Hardy is the captain of the infield and a terrific steadying influence on the entire defense, but he was batting .211 when he suffered a broken wrist two months ago.
Recently acquired shortstop Tim Beckham has torn up opposing pitching since the first day he joined the Orioles lineup, but he is a little rough around the edges on the infield.
So, what’s a manager to do?
Showalter isn’t ready to say, and he answered a probing question about the situation before Monday’s game with a succinct “Nice try.”
The issue came up because Hardy was just hours away from the first game of his injury rehabilitation assignment with the Triple-A Norfolk Tides. If all goes well, he could be ready to rejoin the major league roster some time next week.
So, all Showalter would do was remind everyone that a lot can happen between now and then, so there’s no reason for him to show his hand — or his future starting lineup — before it’s really necessary.
“So many things can change,’’ he said. “It could be five days away. It could be two weeks away. Who knows? … If you held a gun to my head right now, I know what I’d do, but I don’t have to do that yet and let’s take everything into play before we get there.”
The key considerations are not hard to identify. Showalter is a stickler for dependable defense, which would argue in favor of Hardy. The Orioles needed someone at midseason to put a charge into their inconsistent offense and Beckham has provided that and then some, coming into Monday night’s game against the Oakland Athletics batting .438 as an Oriole.
Third baseman Manny Machado acknowledged the contribution that Beckham has made during the short time he has been here, but also knows as well as anyone what Hardy means to the defense.
“Just having [Beckham] on the team is great,’’ Machado said Monday. “He gives us a lot of energy. The last couple weeks he’s been here, he’s taken us to another level. It’s hard to replace J.J. defensively, but he’s doing a great job offensively and defensively going in there and taking care of business, working as hard as he can. We’re lucky to have him here and hopefully he can keep playing as well as he is and get us somewhere we need him to help us get there.”
Machado understands the spot Showalter is in, because he clearly would like to see Hardy back on the infield with him and he also has benefited from the .458 on-base percentage Beckham has produced batting mostly in front of him in the lineup.
Machado was asked what the difference was playing beside Beckham instead of Hardy.
“I’m playing my game and obviously he’s playing his game,’’ he said. “The only difference is that I’m not familiar with seeing his face over there, just seeing J.J.’s. But I think J.J. is getting ready to come back and obviously feeling good about himself, so we’re just waiting to get him back. Beckham’s been doing a good job, he’s been doing it all. Getting on base for us, playing good defense. He’s been a great key to our success the past few weeks.”
Showalter was asked whether there was anything about Hardy he would like to see rub off on Beckham.
“Sure there is,’’ he said, “and there are a few things about Tim that I’d like to have rub off on J.J.”
Obviously, he’ll figure out a way to take advantage of the skills of both players, but perhaps there was a message in the number of times he complimented the defense and work ethic of young Los Angeles Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons over the past few days.
Because Showalter is intensely loyal to his veteran players, it seems likely he’ll put Hardy back into the lineup when he’s ready to play and go from there.
With the guaranteed portion of Hardy’s contract set to expire at the end of this season, Beckham has a chance to be the starting shortstop next year, but that could depend on how he adapts to the way Showalter expects his infielders to play.