With the addition of Tim Beckham at the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline, the future of the Orioles' shortstop position is no longer the question mark it was.
While it's unclear how playing time will be split once shortstop J.J. Hardy returns from a broken right wrist in the next few weeks, Hardy could become a free agent with the Orioles unlikely to pick up his $14 million option for next season while the 27-year-old Beckham is under team control for the next three years.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter told Hardy the job will remain his when he returns from the disabled list, but Beckham's bat had been scalding since his arrival in Baltimore. Beckham headed into Saturday 22-for-44 in his first 11 games with the Orioles, including nine extra-base hits (four doubles, two triples and three homers). Hardy isn't scheduled to start a minor league rehabilitation assignment until the club returns home late next week, at the earliest, so there's still time to let the situation play out.
But the Orioles' focus is now on getting Beckham up to speed at the position. The top pick in the 2008 draft has grown into a solid shortstop defensively, but he has a history of struggling with consistency.
"You see the skills," Orioles infield coach Bobby Dickerson said of Beckham, who was acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays. "He's got good hands, the arm strength's there. He's got a lot of athleticism; he's got a lot of movement in his body. He has all the abilities to play shortstop. Some of the times when we played him in Tampa, I would see some things, you kind of liken to hitting when a guy is adding extra things in his approach to hit. And we're just trying to simplify things and try to take away some of the things he doesn't need to be doing — extra movement in the hands, extra steps to get to a ground ball. Just trying to simplify things and increase ball security.
"One thing about him is that he's very receptive, and again it's early on, but I really like how he's approaching this — open-minded and he understands there's room for improvement."
Hardy has played a key role in helping the player who could ultimately be his successor. While hitting ground balls to infielders before games, Dickerson used Hardy, third baseman Manny Machado and second baseman Jonathan Schoop as examples for teaching infield defense. But Hardy has always been the benchmark because Dickerson used the 34-year-old to show Machado and Schoop coming up that Gold Glove defense can be played with substance over style.
"I do use [Hardy] as an example. When Manny was coming up, his first evaluation was he was a robot. He called him Robo, and that was the ultimate compliment from Manny because he doesn't make mistakes," Dickerson said. "He's like Iceman in 'Top Gun.' He's the guy who waits for the other guy to make a mistake.
"One of the things that really makes the guys see what J.J. brings is that he's not the prototypical run-around, jump-around, athletic, rangy, lot-of-body-movements shortstop, but he wins three Gold Gloves. You look at him in the sabermetrics view and they all like him. … So an athletic player like Manny, like Beck, like Jonathan, the guys who move around, and they see this guy over there who is just Steady Eddie, they know there's something to it."
Beckham, who has long admired the Orioles' infield defense from the opposing dugout, said he's learning a lot from Hardy, whose baseball activities are still limited as he recovers from the wrist injury. Still, Hardy is doing enough for Beckham to see his strength, and that he plays the position steadily by getting the most out of every movement while having an exemplary internal clock. It's that simplicity that Beckham is looking for.
"Just picking his brain on the consistency he brings to the game," Beckham said. "Watching him three to four years now, he catches the ball and throws the ball, and keeps it simple. His throws are always on the money. And on making routine plays consistently, I'm just picking his brain to get his thoughts on being a shortstop. He's a hell of a shortstop who's won multiple Gold Gloves, so of course there's something I can learn from it."
Hardy is more than willing to help, even though Beckham's development further opens the door to Hardy exiting. But Hardy has been there before. When he was with the Milwaukee Brewers, his first big league organization, he embraced a young shortstop named Alcides Escobar, mentoring the young Venezuelan player and even handing off some equipment to Escobar coming up. Eventually, Escobar's development was the reason the Brewers traded Hardy to the Minnesota Twins ahead of the 2010 season. Hardy was traded to the Orioles one year later and has since won three Gold Gloves, consecutively from 2012 to 2014, before having his offensive numbers decline in recent seasons.
"I've done it before," Hardy said of mentoring an up-and-coming shortstop. "It's a business. … For this situation, if something I've done helps him to become a better player, or helps our team get better, and at the end of the season he's the future shortstop for the next however many years and I'm somewhere else, so be it.
"That's the way it is and the way the business is. I'm not going to be the guy who treats a guy bad or makes him feel uncomfortable and not try to help him because I want to be selfish because I want to be around. No. That's just not the person I am. It will probably happen again, the same thing that happened with Alcides, and that's just the way the game goes."
Said Beckham: "I just watch him every day and see him take his time and slow the game down and make sure his throws are on the minute. … [He's good at] just slowing the game down and being more consistent making routine plays."
Their styles are vastly different, but Hardy sees a lot of talent in Beckham.
"He's an unbelievable athlete, so maybe it's having the coaches having him see something that I do as an example is all they're doing," Hardy said. "I don't say much. I think it's more the coaches pointing stuff I do to him, 'Here's what I see. Here's what J.J. does and it just makes sense to do it this way.' So it just makes sense that he might ask me about it and how to do certain things, but I'm not going out there telling him, 'You need to do this or do that.'"
Beckham has shown both flashes of brilliance and some sloppiness in his brief tenure at shortstop so far. He made a costly fielding error in his third game, booting a ball that ended up scoring two runs. On Aug. 6, he made two fantastic fielding plays, including a lunging stop on the edge of the outfield grass in left field. Beckham also committed a throwing error in Thursday's series opener at the Oakland Athletics, his 11th error of the season to tie him for eighth most in the American League.
Dickerson said the focus is on slowing Beckham's clock down — something Hardy is one of the best at — taking in the speed of the batted ball and the runner to help realize how much time there is to make a routine play.
"That's the No. 1 thing we're trying to do with Beck, just slow him down and get ball control," Dickerson said. "We want to just eliminate the circus tent. Slow down, try to understand not to try to do something that's not there. That's one of the hardest things to get guys to see.
"I could take him out and hit him 200 ground balls like the one he booted the other day and he wouldn't miss any of them at 1 o'clock, so why does it turn into an error with the bases loaded at 9 o'clock? It's because he's trying to make a play instead of containing the ball. It's not necessarily a mechanical thing; it's a mental thing. The game and the situation sped him up. That's all."