On his third team in as many seasons, J.J. Hardy said he would like to stay in one spot for a while. The Orioles have seen enough from the shortstop over the past couple of months to want to accommodate his wishes.
Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail acknowledged that the club has had internal discussions about a potential extension for Hardy and he's hoping to initiate contract talks with the shortstop's agent before next month's All-Star break.
"There's no reason why he wouldn't be an asset here for years to come," MacPhail said. "I definitely think we'll have conversations. There's no question about it. The closer you get [to] free agency, the more difficult it is for players to want that extension. I think it's something that we definitely targeted before the All-Star break to talk about."
Hardy, who said during spring training that he would like to play with his new team for a couple of months before making any decisions about his future, said he and his agent are open to discussions about an extension.
"I think some of it has to do with what my agent thinks, but I do like it here. I'm not afraid to say that," said Hardy, who was acquired from the Minnesota Twins in December for minor league relievers Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson. "I like all the guys, I like playing for [manager Buck Showalter], I like all the coaches. I like the direction that this organization is going. But I've always said that it has to be brought up in order to figure out what I want to do. It's never really been brought up either way, so I don't know. I feel like something has to happen. I think everyone knows that something has to happen here in the next couple of months."
Hardy, 28, will be a free agent after the season, so it stands to reason that if the Orioles don't feel like they can sign him to an extension — and that is their priority — then they'll try to move him before the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline.
Hardy, who missed nearly a month with an oblique injury, has played well enough to garner interest from contenders. After getting two more hits Sunday, Hardy is batting .287 with six homers and 19 RBIs in 36 games. He has reached base safely in 19 of his past 20 games and has hit .375 (6-for-16) with two homers since being inserted into the leadoff spot in Brian Roberts' absence.
Defensively, Hardy has yet to make an error, the only American League shortstop who has started 15 or more games at the position and can make that claim.
"I just didn't know how solid he was," Showalter said. "He is a baseball player. He gets the game. You watch him in between pitches, between innings. He always has an intelligent answer to any question about baseball. He doesn't make many mental mistakes, and when he does, he knows exactly what happened. He's just steady. You like the idea of the ball rolling out there to him. I think that's what really caught me since Day One of spring training, how true his arm is."
Said Orioles hitting coach Jim Presley: "Defensively, he's as sound as I've ever seen. Now that I've seen him play for two months, he's pretty impressive. He's a better player than what I thought he was."
The strong defense has been a bonus for an Orioles team that had grown accustomed to getting little or no offensive production from its shortstop. Though Cesar Izturis did a fine job defensively the past two years, Orioles shortstops ranked in the bottom four in the 14-team American League in just about every significant offensive category since 2008. Last year, Orioles shortstops, which included Izturis, Robert Andino and Julio Lugo, were second to last in the AL in batting average (.236), on-base percentage (.277) and homers (one) and last in slugging percentage (.272), on-base plus slugging percentage (.549) and RBIs (31).
Hardy, meanwhile, has rediscovered the power stroke that allowed him to total 50 home runs and 154 RBIs in 2007-2008 for the Milwaukee Brewers.
He credits a conversation he had with Presley after arriving at spring training. The shortstop said that while with the Twins last year, he was mostly instructed to hit the ball the other way and keep the ball on the ground. That's pretty much what he did during his first Orioles batting practice session.
"This is as good as I've felt since '07-'08, and I attribute a lot of it to Presley," Hardy said. "My approach is the biggest thing. Mechanically, I've always been there. It's just two opposites from what happened last year after my first round of BP and getting taken to a side field and hitting soft line drives over the second baseman's head and the coaches going, 'Yes, yes, that's it, that's it,' versus hitting line drives in my first round of BP this year and getting pulled aside and having [Presley] say: 'What are you doing? Why are you just hitting line drives over the second baseman's head when you can drive the ball?' It just makes me feel like I'm doing now what I'm capable of rather than trying to do something that isn't me."
Presley, the former hitting coach of the Florida Marlins', had seen Hardy do enough damage in the National League to know he had gotten away from what made him successful.
"If you look at him and you've never seen him play, you think, how can this guy do that? But he's got juice, and the best thing he does is he stays on top of the ball with the barrel of his bat. He has a great swing path," Presley said. "I've just tried to reiterate to him to get back what you did in '07 and '08 in Milwaukee, get the head out and get on top of it and the ball is going to carry for you. He swings the bat the way you want to swing it, and he has the right approach."
And above all, Hardy is healthy again — "I haven't felt this good in a long time," he said — and that has always been the primary issue with the Arizona native. Dogged by left wrist issues, Hardy was limited to 101 games last season. He has also battled shoulder, back and knee ailments and played 130 or more games in just two of his six previous big league seasons.
Before entertaining extension thoughts, the Orioles wanted to see whether Hardy could stay healthy, and he did miss 25 games with the oblique — the team went just 8-17 — but they were pleased with how hard he worked to get back and believe it was more of a freak instance rather than a reoccurrence of a previous ailment.
The Orioles understand that such an extension would carry risk, but they also know that if Hardy were to depart, they would have no other shortstop in the organization that projects as an everyday player and could serve as a bridge until top prospect Manny Machado is ready for the big leagues. Machado, who was the third overall pick in last year's amateur draft, is playing for Low-A Delmarva, but he's expected to join High-A Frederick this month after the South Atlantic League All-Star Game.
While pleased with Machado's progress, MacPhail said the 18-year-old's presence in the organization would not be a deterrent to signing Hardy to an extension.
"Honestly, when it gets to the point where you have too many good players, those are the problems that you live for," MacPhail said. "You address those when you get to them. My line of thinking is that's not an issue at all. Good, let's have more of those issues. Let's have Josh Bell and Mark Reynolds give us an issue [at third base] next year. Let's just pile them up, have as many of those as we can."
Hardy has been in this situation before. He was the Brewers' starting shortstop until they traded him to Minnesota before the 2010 season because they wanted to open up a spot for one of their top prospects, Alcides Escobar. Hardy won much praise for how way he handled the situation and helped Escobar.
He has already met Machado, and he's certainly aware of the type of prospect the youngster is. However, he said, the situation wouldn't stand in his way of signing an extension with the Orioles if the two sides could come to an agreement.
"I'd rather be somewhere for a while, and know I'm going to be somewhere, and just be able to relax and play and not worry about all the other stuff," Hardy said. "I understand there is always someone in the minors who is trying to take your job. But at the same time, it's up to the organization, really. It's the direction that they want to go. There's really nothing I can do about it. I can help him out and make him be the best he can be. If they go in that direction, that's their choice. But I'm definitely aware of it. If I can help him out, great. I think he's a great guy. I definitely wouldn't have a problem working with him."