.
Hardy might not have the same pop as he did when he was winning a Silver Slugger back in 2013, but there’s still plenty of value in a veteran shortstop steadying a pair of young rising stars on his flanks in Machado and second baseman Jonathan Schoop. It was valuable that he didn't go in the tank in August and September offensively, too.
The alternatives: When Hardy went down with his foot injury, the Orioles had quite a Plan B. There was a touch of Ryan Flaherty, and a little bit of Paul Janish, but Machado talked his way into playing shortstop the first game without Hardy and rarely relinquished it until Hardy returned.
Machado’s production at the plate hardly slipped during that time, and he more than held his own in the field. It will only fuel speculation that Machado could find a home there in the future, though he has more impact at third base.
Flaherty can play any position, but the team doesn’t like playing him at shortstop unless necessary. Janish was designated for assignment last week, but could still return to the organization, as he’s a valued fielder by Showalter.
The future: One of the best young bats in the Orioles system, Ryan Mountcastle, headlines the crop of shortstop prospects. In his age-19 season for Low-A Delmarva, Mountcastle hit .281 with a .745 OPS and 10 home runs. At this early stage in his development, Mountcastle’s promise is more tied to his bat than his position.
In his first full season for the Shorebirds, Mountcastle showed an advanced approach at the plate as well as power potential. He also committed 21 errors in 105 games, and will need to improve his hands and his arm strength to remain at shortstop long-term.
Mountcastle, one of the Orioles' two 2015 first-round draft picks, isn’t the only high pick the club used on a shortstop. Adrian Marin, the team’s 2012 third-round pick, made it to Double-A Bowie this year after repeating High-A Frederick in 2015. He hit .232 with a .592 OPS and 19 extra-base this in 119 games for the Baysox. Additionally, the team drafted shortstop Alexis Torres in the fifth round of this year’s draft, though he had a rough first trip through the Gulf Coast League. Torres, just 18, hit .183 in 37 games there. He split his time between second base and shortstop.
The last notable shortstop, Erick Salcedo, didn’t start his career with the Orioles but has still caught scouts’ eyes as a possible major league bench player. Salcedo, 23, hit .270 with 23 doubles in 131 games for High-A Frederick. He came over in a spring training trade with the Los Angeles Angels for left-hander Chris Jones.
The skinny: The contract extension Hardy signed just ahead of the 2014 playoffs runs through the 2017 season, though there’s a team option worth $14 million that vests if Hardy makes 600 plate appearances next year. The second provision that would make that vest, a total of 1,150 plate appearances between 2016 and 2017, will be nearly impossible to hit after he missed seven weeks this season.
It’s hard to assume health, but it’s safe to assume it would be an insult to Hardy to suggest that he’ll play any harder or better because his time with the Orioles can come to an end. So, that will not be insinuated.
What can be expected is that Hardy will be an anchor both in a lineup that could still be plenty volatile in 2017, and in the field, where Machado and Schoop can still take a lesson or two from their veteran mentor.