Much has been made of the looming decisions facing the Orioles front office over the next two years, and whether the team will keep its core group of players intact. One of the first players the team will need to make a decision on — and one who's not always mentioned when discussing the team's future path — is shortstop J.J. Hardy.
Hardy made his sixth Opening Day start with the Orioles on Monday — only Adam Jones (10) actively has more — and has been the cornerstone of the team's infield since 2011. There's no question he has been important to the Orioles' success the past five years. His offensive numbers aren't where they were in his prime, but his defense remains Gold Glove caliber, and he has played a key role in grooming the two talented players who flank him — third baseman Manny Machado and second baseman Jonathan Schoop.
Hardy's biggest obstacle recently has been staying on the field. He has averaged just 123 games over the past three years, and has played through several injuries. In the Orioles' deep lineup, Hardy's bat is in the bottom-third of the order, but his value there sometimes goes unnoticed. Last year, he was second on the team in batting average with runners in scoring position (.295) and pitches seen (4.12 per plate appearance).
Hardy, who will turn 35 in August, said last season that he felt the best physically since his high school days, and the broken bone that cost him seven weeks when he fouled a ball off his foot was a freak injury. His spring training was slowed by a flare-up of back spasms suffered while bending over to pick up a stretching band during an offseason workout. Despite not playing his first spring game until March 13, Hardy is optimistic that injury is behind him.
"The game is hard enough as it is, so trying to play through pain makes it that much harder," Hardy said. "When you're going out there and having to grind that much just to get through games, it's not as much fun as it could be. But when your body feels good and you're playing the game, it's awesome."
Ultimately, Hardy's power numbers have suffered the most over the past few years. After averaging nearly 26 homers in his first three seasons in Baltimore, including a 30-homer season in 2011 when he missed the season's first month with an oblique strain, he hasn't had a double-digit home run total in the past three years. Part of that is because of the time he has missed, but he averaged just 12 homers per 162 games over the past three seasons.
At the end of this season, the Orioles must decide whether to pick up Hardy's $14 million option for 2018 (or pay him a $2 million buyout) as part of the three-year, $40 million extension he signed during the 2014 postseason. Hardy is earning $14 million this season, making him the third-highest paid shortstop in the majors behind Troy Tulowitzki of the Toronto Blue Jays ($20 million) and Elvis Andrus of the Texas Rangers ($15.25 million).
Hardy's deal includes a vesting option for 2018 based on plate appearances — 600 in 2017 or 1,150 combined in 2016 and 2017 — which will be difficult to meet after he had just 438 last season. That means the decision to keep Hardy beyond this season belongs to the Orioles.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who has long lauded Hardy's importance to the club beyond his numbers, said this will be an important season for Hardy but also the future stability of the club. There's no secret that Showalter would like to keep Hardy as his starting shortstop in 2018 to maintain continuity, but he needs him to build a strong case with improved numbers.
"It's important to our club this year, but it might be more important to our organization over the next couple years," Showalter said. "He doesn't talk a lot, but when he does talk, his words carry a lot of weight."
That starts with Hardy staying on the field. In 2014, he played through back spasms that made it difficult to even sit in a chair. The following year, he played the entire season through a torn labrum in his nonthrowing shoulder; he conceded at the end of the season that it affected his swing.
"I feel like I'm past it," Hardy said. "But then again, I felt pretty darn good the day I bent down to pick up that band when my back went out. I'm doing everything I can to control it. I'm doing all my core exercises and everything that I need to do, but apparently, you can't really control it as much as you like. But for me, I already feel better than I did at any point in 2014. I feel like I got over the hump instead of trying to rush back, so let's just hope it stays like that."
Hardy's ability to play despite being hurt is one of the reasons younger players such as Schoop have viewed him as a valuable mentor.
"One thing he always says is that after the first day of spring training, nobody is 100 percent, so you have to grind," Schoop said. "You have to know [the difference between] an injury and being hurt. You're going to play through some pain, but an injury is different, and you've got to know. He shows it. He shows that you can be hurting, but if you're not injured it can go away.
"He's helped me ever since I got to the big leagues, and he helps me still every day. He makes me a better player and a better person. He makes sure we're always in the right position, he asks me what are you going to do [in certain situations]. He's a mentor for me. I give a lot of credit to him for where I'm at now."
There's no question that's one of the reasons Showalter would want to keep Hardy beyond this year, and that fact isn't lost on executive vice president Dan Duquette. But Duquette said when evaluating whether to exercise Hardy's option, his performance on the field will be the largest factor.
"The intangible qualities and the leadership ability, that's all good for the team," Duquette said. "Most of the compensation is tied to the contribution to the team with his fielding and with his bat, the performances on the field. The fact that he's been a good leader, that's like the frosting on the cake.
"... When he is healthy, he's a good player. He solidifies the club in several ways. You hear Schoop talk about him; he's kind of like the quarterback of the infield. He's always in the right position. He knows what everybody else is supposed to do."
Hardy might need to find his power stroke again to maximize his value. He probably doesn't need to hit 30 home runs again, but returning to the 20-25 range would be a boon for making a case for the future.
Last season, Hardy felt he was hitting the ball as hard as he has in years, but it didn't translate into home runs because he wasn't getting the lift to send balls over the wall.
Looking at FanGraphs' quality of contact rate numbers — which categorize batted balls as being hit soft, medium or hard — Hardy posted a hard contact rate of 34.6 percent, the best of his 13-year career. But Hardy's home-run-to-fly-ball ratio was just 7.3 percent, the second lowest in his six seasons with the Orioles.
"I've taken some swings in games [in spring training] that have reminded me of when I was younger, before some of these injuries," said Hardy, who went 0-for-4 in the Orioles' season opener Monday. "There's nothing restricting me from doing what I've done before. I don't believe my age is something that's going to restrict. I'm not going to let my mind tell me that."
Hardy said as long as he stays on the field, he will be able to make the case for the Orioles to pick up his contract option.
"I'll be 35 this year, so I would say [playing] as much as I'd possibly can would be good," Hardy said. "I've dealt with some stuff the past three years, some injuries that really affected me, but I think that last year my body felt as good as it's felt in a long time. … If my body is healthy, I think I'll be able to play well enough to make the Orioles at least think about picking up the option."